Big Flame


Archive for October, 2009

EPISODES IN BIG FLAME HISTORY: No 19. Sexual Politics and Life Part 2 – Men’s Politics

Posted by archivearchie on October 26, 2009

Men79May-p1One of the earliest anti-sexist (or pro-feminist) Men’s Groups in Britain was established by members of East London Big Flame around the end of 1973, which led on to the East London Men’s Group. As discussed in Episode 5 of this series, ELBF parted company with the rest of Big Flame in 1975. Two ex-ELBF men were afterwards involved in setting up a “magazine of men’s politics” Achilles Heel in 1978. The publication ran for 24 issues until 1999. Around the early 1980s the editorial group involved two different men who were part of North London Big Flame.

Here are some extracts from the discussions which occurred in BF over the years on “men’s politics”.

Following the first couple of issues of Achilles Heel an article appeared in the Big Flame paper May 1979 issue: Why a Men’s Movement? (article). It is sympathetic to the emerging Men’s Movement and wants revolutionary organisations to adopt “these new insights into sexuality”. There is a discussion of the debate about whether men are oppressed or not. This was a position some men in the Men’s Movement advocated, whilst others strongly rejected it.

Two articles appeared in the Discussion Bulletin of February 1981: Is a Men Against Sexism Politics Needed? and The Problem of Men in Big Flame. The authors argued that a “men against sexism politics” is urgently needed, with men taking responsibility for supporting feminism in practice.

Back to the paper and an article in the May 1982 issue: Anti Sexist Practice!  This outlines some of the things men could do to make anti-sexism a priority in their political work. Particular political importance is assigned to childcare.

A women member of BF responded in a letter in the July-August 1982 issue of the paper to some of the articles which had been written by men: Why a Men’s Movement? (letter). She believes that there can’t be a men’s movement because men are not oppressed, and finds the concept “dangerous”. Men should focus on taking anti-sexism into the areas of struggle they are already involved in, and participating in childcare as a way of supporting women.

Finally in the Discussion Bulletin of March 1983 the Women’s Commission responded to a proposal for an Anti-Sexist Commission in Big Flame: Why the Women’s Commission are against an Anti Sexist Commission. Their objection is that this would mean women taking responsibility for working out men’s positions. Instead men should use men’s meetings to understand their sexism and develop anti-sexist practice.

Archive Archie

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

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EPISODES IN BIG FLAME HISTORY: No 18. Sexual Politics and Life Part 1

Posted by archivearchie on October 20, 2009

Canoe-p1I struggled to find a title for this post before, after seeking advice, deciding to opt for the one above. I wanted something which would manage to cover all of the Politics of Personal Life, Gay Politics and Men’s Politics. Although in the end I decided I had sufficient interesting material on Men’s Politics to hold this topic over to another time (see future Episode in this series – Episode 19). I also plan separate posts on Children and the Big Flame Summer School (see future Episodes – Episode 20 and Episode 21).

At its 1978 Conference Big Flame passed a motion on ‘The Politics of Personal Life’. In it BF resolved:

–   “To develop the organisation’s political understanding of the ways that capitalism distorts our personal lives. To ensure that the development of a political approach to personal life forms an integral part of the general politics of our organisation.”

–   “To support those existing political activities which are attempting to deal with the crises which are sometimes called ‘personal’ in a political way.”

–   “To ensure that our organisation is structured in such a way that the fullest participation is encouraged of those groups of people that most revolutionary organisations, including our own, discriminate against: parents, particularly single parents, youth, retired people, women, people who have not been to university.”

–  “To ensure the highest standards of socialist comradeship operate inside the organisation and in our relations with other comrades.”

–   “To give priority to the development, within our organisation and on the left as a whole, of a socialist culture. We should contribute to and initiate outings, holidays, festivals, cultural events – all those activities which provide pleasure, mutual awareness and solidarity amongst colleagues.”

–   “To acknowledge that these changes will not come about by fine words and resolutions at Conference. These ideas have to be translated into our everyday practice; in particular they need to be integrated into all aspects of our mass political work.”

The motion contains no specific new measures for BF to implement. As the last point above makes clear it was more of an exhortation to others to identify and implement the changes. The degree to which people did was undoubtedly mixed.

