Big Flame

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Archive for December, 2009

EPISODES IN BIG FLAME HISTORY: No 28. The Local State

Posted by archivearchie on December 28, 2009

Over the years Big Flame members were involved in many struggles  for better local government services, or to defend those already provided from cuts in expenditure. A major influence in the late 70s/80s on the left’s perspective on local government and community struggles came from some books published around that time (see 1960s And 70s British Left Libertarianism: A Reading List) for some of the most significant).

In and Against the State

Cynthia Cockburn’s The Local State: Management of Cities and People published by Pluto in 1977 was one of the first to appear. However, probably the most influential was In and Against the State by the London Edinburgh Weekend Return Group. This was self published in 1979, then reissued by Pluto Press the next year. The name is derived from the fact that most of the authors lived in London or Edinburgh, and travelled by rail to one or the other of these cities to work on the publication. Many Left discussions of the state, both at the time and since, make references to the book. However, I sometimes wonder if the commentators have read further than the title. The book is presented as if it was a call to get involved with the state, including standing for elections. Rather the book is about the difficulties of struggling on the terrain of something whose every aspect reflects capitalist social relations. It does recognise that for some on the left this is their form of employment (indeed most of the authors were academics), so they need to find some way of challenging those social relations.

Two reviews from within Big Flame did recognise what the book was actually about. The newspaper for February 1980 included a review of In and Against the State: Working for the State . Describing the book as “well worth a read”, the review focuses on its analysis of the way the state perpetuates capitalist social relations between people and how difficult it is to organise within it. The book also provides “good and useful examples” of struggles which show what socialist forms of organising might be.

The journal Revolutionary Socialism also reviewed the book (along with two other publications) in as “Struggling Against the State: Three New Contributions” in its Winter 1980-81 issue. The book is said to provide a “valuable understanding” of the nature of the capitalist state and recent developments in Britain. This review also highlights the book’s focus of the way the state reproduces social relations. As important as what the state does (for example delivering welfare services) is how it does it (confirming the regulation and control over people’s lives). Like the other review, this one notes the books emphasis on struggles which embody prefigurative politics.

Big Flame Discussions of the Local State

The Local State and the Public Sector: Discussion Bulletin April 1981. This article is a briefing on developments in local government. It looks back on five years of cuts to capital expenditure and in Rate Support Grant settlements, and forward to planned Tory legislation which will cap the budgets of individual authorities. It mentions many anti-cuts struggles that were underway at the time, and it sceptical of those campaigns led by Councils. They are seen as having undermined their position with previous rate rises and unlikely at the end of the day to defy the government. The task is to “rescue the kernel of communism that lies within the concept of services and public works run for use rather than profit”. There is a fleeting reference to In and Against the State, seeing as having a major weakness in its neglect of working inside trade unions.

In 1981 a minority of Big Flame left the organisation and joined the Labour Party (see Episode 27). This included many of those BF members who saw the greatest potential in intervening in the local state. One those who left, a supporter of the “Group of Nine” wrote in the Discussion Bulletin in October 1981: “The political approach I am trying to describe means that socialist organising has to ‘in and against the state’.” This was a passing remark. The author didn’t go into any detail of how the “socialist reforms” he desired might be achieved, or the dangers inherent in following this path.

Over the next few years those who remained BF members wrote a number of articles very sceptical of initiatives originating from left Labour Councils.

Working in the Welfare State: Discussion Bulletin June-July 1982. Written from the perspective of someone working in the Housing Department for Hackney Council in London. At the time the newly elected left Labour Council was seeking to decentralised services. The author believes that management hierarchy stifles the energy and enthusiasm of staff, and that Labour Councils carry out cuts in a “more insidious and subtle manner” than the Tories. He believes that the focus on decentralisation was “a way of avoiding problems”, but also suggests that the trade union response of seeing it as an opportunity for more jobs and better grading wasn’t adequate either. The author wonders about the way to applying BF’s politics of “autonomy”, and suggests a demand for a reduction in the number and tiers of management.

Hackney Goes local … Or Decentralisation for Beginners: Discussion Bulletin January 1983. This consists of notes of a discussion between BF members about the Hackney experience. The Council see decentralisation as something to win support against cuts. Instead it is more likely to produce frustration. People are likely to be co-opted and the power of trade unions fragmented. If BF is to get involved it has to be “in a way that encourages joint action to go further than the LP would like” and raise real issues of control over power and resources.

Decentralisation: Labour’s Conjuring Trick: Paper April-May 1983. This author who lived in Haringey discusses developments across London. She believes that they key issue is whether decentralisation “will increase local awareness or involvement, or just co-opt activists”. It was not being introduced because people had asked for it, and the money might be better spent elsewhere.

