Big Flame


Archive for November, 2009


Posted by archivearchie on November 30, 2009

In Britain, unlike many other countries, Trotskyism has been a significant force on the revolutionary left. As Big Flame aimed to help develop a current in this political space, it is not surprising to find it devoting its attention to Trotskyism. One of its most popular pamphlets was published in 1977, entitled The Revolution Unfinished? A Critique of Trotskyism.

Before the Pamphlet

In August 1974 two BF members produced “Trotsky and Trotskyism: A Critique” for the Merseyside Big Flame educational programme. Around 1975 one of them produced another document “Class and Party in Trotskyism and Leninism”, originally intended as an article for Big Flame Journal. The two documents together can be seen as an early draft of the pamphlet. The first covered the same ground as sections 2 to 4 of The Revolution Unfinished? – the period between 1917 and 1960. The second discussed some key aspects of section 5 – the analysis of modern Trotskyism. The former is rather too long to be included here. However for purposes of comparison, this is the latter: Class and Party in Trotskyism and Leninism.

For reasons I am unaware of there was a long period of gestation between these documents of 1974-75 and the publication of the pamphlet in 1977. This was written by one of the authors of the earlier documents and a new collaborator, and was the first BF publication to carry the names of individuals on the cover rather than the previous anonymity. Perhaps this was to signal that it was a discussion document, and that not all the positions taken within it were agreed by BF. However, as far as I am aware, there wasn’t much internal disagreement (with one exception mentioned below) to the positions set out in The Revolution Unfinished?.

The Pamphlet

Here is the pamphlet – split into four parts:

The Revolution Unfinished?: front to section 2

The Revolution Unfinished?: sections 3 to 5(b)(i)

The Revolution Unfinished?: section 5(b)(ii) to 5(c)

The Revolution Unfinished?: section 5(d) to back

The arguments developed in the pamphlet cannot be summarised easily in a single paragraph. A few of the main criticisms of Trotskyism are its overemphasis on leadership and the elevation of consciousness above the conditions of struggle, a tendency towards the timeless application of abstract principles, the failure to give sufficient recognition to post World War 2 changes in capitalism, an obsession with bureaucracy e.g. in the emphasis on replacing bureaucratic leaders, and a simplistic view of the transition to socialism (something linear and uninterrupted).

The pamphlet contains the strongest pro-Chinese Cultural Revolution sentiments (albeit with some criticisms of developments in the country) to be found in any BF publication. It was this aspect of the pamphlet with which there was the most noticeable disagreement within Big Flame. The organisation, including the authors, was soon to take a more critical position in relation to China (for a discussion of BF debates on China see Episode 7). The discussion of the Labour Party (a vehement rejection of entryism) is also interesting in light of the subsequent political trajectory of the authors, and of others who helped them with the pamphlet.

Unlike many other political groups, Big Flame rarely used its publications to make explicit critiques of other groupings. The Revolution Unfinished? is the major exception, and here there was no in depth discussion of any contemporary organisation in Britain. Quotations are assembled from a variety of groups to illustrate general arguments about Trotskyism (although the last two pages do contain a diagrammatic family tree of British Trotskyist groups and a Glossary of the groups, with a few sentences on each).

Internal Documents

If you look at BF’s internal publications, you find more of a discussion of other left groups. “Towards a New Revolutionary Organisation” produced for an Open Conference of the Project (see Episode 11), contains a section on ‘The State of the Left’ with paragraphs on the Communist Party, Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and International Marxist Group” (IMG). While there are positive comments about the IMG (its initiatives have been “open and principled”) the differences “remain quite strong” and the conclusion is “we don’t see the IMG as a whole as part of the same potential political tendency as ourselves”.

Discussion of the IMG came to the fore as it invited Big Flame to participate in Socialist Unity – the standing of election candidates under a cross group platform. BF agreed, unlike a subsequent offer to participate in its newspaper Socialist Challenge. This article in the Internal Bulletin March 1978 was a contribution to the debate within BF: On the IMG’s Concept of the Vanguard and Ours. It argued that there were significant differences between the two concepts – BF’s concept was broader, and it saw the function of a newspaper as a tool for the vanguard to use in its political work, rather than an educator of the vanguard.