1978 also saw the circulation of a document around Big Flame members:  In a Barbed Wire Canoe. This was inspired by the author trying to understand at a political level some personal traumas he experienced. He rejected the views of those on the left who acted as if they didn’t feel personal problems like the rest of the world, or believed that discussing them was subjectivism. Using ideas drawn from Ely Zaretsky, he sets out ways personal problems are caused by capitalism – stripping any meaning from work, splitting work and home, attributing fulfilment to the possession of things. He concludes with the lessons for BF. If it is to attract and keep people in the organisation, they need to feel at home and enjoy a sense of collectivity.

Another discussion of personal life can be found in Revolutionary Socialism no4 Winter 1979-80: Daily Life. First there is an “Introduction”, which takes up the phrase “you must live your politics” and argues that changing ourselves is an essential part of making the revolution. This is followed by “Living Your Politics” a discussion between four people (two men and two women) about collective living. It ranges across a range of issues including childcare, monogamy and the relationship between personal politics and “public politics”. Finally, “Coming Down to Earth” examines the libertarian movement of the 1970s (anticipating many of the themes of the later article republished in Opinions about Big Flame no 1).

Articles on personal life were also included in the paper. Two of the better discussions were an article and subsequent exchange of letters on sexual behaviour between men and women, which extended through three issues (July/Aug, Sept and Oct 1980) and three views on marriage by women based on their own experiences, to coincide with the Royal Wedding of the Prince of Wales and Diana Spencer (July/Aug 1981).

From the 1981 Women’s Conference Discussion Bulletin comes: Notes from Sexuality Workshop at Women’s Weekend. Though short in length the notes summarise a discussion which covered a lot of ground – the problems of talking about sexuality in large meetings, how it is not just an issue of sexual preference but also “all things relevant to your biological sex as a woman”., and the need to develop a feminist politics based on an understanding of the way capitalism and patriarchy attempt to control sexuality as much as every other area of life.

The paper’s coverage of Gay issues was very limited. Apart from short news stories, this consisted of interviews with people outside BF or reviews of publications by non-members (on one occasion another group – the Revolutionary Gay Men’s Caucus was invited to write an article). Articles in the journal were even sparser. There was nothing in the two issues of Big Flame Journal. In the ten issues of Revolutionary Socialism, there was just a single review article which examined a book on personal politics and a book on gay politics.

The same lack of discussion applied to the Internal/Discussion Bulletin. There were two articles in the Internal Bulletin on Lesbianism in the mid 1970s by a woman who left BF not that long after. The second appeared in the June 1977 Internal Bulletin: Letter to the Editorial Collective of Women’s Struggle Notes (Warning: this is difficult to read because of the poor quality of the duplicated original copy). She had been asked to write an article for a BF publication, which she did in the form of an interview with a lesbian friend. This was turned down as “too personal and not political enough”. When later asked to write something else for a Conference that was “less heavy”, she declined giving her reasons in the article. She wanted to not just talk about oppression, but convey the joy, strength, confidence and power that lesbianism gave her. [Note: the rejected article was subsequently published in Women’s Struggle Notes (second series) no4.]

A few years later as part of a broad critique of Big Flame a gay man wrote about how in an organisation whose members are almost all straight that “people can find it very oppressive and difficult to talk about homosexuality” (“Why I am Pissed off with Big Flame” July 1981 Discussion Bulletin). Despite all the correct position on gay liberation BF adopted on paper, this was clearly an issue.

Archive Archie

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

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EPISODES IN BIG FLAME HISTORY: No 17. Women and Feminism Part 2

Posted by archivearchie on October 12, 2009

WomConfDBEpisode 4 of this series contained the two Big Flame pamphlets on women, published in 1975 and 1980. Episode 16 included two articles on feminist issues from the journal Revolutionary Socialism, published in 1978 and 1980. This post provides a further selection of short articles on feminist issues from 1980-81, with a particular focus on the topic of women in Big Flame. A later post will contain a selection of articles to cover the final phase of BF’s life (see Episode 29).

A Day Return Ticket – Written for an educational session at the 1980 Big Flame Summer School.

Provides a quick guided tour of attempts to develop a Marxist feminism theory, including writers like Juliet Mitchell, Mary McIntosh and contributors to the domestic labour debate of the 1970s. Argues that many theorists have started off with Marxism and tried to fit women in. thus neglecting the fact that women’s oppression has a different logic to capital. A theory of patriarchy needs to be developed first. When this is worked out the interrelation with class can be considered.

Socialist-Feminism Today – From the 1981 Big Flame Women’s Conference Bulletin.

