Big Flame



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 However, I am limited in what I can post to those who volunteer articles and those unpublished documents of which I am aware.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


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.



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.  



The original members of Big Flame, the revolutionary organisation, were heterogeneous in terms of their previous political experience.  In a self-conducted survey, (18) few of them proved to have been in other groups prior to BF.  However, of those that had then their former allegiances spanned the spectrum of the existing left: from the Labour Party young socialists; through the Marxist-Leninist (CPB M.L. (19)) to the Trotskyists (SLL).  In a minority of cases, even Anarchism (particularly in its French, Situationist’ variant) was apparent. (20) What, then, these had in common were those features of the ‘new’ politics of the French ‘May’: a self-confident commitment to the certainty of revolution in British capitalism and further commitment to the belief that only a re-modelled Marxism developed out of a critique of its own past would be sufficient to the needs of the working class in that revolution.

            The infant BF drew on several (again diverse) sources for the kind of critique its different members all agreed was necessary.  Central to this (but not necessarily pre-dominant) were a whole series of ideas taken over from the new groups of the Italian Far Left.  Why Italy rather than France (for all the initial impetus that events in that country had provided) should have been the source of much of BF’s politics was again a product of specific, domestic developments within Italy which, under the impact of the further internationalisation of capitalism (especially the rise of multi-national production), would prove to have a supra-national application.

            Thus, in brief, Italy experienced much the same process of development as Britain in the early to mid-sixties.  However, what made circumstances different for socialists in Italy was that the Italian Communist Party (PCI) together with the trade unions within which it had a dominant position (CGIL) (21) offered no point of resistance to the rationalisation of the Italian economy and the restructuring of relations in industry which this entailed.  The reason for this was that, under the terms of the PCI’s ‘Italian Road to Socialism’, state planning formed a centre-piece, and as the remarks made on the British Road to Socialism in the first case study sought to indicate, the confusion of the communist strategy with the strategy of the reformist left was great indeed.  Under these circumstances, a ‘new’ Marxism was forced into being in Italy.  As a consequence of the period of Fascism and then of the War, Trotskyism had not developed as a rival to the CP (in however small a way) as it had in Britain.  In this way, there was no automatic turn to Trotskyism by critics of the PCI.  Instead, they were impelled towards a re-investigation of the basic works of Marx to explain the new developments within Italian capitalism and Italian class struggle.  The main sites of this new investigation were two academically-based journals: ‘Quaderni Rossi’ (Red Notebooks), which was published between 1961 and 1964; and ‘Classe Operia’ (Working Class), which was published between 1964 and 1967. (22)  The latter of these was the outcome of a split in the former-between those who desired further ‘research’ and those others who preferred an ‘activism’ based on the insights of the study so far completed.  In many ways their ideas anticipated the concerns of 1968 and when Italy experienced similar upheavals in the following year (the so-called, ‘Hot Autumn’) revolutionary groups formed around their ideas came into being.  Principal amongst these were ‘Potere Operaio’ (Workers Power) and ‘Lotta Continua’ (the struggle goes on) and it was the latter group in particular with which BF developed a relationship.

            In general terms, the central concerns of the ‘new ‘ Italian Marxism can be described as follows:

            (i)         The PCI emphasis on the Gramscian notion of ‘hegemony’ was rejected for the way that it tended both to see ’politics’ as something which happened outside the workplace; and because it tended to pose the working class as an unchanging entity whose needs could be satisfied through the medium of the state.  For Marxists such as Panzieri, Tronti, Negri and (later) Sofri (23) what was needed was a return to Marx’s central notion of the basic antagonism between the needs of capital in the pursuit of accumulating profit and the need of workers to earn a wage in order to be able to live in an economy based on commodity exchange.

            (ii)         In, especially, the actions of car worker employed by the FIAT company, the refusal to be bound to productivity agreements was interpreted by these theorists (and their contemporaries) as the determination of the working class to express their own needs against those of their capitalist employers (who wished to change the organisation of work in order to pump an increasing degree of surplus value out of labour).  This expression of their own separate needs was dubbed the ‘autonomy’ of the working class.  At the same time, the workers themselves referred to their self-directed struggles (away from the trade union hierarchies) as their autonomous activity.  In this way, the analysis made by intellectuals outside the factory and the actions of workers within it, coalesced.

            (iii)        For the theorists of workers autonomy (as these theorists may be termed) what structured the relations and the antagonism between workers and their employers was, increasingly, the direct intervention of the state.  This they attributed to the spread and utilisation of Keynesian ideas of ‘Demand Management’ throughout international capitalism.  In this way, a clear alliance between state and capital had been formed where the old forms of workers resistance to the needs of capital (for example, through the creation of trade unions; through the acceptance of various ‘custom and practice’ agreements in the work-place) were under concerted attack.  Work was being progressively de-skilled in order to undermine job-organisation while, at the same time, the direct organisation of the ‘labour market’ by the state and its further control over education and immigration helped structure the wider society and integrate it with the needs of production.   The life experience of the working class was one, therefore, of their existence inside a ‘Social Factory’.  And what ensured that they would find any common resistance to its regime a difficult task, were the further divisions of the class – be those of skill differences or grading differences within work; or the sexual and racial division of labour inside and outside the work-place.

            (iv)        All the elaborate programme of capital to thwart the development of a collective resistance by the working class worked, it was argued, ultimately to its detriment.  The continual re-composition of the working class at the point of production into an increasingly undifferentiated, de-skilled mass only increased the possibility that this mass would, together, express its autonomy through its refusal of the very work methods designed to subjugate it.  Those groups of workers who were most committed and most adept at ‘refusing work’ could then be identified as the ‘mass vanguard’ of a work class that everywhere was engaged in a political struggle with capitalism for the reason that the determination to live in the face of capital’s own needs was essentially a political rather than an economic struggle.  In this way, the ‘seeds’ of communism’ could be seen to be present within all anti-capitalist struggles.  It was, then, the task of a revolutionary organisation to specify which struggles best expressed the communist needs of the working class (the discovery of the ’mass vanguards’) and transmit their perspectives and tactics to the wider working class (the development of the ‘mass line’).

            The overlaps between the Italian experience and those on the ‘doorstep’ of BF in Liverpool are readily apparent.  For a group determined to break with the dominant Marxist orthodoxies in Britain the work of the Italian Marxists exerted a far greater influence than the far less structured (and often more traditionalist) output of the French Far Left.  This ‘Libertarianism’ was, then, something far removed from the content of the analyses of even the most committed Marxists of the earlier British New Left.  This would be emphasised both in the written output of BF (whether published or unpublished) and its conception of political organisation and political practice.  For example, in the case of the former, the second edition of the new ‘Big Flame’ (24) newspaper recounted the experience of the recent (1972) miners, building workers and dock strikers and concluded that,

‘the most important thing at the moment is the struggle of workers and non-workers against the nature, conditions and ideology of work under capitalism. (for) ..the building of real autonomous organisations of the class’. (25) where this represented the conclusion of an issue whose headline was:

         From the docks, to the sites, to the factories to the communities, it’s going to be a long hot autumn. (26)

However, it would be wrong to conclude from this that BF simply took over the analysis of Lotta Continua, wholesale, and then spent the rest of their time attempting to raise the temperature of each succeeding Autumn.  Rather, the process of the absorption of this theory was a fairly piecemeal in the course of which much of it was tempered both by the results of the group’s own practice and by the need to integrate it with insights that emanated from other sources, notably Feminism.  If we consider the group’s practice first, then the following observations may be made:

The initial editorial group eventually broke up in June 1971.  By that time, the student, libertarian nucleus of the group had had 15 months experience of involvement with industrial workers.  In the Pilkington Glass workers’ strike of that year, this group continued to apply the politics of this experience wherein no attempt would be made to offer any advice to the workers about how they should conduct their struggle: for BF this was anathema.  This latter approach, they considered, represented all that was wrong with the traditional politics of the Far Left which consisted largely of party members arriving at the gates of whatever work place was in dispute and dispensing the accumulated ‘wisdom’ of their particular organisation to workers with whom they had had not previous contact nor would they be likely to have contact again.  However, this loose ‘anti-Leninism’ (as it was referred to) was something that left the organisation as simply a servicing agency for workers in dispute (something that, literally ‘ran errands’ for striking workers).   While this earned the group the attention of workers, when BF attempted to develop it into a more permanent commitment of these workers to more co-ordinated rank an file structures (the original aim was a Merseyside net-work of militant stewards etc.) the project fell-away for want of a clearer direction.  This then caused the group to re-think its practice and, thus, develop its politics.  As one of the organisation’s pamphlets put it,

         We learned one think very fast.  You cannot hope to encourage anyone to do anything by standing on the sidelines merely propagandising.  You need political influence, trust and respect.  To gain this, a group has to consciously intervene in a non-manipulative way.  Our learning focus was the Halewood Ford strike of 1971. (27)

It was at this point that the Italian influence was first registered.  Big Flame set up what it called ‘Base Groups’.  These were centred around factories like Fords, Plessey and Standard-Triumph (in a way that Lotta Continua was based around Fiat and Pirelli).  BF members then initiated regular meetings sympathetic militant workers who were able to furnish them with first hand accounts of current disputes (however minor these might appear to others). Their joint discussions would then place these disputes in the context of the company’s overall industrial relations strategy which, in turn, would be considered in terms of the economic and political perspectives of Government.  The resultant analysis would be distilled in the form of leaflets that were then handed out to every worker at the gates of the factory during shift changeovers with the eventual aim of better arming workers in the pursuit of the redress of their particular grievance.  This process was termed mass work; it method was the development of the mass line and its aim was the promotion of the autonomy of the working class.  However, again, there did not follow a simple immersion in the total politics of Lotta Continua.  This became apparent through the differences in the extension of ‘base group’ practice from the factories to the ‘communities’.

