Big Flame

1970-1984

Archive for September, 2009

EPISODES IN BIG FLAME HISTORY: No 15. The Newspaper

Posted by archivearchie on September 28, 2009

Paper79-p1Episode 1 of this series discussed how the origins of Big Flame can be found in a Merseyside local newspaper, and included two copies of early issues – one from March 1970 (before the political organisation was formed) and another from June 1972 (the first paper produced by the new group).

By way of contrast, here is the issue from May 1979, split into three parts.

Big Flame Newspaper May 1979 p1-p6

Big Flame Newspaper May 1979 p7-p10

Big Flame Newspaper May 1979 p11-p16

Much had changed over the years, not simply to reflect the fact that Big Flame expanded from a Merseyside-based group to a national organisation. The May 1979 issue is described as a “Facelift” and there are some new innovations such as the half back page which when folded allowed the A3 paper to change into an A4 format for display in bookshops. However, many other changes had come about gradually over a period of time. There was a much wider variety of content, beyond news of industrial struggles. The paper is divided into signposted sections – “News” “Workplace News”, “The Struggle Worldwide”, “This is our Life” (the politics of personal life and culture), “Worth Talking About” (for debates) – and there is a cartoon.

The changes in the newspaper between 1972 and 1979 and those which continued until the last issue of July-August 1983, reflected repeated debates over the years about the readership, content and style of the paper. These are worth considering in some detail as the issues raised are ones which face anyone wanting to publish a newspaper of the left.

In terms of readership, the debate was often posed as a choice between a paper for the “the masses” and a paper for “the movement” or “the left” (usually by those arguing in favour of the former). Others rejected this dichotomy as a false choice. The debate on style might be portrayed as a choice between a “left Mirror” and a “left Guardian” (although I am not aware that these terms were ever used).  An explicit discussion along these lines took place a few years later during the early stages of the News on Sunday project (see Peter Chippindale and Chris Horrie Disaster!: The Rise and Fall of the News on Sunday Ch. 1).

I will try to give a flavour of this continuous debate by looking at some contributions. First there is a document from 1975 Propaganda and Consciousness. This was written during the period when there were three versions of the paper – a Merseyside, Manchester and national edition. The document is unusual for a contribution of this debate in that it linked prescriptions for the paper with an explicitly theoretical discussion of media and propaganda. Its starting point is that “militants” are the paper’s intended audience. The author believes would be illusory for Big Flame to aim for “the masses”. The document does discuss what might constitute a mass paper, defined it terms of its political reference point rather than circulation level. As the whole aim is to make people active rather than passive, it couldn’t simply echo the manipulative methods of the bourgeois press. The paper needs to reflect the interests of workers beyond work – sex, sport, culture, etc. It has to recognise that working class modes of expression are direct and expressive rather than abstract, and “translate” appropriately theoretical concepts.

Another view can be found in the letters page of the newspaper itself. The North Branch of South London Big Flame contributed in February 1978 to a discussion following an offer from the International Marist Group, then pursuing a left unity agenda, to participate in its paper Socialist Challenge (SC) (an offer which BF decided not to accept). The letter noted that SC was having an impact on the “politically sophisticate left”, whilst the Big Flame aimed to be a “popular paper”, with the litmus test that it could find readers “in the pubs along the Dock Road in Liverpool”. This made it difficult for Big Flame members to sell the paper to their day-to-day contacts. The authors suspected that the readership of the two papers was actually similar, but the SC was more successful in addressing the political vanguard.

By the time of the November 1979 Big Flame conference, the style and content of the paper was along the lines of the issue included above. Contributions to the pre-conference discussion criticised the paper for being focused in “the left” with too many articles on “movement” topics like Beyond the Fragments and the Men’s Movement. They argued for an alternative target readership of “the masses” or, alternatively, the network of working class militants. The then editor of the paper responded with a document How Often a Paper and for Whom? in a Conference Bulletin. He argued that working class militants were interested in more than wages and working conditions, and that, whatever efforts were made, the organisation recruited few workplace militants. The paper “is and must remain a compromise” representing the political space Big Flame occupied. The document also discussed another conference theme – the frequency of publication. The 1979 conference agreed “in principle” that the people should be fortnightly, although practicalities prevented this decision from ever being implemented.