The IMG and ISA (the International Socialist Alliance) – a grouping of former members of the SWP [see post on ISA] – next approach BF with a proposal that the three organisations should work towards regroupment. The October 1978 Discussion Bulletin contained an article “Has Big Flame got a Future?”. This argued that while BF contained many “infantile opinions” about the IMG, the latter did exhibit “programme fetishism” and a tendency towards “caucus style politics”. Only one voice was raised in favour of the unity proposal, in an article in the next Discussion Bulletin November 1978 “For a Regroupment Project with the IMG/ISA”.

At the December 1978 there was a vote at the BF National Committee on whether or not to sign an appeal from the IMG and ISA on joint work as a move towards regroupment. Only the author of the last mentioned document voted in favour. The other 9 persons present voted against. The vote was influenced by a strong reaction amongst the BF membership against the idea of fusion with the IMG.

State Collectivism

The Revolution Unfinished? uses the term “state collectivism” in relation to the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. This pamphlet led on to another one from Big Flame. About “soviet type societies”, it was called The Century of the Unexpected. This will be discussed in the next episode of this series.

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 November 23, 2009

Previous episodes in this series examined Big Flame’s overall approach to workplace interventions and the specific sectors of the motor industry (see Episode Episode 3) and education (see Episode 13). This one focuses on the Health sector.

The period of Big Flame’s life (1970-84) saw many dramatic developments in the health sector in Britain.

1973-74: Waves of militancy around pay, first by ancillary workers, then nurses.

1974: Reorganisation of the health service to promote centralisation and the philosophy of corporate management.

1977 onwards: New system of resource allocation used to produce cuts. Hospital closures; bed closures; increased workloads for NHS staff.

1982-83: Another reorganisation, this time to decentralise responsibility. Rise of general management. Domestic, catering and laundry service in hospitals put out to tender. There was an expansion of private practice within NHS hospitals.

In the early to middle 1980s a substantial number of Big Flame members were active in health care struggles. By the late 1970s this had reduced to only a few. Some of these had a major impact within the sector. One BF member was involved in the occupation of Hounslow hospital in west London when it was scheduled for closure in 1977, and the launch of Fightback, a national campaign against health cuts in 1978.

Big Flame saw health and not just a workplace issue. It believed that as every aspect of our lives is distorted by capitalism, we need all need to take an interest in issues of health care and the prevention of illness.

These are few examples of BF discussions of health issues:

The first is an article from Big Flame Journal no2 Winter 1975-76: Hospitals: our health is not for sale.

This sets out to examine the reasons why hospital workers had become more militant, with many quotes from such workers. Events of the spring 1973 are mentioned in detail. The article sees the crisis in the NHS as part of a general crisis, and maintains the workers and patients should not have to pay for it.

The second is a document form the 1976 conference: London Hospitals Report.

The work of a BF base group at a London hospital is described. Events at the hospital are placed in the context of the restructuring of capital and developments at the level of the Area Health Authority. There is a discussion of why the base group was formed. The process of how it changed from a group of external militants to one person working inside the hospital is mentioned, but not explained. The report concludes with proposals of actions Big Flame could undertake in relation to hospital struggles.

Finally, some linked articles form Revolutionary Socialism no4 Winter 1979-80: Health.

The overall theme is alternative forms of health care. The “Introduction” highlights themes from the two articles, and argued for the need to combine fighting against the cuts with the struggle for a different kind of health service. “Popular Health” consists of an interview with a doctor and a community health worker from a health group in South East London. They talk about the things they have been able to achieve, and the potential impact of threatened cuts. “Health Care in China” is an assessment based on a visit to China in 1978. It describes what was in many ways a different approach from that adopted in the west, and concludes that whilst things were far from perfect, there had been a lot of progress.

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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REVOLUTIONARY MARXIST CURRENT [RMC] (Groups which joined Big Flame no 1)

Posted by archivearchie on November 19, 2009

This post is the first in a mini-series about other political organisations which decided to join Big Flame.