The observation was made in the introduction to this case study that BF’s politics were founded in a period of a generalised ‘revolt’.   What made for this generalising of oppositional currents within the working class were governmental attempts at economic rationalisation (as previous remarks have indicated).  However, these were not confined to the sphere of industry.  Instead, after Edwards Heath’s Conservative administration had supplanted that of the Labour Party in the course of the 1970 General Election, the political recipe was much as before; although, in this case, with the emphasis placed more on coercion rather than garnering consent amongst Unions and unionised workers. A ‘harder’ approach was exemplified in the Conservatives ‘Industrial Relations Act’ under the terms of which, jail sentences were conferred on five striking dock workers.  The enormous opposition this provoked throughout the Trade Union Movement (whose leaders now felt less constrained to engage in militant activity when the need to support Labour had been removed) led to the effective suspension of the Act. This further increased the self-confidence of the Far Left, and, with it, BF. Heath’s attempt at rationalisation did not stop here, however.  In 1971, the Conservative Government made public their proposals for the restructuring of council house rent payments.  At bottom, local councils would have far less scope than before to subsidise rent payments and would be expected to generate funds out of rents which, in the case of almost all councils would mean raising them considerably.  In some areas (notably Clay Cross in Derbyshire), rises as great as 400% within five years were anticipated (see Skinner and Langdon (28)).  The proposals threatened increasing hardship for working class people, especially for those whose incomes were already low.

In Liverpool, tenants on the large Tower Hill estate spent six months before the implantation of what became the 1972 ‘Housing Finance Act’ preparing for its likely effect.  When the first rent rises under the new act were announced, the estate declared a total rent strike.  In one movement, much of BF’s analysis seemed to be confirmed; yet the way the group organised around the rent strike spoke the difference between its own, maturing, political theory and that of Lotta Continua.

In Italy, following the factory occupations and demonstrations of 1969, a combination of rising prices and rising unemployment had seen a spilling over of militancy into the community.  Rent strikes developed and empty housing was occupied.  Out of this fresh wave of militancy, Lotta Continua developed the strategy ‘Prendiamoci la Citta’ (29)), during 1971.  The thrust of the strategy was that there existed the immediate basis for sitting a revolutionary opposition to the Italian state in the wider community (rather than of simply making life difficult for Italian employers through militant struggle in the factories).  For BF, the actions taken against the Housing Finance Act, while they displayed similarities with developments in Italy, were not the harbinger of revolutions.  Nevertheless, they showed the ways in which working class people, through their own initiative and self-activity could develop co-ordinated opposition to government policy.  Under these circumstances, BF made contact with the ’Rent Action Group’, the wholly autonomous tenants group who were co-ordinating the Rent Strike.  However, what crucial difference (both form the LC strategy and the practice of interested British Far Left groups, especially the International Socialist) existed in this new intervention by BF was that the group focussed on the position of women in the strikes; to the extent that BF women were invited by women from the Rent Action Group to help establish a women’s group on the estate.

What was important to the development of BF’s politics in the emergence of a women’s base group on the Tower Hill estate was the way in which it confirmed, for those involved, that,

         Traditional union ideas (which have a hold on all sections of the working class, not simply those in employment) have .. proved useless in the face of indirect wage cuts outside the recognised work-place.  The situation of people on .. rent strike in Tower Hill .. has shown concretely the necessity and possibility of raising in every struggle the total conditions on which that struggle is based. (30)

What the beginning of a women’s group accomplished (or, at least, set in motion) was a combination of processes:

            (a)        A distinct women’s movement had re-emerged in Britain at the end of the Sixties out of the convergence of, again, the example set by the student-worker alliances in France and Italy with the initiatives of the working class.  In this case it was the wives of Hull trawlermen who took up the cause of the need for greater safety provision in the industry (in 1968) and the strike of Ford women machinists at Dagenham that resulted in equal pay in the company.  However, for many of the women who joined revolutionary groups, the fact of their oppression seemed to carry on in exactly the same way inside the organisations as it did outside them.  The increasing militancy of working class women as women (rather than simply as workers led by male trade unionists) gave strength to the more middle class women of the student movement to begin to articulate the general demands of women’s liberation.  Necessarily, this new politics of liberation (if women’s struggle could at all be said to be a ‘new’ phenomenon) came to take some cognizance of the existing politics of liberation, Marxism; especially when a proportion of early women’s liberationists had experience of the far Left.  The experience of helping to create a women’s group based on the needs of working class women on a large housing estate (especially at a time when those women were undergoing the additional burdens imposed through their involvement with militant activity, for example arranging child care to attend meetings) meant, for the BF women, that, instead of becoming,

         bogged down in whether or not we recognise class differences among women (31)

they felt better able to,

         develop, as women, a revolutionary perspective that extends the whole class struggle. (32)

The increasing confidence of women inside the organisation, and the novel, practically-based approach they could now bring to what, for them, had been largely ‘abstract’ (33) debates about Marxism and Feminism in the emergent women’s movement, then helped develop further BF’s use and understanding of ‘Autonomy’.  MacCool (34) has identified a further source of BF’s theory in the work of the US groups Correspondence Publishing Committee and Facing Reality and the British, Power of Women collective.  Although BF had its differences with the analyses made by these groups, they shared an approach to the belief that one of the major problems facing the working class was the divisions within it: put briefly, this meant that some sections of the working class were ‘doubly-oppressed.  For example, although they enjoy no real power to determine their own lives, working class men could, and did, exercise power over working class women.  Similarly, white workers could be encouraged to exercise power over black or Asian workers.  However, these divisions could not be overcome through government legislation alone (the ‘Equal Pay’ Act, the ‘Race Relations’ Act etc.).  As a BF introductory document put it,

          Real unity can only be based on some equality of power: only when women, black people and immigrants of gay people are strong enough to impose their needs, to define our struggle from their point of view, to say what their goals are, can a genuine, all round class politics be developed.  For this reason, unity can only come if these sections .. have the opportunity to organise independently to develop and discover their own identity within the working class (35)

          (b)      This recognition that the life experience, and needs, of women or black people were separate from, and could not be subsumed under, those identified with the needs solely of white, a male, industrial workers clearly marked BF off from the rest of the Far Left; for other organisations continued to address the working class as an undifferentiated mass wherein only the activities of industrial workers were considered to be important. (36) This ‘separateness could be seen as a form of autonomy; and the need for BF members, who were also subject to the double-oppression of their sex, race, sexual identity of (in a still largely middle class organisation) even class, to hold separate meetings and press their autonomous demands within the general organisation, was recognised.

            (c)        This last recognition above then had a considerable effect in terms of the organisation’s practical orientation.  Firstly, it helped correct a tendency in BF for the organisation to deny its own theory in the way that, until now, base groups had, in fact, been concentrated on the male, industrial workforce where women BF members were expected to operate in the same way as the men (e.g. meetings with ‘the Lads from Fords’ held in pubs, interspersed with topics of specifically ‘male’ conversation etc. (37)). Secondly, the importance of sharing the lives of the women on the Tower Hill estate encouraged the organisation to move from their original communal households (one of which was the subject of an ‘expose’ by the News of the World!) and take up residence in the City’s working class estates.  In this way, from a single original group, to which all the ‘Base Groups’ returned , four ‘Branches’ were established: in the North, South and Centre of Liverpool; and in Kirkby, respectively.

The Growth of Big Flame

Throughout all the period of the working out of the processes detailed previously, BF remained a locally-based organisation.  However, what needs to be stressed is that the handful of original BF members were not the only people concerned with the range of issues so far discussed. Instead, the upheavals of the late-60’s had established a comparatively large audience of Libertarian politics; where this term could be used to embrace a wide spectrum of people whose concerns ranged from the building of local branches of the Claimants’ Union and those involved in entirely independent Tenants groups through to people whose main interest was the various concerns with ‘personal liberation’ and even, for a short time, those who considered that an immediate ‘armed struggle’ be waged against the state. (38) What marked off BF from all of these was that it placed itself within the Marxist tradition and considered that a political organisation was ‘always necessary’.  It was necessary, they argued, because,

          the different strata of the working class .. generates in any sector only a partial and fragmented experience of class struggle .. Therefore a political organisation operates to bring together militants from all sectors to totalise experience and generate overall perspectives. (39)

This, essentially Leninist, conception of politics formed the basis of BF’s contribution to the ‘Libertarian Newsletter network’ which, as its title suggest, was an attempt to pool the experience of Britain’s Libertarians.  The very explicit commitment to an interventionist, implicitly cadre organisation, in the Leninist mode, was a measure of how far BF’s politics had come since the early days of its determinedly ‘anti-Leninist’ practice around the earlier Merseyside factory militancy.  However, their formulation would prove to be not without its contradictions.  Even so, on the basis of its increasing growth (many libertarians had, in fact, moved to Liverpool to become part of BF) and, more so, out of the authority with which it could discuss working class struggle, the organisation began to establish groups outside Liverpool.