A couple of years later a member of a new editorial collective wrote an article in the April 1981 Discussion Bulletin entitled Searching for a Perfect Paper. This was in preparation for a day school on the paper. He rejected the “tired old polarity” for the target readership, arguing that discussions should instead be based on a realistic assessment of members’ experience of selling the paper and discussing it with those outside the group. He notes that paper tended to b a collection of news reports, and that there needed to be more practical political guidance, articles raising difficult political questions and practical manual type material.

The final document I want to mention was written when a decision was taken to temporarily suspend publication (because of a combination of financial problems and finding sufficient volunteers for the editorial/production group). This is an article The Future of the Newspaper from the July 1983 Internal Bulletin, also produced to aid discussion at a day school. Unlike the other documents referred to here, it does not advocate a specific viewpoint. It sets out the advantages and disadvantages for three different options for a relaunched publication – A3 and more analytical, A3 and more agitprop, and a magazine format. In the event the paper never reappeared before the group came to end, although ex-members did bring out a few issues of a paper of the same name after the group’s demise.

The paper, in all of its many guises, never satisfied all of Big Flame’s membership, and there always some who either found it difficult to sell or were reluctant to try to do so. There were always difficulties in maintaining a broad range of articles. The paper was usually better at news coverage than in-depth analysis or practical tools for militants. Sometimes it imitated the practice of other left papers and parroted lists of demands with no chance of realisation.

However, any criticisms of the paper have to balanced by a recognition of the circumstances in which it was produced. There were never any paid or full time workers. It was produced entirely by volunteers –first in Liverpool, then a nation wide gathering in Liverpool, and finally in London. For articles, it was only able to draw on a tiny membership, and a small network of sympathisers. There were constant financial problems with finding funding for the paper.

Looking back, I believe that overall it was a good product in the light of these circumstances. It was much less hectoring and hysterical than most left papers. There was an absence of predictions of the immanent collapse of capitalism, or denunciations of other left groups. By and large the paper reflected an open and undogmatic approach to politics. Over the years the paper contained many informative and useful articles written in an accessible style.

Archive Archie

 

Note: Titles of articles or documents in red and bold are links to the full version. Press on them to bring up a PDF of the document.

P.S. As mentioned in Episode 1, Harvester Press published on microfiche (a form of microfilm on flat cards) The Underground and Alternative Press in Britain. It includes just about every issue of series one and series two of Big Flame (but not the mid 1980s reprise), as well as many other extremely interesting publications of the 1970s and 80s. It is likely to be available at academic libraries, such as the British Library and LSE Library in London.

As mentioned in the Archiving Big Flame post, the Working Class Movement library in Salford, has an extensive set of paper copies of the newspaper.

Posted in Big Flame History | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

EPISODES IN BIG FLAME HISTORY: No 14. Racism and Fascism

Posted by archivearchie on September 22, 2009

Past-p1Big Flame members were active in the struggle against racism and fascism. Two pamphlets set out the perspectives they brought to these struggles. A Close Look at Fascism and Racism from 1978 is a collection of more journalistic pieces, mostly reprinted from the Big Flame newspaper. The Past against Our Future: Fighting Racism and Fascism from 1980 is a more analytic work, which sought to develop the theory that underlay the practice.

Elements in the Big Flame perspective included:

–          The focus on fascism with little attention to racism by much of the left was a mistake.

–          The term fascism is sometimes used too loosely to describe a variety of movements.

–          The ideas behind fascism are often more extreme examples of the “commonplace” and “common sense”.

–          Racism is more than prejudiced opinions but a whole process of domination built into the institutions of society.

–          Racism within the white working class is more than false consciousness as it has a material basis.

–          Because of the divisions within the working class and because real unity can only be based on equality of power, the autonomous organisation of black people should be supported.

–          Anti-racism and anti-fascism should not be abandoned in favour of other easier struggles or compartmentalised from those struggles.

–          There had been problems with both the network of local anti-racism anti-fascism committees and the Anti Nazi League (ANL) which operated during the 1970s.

CloseLook-p1Click here to view the two pamphlets – split into two and four parts:

A Closer Look at Fascism and Racism: front-p10

A Closer Look at Fascism and Racism: p11-back

The Past against Our Future: Intro & Ch1

The Past against Our Future: Ch2

The Past against Our Future: Ch3

The Past against Our Future: Ch4

As mentioned above, one theme developed in these pamphlets is the need to support the organisational and political autonomy of black people. However, there was not complete agreement within Big Flame on what this position meant. This is discussed in an article from the Discussion Bulletin of January 1984: Black Autonomy and the White Left (Note: This scan of a duplicated document will be difficult to read. I have included it as it is only two pages long).