The Local State: Information Bulletin 1 August 1983. The final article discussed was written by a community activist in Southwark in South London where the new left has also taken over the Council. A year on and there has been “little change” as major problems have not been “solved”. The new left lacks “any understanding of the fact for most people their experience of the so-called services provided are extremely alienating and oppressive” or “any real relationship” with progressive movements. The writer does accept that an alliance with the Labour left is “necessary” but this has to be one in which Big Flame fights for the right of people to organise autonomously.

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 27. 1981 Debate – The Labour Party and the Alternatives

Posted by archivearchie on December 21, 2009

A number of episodes in this series have focussed on the key debates at Big Flame conferences between 1975 and 1980 (see Episode 5, Episode 11 and Episode 22). The main December 1981 Conference debate was about joining the Labour Party.

Today Labour Party membership isn’t seen as a credible option by most of the left. Back in 1981 the situation was different. The Labour left seemed to be gaining ground, with Tony Benn narrowly losing a battle for the Deputy Leadership of party. Many others had recently joined the Labour Party. Not just various Trotskyist groups pursuing an entryist tactic, but substantial numbers of the independent left including many ex-members of the IMG (International Marxist Group) and IS/SWP (International Socialists/Socialist Workers Party). This trend across the left struck no chord amongst the Big Flame membership before 1981. There was little dissent from the view was that revolutionaries should take no interest in attempts to transform the Labour Party, and placing any hopes in the Labour left could only lead to disillusionment.

Past Positions on the Labour Party

Only a few years before Big Flame had been unable to agree a position on whether or not to call for a Labour vote. Back in 1974 Merseyside BF had supported voting Labour on the grounds it was the weaker enemy. By May 1978 BF was a national organisation, and its Conference took place with a General Election expected soon. A vote Labour “but build the class struggle against Labour policies” position was lost 43-44. A “there are no tactical advantages” in voting Labour position also lost 37-45. The issue went to a ballot of the BF membership later on in the year. This agreed that unless revolutionaries were standing the organisation’s perspective should be “the working class will have to fight any government” and “vote Labour to keep the Tories out”.

This article in the Discussion Bulletin of April 1981 brought together all the previous positions adopted by Big Flame in relation to the Labour Party. Not just the issue of voting Labour, but also reformism in general, past Labour governments, the Labour left, the Alternative Economic Strategy (AES) and campaigns to democratise the Labour Party: Big Flame and the Labour Party.

The Different Positions

During 1981 four distinct currents emerged in Big Flame. Two became formal tendencies and adopted a name: “Facing the Challenge” and “Emerald Street”. Two didn’t, so I have had to choose names for them: the “Group of Nine” (a phrase used by one of its better known members in a private letter) and the “North London four” (they were a minority of this local group).

This is how the different positions evolved. First, there was a split in Tendency One (the latest incarnation of the current in BF which sought to revise its traditional politics. For a discussion of this tendency see Episode 22  of this series). Differences emerged in the run up to the December 1980 Conference. Amendments to the Tendency’s motion which would have made the criticism of the AES much stronger were rejected. Thereafter the Tendency ceased to function as a group. The majority, who I will call the “Group of Nine”, moved towards a position of support for Labour Party membership. This position was first set out in a document for a Day School on the Labour Party in June 1981 which was included in the May 1981 Discussion Bulletin.

Second, a BF member dissatisfied with the 1980 Conference drafted a document on the 24th December 1980 entitled “Facing the Challenge of the ‘80s” to begin the process of thinking ahead to the next Conference. He wanted the organisation to focus on rebuilding working class power and to discuss restarting base groups. In the course of 1981 a tendency was formed based on a restatement of “working class autonomy” and “mass politics” in the changed conditions of the 1980s. Documents were published in various Discussion Bulletins throughout 1981. The name of the first (and subsequent) documents was adopted as the name of the tendency. This tendency constituted a re-emergence in BF debates of the current which aimed to defend traditional BF politics, and was thus a successor to “Plan X” at the 1976 Conference (see Episode 11).

Third, in response to the positions being argued by the “Group of Nine” the “North London four”, who had previously presented a perspectives document to the 1980 Conference as part of a larger “North London group” (also see Episode 22), started to develop their own approach to the Labour Party as well as more general issues, starting with a document for the June 1981 day school (reprinted in the July Discussion Bulletin).

Finally, after an initial discussion at the Summer School in August 1981, another tendency was established at a meeting the next month (taking the name of the venue of this meeting – “Emerald Street”). In the words of the invitation the tendency wanted to adopt “a middle way between accommodating to left reformism and ultra leftism”. It included both members of the former Tendency One, and others who had not been part of it. The first position statements from this tendency appeared just before the conference in the November Discussion Bulletin (although individual supporters had made previous contributions to the debate).