The original site of BF’s ‘national’ growth, was London.  A BF group had come into being around the Dagenham plant of the Ford Motor Company and this evolved into an East London BF group. In March 1975, there were deemed sufficient other sympathisers in other locales to warrant the calling of the first, national conference of BF. Although , in the course of this, the East London group broke away, (40) the agreement of most of the rest of those who attended the conference with the outline of BF’s basic positions formed the formed the basis of national organisation and groups in Leeds, Manchester and Birmingham came gradually into being.  What formed the ‘basic positions’ referred to above was, effectively, the distillation of the experience of Liverpool BF.  In the next 18 months, this far higher ‘public’ profile (at least in terms of Libertarianism but, increasingly, inside the Far Left as a whole) further increased the size and geographical spread of the organisation until, by September 1976, the organisation felt confident to launch a much larger-scale initiative for the creation of a new type of revolutionary organisation.  However in the conception and the motivation of this project, the inherent instabilities of both BF’s theory and its practice were forced to the fore.



In the weeks leading to the 1976 BF conference, two, distinct sets of proposals for the future of the organisation, emerged.  Essentially, although this is necessarily a very rough short-hand, one (lengthily-motivated) conference motion on organisation was produced by the wing of BF most closely associated with its Italian heritage, these can be referred to as the ‘Autonomists’.  A set of counter measures was then proposed by a group who were concerned that the organisation’s existing politics were not expressed and structured in a coherent enough way; these could be termed ‘Centralists’.   Again, neither term is wholly accurate and neither group, if their wider support is considered, was mutually exclusive.  Even so, in the course of the debate between the two, and particularly in its aftermath, the principal weaknesses of BF as a whole were apparent. 

Thus, in brief, the principal document which supported and detailed the proposals of the ‘Autonomist’ current was titled Towards a New Communist Organisation in this Country (41) and it argued the following points:

            (i) That, following its years of militancy, the working class in Britain were now experiencing a period of defeat.  Employers and Government were at last making head-way in their plan to rationalise and restructure the economy (and therefore to recompose class relations to their own advantage).  Under these circumstances, the politics which BF represented were offered the possibility to grow because,

            of all the revolutionary organisations, BF is the only one which has the possibility of explaining the crisis and developing a strategy .. based clearly on the politics of class autonomy. (42)

             (ii)         That despite the potential which existed for growth within its politics, BF as an organisation was unlikely to grow for several, important reason: its size was tiny; its composition was still overwhelmingly student and ex-student based (and therefore distinctly not proletarian), these conditions combined to reduce the chances that the organisation, as it stood, would develop the kind of ‘social power’ which would attract working class militants; and , as a result of this, BF had become content to remain inward looking and ‘minoritarian’ with the consequent permeation of a ‘small group mentality’ throughout the organisation. (43)

            (iii)        In order to break out of this impasse and thus be better able to meet the urgent needs of the downturn in class struggle, BF should launch a Project’ to form a new revolutionary organisation based around what was identified as BF’s ‘tendency’ in the working class. 

The identification of this ‘tendency’ was established in the following way: everywhere the working class continued to assert its needs against those of capital (and thus expressed its autonomy) however, only a restricted number of militants were aware of the process within which the whole working class was engaged; what was needed, then, was to bring all of these more conscious people together and out of this ‘coming together’ a new organisation could be constituted.  This organisation, in turn, would act as the ‘embryo’ of a ‘new communist movement’.  To assist (and convince) the organisation in its understanding of the argument, a list of groups and individuals who formed the tendency of which BF was but a part, was supplied.  The proposal was made that this ‘Project’ should be supervised by a five person ‘Secretariat’, (responsible to a delegated ‘National Committee’) who would be helped in their work by the wide circulation of ‘the best ever manifesto of working class autonomy’.  A ‘re-call’ conference would be held after a year to assess the work of the ‘Project’ when, it was hoped, the coming together of the new organisation would already be at a well-advanced stage.  BF would ‘be dissolved on the very eve of the foundation of the new organisation’ and all existing members should be prepared for this to be a ‘sharp break from Big Flame’ for what would replace it was intended to be,

            ‘a politically centralised cadre organisation with a mass line’. (44)

In both the tone of urgency that ran through the original (19 page) document, and in the transformation that it demanded (in BF and in class relations), there was something of E.P. Thompson’s sudden intoxication with the possibilities offered by the unilateralist victory at the 1960 Labour party Conference.  The only other similarity between Thompson’s enterprise and this one was that they both ended in failure: when a mischaracterisation of the condition of the Labour Party and of Reformism informed both enthusiasms (although in very different ways).  Thus, before looking at the second set of proposals for BF’s future presented to its 1976 Conference, it is worth looking at the ‘Autonomists’ treatment of Reformism for the bearing it had on later developments.

What underscored the belief of the Autonomist current in BF that the ‘Project’ they envisaged stood every chance of success, was their belief (one that remained wide-spread in BF despite the course of later developments) that the experience and institutions of Reformism could, and would, be by-passed by the British working class. For example, in their main conference document, they observed (of Reformism) that,

         (there exists) a crisis inside Labourism which manifests itself particularly in its inability to maintain a hold in the most militant layers of the proletariat (45)

where it was this ‘crisis’ which established the pre-conditions for the ‘tendency of class autonomy’ to begin to develop the ‘total alternative to reformism’ that was urgently necessary if the effects, and the duration, of the current defeat were to be reduced.  To better understand the logic of this position, we need to return to the earlier phase of BF’s development during which the conception of reformism, of which this was a product, was developed.

In the pamphlet, Big Flame: An Introduction to our Work and Perspectives (produced in the wake of BF ‘going national’ after the 1975 Conference) the following was argued:

       the strength of our reformist leaders – which varies from period to period – is based, not so much on the active committed support of the working class, but on a sort of toleration.  The growth of working class autonomy within the struggle has not yet been expressed clearly enough; had not yet been organised strongly enough, to be a loud and clear alternative to the dominant reformist attitudes. (46)

The reason that the working class has so far ‘tolerated’ reformism and its institutions was because of the material gains that these could win for it.  As a further document, The working Class, the Unions and Mass Practice (47) explained it,

        the working class contains .. two contradictory aspects  .. (it) is at the same time both Labour Power inside Capital and antagonistic class against Capital.     That is to say that the working class has a … Reformist side and a revolutionary one. (48)

Very briefly, then, class struggle was conceived of as a process in which the working class continually sought to satisfy its own needs against those of Capital’s while being forced to work for Capital and substantially on its terms: the antagonism this produced meant always that the potential for revolution existed.  However, because of its divided condition, and of the need to exist within capitalist social relations, a set of institutions which negotiated this existence had developed – the unions and the reformist political organisation they bank-rolled, the Labour Party.  Together, they brought acceptable returns, and, consequently, the working class led itself to keep up an (implicitly) uneasy commitment to their reactionary perspectives (maintaining existing relations, asserting the ‘national interest’ etc). and their equally reactionary methods (passive delegation of authority, compromises with employers and the state etc.).  However, in a period when the methods and the aims of reformist institutions became too closely identified with those of Capital (as they had under Harold Wilson and as they were again under James Callaghan) then the commitment of the working class to reformism would, more or less rapidly, (depending on other factors in the condition of class struggle) be stripped away.  The first ‘layers’ of the working class to be revealed in the process would necessarily be the most militant; those ‘vanguards’ whose opposition to the restructuring attempts of Capital to solve its worsening crisis would point the way to the rest of the working class; draw upon its inherently revolutionary resources and realise the needs of the class in the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism.  It was this perspective that informed the proposals of the ‘Autonomous’ current at the 1976 Conference but in its general thrust it was subscribed to by the whole organisation.

In their criticism of the motion derived from Towards a New Communist Movement, the ‘Centralist’ current in BF were forced to make some challenge to the conception of reformism, outlined above.  Firstly, in reply to that general criticisms of BF’s  existing condition and practice (made in a document tilted Put Politics in Command (49) they argued that, indeed, some new response was required from BF to meet the beginnings of what promised to be a fairly sustained downturn in successful, militant opposition to restructuring.  However, they saw as the ‘pre-condition’ of BF developing that response

             ‘(the) centralisation of our leadership, ideas and resources’ (50)

where this should not be considered to be a ‘traditional recipe of the Left’ (effectively, ‘battening down’ the ideological ‘hatches’ to weather  a storm) but an attempt to cure the weaknesses of BF.  These the Centralist current identified not with the size and composition of BF (as the Autonomists argued) but with a lack of,

            a strategy for general initiatives .. of clear political strategies for the class struggle as a whole and its constituent parts – women’s struggle .., industry, community etc. (51)

This lack of strategic sense and ability to mobilise strategy as a consistent practice, was, then, the root of BF’s inability to break out of the limitations imposed by its size and on its style of work.

