Big Flame


Archive for July, 2009


Posted by archivearchie on July 17, 2009

This post is on behalf of Paul Thompson. It is the third in what will be a series of “Opinions about Big Flame”, which will set out a variety of different assessments of the organisation by ex-members.
Paul was a member of Big Flame in Liverpool from its inception to 1981. He was co-author of the pamphlet The Revolution Unfinished? A Critique of Trotskyism (1977), and of numerous contributions to internal Big Flame debates.He left Big Flame in 1981 to join the Labour Party. He became Chair of the Labour Co-ordinating Committee in the mid-1980s and remained on its executive until founding Renewal: A Journal of Labour Politics in 1993, along with three other LCC executive members. He edited the journal for 13 years, working closely with Neal Lawson. In 2003, he was one of the founding signatories to Compass, which has now grown to be a leading left pressure group with a presence inside and outside the Labour Party.
Paul has held professorial positions at the Universities of Central Lancashire, Edinburgh and Strathclyde, where he currently has a Chair in Organisational Analysis. He has written or edited a number of books, the most recent of which have been The Oxford Handbook of Work and Organisation (with Stephen Ackroyd, Rosemary Batt and Pamela Tolbert – Oxford University Press, 2004), Participation and Democracy at Work (with Bill Harley and Jeff Hyman – Palgrave, 2005), New Technology @ Work (with Paul Boreham, Rachel Parker, and Richard Hall  – Routledge, 2007) and Work Organisations (with David McHugh – 4th edition, Palgrave 2009) .
Note: Paul’s article was originally written for publication in the Socialist Register. The article which was published in the Socialist Register 1981 (Merlin Press) by John Howell can be found here: Big Flame: Resituating Socialist Strategy and Organisation’
Paul comments:

Designating the article below an ‘opinion about Big Flame’ is a little misleading on two counts. It is not a retrospective ‘take’ from my 2009 incarnation as a left social democrat. Rather it is an account of the evolution of BF’s politics written in 1980/1. Second, whilst all such perspectives are subjective, I intended at the time that it would not be partisan with respect to the organisation’s by then politically fractured membership. Although the article was intended to be signed in my name, it was written to reflect the views of Big Flame as a whole rather than my personal opinions. It was commissioned by Socialist Register (for its 1981 edition) and allocated to me by the National Committee, of which I was a member (and to whom I brought the draft).  My memory at that point is vague, but those with better memories than me say that Socialist Register regarded it as too long and that the editing task was given to another Big Flame member. Apparently he found it easier to write a new article rather than edit the existing one. Therefore the published article was completely different from my draft. Given the amount of time I spent on this, I don’t remember being too concerned. This is probably because I and others (including, ironically, the author of the new version) were on the point of exit from BF and ‘entry’ into the Labour Party.

No doubt this will lead some to think that my protestations about non-partisanship are bogus or self-deluding. Read and draw your own conclusions. I just want to make a few brief points. The draft tries hard to tell a coherent story that links theory and practice. Of course, it overstates the coherence, partly because hindsight is a good teacher and because publication in Socialist Register would allow us to ‘put our best foot forward’. This also helps to explain why it starts with links to a (larger) international movement. But throughout, the account tries to be honest and reflective about events, experiences; innovations and limitations. After the international opening, it defaults to earlier history and tries to show the impact of the Italian connection, first on industrial, then on community and social movement practices.  Pretty much all the internally and externally contentious issues covered in documentation elsewhere on this site are represented in the rest of the document: the politics of autonomy; the nature of socialist societies; party, class and movements. The only issue I was surprised to find absent was the experience of electoral work in Socialist Unity. It does, however, in the last section address the question of reformism and the state in the context of the downturn in militancy and the eventual rise of Thatcherism. Whilst the discussion probably reflects something of the exit route I and others were taking, the section does engage with issues of ‘transitional politics’ that the whole organisation had been grappling with out of the experience of Chile, Portugal, as well as the domestic political agenda.  Reading the article reinforced the sense for me that it was the end of a journey – one that shaped my life and politics and which I don’t regret, but have no interest in repeating or regurgitating. And that’s pretty much how I view the site in general.