Looks at what is happening to a divided women’s movement after two years of Conservative Government. In particular, operating in separate women’s groups around particular issues, and working in mixed campaigns like CND or the Labour party to riase women’s issues.

Big Flame Discussion Paper for the NAC Conference 1980 – From the Discussion Bulletin May 1980.

Agues that NAC needs to be a mass campaign with an orientation towards the labour movement, but that to assert women’s autonomy local NAC groups need to be women only. This is the document mentioned in Episode 12 which caused, at least temporarily, a dispute between the National Committee and the Women’s Commission.

The remaining four articles are part of a discussion about women being members of Big Flame (which included an ultimatum at the 1980 conference that women would leave the organisation unless it genuinely integrated feminism within its politics). This discussion is worth considering in some detail as important questions were raised about the membership of women in mixed organisations.

Big Flame Socialist Feminist Perspective – Two related document from a 1980 Conference Bulletin.

Maintains that up to 1976 Big Flame made an important contribution to feminist politics, but since then it has played no significant role. This is associated with a decline in women’s power in the organisation. Details changes which would enable BF to keep women in the organisation.

Women and Big Flame –  A response to the previous articles in another 1980 Conference Bulletin.

Shares the approach of the previous pair of articles, but disagrees with the suggestion that Big Flame has played no significant role post 1976. Mentions the involvement of BF women in Health Fightback, NAC and anti-imperialist women’s groups. Also includes suggestions of ways of improving the functioning of the Women’s Commission.

Women in Big Flame: Some Considerations – From the 1981 Big Flame Women’s Conference Bulletin.

Argues that current problems stem from a critical ambiguity in Big Flame’s politics. This is about the functioning of autonomous organisation of oppressed groups within and outside revolutionary organisations. The prefigurative efforts of BF, such as those around childcare, are very partial. Autonomous organisation does leave women in Big Flame free to discuss whatever they wish free from male pressures. Concludes with some proposals to reduce the marginality of women both as a feeling and in practice.

Women in Big Flame and Elsewhere – Notes of a women’s meeting, perhaps a workshop at the 1981 Women’s conference.

Discusses such issues as women as parents, their double workload and the “male methods” implicit in Big Flame’s structures. Maintains that their aim is not to simply list problems which weigh them down. Rather to establishing their general experience, building understanding which could alter the politics of BF to make it more accessible to women.

However I think that it is fair to say whatever the intention, all these contributions to the debate are better at outlining problems rather than identifying solutions. Those solutions presented are often quite sketchy and usually structural changes.

Archive Archie

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

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Posted by archivearchie on October 5, 2009

BFJ-p1As well as a newspaper and pamphlet, at different times Big Flame produced a number of periodic publications. In the early years Merseyside BF produced Big Flame Bulletin (3 issues in 1971-72), a duplication collection of leaflets and documents. Then there was Fact Folder (3 issues in 1972-73), an envelope containing duplicated documents primarily documenting struggles. However, the two periodicals which probably had the greatest impact were the journals – two series in a printed magazine A4 format. The first called the Big Flame Journal and the second Revolutionary Socialism.

There were two issues of Big Flame Journal in 1974-75. The first issue reflected the federal character of BF at the time with most of the articles appearing in the name of a specific local group. It was succeeded by Revolutionary Socialism which had a longer life, 10 issues between 1977 and 1982. It came to end after that National Committee in October 1982 decided, in the light of sales going badly and members not using the journal, to suspend publication until further notice. Some Big Flame members who had worked on Revolutionary Socialism, and some who had not, joined together with some non-aligned socialists and feminists to publish another magazine independently of BF called Emergency (5 issues between 1983 and 1990).

A full list of all the articles published in both journals can be found here:  Contents of Big Flame Journal and Revolutionary Socialism.

As discussed in the last episode in this series – Episode 15 – there was an ongoing discussion in the organisation about the newspaper. This is not the case with the journal. Whilst the paper induced a variety of emotions including hostility, the journal mostly stirred up indifference. All the mentions of the Journal I can find in Internal/Discussion Bulletins or Pre-Conference Bulletins are written by members of the editorial group (with the one exception of a motion at the 1979 conference to abandon publication).

A report from a member of the editorial group to the same conference noted the lack of feedback from local groups apart from one which refused to sell the journal because of its content and style. In 1981 the journal collective asked local groups to complete a questionnaire about it. Only one responded. This is despite efforts of various editorial groups to print articles which related to BF’s organisational and political priorities, and to foster discussion of selected articles by local groups.