I now want to examine each of the four positions in more detail.

Group of Nine

As mentioned above, the first document from members of the “Group of Nine” was included in the May 1981 Discussion Bulletin: Big Flame and the Labour Party: A New Political Direction?

The authors argued that the key question was not Labour Party (LP), but a long term political direction. BF would be unable to make its politics effective unless it merged into a larger force. The LP had become an attractive option for increasing numbers of people, and was now the place to find the largest number of people who shared BF’s conception of politics. It was the place to build a new revolutionary socialist tendency “at the present time”, which was distinguished from arguing for permanent work in the LP, or against independent revolutionary organisation.

Another document by “Group of Nine” supporter argued that they have no illusions about the labour Party, which “is not, and never will be the agent of socialist transformation in this country”. Additionally, “it is not a matter of some of us asking to be ‘allowed’ to join the LP. It is a matter of the whole organisation, LP members or not, relating keenly to that work, supporting it” (October 1981 Discussion Bulletin).

In one more document the authors argue that there is a prospect, at least in some parts of the country, of “considerable recruitment” to BF within the LP. A best outside the LP BF might double in size to 300. Even with 600 members, it would still be “a pimple” (October 1981 Discussion Bulletin). No figures are given for (the presumably much larger) forces which might be brought together inside the LP. Aside from general references to a “transitional strategy of reforms” to put socialism on the agenda, none of the documents say much about what people would do once inside the LP.

North London four

The two documents produced by this grouping were: For a New Relationship with the Labour Party (July 1981 Discussion Bulletin) and A Perspective for Big Flame in the 80’s (September 1981 Discussion Bulletin).

The “North London four” argued that joining or not joining the Labour Party was the wrong starting point and subsidiary element of an overall strategy. They criticised the “Group of Nine” for being too soft on the AES, and overestimating the likely level of support for BF politics within the LP (disputing the suggestion of the potential for forming something larger than the Project or Socialist Unity). Their starting point was the recession and the way it was being used to restructure the working class (Andrew Friend and Andy Metcalf’s book Slump City was a key influence). BF should focus of activities which created bridges and healed divisions across the working class. LP activity was one of a number of forums where this might be attempted.

The decision to join the LP or not was a tactical question at any particular time. The first document talked about how a left reformist government might open up political space outside it. The second criticises it for placing too much emphasis on something that might not happen. Its focus is on the immediate future in Constituency parties and Labour Councils. Whether or not LP membership would be of value would depend on the local situation. The authors stressed the dangers of LP membership – making adaptions, too much time devoted to internal struggles, etc. They expected that only a minority of BF might join the LP but, similar to the “Group of Nine”, it was important that a “substantial majority” of BF believed that those who did were making “a valid contribution to the class struggle”.

Facing the Challenge

There was an article by the initiator of “Facing the Challenge of the ‘80s” tendency in the May 1981 Discussion Bulletin. He started from the position that the 1980s were very different from the late 1960s (when a lot of the ideas which influence BF originated). What was needed was a “radical rethink of the working class autonomy tendency”. This would create a “more politically decisive BF” which would be “a rich meeting place for mass organisers”.

The final, and clearest, statement of the perspective of this tendency was in Facing the Challenge of the 80s (October 1981 Discussion Bulletin). The authors argued that BF needed to rebuild “in a modest fashion” mass work both theoretically and in practice. It should get closer to “our tendency” (as with Plan X in 1976, groups were listed as containing people who shared BF’s politics. This time the Conference of Socialist Economists, community and trade union resource centres). The fault for the lack of influence of this politics can be “laid at the door of BF”. Thus, mass politics has been “virtually chucked away”, the organisation’s distinctiveness has been lost by “neglecting our theoretical heritage”, “we haven’t sufficiently aided the building of a mass independent working class organisation” by having “having an unclear idea of what the role of BF is”.

None of the “Facing the Challenge” documents had much to say about what rethinking the “politics of working class autonomy” for the 1980s actually meant. The Conference motion from the tendency called for a six month period of “major debate” after which BF would decide on “a clear strategy” which would then be publicised in a series of events and conferences. There is room to work with LP members on particular issues but the position of “having any members in the Labour Party” was rejected.

Emerald Street

The two documents produced by this tendency were: Discussion Document on Big Flame’s Perspectives and Notes about Reformism (both in the November 1981 Discussion Bulletin).

The authors argue that over the previous 2½ years the Tories had decisively affected the dynamics of class struggle, whilst the LP had moved away from non-class modernising highly technocratic politics to an earlier traditional rhetoric of socialism. In turn much of the left had adapted to left reformism. Criticism was directed not at reforms in themselves, but reformism which always disorientated and demoralises the working class. Because of this understanding of reformism, the relationship of the LP to the state and the weakness of revolutionaries relative to left reformism, LP membership as a strategy for BF was rejected.