The Revolutionary Marxist Current (RMC) joined Big Flame in 1977. Its origins were in the Trotskyist movement. Specifically the International Marxist Group (IMG). When members of the RMC began a period of joint work with BF in July 1977 a couple of joint Internal Bulletins were produced. One of these contained a brief history of the RMC written by members. Here it is: About the Revolutionary Marxist Current.

In the IMG

In May 1972 there was a fusion conference between the IMG and a separate youth movement it had established, the Spartacus League. At this conference some key figures from the IMG’s leadership over the previous period (e.g. Pat Jordan, Bob Purdie) were replaced by others. Several of these were originally part of the IMG’s Oxford branch, and had written a historically important document proposing a modified course two years previously. Two of them – John Ross and Bob Pennington were to be key members of the leadership of the IMG and its successor the Socialist League (SL) for many years to come.

I find it difficult to get a handle on the different political positions in 1972. In part because what happened was not an open tendency battle like the many which IMG/SL members would engage in over the coming years. Documents tended not to explicitly criticised those of other writers, and the positions emerged more in the form of nuances. The differences appear to be these: the new leaders wanted a re-orientated towards the working class, an end to eclectic leaping about from issue to issue and a proliferation of front organisations, and to cease going overboard with abstract calls to action issued to the working class (i.e. grandiose plans which were impossible to achieve, whose purpose was usually to outbid the lines of other groups).

The new leadership did not stay together long. By the IMG’s Easter conference in April 1973 there were six different grouping arguing different lines, two of them formed by sections of the new leadership who had broken away. By the end of 1973 many well known figures who had been part of the new leadership were in opposition (e.g. Tariq Ali, Peter Gowan, Robin Blackburn).

Another tendency, which didn’t contain such well known figures, was called the Left Opposition Tendency (LOT). The appeal for a tendency was issued in February 1973 by a former member of the Oxford Group, who had since become a member of the IMG Political Committee and the Manchester Organiser (and later to join Big Flame). A key criticism of the new leadership was that it had now started issuing abstract calls to action to the working class, in particular repeatedly calling for a general strike to bring down the Tory government, with little consideration of the realities of the situation. For other LOT criticisms of the IMG see “About the Revolutionary Marxist Current”.

At the IMG Easter Conference the LOT position came third out of six with 13.4% of the delegate votes (behind both the leadership, who retained control, and the other breakaway group from it). At an aggregate over a weekend at the end of June/beginning of July 1973 LOT decided to dissolve. Thus it had no presence at the next IMG conference in December 1973.

During the course of 1974, there were multiple resignations from the IMG. Many were by former LOT supporters, although others who supported LOT stayed on and became members of different opposition tendencies in the future.

The Manchester Organiser mentioned above (by now in London and running the IMG bookshop) resigned in March 1974, saying in his resignation letter that “The IMG’s political line is comical, its internal education abysmal, and its regime contemptible”. Other followed. The IMG November Internal Bulletin contained resignation letters from Manchester members, the December one, letters from Liverpool and Bolton members.

As the RMC

Some (but not all) of the former LOT supporters came together to form the RMC. Its first Internal Discussion, with a draft constitution came out in April 1975. Between July 1975 and December 1976/January 1977 a newspaper the Spectre was published, with 16 issues in total. The “Where We Stand” statement in the paper said the following about the group’s politics: “These struggles can only be successful under the leadership of parties and of an International based on the ideas develop by Marx, Lenin and Trotsky, and we intend to play a part in the fight for such a party and such an International”. Areas in which members were particularly active were Irish solidarity, Anti-Fascism and the women’s struggles.

One of the RMC’s priorities was regroupment. To this end it held discussions in:

–                Late 1974 to early 1975 with Workers Fight – This group founded in 1966 is now known as the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty.

–                Spring to Summer 1976 with Marxist Workers Group – Formed by a split from the Bolton branch of Workers Fight in 1975. Subsequently joined the IMG.

“About the Revolutionary Marxist Current” discusses the political differences which caused these regroupment discussions to fail.

The majority of the RMC saw its regular paper as vital to its impact on the left and wider working class audience, and as playing a key role in keeping the group together. However, the paper became a bigger and bigger burden on the small organisation. The RMC decided at the end of 1976 to accept the view, formerly held by a minority of its members, to replace the paper by a quarterly journal. However, this didn’t happen.