In the course of their argument, the Centralists criticised strongly the notion that a ‘mass politics tendency’ already existed within the working class:

          A tendency should refer to something that is at least partly conscious and organised; aware of the process of its own identity and formation.  Anything less invites external definitions that allow almost anyone to be said to be part of the tendency .. no matter what their views and (it also allows) the .. unity of such a grouping to be vastly over-estimated. (52)

It is within the extent and limits of the Centralist current’s recognition of this process of ‘external definition’ of a ‘mass politics tendency’;  and the relationship of this with the understanding of Reformism and the requirements of organisation, that the subsequent history of BF was played out.


In their challenge to the predominant conception of Reformism in BF, the Centralist current pointed to the complexity and versatility of the phenomenon.  Reformism, they argued, was something more than an agency which depended for its existence on its ability to deliver material gains to the working class – to the extent that, by presenting economic crisis in terms of ‘national’ crisis, it might even increase the loyalty of the working class to its structures and institutions.  The fact that the living standards and job organisation of the working class were under attack did not necessarily mean that the ‘revolutionary side’ of the working class would automatically become exposed (to the extent, at least, that the more militant of its members could be won to revolutionary politics; as the Autonomists argued). Nevertheless, the Centralist current (certainly at this juncture) did not differ overmuch in their conception of how, eventually, the working class would be won revolutionary politics.

What was implicit in the general view of BF members was that what was politically central for revolutionaries was the identification of the revolutionary, anti-capitalist content of individual struggles and the generalisation of that content throughout the working class  As the earlier quoted observation put it, why Reformism ultimately remained in the ascendant was because,

        ‘working class autonomy within the struggle has not yet been expressed clearly enough; has not yet been organised strongly enough to be a loud and clear alternative to the dominant reformist attitudes’.(53)

Although the Centralists had begun to be critical of this idea (specifically in terms of the relative ease which, the Autonomists argued, an already existing tendency could be pulled together) they had not yet broken with the belief that a small revolutionary group could set this process in motion as long as its politics were clear enough and its strategies pertinent enough.  Despite their recognition of the beginning of a downturn in class struggle, their politics were still those self-confident ones of the student up-surge and the high levels of militancy that BF grew out of; when, eventually, their criticisms of BF’s conception of reformism, and with it the overall notion of revolutionary advance and the needs of organisation, grew to pose a challenge to the whole organisation, BF could not survive an organisational challenge of such a fundamental kind  This lack of political and organisational resilience was, then, related to the outcome of the 1976 debate.

Changes in ‘The Project’

The motion of the Autonomist current proved successful at the Conference.  However, what was immediately surprising about the victory was the current’s apparent reluctance to staff the new ‘Secretariat’ whose formation was an integral feature of the ‘Project’ to which the organisation was now committed.  As a consequence, the elections to the Secretariat produced a minority representation of the Autonomist current on the new body.(54)  With a shifting composition on the newly-formed National Committee (on which delegates could, and often as a point of principle, did fluctuate from month to month), the opportunity to shape the Project in exactly the way that it has been proposed, was lost at the outset.  What, then, came to deflect much further from its anticipated course was BF’s relationship to the new initiatives of its Far Left rivals: notably the International Socialist (IS) and the International Marxist Group (IMG).

The IS had proved the principal beneficiary from the wave of student and worker militancy in the late-60’s.  With a politics that emphasised the creation of a revolutionary organisation out of rank and file struggles in industry, IS was well-placed to attract exactly those kind of militants at a time when BF barely existed.  In such a period, it needed to pay little response to the wider concerns which BF stressed; an almost continuous flow of recruits vindicated its essentially Syndicalist politics where its radical trade unionist stance proved far easier to grasp than BF’s complex ‘autonomy’ theories.  However, the organisation’s roots stretched back to the mainstream Trotskyist Revolutionary Communist Party and, as its membership climbed, its leading figures (and especially its central figure, Tony Cliff(55)) determined that they were demonstrably the centre of revolutionary politics in Britain.  On this basis, they wasted little time in declaring themselves to be the Revolutionary Party.  As Shaw(56) had made clear, the transformation of the IS into the ‘Socialist Workers Party’ (SWP) was one that echoed the mistakes of its fountainhead, the RCP – an overestimation of the organisation’s capabilities and its centrality to class struggle at a time when revolutionary politics was unlikely to grow.  Even so, the SWP came into being, and it did so at almost exactly the same time as BF launched its project for the creation of a new revolutionary socialist organisation.

The IMG was born out of the various convolutions of the inter-national Trotskyist movement through the Fifties and Sixties.  It, too, had grown after 1968, in its case recruiting mainly form radicalised students who desired an explanation of Stalinism but were repelled, and scorned in their turn, by the SLL.  Their response to the downturn in the class struggle (one certainly encouraged by developments in the IS and BF) was to launch a separate project for a new revolutionary organisation; where this was conceived in very different terms from that of BF (more as a re-grouping of existing organisations than the wider gathering together of militants envisaged by the latter).  However, particularly in the growing need to combat the rise of the Fascist National Front, the need for joint initiatives on the Far Left had already taken a material form.  A combination of the SWP’s stubborn rejection of work with other organisations (unless this was strictly on its own terms) had already begun to lead to de facto local alliances between BF and the IMG.  When the latter grew increasingly anxious for its policy of regrouping the Far Left (to the extent that it renamed its paper ‘Socialist Challenge’ and began to feature contributions by BF members) BF was pulled by the terms of the project they had initiated into a dialogue with the IMG – yet faced the hostility of the Autonomists in doing so.

The resistance of the Autonomist current to a dialogue with the IMG is easy to understand.  Their desire for a project to bring together the ‘mass politics tendency’ was something defined in far wider terms than a series of discussions with Trotskyists – especially when it was Trotskyism as much as the CP that its own Marxism (and the deeper Libertarianism of most of its supporters) had been developed to surpass.  For the Centralists, on the other hand, discussions with the IMG (and with newly-expelled members from the SWP, a large number of whom were grouped together as the ‘Workers League’ (57)) was far more in keeping with the desire to clarify BF’s politics and to develop clear political strategies.  This was especially the case when, again as a consequence of the Project, two of the main figures in the Centralist current had been responsible for the production of a critique of Trotskyism – really the first public statement (if only by default) of BF’s own place in the Marxist tradition. (58)  Against this background, then, it was no accident that at the re-call conference intended to assess the state of the Project, the most significant contributions came from Trotskyists.  Tariq Ali spoke fro the IMG while at least one other leading member of the Fourth International was in attendance.  Similarly, the most significant addition to BF’s ranks came from the fusion with BF of the Revolutionary Marxist Current (RMC) a split from the IMG some three years earlier.  One of the most controversial motions to the second day of the conference (restricted to BF members) concerned the IMG’s initiative for re-groupment and while this suggested only an ‘investigation’ of their ‘Socialist Challenge’ project it served to polarise the conference in the way that it had been polarised, in the previous year, by the differences between the two documents on BF’s suggested future.  While the organisation eventually voted to reject any closer ties with the IMG (thus leaving the latter’s relations with BF in something like a limbo) an air of frustration and not a little bitterness (as some former members have recounted (59)) began to permeate BF.

Organisational Independence: whose choice?

The progress of BF after the 1977 ‘Re-Call’ Conference was subject to a set of very different (and contradictory) pressures.  For example, its forward movement was still meant to be defined in terms of the 1976 ‘Project ‘ yet,

            (a) The Re-Call Conference had given the Autonomist current, who had motivated the entire enterprise, no real hope that their attempted assembling of BF’s ‘tendency’ would prove successful. None of those who attended; either as representatives of groups specified in their pre-1976 documents or as a single individuals, joined BF or, even, began joint work with the organisation towards the creation of a new organisation.  Certainly, there was much good-will, but the only real advances were made amongst Trotskyists (as the remarks above had already indicated).

            (b) The minority position of Autonomist sympathisers on the Secretariat had already altered the definition of the Project in practical terms; what compounded this was that the two principal political positions on the role of women and the position of women within BF (associated again with the Autonomists and passed at the 1976 Conference) had both begun to prove a source of tension within the organisation.  Briefly, the first of these argued that women should be guaranteed an independent income by the state.  When proposed as a motion, this had been the source of intense debate, yet, once passed it tended to remain as a dormant issue.  Its dormancy can be attributed partially to the minority presence of women supporters of the position within the increasingly important national structures of the organisation.  In this way, women who did not support the position were left to argue it as a part of their role in increasing BF’s public presence.  That they were reluctant to do so remained a source of tension; but that they remained a minority meant that they were unable to reverse, or even modify, the position.  The same process then applied to the position of women within BF itself; where, in this case, a majority vote bound the organisation to an acceptance of the complete autonomy of its representative body of women members (the ‘Women’s Commission’).  While this could have meant in practice that the organisation might agree to a political position only for its Women’s Commission to ague a different one, this potential disjuncture was never overcome: again, the closed circuit of the generation of a tension which could find no release, was set in motion.

