Big Flame


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

2 Responses to “EPISODES IN BIG FLAME HISTORY: No 12. Internal Organisation”

  1. max farrar said

    As usual, Archie proves to be a reliable and fair historian-commentator.

    One small thing about the issue of joining with the Anti-Nazi League (ANL) in 1978. I was actively involved with the BF Anti-Racist Anti-Fascist Commission (and helped write its excellent pamphlet). My ARAF papers are in the archives of Leeds University and I can’t get there now, but I don’t recall conflict with the BF National Committee about whether or not to join the ANL. BF members had been actively involved, since the early 1970s, in building ‘anti-racist anti-fascist’ (ar/af) committees in all the towns where we had members. (Eg Leeds BF initiated the Coalition Against Racism and Fascism which worked hard on these issues long before the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) set up the ANL.) It’s true that we were critical of the ANL’s concentration on Nazism, where we thought that racism was the more important issue. So there was some rservation about joining up with the ANL. But we noted the fact that Rock Against Racism (RAR) had excellent support from the SWP rank and file (and was actually set up by ex SWP members, with support from the inspirational David Widgery who was still in the SWP (though he once told me he really wanted to be in BF)). RAR was the most important mass political-cultural movement I’ve encountered in the UK (see Widgery’s marvellous book ‘Beating Time’). And the ANL had such good backing from the trade union movement, and such an excellent publicity machine, that we had to be impressed at some level.

    Anyway, all this was debated in the BF ARAF Commission and I don’t recall much dissent about the view that we should propose that the anti-racist, anti-fascist movement should merge with the ANL. But this view did not go down well with all of the ar/af committees, who were loosely linked up under the banner of the Campaign Against Racism and Fascism, with support from the Institute of Race Relations in London. After I’d proposed the merger motion at the ar/af national conference, and we had won the vote, Sivanandan came up to me, furious, and told me I was a “punk”. (Since the Punk movement was just emerging, I was secretly rather flattered.)

    But if Archie has found documents which show that there was conflict on this between the ARAF Commission and the National Ctte, then here’s another example of the falliblity of my memory. Archie’s overall point – that very few of us cared too much about what the NC said – is the one to take away: this was not a democratic centralist organisation.

  2. archivearchie said

    My post is no doubt misleading as an analysis of BF’s position on the ANL. This was this was not what I was trying to do. The brief reference on BF and the ANL was part of an attempt to give some substance to the internal discussion about the role an elected NC played in BF (and the attitude of BF members towards their NC) by looking at some occasions where there was disagreement between it and other parts of the organisation.

    Like Max, my memories of these events are hazy, and I relied on written records. The Sept 78 DB contains an critical article on the ANL by an ARAF Commission member, plus minutes of the Commission at which the NC motion was first discussed. The Oct 78 DB contains a response by an NC member to the Commission, and the Nov 78 DB minutes of another Commission meeting which reflected on the events.

    From these it seems:
    a) That at the time the Commission did not have a joint view on the ANL and its concern was the NC pre-empting a discussion.
    b) The Commission wrote a jointly agreed letter of protest to the NC about its decision to take a position without proper consultation.
    c) It later accepted that it had erred in not investigating the consultation which had occured before accusing, and agreed to convey this view to the NC.

    I think it is fair to say that underlying the debate are not only different positions held by BF members on the ANL, but also on the respective roles of the NC and Commissions in determining policy.

    Looking back on the incident from 30 years on the thing which strikes me most is how vehement BF members could be in denouncing their “leaders”, with the only consequence being a defence of their actions by the NC. I can’t see things playing out the same way in too many other left groups.

    As to the line which developed later in BF about the ANL, we are back to the realm of hazy memories. My recollection is that the Commission took a pragmatic view that both ANL and ARAF groups could be valuable, and BF members could make their own decisions on where they put their efforts in the light of local circumstances. However, some BF members continued to have reservations about the ANL.

    I intend to cover BF’s anti-racism and anti-fascism activities in a future post. In the meantime, I’d be interested to hear any one else’s recollections about this incident.

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