Socialist Register draft article



In June 1979, a number of Far Left organisations from different countries came together on a common platform to use the context of the EEC Elections to raise key issues under the theme – ‘Against the Bosses Europe: For workers’ Unity’. The organisations involved, included some of the most significant revolutionary Marxist groupings in Europe, notably Ventresocialsterne (VS:Denmark), Democrazia Proletaria (DP:Italy),. Moviemento Cominista (MC:Spain), Kommunistischer Bund (KB:Germany), and the Oganisation Communist de Travailleurs (OCT:France). DP succeeded in getting a representative elected to the European Parliament, while VS and MC have representatives at national levels. (1)

One of the smaller groupings was Big Flame as the English component of the Co-ordination. In Britain and Europe, Big Flame has had an influence out of proportion to its size in debates among socialist militants. This emphasises the central importance given by militants to questioning vital aspects of socialist theory and practice. The major theme of this article is an attempt to situate such re-thinking and the contribution of Big Flame, in the context of emergence of a new independent Marxist current on an international scale, before, during and after the resurgence of class and social struggles in the late 1960’s.

Despite attempts to stick a common label on this ‘tendency’, like ‘soft Maoist’ (2) it is not politically unified. Nor does it have any desires or pretensions to be a ‘Fifth International’. What they have in common is an attempt to critically evaluate existing political traditions in the light of changes in the nature of capitalist societies. As the Movimento Communista put it:

“Too often past legacies or external contributions are assimilated uncritically, leading to a simple repetition instead of contrasting them with reality and discarding what is erroneous. This has impoverished and atomized the revolutionary left, leading not to a clear divide between revolutionaries and reformist, but to the multiplication of dogmatic sects.” (3)

 Many of the cadres forming the new organizations were ex-members of the orthodox Socialist and Communist Parties, as well as from Trotskyist and radical nationalist formations. The specific national dimensions of these political developments were given added impetus by the uneven impact of international and domestic events. The increasing success of anti-imperialist movements in the Third World, the crisis of the super-powers of the USSR and USA, the emergence of Cuba and China as alternative ‘models’, were all felt differently according to the location and assimilation into the existing political traditions of each country. When combined with the uneven development of worker, student, regional, womens’ and other struggles, diverse political development was guaranteed.

In retrospect, looking back over the last decade, common themes do appear among the new organizations in addition to the points already mentioned. The most prominent of these include:

  • A changed and wider conception of the working class than held by other currents, focusing on the less skilled mass worker, immigrants, tenants and those on the margins’ of modern capitalism.
  • Consequently, a greater sympathy and support for new movements, not only of women and gay people, but national, regional and cultural struggles.
  • Trying to react by constructing more open forms of organization than the traditional vanguard or social-democratic types, with an emphasis on the personal life of the militant and pre-figurative socialist politics.
  • A positive assessment of the Cultural Revolution in China, seeing it as evidence of mass politics, a possibility of avoiding the Russian model and an emphasis on the transformation of social as well as property relations in the transition to socialism.

Yet this is retrospective. It is more important to grasp the process of practical and theoretical development that led in these directions. This is particularly important for Big Flame, for our starting point in the late 1960’s was very different. Big Flame started life as a local socialist newspaper put together by a group of left-wing activists and rank and file workers of various ideological persuasions. It had a specific Merseyside flavour and politically reflected the period of trade union disenchantment with the Labour Government in its last years. The actual politics, however, were based primarily on information about the system and struggles against it, rather than any line. Its orientation was primarily industrial and it built up a very big sale in the larger factories. Even the name reflected industrial roots, being based on the title of a TV play dealing with the imaginary occupation of the Liverpool docks by port workers.

Yet, information was a political issue, as rank and file workers were mot getting it from the official labour movement. ‘Student-worker’ links may not have been as dramatic as in Italy and France, but it manifested itself in initiatives like Big Flame, who were prepared to popularise new ways of working, tactics and demands for a growing number of militants seeking alternatives.

Of course, once information is discussed as politics, it was impossible for the original coalition putting out the paper to survive the inevitable divisions. The nucleus left was made up of people breaking from rival orthodoxies of Leninism and libertarianism. They found themselves thrown into the Pilkington strike in 1971, which was a significant indicator of just how far workers had to struggle against their own union machines, as well as the employers. Big Flame became almost the official paper of the strike committee, and the lessons learnt were useful in a series of servicing jobs that the political collective did for shop stewards’ committees and groups of workers in disputes at Fords, in the Post Office and other places in that year. For while the paper itself collapsed, there was plenty of call for political and technical help with leaflets and other initiatives. The major general initiative was put into an abortive attempt to set up a Merseyside Rank and File Committee.