         (c) The retreat of the working class that BF had begun to face up to was part of a generalised economic crisis with international dimensions.  Throughout Western Europe (and, later, the USA) a swing to the political right had begun.  In Italy, the revolutionary Left (whose growth had been so much more spectacular than that of the British Far Left) was particularly badly hit by the effects of the downturn (see Anderson (60).  Inside Lotta Continua, this crisis was especially severe and, by 1977, the organisation had collapsed.  The process of its collapse is far too complex to be investigated here but the fact of it was, again, a source of disorientation for those in BF who were most closely associated with its positions.

The combined effect of these various developments was to leave the Centralist current, although, numerically, a small minority within BF as a whole, as front-runners in the determination of BF’s developing profile inside the Far Left and its periphery.  However, they were to become progressively isolated in this forward movement; again, for a combination of reasons. For example, it was this current which had been most enthusiastic of the IMG’s re-groupment initiative.  The early rejection by BF of any pursuit of that initiative left the current, and wider BF/IMG relations in a curiously ambivalent position: on the one hand, it had been made very apparent to the IMG that the vast majority of BF’s (growing) membership was hostile to them; while, on the other, BF displayed a formal willingness to combine in joint activity with them.  The focus of this joint activity came then to centre in on the ‘Socialist Unity’ electoral alliance.  This first emerged in the later-summer of 1977 when the SWP decided to stand a candidate at the Birmingham Ladywood parliamentary by-election.  Under the terms of its own Project, the IMG suggested that it be allowed to assist the campaign.  This the SWP resisted.  In turn, the IMG stood its own candidate and BF, under the terms of its project, offered their assistance.  Although the rejection by BF of any closer ties with the IMG followed hard on the heels of this electoral alliance, neither side could (or was willing) to be seen to forego it practical and political alliance at so early a date (especially as both had so much to gain from high-lighting  the sectarian intransigence of the SWP).  This curious ‘marriage’ continued for two more years and its repercussions were those that sealed the fate of BF as an organisation.  Thus, before discussing what other contradictory pressures were experienced by the Centralist current in BF, some account of the SU alliance needs to be made.

BF and Socialist Unity

BF had accepted, in principal, the idea of support for non-Labour socialist candidates in elections at its 1976 Conference as part of the wider recognition that the Labour Government was now assiduously engaged in carrying out anti-working class policies.  However, when the IMG argued the need for radical socialist candidates there were important differences from BF’s conception of their role (a difference that went to the heart of the very different traditions from which the organisations had emerged).  For the IMG, there was the end for the formation of a ‘class struggle, left wing’ in the working class where electoral intervention provided a useful focus for its creation.   However, in both the conception of this ‘left-wing’ and the kind of campaign designed to attract working class militants towards it, there were very strong echoes of the traditional Trotskyist idea of ‘bad’ Labour and trade union leasers impeding the struggle for socialism who thus required replacement by ‘good’ left-wing ones.  As this quote form an early SU document says,

           The fight against the right-wing leaders of the trade unions is a matter of life and death for the unions.  The left has to unite to build a class struggle opposition in the rank and file that can challenge these traitors for the leadership of the union at every level. (61)

This was far from the BF commitment to the need to build a ‘mass politics tendency’ in the working class; yet, both for the reason that the IMG could not be seen to dominate SU; and also because there was a genuine convergence between the response to the recession then prevalent within BF and the separate response of the IMG, a working relationship was formed.  In this, BF managed to pull the latter over to something like a mass politics approach to electioneering; wherein the various campaigns would not be expected to follow traditional electoral practice (a brief period of canvassing followed by the exit of the group and candidate concerned) but would be concerned to develop a much longer-term practice in the specific constituencies.

SU was formally launched in November 1977 and its first experience of concerted activity came in the local elections of 1978.  Because of the existence of a large BF group in Liverpool, three candidates were entered in elections to the City Council.   Then, in the following year, SU stood a candidate in the Liverpool, Edge Hill Parliamentary by-election.  Labour’s massive defeat at Edge Hill then precipitated their decision to call a General Election which, of course, they lost heavily.  In the General Election, SU stood a number of candidates including, again, one in Liverpool (in the Toxteth constituency).  The changed circumstances that followed the Conservative election victory witnessed entirely new developments within the IMG that saw them change their position, very abruptly to those outside the organisation, from one for revolutionary re-groupment to that of a far greater concern with Trade Union and Labour Party ‘Entry’ work. This, effectively, put an end to SU (although the formal position adopted by BF and the IMG was that it should be suspended during a period of investigation of the impact of Conservative Government policies).  However, especially in its impact on Liverpool BF, the experience had left a deep mark on the organisation.  This can be summarised as follows:

            (i)         The heavy concentration of SU activities in Liverpool (5 campaigns in one year) had a very damaging impact on the branch which, in turn, was transmitted to the organisation as a whole.  Out of a series of interviews (62) a picture emerges in which the initial reluctance of older members to support the SU campaigns in the 1978 local elections (out of a combination of hostility to participation in electoral work, as a point of principle, with a general hostility towards an involvement with a Trotskyist organisation), became, for the 1979 campaign, a complete refusal to be part of the work.  This encouraged the decline of the branch which expressed itself, not so much through a loss of membership (although this did occur), but as a general political inertia.  This then became transmitted to the rest of the organisation for, primarily, the reason of Liverpool’s historical centrality to BF (even though it had been far surpassed in size by the combined total of the London branches).

            (ii)         The experience of electoral activity and of the need to formulate electoral strategies and policies, had stimulated in the Centralist current (who were most closely identified wit the activity) a re-thinking of the role of elections and, as a consequence of this, the role of Parliamentary Democracy; of the Labour party and of Reformism.  From a very standard treatment of the content of the various election manifestos which the group helped to draw up (where calls for an end to unemployment; for opposition to government cuts and the like were indistinguishable from those manifesto demands of other revolutionary groups – CP, SWP, WRP etc.), there was stimulated a more-or-less rapid evolution in their politics.  This passed from, initially, supporting BF’s call to abstain from voting; to arguing that the organisation should adopt a ‘Vote Labour’ position (largely as a recognition that, whatever the demerits of the current Labour Government, a Conservative one could only be worse).

Even so, this perspective was still rooted in the context of support for SU wherein an active socialist opposition to Labour formed out of the very defensive positions articulated in the various SU manifestos, was still paramount. In the wake of the Labour defeat, this was forced to change.  What replaced these former positions was the beginning of a realisation that some alternative needed to be suggested to the working class around which a site of resistance and gradual fight-back against the severe effects of Conservative restructuring might be developed.  Interestingly, in the pamphlet, Labouring under the Tories, or a Socialist Alternative? (63) the call for alternative plans in industry (where the example cited is the ‘Lucas Aerospace Plan’ – kidney machines instead of fighter bombers etc.) co-exists uneasily with cautionary advice about the danger of planning ‘substituting’ for ‘more familiar forms of struggle’. (64)  Equally, the Labour Party’s own ‘Alternative Economic Strategy’ (65) (a product of the Party’s left-wing, pushed to the fore by Labour’s defeat and the need for policies different from those that led to it) is rejected, unequivocally.  Even so, particularly in the observation,

      We must never ignore the official structures .. we have to establish a presence in the (TU) branches and District Committees etc. (66)

the beginnings of a sea-chance could be glimpsed.

Beyond the Fragments (and into the Labour Party)

What further development inside the Far Left, and within its own politics, that established the final pre-condition for BF’s collapse, was the impact of the publication of the collection of essays titled, Beyond the Fragments (67) which appeared during the summer of 1979.  Addressed to the short-fall between the need to work for a new Labour victory against the Conservatives and the contrast between this and the creation of,

       alternative which expresses the real socialist politics that we work for from day to day in our work-places and localities,(68)

the pamphlet’s authors (Hilary Wainwright, Lynne Segal and Sheila Rowbotham) conceived their work as one intended to,

       begin a discussion of the limits of traditional principles of revolutionary organisations, in the light of the advances and insights made by recent movements, starting with the women’s liberation movement. (69)

Thus, both in its specific motivation (the need for working, alternative examples of socialism to the sterility of Labour’s performance) and in its general aim (a re-assessment of the past of revolutionary organisation from the perspective of the women’s movement), the work coincided with much of the general (and changing) politics of BF.  What sealed the connection was, then, that Segal was already a member of BF and had written, in her essay, of her decision to join the organisation in terms of, among other things, its seeming to,

      recognise the need to autonomous struggles of the most oppressed social groups. (70)

The pamphlet proved to have a wide appeal.  It quickly sold out and was re-printed, in an extended form, within months of this. (71). Quickly, a loose nationally-based organisation came together to help set up a ‘Beyond the Fragments’ conference which attracted 1,500 people in the August of 1980 and a newsletter was initiated to help co-ordinate local discussion groups. (72) All of this certainly had an effect on BF where, simply ‘advertising’ the its existence to interested people, helped to increase the organisation’s membership (73); yet, in this sudden coalescing of, at least part of, the ‘tendency’ anticipated by the autonomist current of BF four years earlier, the different interactions between BF and tendency had repercussions for the organisation that could not have been anticipated by either ‘Autonomists’ or ‘Centralists’.