This document written around 1979 gives a flavour of discussions within the editorial group: Some Thoughts on the Journal. The potential audience was clearly identified as “the left” and not “the working class”. The aim of the journal was to open up debate and discussion in an open and honest way. Independents were to be encouraged to write for the journal or to join the editorial group.

Negotiations took place with both the LCG (Libertarian Communist Group) [see post on LCG] and the ISA (International Socialist Alliance) [see post on ISA] about them having representatives on the editorial group. Instead the LGC as whole joined Big Flame and the ISA dissolved itself (with I believe a few of its former members becoming part of BF). Some independents did get involved the journal, and a large number of articles and reviews were written by non-members. Some of the authors were relatively well known figures on the left e.g. Leo Panitch, Richard Hyman, Hilary Wainwright, Shelia Rowbotham, Anne Phillips.

The presence of such writers may have made the journal a better read, but it also probably contributed to the lack of identity with the publication by many Big Flame members. Of those articles included by BF members, a high proportion of them were written by less than half dozen authors. I am sure that this is despite constant efforts by various editorial groups to get others to contribute.

The circulation of Revolutionary Socialism was always tiny. Figures from the 1980 conference report show 500 being sold in bookshops through PDC (the Publications Distribution Co-operative) and 800 going to local groups for direct sales (although loose accounting procedures failed to reveal exactly how many of these were actually sold). A circulation of over 1,750 would have been required to break even.

RS4-p1To give an indication of the sort of things Revolutionary Socialism published, I have chosen five articles written by Big Flame members.

1968: Ten Years On No2. Spring 1978

Looks at the crisis of the post-1968 revolutionary left, focussing on its separation of the “personal” and the “political” and its failure to develop a prefigurative politics. The optimism of 1968 meant those who came into politics were prepared to sustain an incredibly high level of political activity with little space in their lives for anything else, leading to burn out 10 years later.

Youth Politics & Youth Culture No2. Spring 1978

Argues that the “primary determinal form” of youth culture is class rather than age, and that the “general corporativeness” of working class consciousness means that class contradictions expressed are only indirectly political. The political youth movements which currently exist are appendages of parent parties who see them as conveyor belts to membership. The prospects for a socialist youth movement have never been brighter. It should to be independent of any one organisation, although it would need the aid of left organisations to survive or grow.

A Woman’s Right to Choose No2. Spring 1978

Believes that a Woman’s Right to Choose is the most revolutionary demand to come out of the Women’s Movement in Britain. Discusses the history of the battle to make contraception widely available to women and struggles around abortion.

Feminism and the Socialist Alternative No5. Summer 1980

Examines the uneasy relationship between feminism and socialism. Marxist theory is adequate to understand women’s oppression. Amongst the contributions of feminism are the concept of patriarchy, the assertion that the personal is political and the exploration of sexuality. Organisations like Big Flame need the autonomous women’s movement to provide a constant reminder of the need for feminist politics.

Crisis of the Revolutionary Left in Europe No5. Summer 1980

Continues the themes of “1968: Ten Years On” by considering the crisis of the revolutionary left in general and of the loose political tendency of which BF was a part. With elements of voluntarism and ultra leftism, the latter was particularly vulnerable to the post 1974 downturn in struggle. A position of “class before party” can lead on to questioning whether a party is really necessary.

Two other articles from Revolutionary Socialism are already available on the net:

What Future for Zimbabwe Now? No 6. Winter 1980-81

Riot and Revolution: The Politics of an Inner City No8. Winter 1981-82

Archive Archie

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

P.S. Episode 15 mentioned a Harvester Press publication The Underground and Alternative Press in Britain as a way of viewing on microfiche (a form of microfilm on flat cards) copies of the Big Flame newspaper. It also includes both issues of Big Flame Journal and a number of pamphlets (Ireland: Rising in the North, Portugal: A Blaze of Freedom, Chile Si! and Shop Stewards and the Class Struggle) all of which can be found on this site.

Harvester Press also produced a companion publication The Left in Britain which contained complete run of Revolutionary Socialism. Fact Folders no 1 and no 3 can be found under Red Notes

The Archiving Big Flame mentions a number of libraries which have paper copies of Big Flame Journal and Revolutionary Socialism.

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