At the same time “Emerald Street” believed that the wishes of “Facing the Challenge” to launch a new project was “wildly over-optimistic”. The alternative strategy can be summed up (and these are my words, not theirs) as consolidation for long term survival. It was “vital to strengthen BF” by such measures as more rigorous application of membership norms, more attention to political education, and a better expression of BF politics in the paper and other publications.

The Conference

Immediately prior to the Conference the “Group of Nine” and the “North London four” dropped their separate motions and produced a combined motion: Motion 3 – Big Flame’s Strategy (defeated). The composite owes more to the latter’s position than the former, with LP membership occupying only one page of six (with objectives spelt out and problems acknowledged). Nevertheless, the “North London four” were aware that the new motion disguised significant differences. They agreed to a composite through their feelings of isolation because of the lack of support for their position in BF.

A transferable vote system was used to ensure a clear outcome. The initial result of the vote was: Emerald Street 42%, Combined LP position 29% and Facing the Challenge 27%. With votes transferred, this became: Emerald Street 53% and Combined LP position 29%. Finally on a straight yes/no vote for the Emerald Street position the figures were 65% yes and 19% no.

After the Conference

Following the conference some (but not all) of those who voted for the combined position on the Labour Party left Big Flame. My estimate is that no more than about 20% of the organisation’s 125 members left. The Conference alliance between the two pro-Labour Party membership groupings came to end, as those who left BF decided not to form a new grouping and went their separate ways.

The original “North London four” position can be seen as an attempt to keep BF together. As were a set of amendments from another BF member to their withdrawn motion – after the compositing these were themselves withdrawn. Their net result of the amendments would have been to allow some members to go off and do their thing in relation to the Labour Party, whilst distancing the organisation from it.

However, the differences were too great for this sort of compromise. As an Emerald Street supporter argued a “half in half out” position would probably have structurally reinforced the divisions in the organisation and created serious problems for the paper and other public pronouncements (Discussion Bulletin May 1981). The “Group of Nine” and “Facing the Challenge” were in complete agreement that BF was drifting and lacked a sense of direction. That it could no longer be “all things to all people” or “muddle on and hope for the best”. Both were extremely hostile to each others position (This refers to what was said in the written documents. The debate at the conference was conducted in a comradely manner). Probably the only solution was to go off along separate paths.

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 26. Iran and Afghanistan

Posted by archivearchie on December 17, 2009

A major issue for the left today is its response to radical Islam. Therefore, I thought it might be interesting to take a look at the approach Big Flame took to developments during its time. I have been able to find articles in the Big Flame newspaper which discussed events in Iran and Afghanistan, although many of the articles where written by one person and there were no articles in Revolutionary Socialism or the Discussion Bulletin.

Its worth recapping what happened in the two countries during the period of BF’s life.

Iran: The Iranian Revolution began in January 1978, leading to the Shah’s flight in January 1979. Khomeini returned to Iran from exile in February. Banisadr was President from January 1980 until impeached in June 1981. Iraq had invaded Iran in September 1980, leading to a war which continued for eight years. From early on the repression of the Mojahedin and leftist groups began, with many killed or arrested. In June 1981 the Mojahedin went underground to engage in a military struggle.

Afghanistan: In May 1978 the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) overthrew the regime of Mohammad Daoud. The Soviet Union intervened militarily in Afghanistan in December 1979 to support one of the PDPA factions – Parcham. A war between Soviet and government troops and the CIA-funded Mujahideen continued throughout the 1980s.

Iran

Iran 1979: Can Popular Power win?: Paper February 1979. Written just after the departure of the Shah. Sees both progressive and reactionary elements amongst the forces opposed to the Shah. The left is trying to develop workers’ councils, but is “very weak” and “can only play a marginal role at present”. It is already being physically attacked by religious militants.

Khomeiny’s two front war: Paper December 1979. The Khomeini regime “does not know what it is doing” and the country is in a “state of semi anarchy”. There has been a massacre of Kurds and leftists are under threat of execution.

Iran: the Reality is much more Complex: Paper May 1980. Argues that there is a need to look beyond the general picture of reaction. There is a remarkable level of politicisation amongst ordinary people. There are anti-government protests, with more opportunities for the opposition than under the Shah. The potential for a new wave of repression is “very real”.

Gulf War: Paper October 1980. Written immediately after the Iraqi invasion. Saddam Hussein’s regime is “power hungry” with ambitions to dominate the region.

Clerical Fascism: Paper July-August 1981. A struggle to succeed Khomeini is predicated. Following the ousting of Banisadr, a crackdown on the left has begun. A “new fascism” of the Ismalic Guards has come to the fore, and Islamic laws introduced.