To appreciate what the effects were of BF’s growth, and of the perceptions of its newer members, on its fortunes, we need to re-call this in terms of the failing-away of the original ‘Project’ and the frustration of the Autonomous current with which it was attended. What tended to happen from 1979 onwards was that BF, from its own efforts and out of the popularity of Beyond the Fragments, attracted recruits who, quite rightly, saw BF as different from traditional Far Left organisations.  However, particularly in the gradual disengagement of the Autonomous current from the more public development of BF’s politics, the fact that this section of BF conceived the need for it to become, ‘a cadre organisation with a mass line’ (74) (a strongly Leninist conception, howevermuch updated) was lost for the newer members.  In its place, the more Libertarian aspects of their politics were emphasised (opposition to the ‘old left’, the need to support people’s existing activity rather than help transform it etc).  On this basis, and in the absence of any determined induction process (for none could be agreed), BF tended, by default, to revert to an internal atmosphere associated more with its pre-1975 past than a present that had developed away from this by the process of political confrontation and debate detailed in the main body of this discussion: new members were being recruited on a flawed basis – recruited to an organisation that no longer existed in the form it was implied to exist in Beyond the Fragments.

A second, and contradictory, out-growth of the ‘Beyond the Fragments’ debate was the way that it stimulated the Centralist current to unfold further the logic of their particular investigation of the need to develop alternative forms of socialist practice that would go beyond the largely defensive demands of the rest of the Far Left.  Here, instructively, there was an over-lapping with the concerns of the more Libertarian of BF’s members; but the difference of interpretation was a crucial one. 

In her essay, Sheila Rowbotham had posed the need for pre-figurative political forms’,(75) wherein the kinds of relationships or ways of organising life that are anticipated under socialism should begin to be explored (and practised) in the present.  While this could be differentiated from the ‘gradualism’ of Reformism (where only small parts of the future are fought for) it was still very much in the area of ‘transitional’ politics (the attempt to connect the present directly with the totality of the socialist future).  However, in the way that the ideas were presented, they seemed to correspond more with the internal operation of political organisations than with the political strategies pursued by them (although the two are obviously linked).  This then, keyed-into the long standing debates within BF about its internal structures (the role and composition of the National Committee; the role and status of the women’s commission etc).  which revived those debates without, at the same time, establishing a method for their resolution.

In Hilary Wainwright’s new contribution to the second edition of Beyond the Fragments she also argued the need for the development of transitional politics and transitional strategies. (76)  In some ways, her argument echoed the content of the Autonomist submission to the 1976 conference of BF; in the way that she detailed the extent and scale of the different groups working away at a socialism of the ‘grass roots’; yet,, crucially, she ignored the avenue of the need to ‘politicise the struggle against wage labour’(77) and argued instead the identity of interests that existed between those in the Labour Party who desired a working socialist alternative to the policies of the Party’s leadership and those socialists outside the party who were working to create exactly those alternatives. She resisted the conclusion that the Labour Party should be the main site (or at least be seen as the eventual channel of this activity) but the strength of her case was registered within BF’s centralist current.  It registered principally for the reason of its congruence with the desire of that current to clarify politics as the basis of political strategies – and not a little in the way that its more tangible listing of existing working groups appealed to the more academic concerns of this wing of BF (many of whom were teachers or research students).

The initial absorption of a greater commitment to what was, loosely, called ‘Transitional Politics’ (where the critical transformation was in its recognition that the institutions of Reformism would need to be considered in a constructive way if these were to be advanced) came in the 1979 conference submission, signed by 5 members identified with the Centralist positions of 1976, with the impressive title Theses on Reformism.  The pivotal observation of this submission was, the, that

       The best way to engage the base of social democracy in political dialogue is through united action on basic issues like racism, abortion and wage controls.  It is also the most effective way of winning those struggles.  This united front at the base requires us to priorities work inside union branches, Trades Councils and other Labour Movement institutions, as well as our more traditional work inside independent structures. (78)

The submission of the Theses on Reformism caused confusion within BF, to the extent that an amendment to the motion which proposed that no decision be taken on them until the next National Conference (at least one year later) was passed.  The response of the Centralist group was a swift one.  Within a month of the conference a regional (North-West) meeting was called by the signatories to the original document and this led (after further meetings with interested parties) to the publication (in BF’s internal ‘Discussion Bulletin’) of a Draft Appeal for the formation of a Tendency in Big Flame.(79). Written against the hazier notion of ‘Prefigurative Politics’ but picking up the idea of ‘Transitional Politics’, the two principal positions that departed most from BF’s existing politics were, firstly, the commitment to ‘working class counter-planning’ where this was motivated in the following way,

           We are for the development of workers plans in industry and services and the struggle to implement them, within capitalism, on workers terms. (80)

Secondly, the following was motivated,

           transitional politics of necessity means raising the question of relating to and using reformist institutions like Labour Governments. (81)

Although the coda was added to this last point that,

           effectively transitional politics will be unlikely to arise within the Labour Party and this remains the main case against entry. (82)

It was not sufficient to dispel the considerable disquiet that spread throughout BF on the appearance of the ‘Tendency’ document.  For example, in the August discussion bulletin, the following appeared,

          the existence of the Tendency has been surrounded by many suspicions and misunderstandings which are unfounded. (83)

The true extent of the ‘suspicions’ referred to above was revealed at the 1980 BF Conference when no strategic motions whatever were forthcoming from those most closely associated with ‘Autonomy’ theories in BF.  In their absence a ‘shadow’ debate ensued in which positions emanating from BF’s strong North London branch attempted to mitigate, rather than determinedly oppose, the strategic positions advanced by the Tendency.  As a consequence, these latter positions mostly unmodified, were then adopted as the policy of BF.  However, given the nature of the debate, the victory proved an entirely hollow one. In practice, most of BF’s branches hung out ‘business as usual’ signs while the more experienced, more Libertarian BF members re-grouped to prepare a counter-offensive at the next conference.  Not surprisingly, the deterioration in internal relations inside BF (when its concern for an openness in debate and the creation of a ‘supportive’ atmosphere had been one of its strengths) began to lose the organisation members and to confuse its new recruits.(84)  At the same time, conscious of the hollowness of their victory, the Centralist current continued to make a collective undertaking of the further development of their politics despite the formal dissolution of their Tendency, as a close attention to discussion bulletins reveals.

By the time of the 1981 Conference of BF the two, final factors in BF’s collapse had matured. These were, firstly, and decisively, that the Centralist current had taken the final step in the unfolding of their new assessment of reformism,

          we now believe it is time to take the plunge and consider joining the Labour Party as an organised tendency. (85)

Secondly, the main movers in the North London opposition to the previous years ‘Tendency’ positions also proposed that BF should have ‘members inside the labour Party’. (86)  Whilst this latter position was, as yet still one that tended to modify the positions of the Centralists, its announcement had the effect of confirming fully the polarisation of BF for what effect it had was to galvanise the Autonomist current in their attempt to restore the Autonomist tradition within the organisation.

During the rest of 1981, the tempo of the debate quickened.  A ‘Third way’ position eventually emerged (a rejection of the Labour Party strategy but an opposition to the ‘pure’ Autonomism re-emerged).  The full extent of this latter re-emergence was made apparent in the run-up to the December Conference.  Earlier in the year, a document, Facing the Challenge of the Eighties (87) had appeared.  This stressed that the politics of BF was that of the ‘Autonomy or Mass politics Tendency’ and argued that, by using the group’s newspaper as a focus, a ‘great debate’ should be initiated with all of those individuals and organisations that were part of BF’s ‘tendency’ in order to ‘do what we can to build mass politics of the class’.(88)  Complete with quotes from BF’s 1977 Manifesto for a New Revolutionary Organisation and a list of sources of working class autonomy theory that pointed to ‘Documents from Lotta Continua’; the work of CLR James; and the ‘Power of Women Collectives’ principal theorist, Selma James, it was almost a re-run of the 1976 Autonomist document.  This was then supplemented by an article that was spread over the three Conference ‘Discussion Bulletins’ from one of the 1976 signatories to that document (Brown (89)) who amplified the Facing the Challenge position with a condensed guide to Autonomy theory and a review of the previous five years from the point of view of the current within which he had been so central. This, perhaps not surprisingly, laid the responsibility for the increasing demoralisation of BF squarely at the door of the Centralists who, he argued, were guilty of the ‘abandonment..of certain key ideas which were once absolutely central to BF’; where it was this ‘abandonment’ that lay at the heart of BF’s crisis.(90)

Before, finally, assessing the merits and demerits of this position (for the way in which it expresses the permanent tension within BF) it is worth recording how widespread the ‘crisis’ referred to by Brown had become in BF.  In the National Committee’s Report on the State of Big Flame (91) a whole catalogue of problems was recorded.  Not the least of these was the considerable stress placed on women within the organisation where its continuing inability to integrate the needs of women (as a sexually oppressed group) into the general politics and practice of BF had led to widespread demoralisation amongst almost the entire female membership.  Added to this were then a series of further negative experiences; including, the inactivity of many members’ the loss of entire branches (Brighton, Leamington etc.) and the running down of the organisation’s Commissions (inside which perspectives were generated and work co-ordinated around district political areas e.g. Anti-Fascism). 