Archive Archie

Posted in Big Flame History | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

OPINIONS ABOUT BIG FLAME no 4: MIKE JONES

Posted by archivearchie on September 11, 2009

This post is a behalf of Mike Jones. It is the fourth in the series of “Opinions about Big Flame”, providing a variety of different assessments of the organisation by ex-members.

Mike was a member of Big Flame in Liverpool from 1976 to 1981. He left that year to join the Labour Party. He was later the lyricist for the band Latin Quarter, and is now Lecturer in Music at the University of Liverpool. Back in 1985 he was working on a thesis, which took Big Flame as one of the case studies. It is this chapter which is included here. It does not discuss the latter years of Big Flame from 1981 onwards.

The article is published as written in 1985, and has not been updated. If he were to revise it today, Mike would want to expand on Big Flame’s relationship to the women’s movement.

This is the second article in the series written by someone who left Big Flame over the issue of Labour Party membership. Those who were supportive of Labour Party membership were by a significant margin a minority in the organization. However, I am limited in what I can post to those who volunteer articles and those unpublished documents of which I am aware. I would be very keen to include in the series articles by ex-members who took a different position.

Mike comments:

Dear Reader, please forgive the following:

1. These observations are turgidly written – this is a result of

[a]. my being more turgid then

[b]. immersing myself in turgid [CP and Trotskysist] documents for several years.

They are also part of a much longer, and equally turgid, work so that some points only make full sense in the context of the missing parts.

2. These observations do not convey any of the good, positive aspects of being in BF – notably great Summer Schools, great Dayschools, great comrades and great laughs.

3. These observations convey none of the sacrifices of being in BF and none of the loss of the great friends who have died since these events took place [Steve, Kate, Ian and Nina that I know of].

4. These observations can never convey watching the SPG charge towards us on the morning of the last mass Grunwick picket.

5. These observations cannot represent what it felt like to have to allow fellow Liverpool BF members to help themselves to your last pint after having failed to buy their own when ‘last orders’ were called.

6. These observations will not be televised

In the thesis, I trace the history of Big Flame from its origins in Liverpool, and its links to the radicalisation of students and of the trade union rank and file. It begins with the base groups around factories and on the Tower Hill estate, then on to Big Flame becoming a national organisation. It traces the group’s involvement in a project to form a new revolutionary organisation, the Socialist Unity Campaign, and the movement which arose out of the book Beyond the Fragments. A particular theme is how, from a group which thought that the working class could bypass the institutions of reformism, some members were arguing by 1981 for joining the Labour Party.

 

BIG FLAME: 1971 TO 1981

INTRODUCTION

Big Flame, (BF) was founded 1971.  In the next ten years, it grew from a single group in one city (Liverpool) to an organisation twenty times its original size with branches spread throughout England.(1)  At the same time, especially through its pamphlets,(2) BF exerted and influence throughout the rest of the Far Left that ended to further outstrip its (relatively) large growth.  The principal reasons for this were two-fold: firstly, in its attempt to fashion the insights of the new movements and new concerns thrown up in the course of the late-1960’s into a distinct, Marxist project, BF developed relationships with, and derived members from, a wider constituency than the CP, the Trotskyist groups and the ‘Marxist-Leninists’ previously; secondly, (and as a concomitant of this) BF represented the British variant of a process which was international in its scope.  Although not identical with any other organisation, in, (particularly), its use of some of the ideas thrown up by the new Italian Marxist groups (especially ‘Lotta Continua’(3)) BF became the ‘voice’ of this international current inside the British Far Left.  However, the period of its greatest impact (the late-70’s) was one very different from that which had given it birth.  The various revolts that BF grew out of and responded to (the student movement: trade union rank and file opposition to the Labour Government; the new concern with personal politics and with women’s liberation etc.) were very much ones associated with, and stimulated by, the expansion of capitalism and the attempts made to continue this expansion.

Under these conditions, it was the organisation’s belief that the experience and institutions of Reformism would, eventually be ‘by-passed’ by the working class.  As the recession began to gather momentum and the Conservatives regained the ascendancy, the need for the organisation to develop some new and changed understanding of the relationship between the working class sand the Labour Party was posed.  Yet, such was its understanding of working class struggle (and, with it, the form of organisation that this struggle required) that BF could neither make the necessary theoretical adjustments nor contain the effects of the debate.  The split in the organisation which the debate provoked had the effect of destabilising it and precipitating its later collapse.