Iran: what to make of the Mojahedin?: Paper April-May 1983. The Mojahedin is the largest organisation fighting Khomeini in Iran. Its positions are examined. It is found to present a socialist face in the west, and a different one when recruiting in Iran. The Mojahedin has formed the National Council of Resistance with Banisadr, which has a very moderate programme. One of the main criticisms the author makes of the Mojahedin is its view of women “trapped very much within reactionary Islamic anti-feminist dogma”.

Some other left groups in Britain took a totally uncritical view of the Iranian revolution, before shifting to a totally negative position. Big Flame tired to analyse the contradictions and struggles which were underway.

Afghanistan

Soviet Troops out of Afghanistan!: Paper March 1980. A statement agreed by the Big Flame National Committee condemned the “Soviet invasion” and called for the withdrawal of its troops. It sated “we do not believe socialism can be imposed by force, from above”. The army had not been sent to Afghanistan to benefit the people of the country, or to defend a popular progressive movement, but to protect the Soviet Union’s regional interests. The statement did acknowledge that a defeat for the troops would be “a victory for western imperialism”.

Big Flame as either a paper or an organisation was not around in 1988-89 to see the withdrawal of Soviet troops, or to comment on what happened after that.

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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OPINIONS ABOUT BIG FLAME no 3 part 2: JOHN WALLER

Posted by archivearchie on December 14, 2009

This is a follow up to an earlier post: Opinions about Big Flame no 3: John Waller.

John Waller was an active member of Big Flame in Nottingham and nationally from 1977 to 1981. When Big Flame started to disintegrate in 1982 he drifted away from the organization to be involved in community politics and then solidarity with the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. Since the early 90s his political practice has been dominated by solidarity work with the Cuban revolution. For many years this was as a part of the national leadership of the British Cuba Solidarity Campaign. This politically led him to the heartland of the empire and he now pursues the same ends from his US home.

John writes:

What does Big Flame’s theory and practice have to offer the future?

Three months ago I wrote a short opinion piece for this website to stimulate debate about what of Big Flame’s theory and practice was still relevant and important today. The response was unfortunately minimal. SO I’ve tried to take the issue one step further by enlarging on what I wrote and drawing my own conclusions. The expanded piece appears below. One person cannot possibly do justice to this topic. What I offer below is I hope the beginning of a conversation with more ex-members of Big Flame.

Introduction

Big Flame (BF) completely failed to achieve its goal of socialist revolution in England/Britain. The entire revolutionary left in the advanced capitalist world failed (and is failing) equally. Nowhere has there been anything approaching a rerun of Russia’s October 1917 revolution to validate the wider applicability of the Leninist model of revolution. Revolutions that were a mix of socialism and national liberation did occur in a number of economically poor countries but their primary route was via prolonged (more or less) guerrilla struggle. Of these successful overthrows of capitalist state power only Cuba continues to espouse a socialist project. Meanwhile advances in military technology and communication, and in the power of the modern state, combined with the loss of the military and financial support that once the Soviet Union, or sometimes China, provided, make the guerrilla road to revolution increasingly unlikely.   

Soviet style communism, or state collectivism as Big Flame had started to call it, has gone – replaced in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe by outright and often brutal capitalism, and in Asia by Chinese style capitalism under Communist Party leadership.  Meanwhile the goal of socialism via gradual reform has, in the last 30 years, virtually disappeared from the discourse of the main social democratic parties in most of the world. At best they aim for a kinder caring capitalism, at worst they have become barely indistinguishable from the right in competing to manage the capitalist economy and the, usually declining, public services.

Yet ‘history has not ended’ in a bright shining capitalist future.  We see the economic turmoil of the last year, global warming and rampant environmental degradation, the Middle East turned into a zone of war and occupation, while the gap between rich and poor grows inexorably wider both between and within countries.  We are living under a world order that is economically and environmentally unsustainable.

“A better world is possible” says a new generation of activists, but so is a worse one, and the Bush regime was the harbinger of what that world would look like. For the peoples of Iraq and Afghanistan they already know what the new world order could mean, and a year into the Obama administration, the language is softer than Bush, the politics smarter, but the policies have barely changed.  For now, in the advanced centres of capitalism, life is still pretty comfortable for many, but the slow dismantling of the post second world war welfare state is underway and in Britain and some other countries the developing space for working class revolt is being occupied by fascist or neo-fascist parties.