The rather limited servicing role adopted was a reaction to existing left-wing theory and practice. For even those outside the ‘official’ movement, mainly Trotskyists, had not broken from manipulative and bureaucratic political methods. These primarily consisted of making demands on Labour and trade union leaders in order to ‘expose’ them, calling for general strikes that had no chance of happening and endless new leaders in preference to different politics and ways of organising. Despite the denunciation of existing political programmes, working class politics was still seen as defensive, largely economistic trade unionism, socialism being a sphere of Party propaganda and special occasions like elections and May Day rallies. It was no accident that the organisation seeking to break most from these traditions of the Far Left – the International Socialists – and which put most emphasis on rank and file activity, grew fastest in these conditions.

In opposing these ideas, beyond being committed to exploring new ways of building independent working class activity, Big Flame did not have a well formed political alternative. Nor did the practice extend beyond the industrial sphere. By the middle of 1971, the activists were formed in a number of sexually mixed ‘base groups’ comprising of internal and external militants at places like Fords, Standards and Plesseys. The stress was still mainly on servicing the struggle. Anything more structured and politically directed was seen, misleadingly, as detracting from working class self activity.

More positively, emphasis was laid on learning through practice. This slow and uneven process would have been helped by being more aware of earlier experiences like that of the British New left of the late 1950’s. Their opposition to a tradition on the Left, which had come to see the Party as the subject of history and the working class as passive object, allied to the struggle against theoretical dogmatism, had much to offer. Bur for the ‘children of 68’, that is when history began, and the older groups which had tended to drift away from explicit revolutionary socialist theory and practice were seen as ‘part of the problem’. Big Flame’s main source of inspiration and influence was to come from parallel groups abroad, notably in Italy. The next section explores the basic political foundations of this new tendency in the early 1970’s.

Click here to read the full text of Big Flame History & Politics

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Posted by archivearchie on July 13, 2009

Crisis-p1Teachers in Big Flame came together at various times in the 1970s as part of an Education (or Teachers) Commission or a more general Public Sector Commission.

As with other Commissions experiences and strategic perspective were brought together in a pamphlet. Published in 1977 it was called The Crisis in Education. A draft version had been circulated the previous year, and the final version took on board comments from a broad collection of people involved in education.

Looking back from 2009 in the light of thirty years of Labour and Conservative Government policy on education can influence our perspective. Schools and further education in the 1970s can easily appear in a better light than the way socialists saw them at the time. However, in the mid 1970s schools experienced rounds of severe cuts as part of a general process of the state reducing public expenditure. Right wing traditionalists had launched attacks on progressive methods of education. Steps were underway towards a core curriculum and to increase the links between schools and industry.

The pamphlet saw the cuts as not simply about reducing expenditure, but as a process to restructure education to make it more controllable by the state and big business. The task for socialists, it argued, as not just to defend the status quo but to raise questions about the kind of education and learning we wanted. The pamphlet starts to raise these questions. Whilst those involved in producing the pamphlet would later acknowledge that it lacked practical direction and that its feminist content was inadequate, it stands up fairly well to the test of time. Click here to view the pamphlet – split into two parts:

The Crisis in Education: front-p12

The Crisis in Education: p13-back

An article in the Discussion Bulletin May 1980 took up the issue of how socialist teachers might apply their ideas in a classroom. The author writes: “what I have developed is practical and largely an extension of liberal/radical education ideas with a dash of socialism added.” Click here to view Notes on Being a Red Teacher. This article was later reprinted in a pamphlet Children and Socialism.

Archive Archie

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EPISODES IN BIG FLAME HISTORY: No 12. Internal Organisation

Posted by archivearchie on July 7, 2009

ConfAg-p1Episode 11 of this series examined one issue which was the subject of debate at the 1976 and 1978 Big Flame conferences – building a new, larger organisation. Another issue discussed at these meeting was the process by which people were appointed to its National Committee. This post looks at this debate in the context of a more general discussion of the group’s internal organisation. Along with an earlier post – Episode 8 in this series – it provides a basis for judging Big Flame’s relationship with Leninism.

The early Big Flame had no constitution to set out formally the way it was organised. It adopted a Constitution for the first time at its May 1978 Conference. This was based on the one adopted by the Revolutionary Marxist Current (see post about the RMC), which had joined Big Flame the previous year. Click here to view Big Flame Constitution [as amended at the 1980 Conference].