PART ONE

THE ORIGINS OF BIG FLAME

In its original form, BF was not a Marxist organisation, nor even an organisation as such, but a newspaper.  The newspaper, which ran to seven issues, was launched in February 1970. In the composition and (partly) in the concerns of the newspaper some of the later BF was already present.  Thus, as the previous case-study and also the remarks made in the first chapter have indicated, the Labour Government elected in 1964 had been greeted by the Party’s own left; the Trade Union movement and by much of the Far Left as a positive step forward – both for the working class and for socialism.  However, in its elaboration and its execution, Harold Wilson’s commitment to state planning soon came to dash those hopes; to frustrate many of his supporters and to provoke different kinds of opposition.  All of this tended to merge then into the wider oppositional currents of the period out of which Marxism as a body of critical theory and the far Left as a collection of groups that identified with this theory were both revived.  Nevertheless, so extensive were the concerns and forms of expression of this general ‘opposition’ that the newspaper ‘Big Flame’ (because of its motivation and the still limited perspectives of its loose editorial group) could not hope (and did not wish) to respond to them all.  As the political questions thrown up by the general movement of events came to demand some more consistent response in the pages of the newspaper, so the producing group fell apart.  In the wake of this collapse a residue of the production team then set about creating a more cohesive and politically-focussed BF.  However, before we can examine this, we need to know what, in general, were the wider issues and currents of the period in question.

The original editorial team for the newspaper ‘Big Flame’ was a rough amalgam of two, very different, groups: radicalised rank and file workers, principally lay-officials from some of Liverpool’s major manufacturing concerns (Fords, Standard-Triumph and Dunlop Tyres); and radicalised students from the City’s university and colleges.  What needs first to be explained is what had radicalised both groups and what had made for their convergence (a phenomenon whose only near-parallel was the CP recruitment of Cambridge students in the 1930’s when the threat of Fascism had been the spur).

(a)        Student Radicalisation in the 1960’s

In Britain, the material context for the radicalisation of students in the late-1960’s developed through the expansion of higher education: initiated under the 1944 Education Act and supplemented by, for example, the recommendations of the Robbins Report.  The creation of a large, new pool of young people drawn from a wider social class basis than had previously been the case then added an important dimension to the development of a distinct ‘Youth Culture’ can only be touched upon in a study like this, what needs to be recorded about its general social impact is the diffuse oppositional quality of its successive expressions.  Captured in the phrase ‘The Generation Gap;, the arrival of the ‘Teddy Boys’ who would be followed by the ‘Mods’ and ‘Rockers’ of the early-60’s, signalled a growing awareness and a largely unwilling acceptance that young people could expected to be critical of existing social relationships.   Of course this was never more than a very wide generalisation and certainly university students were unlikely to be involved with styles that were almost wholly limited to the young working class. Nevertheless, firstly in the guise of support for CND and the equally pacifist (if less wide-spread) overlapping with the ‘Beat Generation’; and later in a more general identification with the anti-war (then anti-materialist and hedonistic) preoccupations of the emergent folk and rock stars of the period, the atmosphere of opposition settled over large sections of the university and college population. From the outset, the transatlantic and near-global impact of pop music on young people made possible by, and coupled with, the increasing importance of electronic media and especially television, gave an international dimension to this experience.  This, in turn, would become of increasing importance as youth and notably student radicalisation began to make a public and political impression.

In Britain (as Widgery notes (4)), it was at the London School of Economics that the militant politics of what became the ‘student movement’ made their first appearance.  In both the object of the LSE students protest (the appointment, as Director, of Walter Adams; previously Director of UC Salisbury in Rhodesia) and in their eventual tactics (the occupation of the LSE; where ‘sit-ins’ had become an important part of the practice of the Black Civil Rights movement in the USA), the protest was internationalist in its expression.  This concern with the phenomenon of racism (expressed in opposition to the Rhodesian regime) was given an anti-government (and anti-Labour) quality through criticism of Harold Wilson’s failure to achieve any reversal in the Rhodesian government’s ‘illegal’ declaration of independence.  What transformed this, for many more students, into an anti-imperialist position was the escalation of the Vietnam War and the anti-conscription and anti-war activities of the US student movement (SDS (5)).   In the way that this became a positive identification with the aims and methods of the Vietnamese NLF (6), the route to revolutionary, Marxist politics was completed.