In the light of the above it was not surprising that no single set of political decisions taken over the course of two days at a conference which, at the most, barely two-thirds of the organisation attended (92) could reverse this decline.  The Conference decision to reject Labour party ‘entry’ and accept the proposals of the ‘Middle Way’ group only aggravated BF’s problems for, in one moment, this both alienated the Autonomists (whose influence was an important one) and forced the Centralists to leave the organisation.  This latter act then led to further demoralisation and the near-immediate collapse of three of the organisation’s most important and influential branches (Liverpool, Manchester and N. London), BF was to drift on for a further few years, but, as a functioning group with a definite presence within the Far Left (and British Marxist tradition) and in different work-places and communities, it had ceased to be.


Ultimately, BF proved unable to adjust to its political perceptions to meet circumstances that were significantly different from those which had encouraged the development of those perceptions.  Despite the organisation’s early recognition that a serious reverse in the fortunes of the working class was underway and a studied attempt to develop a political response to this; what grew to guide that response was, at bottom, a re-commitment to its basic politics rather than a re-investigation and re-formulation of them.  What BF committed itself to, in the form of the Project for a New Revolutionary Organisation, was a belief that, if the organisation’s members worked hard enough, Reformism would be by passed. That BF retained this notion at the centre of its politics kept the organisation firmly within the Marxist tradition.  For example where Trotskyists would argue that the ‘epoch of revolutions’ made ‘leadership’ the main question, BF determined that revolution would develop if the various ‘mass vanguards’ could be united expertly enough.  Although the latter stems from a very different treatment of the relationship between the working class and reformism, the expectation of reformism’s easy circumvention is very similar.  When this came to be challenged within the organisation, the current within BF most closely associated with these ideas proved unable, for the reasons described previously, to resist the challenge.  Even so, if the direction of the organisation was modified, the framework of its ideas remained substantially unaltered. Thus it was when this framework itself was contested (a challenge best summed up in the urging from the Centralist current to, ‘ditch the Autonomy component of mass politics’), the Autonomists could only re-state the entirety of their politics as the way forward for BF and the ‘Middle Way’ grouping was left, with the bewildered support of the organisation’s newer membership, to equally strongly re-affirm BF’s distinctiveness and oppose any relationship with Reformism – differing only in the greater realism of their recognition that, ‘a major capitalist recession is inevitably a bad time to wage many kinds of struggles’(93).

While these points will need to be returned to in the general conclusion particularly the notion that it is possible to separate ‘Autonomy’ from ‘mass politics’ what needs to be recorded here is the way in with BF’s continuity with Leninism underpinned the inadequacies of its understanding of Reformism.  Briefly, the argument was made in the second chapter that Lenin overcame the separation of economic struggle from political struggle (inside which separation, reformism has grown up) in the form of the Democratic Centralist party. While BF rejected many of the rigidities of this notion it could only do so by arguing that this separation did not exist.  As this quote from The Working Class, The Unions and Mass Practice puts it,

         even in periods of low intensity of class struggle the class always acts.. in an autonomous way.  Economic struggles and political struggles are one and the same… They are the two opposites of the same entity. (94)

Under these circumstances, Reformism was simply the product of the fragmented nature of the class struggle (and the ideology of Reformism the reflection of this division).   While it realised that it itself was not already the revolutionary party, BF was still sufficiently Leninist to propose that its own work in generalising existing anti-capitalist struggles was the key to the development of the revolutionary party.  The logic in this case was one wholly continuous with the Marxists political mainstream: social conflicts are, at root, anti-capitalist struggles; anti-capitalist struggles are essentially pro-communist struggles. Further, it was, in the wider context of the preceding case studies, also wholly consistent with the Bolshevik impact on Marxism: only the political ideas of BF and its conception of organisation would be adequate to the task of social revolution.  In this way, BF’s core commitment to its recognition that people needed to be convinced by socialist practice and argument was over-determined by its core belief that the working class would, at some point of wider connection between their different struggles, make an (implicitly) sudden leap to revolutionary socialism, rendering the whole of Reformism redundant at a stroke.  When the challenge to these ideas came, at last, to question the validity of an independently organised BF, there proved to be no real ‘Middle Way’ between adhering to Autonomy or arguing for the development of a Transitional Politics within the institutions of Reformism.  It was absent (despite the conference vote in its favour) because the logic of its motivation ran far more closely with that of Autonomy than the supporters of the ‘Middle Way’ were likely to concede: that independently organised groups of revolutionary socialists need to go on ‘building’ and seeking to ‘extend every struggle that does occur’ for the reason (again, implicitly) that within the struggle lies the ‘seeds of communism’.  However, that this is not automatically the case meant that BF came to share the steep reversal in the fortunes of the entire revolutionary Left (in Europe as well as in Britain).



 (1)    Big Flame An Introduction to Big Flame (Liverpool: Big Flame 1978)

(2)    Especially, Big Flame Chile:Si! (Liverpool: Big Flame 1974)

          Big Flame Portugal: A Blaze of Freedom (Liverpool: Big Flame 1975)

         Big Flame Ireland: Rising in the North (Liverpool: Big Flame 1975)

         Thompson, P. and Lewis, G. The Revolution Unfinished: A critique of Trotskyism (Liverpool: Big Flame 1977)

(3)    See, Red notes Working Class Autonomy and the Crisis (London: Red Notes/CSE Books 1979) pp.vii-x

(4)     Widgery, D. The Left in Britain 1956-1968 (London: Peregrine 1976 pp.305-318

(5)     Students for  a Democratic Society

         See for example, Ehrenreich, B. and Ehrenreich, J. Long March, Short Spring: The Student Uprising at Home and Abroad (New York: Monthly Review 1969)

         Newfield, J. A Prophetic Minority: The American New Left (London: Blond 1966) pp.113-156

(6)     National Liberation Front

(7)     Communist Party of Great Britain

(8)     Socialist Labour League

(9)     See, for example, Willener, A. The Action – Image of Society: on Cultural Politicisation (London: Tavistock 1970)

         Lefebvre, H. The Explosion: Marxism and the French Upheaval (New York: Monthly Review 1969)

(10)    Socialist Labour League Leaflet Why the Socialist Labour League is not Marching (London: SLL 1965)

(11)    Principal amongst these proved to be the ‘Revolutionary Socialist League’, better known as ‘Militant’ and the ‘International Marxist Group’, now know as the ‘Socialist League’ inside the Labour Party.

(12)    Glyn, A. and Sutcliffe, B. British Capitalism: Workers and the Profit Squeeze (London: Penguin 1972)

(13)    ibid p.50

(14)    ibid p.65

(15)    See, IWC Motors Group A Workers Enquiry into the Motor Industry (London: IWC 1978)

(16)    Beynon, H. Working for Ford (London: Allen Lane 1973) pp.43-62

(17)    CMND 3888 (London: HMSO 1969)

(18)    Interviews During 1981

(19)    Communist Party of Britain (Marxist-Leninist)

(20)    For the work of the ‘Situationists’ see: Gray, C. Leaving The Twentieth Century (London: Free Fall 1974)

(21)    General Confederation of Italian Workers

(22)    For both see Red Notes Working Class Autonomy op cit

(23)    Red Notes Working Class Autonomy op cit

             Also, Conference of Socialist Economists (eds.) The Labour Process and Class Strategies (London: Stage One 1976)

(24)    Big Flame May 1972

(25)    ibid p.4

(26)    op cit p.1

*        my emphasis

(27)    Big Flame An Introduction op cit p 5

(28)    Skinner, D. and Langdon, J. The Story of Clay Cross (Nottingham: Spokesman 1974)

(29)    Lotta Continua (eds.) Take Over the City (London 1972)

(30)    Libertarian Women’s Network Newsheet Merseyside Issue, 16 July 1973 p.2

(31)    ibid

(32)    loc cit

(33)    Big Flame Women’s Struggle for Liberation Internal Discussion Document (c.1975)

(34)    MacCool, F.A Critical Look at Big Flame’s Theory.  Big Flame Discussion Bulletin, 40 April 1981 pp. 1-10

(35)    Big Flame Our Perspectives and Work (Liverpool: Big Flame 1975) p.6

(36)    See note 1

(37)    Information form interviews

(38)    For all these perspectives, see magazines such as International Times (London 1966-74) and OZ (London 1967-73)

(39)    In MacCool, F. Big Flame’s Theory op cit p.6

(40)    Big Flame Introduction op citp.7

(41)    Big Flame Towards a New Communist Movement: A Proposal for this Formation of a New Revolutionary Communist Organisation in This Country, National Conference Document  1976

(42)    ibid

(43)    loc cit

(44)    Big Flame New Communist Movement (all quotations) op cit

(45)    Big Flame Motion the Future of Big Flame for the October 1976 Conference

(46)    Big Flame An Introduction to our Work, and Perspectives, Internal Document 1975 p.4.  This was a duplicated fore-runner of the previously quoted Our Perspectives and Work op cit

(47)    Big Flame The Working Class, The Unions and Mass Practice (Liverpool: Big Flame 1976)

(48)    ibid p.1

(49)    Big Flame Put Politics in Command. National Conference document 1976

(50)    ibid

(51)    loc cit

(52)    loc cit

(53)    Big Flame Introduction to Our Work op cit

(54)    Big Flame National Election Results October 1976 (Internal Document)

(55)    Cliff had been the leading figure in the State Capitalist’ faction of the Revolutionary Communist Party See case study 2

(56)    Shaw, M. The Making of a Party? The Socialist Register eds. Saville, J. and Miliband, R. (London: Merlin 1978) pp.100-145

(57)    The Workers Leagues subsequently formed the nucleus of the short lived ‘International Socialist Alliance’ – A further attempt to regroup those former members of the Is who had either left or had been expelled over the course of the previous five yeas.