The Conference

The key decision making body within Big Flame was the conference. One was held every year from 1975 to 1984 apart from 1977 (when there was an open conference of the Project) and 1982. It was open to any member of BF to attend and vote (given the size of the organisation this never presented any practical problems). The format for conferences was fairly traditional – mostly large plenary sessions with voting on motions and amendments.

Branches and Commissions

The most important level of involvement in Big Flame was the local branch. The organisation constantly grappled with the problem of how to provide support to isolated members or small branches. Thus branches in towns like Brighton. Leamington and Oxford came and went, whilst those in the larger cities were usually constant throughout BF’s history. However, the way they functioned did change. The early branches adopted the base group model with members focussing their political activity on a small number of joint interventions. As time went on this was largely abandoned, with branches bringing together members with active in different struggles.

Before Big Flame became a national organisation in 1975 and was a federation of autonomous groups, it established a number of commissions. These brought together from around the country any BF member who wanted to attend (and sometimes sympathetic non-members) and was engaged in the same area of political activity e.g. women, Irish solidarity, anti-racism/anti-fascism, industry, health workers, teachers, etc. Meetings rotated around the country and the structure was minimal (someone agreeing to be the convenor for a period, the chairing of meetings rotated). They became a vital source of support and tactical ideas for those who attended (particularly if no-one in the local branch was engaged in the same activity). Many of the Big Flame pamphlets were written jointly by Commission members.

There was a tendency at the time for some writing about BF’s internal organisation to contrast the healthy democracy of the commissions with other things they wished to criticise. Therefore, it is worth remembering that Commissions were not without their own problems. Several reached a peak, fell apart and had to be revived later. Even when things were going well, there might be no more than half a dozen at any particular meeting, and these could be mostly different people from those who attended the previous meeting.

Membership, Discipline and Full Timers

The first section of the Constitution (see above) sets out the requirements of membership. This is fairly vaguely worded, and apart from the critique of “traditional models of the revolutionary party” are probably little different from many other left groups. Despite numerous efforts to improve internal education in Big Flame, it never developed a comprehensive education programme which might have clarified the grounds for membership. The norms of what membership of BF meant (in the later days at least) were fairly loose, and largely a matter for the individual member’s own decision.

Another section of the Constitution sets out disciplinary procedures. As far as I am aware (and I have tried to do some research) no member of Big Flame was ever disciplined in any way, still less expelled from the organisation.

Big Flame chose not to devote its limited resources to paying full timers. In its later days a National Secretary was paid. This was an administrative rather than a political post (for example, the National Secretary was not a member of the National Committee).


The first informal faction meetings in Big Flame were one offs after the 1976 Conference when supporters of both Plan X and Plan Y (see Episode 11) met to assess the outcome. The Constitution agreed in 1978 included the right to establish tendencies. However, they were regarded with some suspicion. The conference rejected one amendment saying that whilst tendencies were permitted they should be discouraged, and agreed another which said that tendency meetings had to be open to any member of the organisation.

The first formal tendency (called Tendency One) was established in 1980. Although it broke up fairly soon afterwards, the proliferation of tendencies reached a peak in 1981 with a total of four (two formally declared). These developments will be covered in a later Episode in this series (see Episode 27).

National Committee

The National Committee (NC) agreed at the first Big Flame Conference in 1975 was based on delegates from local branches. In 1976 Plan Y supporters unsuccessfully raised the issue of a directly elected NC. The change to an elected NC of eleven persons was agreed narrowly (45 votes to 41) at the 1978 Conference as part of the new Constitution, with an amendment limiting continuous service on the NC to no more than 3 years.

The movers of the new constitution described the proposed approach as “democratic centralism” and argued that the NC should be a body of “the most experienced and politically educated comrades” (1978 Conference document). Another supporter of an elected NC rejected the phrase “democratic centralism” (on the grounds no-one knew what this meant and most things associated with it were bad) and the emphasis on getting “the best” to serve on the NC (instead seeing the arrangement was giving the most democratic representation of different views) ” (1978 Conference document). Surprisingly little attention was given to problems with a delegate arrangement e.g. branches not having a single political view, a body appointed this way not necessarily reflecting the majority view. For example, despite Plan Y losing the vote at the 1976 Conference, the delegate NC arrangements resulted in Plan Y supporters being the majority on the new NC and given the responsibility of launching the Project.