The active support of at least a portion of the student population for the Vietnamese cause necessarily introduced them to the existing organisations of the Far Left of which, in 1967 (when the first major demonstration of the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign – VSC, took place), the CPGB (7) and the Trotskyist SLL (8) were the principal representatives.  However, a variety of events during 1968 encouraged revolutionary students to look beyond these particular organisations for their Marxism.  These were (very briefly):

            (i)         The ‘May Events’ in Paris  A protest at the new French University at Nanterre; firstly over a lack of basic facilities and then as a wider critique of the content of courses and the role of the university itself, led to clashes with the police.  Sympathy action by Sorbonne students in the heart of Paris (9) led to much more violent student-police clashes.  Barricades were erected and, in the ensuing crisis, further sympathetic and then parallel protest action by workers culminated in a General Strike. Although the situation was eventually defused, several diverse growing points for evolutionary politics had been initiated: most notably (for these purposes) that,

(a)        The self-confidence of student throughout the West was immeasurably increased.

(b)        The potential for revolution at the centre of capitalism had seemed to be restored; this after years of ‘affluence’ and the announcement, in ‘end of Ideology’ theories, that radical politics and the need for them had been obviated.

(c)        The ‘objective’ identity of the position of students (as ‘intellectual workers’) with the traditional one of manual workers could also now be argued.

(d)        The actions of the French CP in helping to contain the militancy of workers had discredited it as an organisation in the eyes of many young people (not just students) and it has also posed the need for a critique of the type of politics that it represented.  This critique would then be one that grew to encompass the form of revolutionary organisation; the nature of the socialist society that such an organisation was designed to bring about; and the strategy and methods through which it hoped to make possible the transition to such a society.

            (ii)        The Invasion of Czechoslovakia the Soviet decision to enter Prague and to replace the reforming government of Dubcek with one of a more recognisably sympathetic and quiescent kind, added further impetus to the critique of ‘traditional’ Marxist conceptions.

            (iii)       The Responses of the CPGB and the SLL to the VSC In short, at a time when many students were attracted to the late Che Guevara’s dictum, ‘Create Two, Three, Many Vietnams’, the CP’s slogan, ‘Peace in Vietnam’ was long way from their preferred, ‘Victory to the NLF’.  That Ho Chi Minh’s NLF were themselves very much of the old Communist Movement mainstream could be overlooked in the mounting frustration of the USA and the forward advance of the revolutionary opposition (on the campus as well as in Vietnam).  Equally, the decision of the main Marxist opposition to the CP, the Trotskyists led by Gerry Healy, to spurn the BSC as an ‘irrelevant protest activity which separates (students) from the working class’(10) led to the marginalisation of Healy’s SLL.  This did not, however, marginalise the whole of Trotskyism with it.  Rather, it opened the way for the growth of the heterodox Trotskyists, the International Socialist (IS) and it encouraged the revival of the other currents that Healy had worked so hard to stifle in the early 1950’s who would now renew their claim to represent the ‘correct’ interpretation of Trotsky against Healy’s distortions.(11)

Finally, it added yet more reasons for those who had been stimulated by the critical aspects of the French experience (over and above the straightforward oppositional quality of it) to develop their critique of the CP tradition and of Trotskyism.  It was this very, heterogeneous grouping (dubbed ‘Libertarians’ to identify transformation rather than the imposition of a new orthodoxy) that came first to help establish ‘Big Flame’ as a newspaper and then, later, BF as an organisation.  These then found some important (if restricted) common ground with trade union militants for the following reasons:

(b)       The Radicalisation of the Trade Union Rank and File

            The radicalisation of rank and file trade unionists in Britain was again something that had specific domestic origins within the context of developments, internationally.  Thus, in terms of the broader perspective of the development of capitalism as an international system, then the following can be said to have applied in the performance of the British economy during the 1960’s.

            (i)         Although the period from the re-stabilisation of the Western economies after the Second World War to, roughly, the OPEC oil price rises of the early 1970’s, can be regarded as one of considerable expansion, capitalism in Britain began to experience relative contraction (or, at least, a progressively reduced rate of expansion) from the early 1960’s, onwards.  For example, Glynn and Sutcliffe (12) noted that the share of profits (the ratio of total profits to total incomes) was virtually halved between 1964 and 1970.(13) They considered that the overall explanation for the crisis of profitability in British industry was the result of a combination of two factors:

       ‘..the squeezing of profit margins between money wage increases on the one hand and progressively more severe international competition on the other’. (14)