The only continent that has partially bucked the trend is Latin America.  Back in 1981 the continent was dominated by military dictatorships. They were replaced by right wing civilian governments implementing neo-liberal economic policies devised in Washington. The repression and impoverishment lead to the growth of powerful urban and rural social movements, based largely in the community rather than the workplace. These movements were/are inspired by socialist ideas in the broadest sense, and also by the continuing example of the Cuban revolution. Across much of Latin America the neo-liberal regimes have been brought down by mass struggle and/or voted out. Their replacement has been by what some commentators call a ‘pink tide’ – governments that domestically are socially reforming, and externally espouse a mix of progressive nationalism and Latin American unity against the empire to the north. The nature of the tide varies from country to country, but at its most radical end we have Venezuela and Hugo Chavez’ Bolivarian Revolution committed to trying to build a vaguely defined but definitely highly participatory ‘socialism for the 21st century’. 

Thirty years ago I contributed to an internal BF document called ‘Facing the Challenge of the Eighties’. Thirty years on, does BF politics (theory and practice) have anything to offer to the revolutionaries who are facing the challenges that the next decade will bring, wherever they are in the world. I believe it does, and this is my attempt at summarising what was, and is, worth taking from our past. It focuses therefore on the most positive elements of our history, though in the context of some assessment of the failings.

Historical Truth .v. Current Analysis

Perhaps the starting point is that unlike most of the left we didn’t seek to locate ourselves in a historical tradition – Leninist, Trotskyist, anarchist, Maoist etc. Rather we said that Marxism had to be updated to the world as it is now, and that any lessons about revolutionary strategy handed down from past ‘masters’ had to be resituated in the new context to see whether they still made sense.

Specifically we said that since Lenin’s day capital, the working class, and the relationship between them had changed dramatically. The working class was no longer dominated by skilled white heterosexual males in blue collar jobs. The new working class was skilled and unskilled, blue collar and white collar, male and female, white and black, gay and straight. And increasingly it was/is an international working class, spawned by capitalist production processes that span the globe. Capital also had moved on, not just in its global reach but in the way it structured society. Workers were now also consumers and their behaviour in both roles needed to be as compliant as possible, which meant that capital had to invade our lives not just in the factory or office, but in our schools, communities, homes and families.  Capital had also learnt the value of the State to both prepare the workforce, through healthcare and education, and to control it through laws and if necessary repression. Workers had also learnt the value of the welfare state as a way of getting their needs met, and public services and personal life had become a terrain of material and ideological struggle.

Drawing from the theoretical work of groups in Italy, we asserted that class struggle was the motor force of history and that within everyday struggles, in the workplace, community and personal life, could be found the ‘seeds of communism’ which it was the responsibility of an interventionist revolutionary organisation to draw out and generalize. This ran counter to the classic Leninist notion that particular struggles were solely economic or sectional and that revolutionary/communist demands had to be brought in from the outside. From this basis we followed the then new Italian Marxist thinking into asserting that what was needed was for the working class to struggle for demands that asserted its needs autonomous from capital – Workers Autonomy.

In applying this analysis in practice we made mistakes. We took what was happening in one sector of capitalism that we understood well, the mass production assembly line, and sought to apply that understanding universally. The more general concept of Workers Autonomy became partially conflated with a much narrower notion of the rejection of work, which was how production line workers were expressing their autonomy. We also drastically overestimated the potential for drawing out these seeds of communism, because daily life contains many seeds: reactionary, reformist etc. that except in time of struggle are far more likely to bloom than revolutionary ideas.

The point here is not to regurgitate our analysis of 30-40 years ago, but rather to reaffirm a Marxist tradition that sees the need for continually updating its understanding of capital and class, and that reaffirms the centrality of class struggle in societal change. When Thatcher took the decision in the mid-80s to decimate the coal mining industry it was a decision that from a narrow economic perspective made no short or long term sense for British capitalism. But from a political perspective she saw clearly that destroying the most combative section of the working class would clear a key road block in her plans to restructure the British economy and society.

Class .v. Movement

We also used the word Autonomy in a different context. We fully supported the development of autonomous movements of oppressed groups – women, black people, gays and lesbians. We asserted that the divisions in the working class between men/women, white/black, gay/straight were not just ideological and based on false consciousness. They were/are also rooted in real material and power differences between the groups – differences generated and used by capital to divide and rule. To understand and to overcome these differences requires that the oppressed groups organise autonomously and will inevitably generate some conflict with their immediate oppressor. We were unequivocally on the side of the oppressed, but not to see the oppressor as the enemy. Rather our goal was to help develop the power of the oppressed group and change the behaviour of the oppressing group so that both could reunite against the capitalist class on a basis of true equality. Whether in the Tower Hill rent strike or working with miner’s wives, our intervention was to build women’s power and the overall struggle. We sought demands that strengthened both the position of the oppressed group and that of the class as a whole, and we believed that this required some level of autonomous organisation by those groups, without rejecting the need for a higher level of unified organisation.

