Big Flame


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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