The RMC had failed to achieve a growth in membership. When Big Flame launched the Project for a New Revolutionary organisation in 1976/77 (see Episode 11 in the Big Flame History series), the RMC responded. In June 1977 the two organisations agree to fuse for a 2 to 3 month trail period of joint work. The actual fusion seems to have taken a bit longer, happening around December 1977.


Around a dozen RMC members joined Big Flame. There were groupings in Liverpool and London with individual members in such places as Birmingham, Brighton and Nottingham.

Within BF ex-RMC members developed away from Trotskyism. They also identified with one of the two main political currents in the organisation, joining Tendency One (see Episode 22), and later, when this split, the Emerald Street Tendency (see a future episode – see Episode 27).

The RMC had a significant impact on Big Flame. The constitution adopted by BF in 1978 was derived from the RMC one. At different times three former RMC members were part of the BF National Committee (NC). Ex-RMCers were active in a number of BF Commissions e.g. Irish, Anti-Racist Anti-Fascist and the International Committee. Some drifted away from BF, feeling frustrated by the level of organisation in BF and a lack of ability to focus its interventions (see for example a resignation letter from the NC in a March 1979 Discussion Bulletin which refers to NC meetings “hampered by old arguments and patterns of behaviour” and the “deeper political problems of BF”; and a resignation from the organisation by another person in the June-July 1982 Bulletin which talks of the “continuing decline of Big Flame as an interventionist organisation” and how it has “failed to achieve (or even seek) a national political profile in terms of presence on national political activities”).

Others stayed the course for a long time. In May 1984 Big Flame effectively ceased to be a national organisation, with only 17 people carrying on under the name (see another future episode – see Episode 30). Two of these 17 had been in the RMC in the previous decade.

Archive Archie

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EPISODES IN BIG FLAME HISTORY: No 22. 1979-80 Debate – Transitional Politics and Alternative Plans

Posted by archivearchie on November 16, 2009

80ConfMot-p1Episode 5 and Episode 11 of this series covered key debates at Big Flame conferences between 1975 and 1978. This post takes the story forward from 1979 to 1980.

In Episode 11 I wrote that a simplified version of the history of Big Flame “can be seen as an ongoing debate with members pulling in two directions – those striving to uphold Big Flame’s traditional political positions and those who felt these needed some form of revision”. Unfortunately, it is difficult to come up with simple and accurate labels for the currents. The first one (who I will here call the “defenders”) was much less active at Big Flame Conferences during this period, compared to the previous one or the one which followed. The second (the “revisers”) did aim to make an major impact at Conferences during these years.



The November 1979 Conference was unique in the history of Big Flame in that the only general perspectives motion came from the National Committee (NC) as a whole, rather than one or more of the different currents.

Here is the motion: Motion on Perspectives and Priorities. It argued that strategic goal was to break the cycle of Tory and Labour governments pursuing anti-working class policies. “We must resist the drift on the Left to channelling struggles through the Labour Party and placing demands on them and the Labour Left which reinforce illusions”. The goal is to build the socialist opposition in the working class. Although BF was small, it has a key political role to play.

Also on the Conference agenda was a document from some of the “revisers”. Here is the document: Theses on Reformism. This defined reformism as those who didn’t base themselves on class struggle or seek to destroy the capitalist state, and includes the parties of the old Third International which had adopted Euro-Communism. Various approaches to reformism are examined such as the orthodox Trotskyist one, with the poles of entryism and exposure. They are criticised for failing to see reformism as a “multi-levelled phenomenon” which “reproduces itself in everyday life”. The authors argue that a perspective on reformism is necessary to “aid our political work”.

The Theses were not voted on. A procedural motion was passed welcoming them as a “useful contribution” and calling on the NC to organise a detailed discussion.


The “revisers” were unhappy with the outcome of the conference, principally because of what they saw as a kicking into the long grass of the “Theses on Reformism”, and the passing of a motion on “Socialist Alternatives”. This gave a very qualified welcome to alternative plans such as that of the Lucas Aerospace Combine Committee. It stated that there were ”no socialist alternatives to running capitalism” and “nothing inherently anti-capitalist” about alternative plans. Although, according to the motion, they could be supported if they helped fight closures and provided propaganda for socialism.