             (ii)        In very broad terms, the connection between the two factors identified by Glyn and Sutcliffe as the root of British capitalist’s problems was the conduct of British management in their relations with the general work-force in the period of post-war economic recovery.  Essentially, employers had not used the ‘boom’ to re-organise or ‘rationalise’ production in a way that would have rendered it more cost-effective (and therefore better able to withstand increasing competition in international markets) when the major areas of domestic consumption had been largely satisfied.  What the rationalisation of production would have meant in real terms was a concerted attempt to introduce new machinery and new work processes which would have stepped up the rate of exploitation.  In the USA, there were few unions strong enough to resist such measures, while in Japan and West Germany the pre-war unions had been all but wiped-out.  In Britain the position was very different.  The long-standing union organisation in manufacturing and in transport proved resistant to change.  Employers preferred to increase the size of dividend to investors rather than use their profits to introduce the kind of technological change that would have provoked strikes and, therefore, interrupted the flow of profits in the short term.  However, as the rise in manufactured imports from Japan (cf. the rapid collapse of the British motorcycle industry), the USA, Germany, and elsewhere began to make their impact, it became increasingly obvious that rationalisation would have to be embarked upon.  This, then, was the brief of the Labour Government under Harold Wilson where Labour was in the unique position of being able to offer its working class supporters the chance that the aspect of Britain’s increasing difficulties which most affected them (price rises and unemployment) would be alleviated and persuade, simultaneously, Britain’s employers that they could use the relationship with the unions to prevent resistance to rationalisation measures.

            (iii)       As the observations on Labour’s approach to planning made in the previous case study sought to show, the appeal to trade unionists and many socialists was the express commitment to improve working class living standards (by at least curbing price rises) and the less definite (but more grand-sounding) desire to harness private industry in the pursuit of a far more equitable society (which for reformists was equivalent with socialism and for some revolutionaries represented at least a step in the right direction).  The first 18 months of the Labour administration was something of a ‘honeymoon’ period.  However, after the March, 1966 election victory (which left the new Labour Government with a vastly increased majority) the reality of Wilson-led planning proved far removed from its promise; at least where his supporters on the left and, more pertinently, workers were concerned.  At base, the 1966 Labour Government attempted the rationalisation of British industry in two main ways:

(a)        By promoting mergers between companies.  The greater concentration of capital that this produced then left those new concerns (e.g. the creation of British Motor Holdings, later British Leyland (15)) better able and, crucially, more willing both to introduce new plant and machinery (and, with them, new work processes and new challenges to trade union organisation) and to integrate ‘vertically’ (i.e. exert a greater control over the manufacture of related components).

(b)        By attempting to impose an incomes policy. This took the form of the Prices and Incomes Board whose deliberations and decisions were meant to check price increases and ensure that wage increases were not only kept low but were tied to improvements in ‘productivity’; where the latter became  a by-word for the ‘modernisation’ of the economy.  However, what this came quickly to mean, especially in the context of mergers and new investment, was an attack on work organisation.

        (iv)       It was the restriction on wage increases especially those that were granted under the terms of the 1968 Incomes Policy, which meant onerous ‘productivity’ commitments that led to a rapid disenchantment with Wilson and to extreme tensions both within the Trade Union Movement and between the unions and Government.  While the implications for reformism will need to be considered at a later point, what needs to be examined here is the root of the tensions within trade unionism.  This, particularly in the manufacturing industries (and the car industry most of all), was a function of management-workforce relations at the level of individual work-places during the years of economic boom.

Briefly, individual plant managers came to negotiate with shop stewards (lay officials whose function was very often not even recognised in the rule books of the unions involved) over payment for piece-work output.  This local bargaining had a variety of effects; most of them to the advantage of the work-force (for example, once a new rate for a job was agreed, individual groups of workers could still determine how much, and therefore how quickly, they would produce).  As mergers grew apace and multi-national (usually US-owned) companies came rapidly to replace the more traditionalist British employers, various remedies were attempted to restore the initiative to management.  The Ford Motor Company were in the van of this movement.  ‘Ford UK’ was operated directly from the USA after 1960 and the first confrontation with the work-force, and the stewards in particular, came as early as 1963 when, at the Dagenham plant, 17 stewards were sacked (see Beynon (16)).  Ford’s example (their attempt, through the ‘Measured Day Work’ system, of setting agreed daily output targets, for instance) was emulated, with Labour Government approval and encouragement, in spheres as different as the Dock industry and Passenger Bus services.  When met with resistance, the more co-operative aspects of ‘planning’ were then dropped in favour of directly coercive measures which where heralded in Harold Wilson’s direct intervention in the Seamen’s dispute in 1966 and which he sought to culminate in the proposals for new industrial legislation (wherein the emphasis was one strongly on control over, and penalties for, industrial action) that took the form of the 1968 White Paper, ‘In Place of Strife’.(17)