The complex interplay between capitalism, imperialism, racism and patriarchy and how to move forward can only be worked through in concrete situations in time and place, but such issues were and are increasingly central to the struggle for socialism. In Latin America the Cuban revolution has continually grappled with these dynamics, with great advances and major mistakes, while in Bolivia and Ecuador now the race question is central to the mass struggles in those societies for social advance. In reassessing BF’s legacy on this question, we undoubtedly struggled to apply theory to concrete reality. We also tended to act as unconditional cheerleaders for autonomous group organising without engaging in a critical debate from which both sides might have learnt lessons.  But we were way ahead of the revolutionary left pack in understanding and supporting the political/organisational need for autonomy.

Our thinking on autonomy and about party and class caused us to develop the notion of parallel organisations – that the party was necessary, but so were the mass organisations and the autonomous groups. The different organisations had different roles to play, which brings me to the role of the revolutionary party.

Party .v. Class

BF as a national grouping affirmed the key need for an organisation of activists with centralized perspectives that would intervene in the class struggle. That we took from Lenin, but overall our aim was not to be for or against Lenin’s legacy but rather to interpret it critically and resituate what we felt was good into the modern world. Most crucially we disagreed with the theory of consciousness that underlay Lenin’s views on the role of the revolutionary party.

For Lenin revolutionary socialist consciousness had to be brought to workers from outside, by party cadre. BF reinterpreted this to argue that revolutionary consciousness could not be developed from within one particular sectional struggle but rather the role of BF members should be inside all these sectional struggles, whether they be autonomous organisations, workplaces, or single issue campaigns, and whether they be domestic or international. We believed we had to earn respect, listen and learn, and from that learning seek to develop a broader overview and general strategies and demands. From this generalized view BF members could feed back into the sectional struggles. BF members aimed to give a lead politically, rather than the common left practice of taking administrative/bureaucratic control of such organisations, or of building their own front organisations. This also differed from the common Trotskyist understanding of the role of the party, which tended to see all the crucial questions of revolutionary strategy as already answered by Marx, Lenin and Trotsky and the party needed to serve as the transmission belt for these lessons from history.

Our practice fell well short of our desires. Part of the membership never really acted as if they were in a national organisation with centralized perspectives, and we paid too little attention to developing theory and got too wrapped up in day to day activism. Getting the balance right between building the struggle and building the organisation often eluded us (usually at the expense of building the organisation) but we rejected any notion that building the party was more important and potentially counter posed to building the struggle.

Further we said that we were not The Revolutionary Party. We argued that a true revolutionary party could not be announced or bureaucratically brought into being. Rather that it had to be built within the processes of class struggle and we were just a stepping stone towards that party. Nor did we ever think that we would linearly grow into that party, arguing instead that it could only fully come about at a higher level of struggle and through a long process of fusions and realignments as well as splits from within the dominant reformist party i.e. the Labour Party. Indeed we did not necessarily assume that at the point of taking state power there would be just one revolutionary party.

Democracy .v. Centralism

Our view of the party underlay BF’s non-sectarian unity in action practice. We never believed that we had all the answers, just some of them. We were open to debating with and learning from other groups and traditions, and most crucially we were open to learning from the class and its current struggles. It also underlay our internal practices. We tried, although often far from successfully, to have coordinated action throughout the organisation based on centralised agreement, but we fiercely valued our ability to debate and disagree internally in a comradely way and to share our differences in public. We were for a democratic and effective interventionist organisation but not for Democratic Centralism as it had come to be defined.  We experimented with differing national structures, none of which seemed to work satisfactorily, but perhaps the greatest guarantee of our internal democracy was the relatively high level of comradeship, mutual respect and awareness of gender, race and sexuality issues within the organisation. In the end we were better at being democratic than being effective.

Personal .v. Political

We asserted that the personal is political and that our relations within the organisation had to prefigure the kind of society we were trying to build – anti-racist/sexist/heterosexist etc. That the political was personal flowed from our broader analysis of how modern capitalism penetrated every aspect of our lives, how it created divisions within the class, and how daily life was a terrain of struggle. But turning the phrase round to say that the personal is political, while correct, had a danger. In practice it tended to drift into the dead end of lifestyle politics – namely that the way we, a bunch of largely white educated people in a rich imperial country, lived was the correct way to live.

Workplace .v. Community

Our analysis of Capital made us understand that we had to struggle in both the workplace and the community, and that we needed to link the two, recognizing for instance that struggles by workers in the public services needed the support of the users of those services if they were to succeed. This linking of workplace and community was perhaps best exemplified by our work around the Hounslow Hospital occupation and in the subsequent creation of a national health organisation called Fightback. We further emphasized that campaigns to defend services against cuts also had to have a perspective of improving those services and giving workers and users greater control over them.