Tendencies in BF were formalised for the first time in the constitution passed at the 1978 conference. The idea of setting one up had first been floated with the publication of the documents “Has Big Flame got a Future?” in October 1978 and “Seizing the Power” in January 1979. It wasn’t pursued. Now in March 1980 an Appeal to establish a tendency was published, followed by a Statement, taking the name Tendency One, in the Discussion Bulletin of July 1980. In the Appeal a tendency was described as a group of people within an organisation with common positions on specific aspects of an organisation’s politics, and work openly to develop it further.

Here is the Statement: Statement of the Political Basis for the Formation of a Tendency In Big Flame. The political basis of the tendency is defined in terms of three points: (a) transitional politics (linking short term demands to the long term struggle for socialism); (b) revolutionary strategy on reformism (including favouring a Left Labour government as aiding the development of class struggle) and (c) central role of revolutionary organisation (against any moves towards federalism and for rebuilding BF’s interventionist capacity). The launching of the Tendency produced a hostile response from some in BF, in part because they felt that the creation of such a grouping was against the BF tradition.

The Big Flame Conference of December 1980 saw a debate between Tendency One, and a position argued by members of one local group North London, which does not fall neatly into the “revisers”/”defenders” dichotomy.

Here is the Tendency One document: Towards a Transitional Strategy: Prospects for Class Struggle. This includes a good analysis of Thatcherism (coming in only the second year of the Thatcher government), whilst continuing the arguments included in the Statement. It maintains that it is in favour of socialist alternatives, not in abstract, but as revolutionary interventions in class struggle. The Statement argues that the relationship between local struggles and the state at national and local level cannot be bypassed.

Here is an alternative position signed by some members of the North London group: A Contribution towards a General Direction for Big Flame. As subsequent events demonstrated, the signatories probably covered a range of different positions, rather than a fully united one. The document talks of a “reassessment” of BF’s politics, but the document is better described as a consolidation of the past. It aims to emphasise some positions formally supported, but not taken seriously enough in the past. The document describes itself as a limited “ungrand” conception of political strategy and seeks an integration of socialism and feminism. It sees much of the talk of socialist alternatives as putting a lot of different ideas in one bag, and advocates them as a form of organising rather than abstract programmic exercises.

One of the signatories of the North London position wrote a document of his own in response to those of the Tendency: Comments on the Tendency Motions and Documents. The Tendency are criticised for the language used to dismiss previous BF positions as “stale, unimaginative … negative … conservative”, and for adding feminism on to the end of motions rather than integrating it within them. Its discussion of socialist alternatives is said to remain abstract, rather than looking at specific plans. The approach to reformism is felt to be too close to the Trotskyist one, with the insight that reformism is reproduced in everyday life never developed.

Supporters of Tendency One and North London argued that their positions were incompatible, and that the Conference should vote for only one of them. This wasn’t accepted by those present and the motions from both were passed overwhelmingly.

The two motions took are more sympathetic approach to alternative plans than the previous year’s one. Tendency One said: “we fight for counter planning from below and workers’ plans, the design and production of socially useful goods, and production for use value”. According to North London (as amended): “Big Flame will call for and support workers’ plans in workplaces where their development seem appropriate and useful. … We also recognise that workers’ plans, by themselves, cannot constitute a general strategy for workplace struggles, and the form and content of counter planning will vary according to the needs of the situation”.

As mentioned above, the “defenders” current didn’t submit a general perspective document or motion in these years. In the Discussion Bulletin February 1981, one of the current’s supporters wrote about the 1980 Conference. He criticised both motions on the grounds they were vague, written in difficult language, and unclear what they meant in practical terms. This perspective was probably shared by others from this current.

The Reformism and Transitional Politics discussions led on to another one about the Labour Party (see a future episode in this series – see Episode 27).