It is far beyond the scope of these remarks to recount the nature and extent of the opposition to ‘In Place of Strife’, here.   What does need to be indicated, however, is the way in which the shop stewards, for a time at least, were forced to confront their own full-time union officials over the latter’s co-operation with the employers and with government in the imposition of productivity agreements.  This is not to say that, at all times and in all ways, the leaderships of the various trade unions agreed with every point of Wilson’s plan for industrial re-organisation on or with the employers’ attempts to enforce their version of it. Even so, there was a disjuncture between what the work-force (and the stewards) desired and had been used to and what the union leadership preferred them to accept. Again there were several notable confrontations over the issue of productivity-linked and restricted wage increases. 

One of the most important of these occurred within the Ford Motor Company and central to it was the Company’s plant at Halewood, Liverpool.  It was, then, workers, and particularly the semi-official representatives from the immediate work-force (the shop stewards and the convenors of stewards) of this plant that came together with similarly placed militant workers from other, similar firms, that provided the original organising point for Big Flame.  In reality this was a (temporary) ‘marriage of convenience’ between students (and ex-students) hostile to traditional Marxist conceptions of working class advance and a practice based around ‘correct’ leadership; and workers who had been forced into opposition with their own leadership and with their traditional conceptions of trade union advance.  That the ‘marriage’ didn’t last was a function, principally, of the very different desires of the two groups; the students wanted revolution and the workers wanted more money and not new forms of work-discipline that would tie them even more closely to their machines.  However, the experience of some mutuality between the groups was sufficient to encourage the first of these to set up an organisation in mid-1971 that might recreate and extend that mutuality into something approaching a revolutionary politics for the new experience of the British working class.   Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Opinions about Big Flame | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

OPINIONS ABOUT BIG FLAME no 3: JOHN WALLER

Posted by archivearchie on September 3, 2009

This post is a behalf of John Waller. It is the third in the series of “Opinions about Big Flame”, providing a variety of different assessments of the organisation by ex-members. It responds directly to the comments of a previous contributor, Paul Thompson, in the second installment (Opinions about Big Flame: No 2) in the series.

John Waller was an active member of Big Flame in Nottingham and nationally from 1977 to 1981. When Big Flame started to disintegrate in 1982 he drifted away from the organization to be involved in community politics and then solidarity with the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. Since the early 90s his political practice has been dominated by solidarity work with the Cuban revolution. For many years this was as a part of the national leadership of the British Cuba Solidarity Campaign. This politically led him to the heartland of the empire and he now pursues the same ends from his US home.

John writes:

A CALL TO REFLECT ON OUR PAST AND SHARE LESSONS WITH CURRENT ACTIVISTS AROUND THE WORLD

It is nearly 28 years since the conference at which Big Flame started to disintegrate, with a significant minority of the organization leaving to enter the Labour Party.  Since 1981 inevitably much has changed in the world.

In the advanced capitalist world politics has moved inexorably to the right with almost all the traditional reformist parties, including perhaps most spectacularly the British Labour Party, having long abandoned any vision of any kind of socialism. Mainstream politics is now about how best to manage the capitalist economy and the slowly diminishing public services. But social reformism’s demise has been shared by other ‘left’ tendencies.  The Leninist/Trotskyist/Maoist revolutionary left has either disappeared or become much less influential than 30 years ago. And of course Soviet style communism, or state collectivism as Big Flame had come to call it, has gone – replaced in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe by outright and often brutal capitalism, and in Asia by Chinese style capitalism under Communist Party leadership. Of the wave of revolutions throughout the 20th century only in Cuba do they still affirm the need to construct socialism.

A bright shining capitalist future?  Hardly given the economic turmoil of the last year. Rather we see a world order that is economically and environmentally unsustainable. The gap between the rich and poor grows inexorably wider – on a world scale, and in Britain. “A better world is possible” says a new generation of activists, but so is a worse one, and the Bush regime was the harbinger of what that world would look like. For the peoples of Iraq and Afghanistan they already know what the new world order could mean. In the advanced centres of capitalism life is still pretty comfortable for most, but the slow dismantling of the post second world war welfare state is underway and, in Britain at least, the developing space for working class revolt is being occupied by the BNP.