(58)    Thompson, P. and Lewis, G. The Revolution Unfinished? A Critique of Trotskyism (Liverpool: Big Flame 1977)

(59)    In interviews

60)     Anderson, Peter.  Crisis of the European Left.  Revolutionary Socialism, 5 , Winter 1980

(61)    International Marxist Group Submission to Socialist Unity by IMG (1977)

(62)    Interviews

(63)    Big Flame Labouring under the Tories, or a Socialist Alternative. (Liverpool: Big Flame 1979)

(64)    ibid

(65)    See note 2

(66)    Big Flame Labouring op cit p.18

(67)    Rowbotham, S. Segal, L. and Wainwright, H. Beyond the Fragments. Feminism and the Making of Socialism (Newcastle: NSC/ICP 1979)

(68)    Rowbotham, S. Segal, L. Wainwright, H. Fragments ibid

(69)    Rowbotham, S. Segal, L. and Wainright, H. Fragments ibid p.2

(70)    Segal, L. A Local Experience published in Rowbotham, S. Segal, L. and Wainwirght, H. Beyond the Fragments (London: Merlin, 2nd edition 1979) p.206

(71)    Rowbotham, S. Segal, L. Wainwright, H. Beyond the Fragments: Feminism and the Making of Socialism (London: Merlin, 2nd edition 1979)

(72)    The ‘Beyond the Fragments Day Events’ was held at Leeds University on August 30th 1980.  The newsletter ran to at least two issues.

(73)    For example, the ‘North London’ branch of Big Flame came to divide into separate branches based more closely on localities e.g. Hackney, Islington.

(74)    See successful 1976 Conference motion

*        Of which the Liverpool group had been one of the main-stays

(75)    Rowbotham,S. The Women’s Movement and Organising for Socialism in Fragments (2nd edition) op cit p.132

(76)    Wainwright, H. Moving Beyond the Fragments in Fragments 2nd Edition op cit

(77)    Big Flame A New Communist Movement op cit

(78)    McKenize, I. Draft Theses on Reformism Big Flame Conference Bulletin 1 December 1979 pp. 1-6

(79)    Draft Appeal for the Formation of a Tendency in Big Flame.  Sub-Group Bi Flame Discussion Bulletin No.34. March 1980 pp.1-4

(80-82)                            Draft Appeal Big Flame op cit

(83)    Rose, A. And Mark, R. Summer School Big Flame Discussion Bulleting, 39, August 1980 pp.30-31

(84)    Evidence in various Discussion Bulletin contributions

(85)    McKenzie, I. and Mark, R. Big Flame and the Labour Party – a new Political Direction Big Flame Discussion Bulletin, 41, May 1981 p.17

(86)    Banks, R. MacCool, F. Suddes, L. Crowley, A. A perspective for Big Flame in the Eighties Big Flame Discussion Bulletin 43, September 1981 p.17

(87)    Kimberley, J. Facing the Challenge of the Eighties Big Flame Discussion Bulletin 41, May 1981 pp.1-11         

(88)    Kimberley ibid p.7

(89)    Brown, J. Mass Politics and the Present Situation –Towards a New Direction for Big Flame.  Big Flame Discussion Bulletin 43, September 1981 and continued in the following two Conference Bulletins, October and November 1981.

(90)    Brown Part One ibid

(91)    Big Flame National Committee Report on the State of Big Flame Big Flame Discussion Bulletin September 1981

(92)    Big Flame never grew to the extent that delegate conferences were considered necessary

(93)    *Emerald St. Discussion Documents on BF Perspectives Big Flame Conference Bulletin November 1981.  (*Name taken by ‘Middle Way’ group)

(94)    Big Flame The Working class, The Unions and Mass Practice (Big Flame: Liverpool 1976)

Click here to see this text in PDF format: Extract from a Thesis – Big Flame 1971 to 1981.


  1. archivearchie said

    It is disappointing that nearly a month has passed and no-one has commented on Mike’s thesis extract. I certainly found it very interesting. It filled in some gaps in my knowledge e.g. adding to what I know about BF’s origins and early days (pp6-11), drawing attention to tensions in BF around 1976-77 in relation to an independent state income for women (p17)[perhaps I should have mentioned this debate somewhere in the “Episodes” series], highlighting the role of successive Socialist Unity campaigns in the decline of the Liverpool local group (p18).

    It is clearly the most coherently argued position to appear in the “Opinions” series. As someone who consistently voted against the “Centralist” current positions (to avoid confusion I will keep Mike’s labels for the different groupings) at the 1978 through 1980 BF conferences, the article made me want to reconsider the choices I made.

    I do want to pick up on some points. Most of these the stem from the tendency for the analysis becomes more sketchy as BF’s latter days are reached. By this I mean the developments of 1980-81, rather than the absence of anything after that date. The extract’s timeframe of only 1971-1981 is clear from the title.

    First, whilst a agree that much of the post-Beyond the Fragments intake into BF came with libertarian positions, it is going too far to say they were “recruited on a flawed basis” (p19). Whilst some of the figures originally associated with the “Autonomist” current may have fully supported the “cadre organisation with a mass line” position, I am not so sure it was all of them. Or that the position represented the view of the “Autonomist” current in the latter days of BF. Further, given that BF was for most of its life an organisation continually being pulled in at least two different directions, it would seem valid to recruit anyone falling within the spectrum of those positions. This isn’t to disagree with the point that BF could have done with a better internal education programme.

    Second, I don’t think that the range of currents formed for the 1981 conference positions are properly explained. According to Mike the “Centralists” took the final step of supporting Labour Party entry, whilst a “Third Way” or “Middle Way” position appears without explanation (pp21-22). I will deal with this debate when I reach the relevant chapter in the “Episodes” series. For the moment, I want to make clear that the “Centralists” split precisely on the issue of Labour Party entry. The “Middle Way” was basically a significant part of the former “Centralists” grouping (which doesn’t mean that the “Middle Way” or “Emerald Street” as it called itself didn’t also attract others who hadn’t been part of the previous “Centralist” incarnation or “Tendency 1” as it was known). In addition, the differences between the pro-entry “Centralists” and the so-called “main movers” from North London on the approach to Labour Party membership are not reflected at all.

    Thirdly, I think the immediate post conference impact of the leavers after the 1981 conference is exaggerated. Liverpool and Manchester may have been severely impacted (perhaps “collapsed” is too strong), but this certainly wasn’t the case for North London where only a small minority left.

    Fourthly, the claim that there “proved to be no real Middle Way” (p23) is simply asserted rather than argued. The “Autonomists” at least had the benefit of an attempt to set out and criticise their positions.

    Finally, and this is my most substantive point. Not only is the range of currents in 1981 not developed, but what the “Centralists” were saying is very clear. Most significantly the approach to “reformism”. They are seen to move from arguing that reformism is to be taken seriously, via wanting to use reformist institutions, to adopting a specific tactic in relation to the Labour Party. However, there is a long history of those wanting to use reformism becoming indistinguishable from reformists themselves. Did the “Centralists” have any clear ideas of what they would do to avoid this trap. If they did, Mike should have presented their approach. I know it is beyond the scope of the extract, but what would be even more interesting would be to know how the “Centralists” experienced the Labour Party, and what they feel they learnt in the process.

  2. archivearchie said

    At the beginning of Part Two of this document Mike says that few of the members of BF on Merseyside were previously members of any other group, but then lists a number of groups which BF members had previously been part of. Someone who was around in the early days has queried this, especially the suggestion that someone made been in a Marxist-Leninist (Maoist) group. My own questioning of former BF members about the very early membership (i.e 1971-72) suggests that only two were previously part of something else – one in Solidarity and another in the SLL. Perhaps Mike’s survey was answered by people who were BF members from the mid 1970s. Certainly as BF grew it did recruit people who had at sometime or the other been in a variety of organisations, plus plenty of others who were independent militants.

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