One opponent of the change saw it as “a massive over-centralisation of power” and creating a “self perpetuating leadership” and a “remote base”. BF’s perspective was based on leaders having regular experience at the base, and delegation created direct accountability. The change would lead to the same degeneration as had occurred with the International Socialists (1978 Conference document).

A few years later an article in the discussion Bulletin linked the discussions over an elected NC since 1978 back to previous debates about internal organisation. It concluded that the arguments on both sides had not been not productive, and parodied their opponents and exaggerated the effects of particular proposals. Unfortunately, the author was unable to suggest any alternative arrangements which might provide a way out of the impasse. Click here to view Why We Need a Discussion of Internal Organisation (Discussion Bulletin July 1981)

How well did the structures work?

After two years of the elected NC, one member attempted an honest assessment of how things were going. Click here to view National Committee (1980 Conference document).

For the most part discussions of BF’s internal effectiveness reflected where the authors stood on the recent changes. One analysis saw the problem as the relationship between the leaders and the rank and file not being a two way process. The author saw as a common rank and file attitude: If the rank and file accepted what the leadership said, they agreed to go along with it. If they disagreed, they did as they wanted. Click here to view National Growth, Local Stagnation (Internal Bulletin May 1978). An alternative analysis of BF’s problems attributed the problems to a difference source. NC “directives” were the result of trying to impose the methods and structures of a larger organisation. These “male dominated power structures” were not conducive to genuine participation. Click here to view Wot Crisis? (1980 Conference document)

Perhaps a better way of seeing how the NC related to the rest of the organisation is to look at some conflicts which occurred.

–          The NC took a position in 1978 supporting the emergence of the Anti Nazi League. The Anti-Racist Anti-Fascist Commission (some of whose members had reservations about the ANL’s impact on local anti-racist work) reacted strongly against the decision, arguing that its members had not been consulted. The NC defended its position, arguing that its discussion had been flagged up with branches through the agreed procedures.

–          In 1980 the Women’s Commission after a debate agreed a paper for the National Abortion Campaign conference. When discussed at the next NC, the women members present did not agree with the position set out in the paper. The NC as a whole decided that the paper should not be submitted in BF’s name. The NC subsequently decided that it had acted wrongly in not endorsing the Women’s Commission position.

–          In 1981 the NC asked one of its members to write an editorial for the newspaper. The Newspaper Collective decided that the article’s contents did not reflect BF’s positions and printed it as a signed article rather than editorial. The author (who argued that his article was in line with BF policy) was not consulted. The NC’s response was to agree new procedures to try to avoid a recurrence.

It is difficult to generalise too much from these examples. At the very least they show an NC willing to admit mistakes and to avoid future conflicts where possible.

Only in 1978 were there more candidates for the elected NC than positions available. There were constant problems finding women willing to stand for the minimum four positions reserved for them on the NC. In recognition of this continuing problem a motion was passed at the 1981 Conference reducing the number of directly elected NC members from 11 to 6. There were still problems with people resigning from the NC. So at its 1983 Conference Big Flame again changed its constitution to having only four directly elected NC members (one of them the Education Organiser). The NC was now a hybrid, with another five members being delegates. Only this time they were appointed by Commissions rather than local groups.

Some final comments

In retrospect the debate about an elected NC was not one of the most illuminating in Big Flame history. An elected NC neither solved nor created Big Flame’s problems. Whatever, the theoretical merits of the arguments on either side, the organisation proved incapable in practice of maintaining an elected NC. BF, by its very nature, attracted a membership who were suspicious and critical of “leaders” and gave priority to local struggles. They believed in the idea of a national organisation, but sustaining and supporting it was usually not a top priority.

However, like every other organisation whatever the formal structures, Big Flame still included amongst its membership (and on both sides of its various debates) a number of confident, articulate (mostly male) people who exerted a significant influence on the organisation’s direction. This was despite the arrangements in place at the time for the NC and, indeed, whether or not these individuals were part of it or not. The best way of judging an organisation is not whether there are such formal or informal “leaders”, but how genuine and sustained are the efforts to involve a wider group of members in decision making. I think Big Flame was always trying.

Although some individuals cited Lenin in their arguments for particular arrangements, the way the organisation functioned (under both the delegate and elected NC) was significantly different from the proclaimed Leninism of other organisations. It may have been in some respects a chaotic and not fully effective organisation. Maybe this was a fair price to pay for not adopting some of the alternatives.

Archive Archie

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