Obama?  Barely 8 months into his administration the policies are already clear – minimal social reform at home, protect the wealth of the capitalist class at all cost, and continuing imperial pillage abroad. The language is softer than Bush, the politics smarter, but in the end, as president Zelaya in Honduras has discovered, if you challenge imperial power without sufficient popular support the US trained, financed and directed military will move in to stop you.

All gloom and doom? No.

The one continent that has partially bucked the trend is Latin America. Back in 1981 the continent was dominated by military dictatorships. They were replaced by right wing civilian governments implementing neo-liberal economic policies devised in Washington. The repression and impoverishment lead to the growth of powerful urban and rural social movements, based largely in the community rather than the workplace. These movements were/are inspired by socialist ideas in the broadest sense, and also by the continuing example of the Cuban revolution, Throughout much of Latin America the neo-liberal regimes have been brought down and/or voted out. Their replacement has been by what some commentators call a ‘pink tide’ – governments that domestically are socially reforming, and externally espouse a mix of progressive nationalism and Latin American unity against the empire to the north. The nature of the tide varies from country to country, but at its most radical end we have Venezuela and Hugo Chavez’ Bolivarian Revolution – committed to trying to build a vaguely defined but definitely highly participatory ‘socialism for the 21st century’. 

Current events in Latin America give support to what Big Flame was saying 30 years ago (see Paul Thompson’s summary document on this website)  – that reformist and revolutionary projects can advance together, and that there is a complex interplay between the two. In Latin America the radical social movements helped bring the reformist governments to power, and in turn those governments can either (wittingly or unwittingly) provide space for the radical movements to develop or else can act to constrain and demobilize them. Latin America today provides examples of all these processes at work.

Back in the mid-1970s Big Flame focused on Chile as an example to learn lessons from because, as we said then, Allende’s Popular Unity government marked a highpoint of socialist struggle in a (relatively) advanced bourgeois democracy. Chavez has most definitely learnt lessons from the Chilean defeat. He has cut through the sterile Communist Party versus Trotskyist debates about whether Allende’s government went too far too fast or didn’t go far enough – pursuing a political process that in its policies proceeded more cautiously than Allende, but in its development of popular mobilization and penetration of the armed forces has been more radical.

If Big Flame were still in existence we should be studying Venezuela, as we did Chile. Not because it offers a new ‘model’ of a revolutionary process, even within Latin America. Rather because it offers important insights which need to be assimilated and resituated in other contexts. Classical Leninist notions of a ‘big bang’ overthrow of capitalist societies are redundant, and the age of liberation by prolonged guerilla struggle has passed, but Venezuela, and the continued survival of Cuban socialism against all the odds and expectations, demonstrates the continuing need for disciplined centralized revolutionary organization and strategies for confronting state and imperial power.

And Big Flame?  Nobody is going to try to recreate it. But has the innovative left politics we developed those decades ago still got any relevance to the new world. I personally believe it has, for Latin America but also for those new activists who everywhere are being formed now. Their numbers are smaller than in the heady days of the 60s/70s but they most certainly exist. I think it is our responsibility to present the lessons of Big Flame – positive and negative – to those activists.

This website, by bringing back to life many of the documents and pamphlets we wrote, is an excellent start to the process, making our experience directly available for those who want to learn from it. But I think we need to go further – to critically reflect back on those experiences and draw some conclusions of our own. We of course won’t all agree, any more than we did at the time and probably rather less, but to have some collective discussion and debate will surely provide a richer set of analyses than the thoughts of any individual.

Others will have their own ideas about the crucial parts of our legacy. My focus and desire to collectively explore is around the following issues:

  •  Building participatory mass movements from the base versus the need for a strategy at the state level.
  •  How to build a revolutionary organization and movement alongside and within the context of a reforming government.
  • The organizational and political autonomy of oppressed groups versus the need for a strategy and demands that unite the class/people against the capitalist state.
  • The nature of the revolutionary party – how to act decisively and collectively without becoming (un)Democratic Centralists – learning the positive and negative lessons of Leninism.
  • The personal is political. How to combat capitalism as it invades every aspect of our lives, without lapsing into a politics that is defined by the personal needs/lifestyles of educated and somewhat privileged activists.

Like the previous contributor Paul Thompson, Big Flame shaped my life and politics and I don’t regret that, and I don’t seek to, as he puts it, ‘repeat and regurgitate it’ – but unlike him, I think many of the questions of socialist/revolutionary strategy that we were grappling with all still crucial and are being played out right now in Latin America – and we had something important to say.

Posted in Opinions about Big Flame | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »