Big Flame



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:


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.


  1. max farrar said

    I agree with much of what John Waller says here. (I don’t know enought about the Latin American situation to comment properly, but I visited Cuba recently and it reinforced my view that a society with only one political party, and which does not properly challenge gneder divisions, nor support the freedom to perform any sexual identity you choose, fails on some of my criteria for socialism. John can no doubt respond to those observations, since these were criteria he supported back in our Big Flame days.)

    John’s right that we should be trying to offer useful lessons from our experiences back in the BF days. One thing we never properly sorted out will be even more important when Labour is ejected from government next year: how do those of us to the left of Labour find a way of being productively critical of the only party that has at least some allegiance to the interests of working class people? (We really do have to acknowledge some of the gains Labour has made over the past ten years in this respect. My grand-daughter will soon enter a classroom with a qualified teacher and two trained assistants. Her mother’s classroom contained more children and only one adult.) ‘Productive’ criticism only occurs when both sides have some respect for each other. ‘Respect’ entails some acknowledgement that you have quite a lot in common with those you criticise. But it entails more than this. Respect becomes real when it is mutual, and this requires that people have learned how to speak to each other without demeaning each other. For all BF’s ‘the personal is political’ mantra, we never really understood this; we never had the self-knowledge nor the self-criticism which helps us overcome our egotism and authoritarianism. (Yes, the BF men were worse at doing this than were the women, but the women weren’t perfect either.) The new generation of ‘horizontalist’ activists are, it seems to me, much better at all this than we were, but they still put themselves on the moral-political high ground and issue a plague on all those below them. (And the Respect Party seems to have known nothing about any of this stuff!)

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