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 November 9, 2009

SSshotFor many former members the annual Summer Schools are one of the most fondly remembered aspects of being in Big Flame were . In “Coming Down to Earth”, an article in Revolutionary Socialism which was part of the “Daily Life” theme, the author wrote: “At our Summer Schools, when many of us live together for a week. It is remarkable how thoroughly we try and act on our ideals of open, supportive, and non-sexist relationships” (article available via a link in Episode 18).  The Summer Schools were generally felt to be one of more successful examples of collective childcare (and probably something the present government has rendered illegal with the requirement for all those providing childcare to be registered). It should also be acknowledged that they resembled life in the real world with their share of bust ups.

A very good introduction to the Big Flame Summer Schools can be found in an article in the February 1981 Discussion Bulletin: A Short History of Big Flame Summer Schools (Warts and All).

Using this article, and another “Summer School Feedback 1980” from the August 1980 Discussion Bulletin, the following picture of the annual event emerges:

–                The first one was in 1977. Most lasted a week. The intention was to combine education with comradeship. The venue moved around, with Beechwood House near Leeds the most common one.

–                Some years had a theme for the educational sessions, other not. Sometimes “big name” speakers were invited. Other times they were “home grown”. There was a combination of large plenary sessions and small workshops.

–                Tasks were shared, the exact arrangements changing from year to year. The 1980 approach was to assign people into groups for the week, ensuring a balance of gender and their local group. Each day they had a task: crèche, cleaning, washing up, bar tendering, and baby sitting. The groups also provide the basis of educational workshop discussions, and a support group, especially for people new to Big Flame.

–                Entertainment, apart from the bar, included films, sing songs and sometimes an outing away from the venue.

–                Controversial flash points included the choice of films. “Themroc” and “Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment” were strongly criticised for sexism, with walkouts. There was never agreement on the plenary/workshop split, with some unhappy with having the former, and others feeling speakers went on too long.


The Big Flame paper carried reports on many of the Summer Schools. Often a new woman member or sympathiser was commissioned to write it (sometimes with additional comments by children). Here are the relevant articles:

Big Flame on Sea: Paper September 1978.

On Our Hols: Paper September 1979.

Summer Support: Paper November 1979 (letter).

“Its Magic” with Big Eric: Paper September 1980.

A Sado-Masochist Bonanza?: Paper October 1981.

A Working Class Woman’s View: Paper November 1981.

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 November 2, 2009

Children-p1As the 1970s developed more and more members of Big Flame became parents and  the organisation’s interest in children as a political issue increased. In May 1980 BF held a Day School for its members on the topic of “Children and Socialism”. This was an opportunity to bring into the open the dilemmas and contradictions they felt. Much of the Discussion Bulletin for that month was given over to articles on this theme. Here are two of the articles:

Children and Socialism: Discussion Bulletin May 1980 and Children and Socialism (1981). 

Draws on an experience of collective childcare involving 6 adults and 3 children in two homes. Talks about supporting members of BF with children, noting some improvements in childcare within the organisation. Also considers the issue of passing politics on to children – letting them learn how politics is part of everyday life, that socialist politics can be fun, and that children must be given a chance to define what they do.

Socialism and Childcare: Discussion Bulletin May 1980 and Children and Socialism (1981).

Discusses the pressures on isolated mothers with very young children, the factors crucial to the job of bringing up children, and the how the medical profession controls women (induced childbirth, breast feeding) and how schools exclude them from involvement with the children (in relation to the last two issues there may have been some improvements over the last 30 years).

Other articles in the Bulletin were “Notes on Being a Red Teacher” (included in the post on Education see Episode 13), a guide to organising a crèche and one on Kinderhaus, a childcare facility in Hamburg.

The Day School involved workshops on the topics Women’s and Children’s Oppression; Possessiveness and Jealousy; Racism and Children; and Class Differences in the way we deal with Children. In 1981, about a year after the Day School, a pamphlet entitled Children and Socialism was issued. It included the previous Bulletin articles, the workshop notes (where available), a talk given in a general session and notes for the Opening Plenary session. Here are the Plenary notes:

Children and Socialism: Opening Plenary Session: Children and Socialism (1981). 

Covers a range of issues such as the difficulties of bringing up children as socialists; non-parents and kids; state nurseries and the interaction between revolutionary politics and bringing up children (the lack of sympathy from many on the left to the problems, resentment from children with parents constantly out at meetings).

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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