Conditional .v. Unconditional Solidarity

From the beginning we were very concerned about the international dimensions of the class struggle and bringing those issues into our domestic practice, and nowhere more so than over Ireland where BF formed much of the long term backbone of the Troops Out Movement. In practicing solidarity with a struggle directly against British imperialism, and later in the Zimbabwean liberation struggle, BF had to confront the issue of solidarity with struggles whose full goals, strategy and tactics we didn’t always agree with. The position that emerged was one of unconditional solidarity with their struggle against imperialism, regardless of the tactics. But, as revolutionaries committed to challenging imperialism at home and throughout the world, we reserved the right to express criticisms of the liberation movement. We however made clear that the right to criticise had to be earned through our solidarity and had to be exercised with discretion to avoid giving succour to the class enemy. We also emphasised giving particular support where possible to any explicitly socialist, feminist and/or anti-imperialist sections of the liberation movement.

Crucial to the debate about solidarity with the Irish struggle for unification was the tension between our whole hearted support for the aims, and our unhappiness with one of the methods – the IRA’s bombing campaigns. We were not pacifists, we supported the necessity in some situations of armed struggle, but within that were some methods unacceptable? We were active at a time when national liberation and anti-imperialist struggles were, if not socialist, at least broadly politically progressive in their policies and views. 30 years on some of the main opponents of US and British imperialism are inspired by a reactionary version of Islam, and the debate about terrorism has sharpened. Imperialism seeks to brand all violent resistance as terrorist. In defending the ‘violence of the oppressed’ would a modern BF state that some forms of struggle are never legitimate, and truly terrorist?

We tried to analyse the behaviour of third world liberation movements, or the governments they sometimes lead to, from within the real context and limitations they faced – an approach very different from that of say the British SWP which tended to glorify their struggle up to the point of seizing power and then denounce them afterwards for selling out. Within the international revolutionary left there was some dichotomy between those who took a view that socialism could only be achieved by the actions of the working class of advanced capitalist countries, and others who saw third world liberation movements as the vanguard of revolutionary struggle. BF avoided any one sided analysis or global theoretical conclusions. We struggled for socialism at home, we supported liberation movements and workers’ struggles abroad, and we tried to find real material links between the two, via for instance the Ford Workers Combine making links with Ford plants around the world.

Reform .v. Revolution

BF never developed a coherent theory and practice of how to bring about revolution in an advanced capitalist country, nor how to overcome the hold that reformist institutions and ideas had over the working class. Initially we emphasized how reformist institutions like the trade unions and the then Labour Party fostered passivity within the class and sought to incorporate radical struggle into channels that might modify but not fundamentally threaten the capitalist structure. For us even shop stewards were not necessarily a radical force and could well act as the lowest level face of incorporation. This lead us to emphasise mass practice and the mass line – attempting to work with the whole class rather than focusing on winning over a representative layer,  though later we came to recognise the need for also working through structures, most especially perhaps during a long term period of limited struggle.

The early BF made its most significant interventions through Base Groups of external militants working around selected factories and communities such as Ford car plants, and the Tower Hill estate in Kirby. Such base groups proved to be unsustainable in the long term, and not to be a model that could generate a revolutionary movement from the bottom up, but the insights into the nature of struggle they developed and the successes they achieved in the short term showed their potential value as part of what a revolutionary organisation can do.

We always argued that to counter pose revolution to reforms was wrong. What mattered about struggles for particular reforms was how they were conducted. Through the process of struggle were they building class power, organisation and self confidence to keep going forward? Or were they undermining and co-opting the movement for the price (at best) of a minor and probably temporary victory.

But how does one combine building a movement from the base with developing a national strategy for the seizure of state power? We turned to Chile for ideas. While the rest of the left argued over the reasons for the disastrous overthrow of Salvador Allende’s Popular Unity government in Chile in 1973, we attempted a wider analysis because we felt that government marked a highpoint of socialist struggle in a (relatively) advanced bourgeois democracy. We argued then that the election of a radical reformist government had created space for a grass roots mass movement with a revolutionary wing to develop.

It was a theme we returned to in the early 1980s as the Labour Party was seemingly moving leftwards. Could the election of a left Labour government and local councils similarly open up space for more radical struggle and demands in Britain, and if so what relationship should we and other revolutionaries have to the Labour Party. It was an issue which eventually split the organisation, with no effective way forward emerging on either side of the debate.

But it is a theme that has reemerged through the developments in Latin America over the last decade. Hugo Chavez has most definitely learnt lessons from the Chilean defeat. He has cut through the sterile Communist Party versus Trotskyist debates about whether Allende’s government went too far too fast or didn’t go far enough – pursuing a political process that in its policies initially proceeded more cautiously than Allende, but in its development of popular mobilisation and penetration of the armed forces has been more radical. The reformist government – mass movement dialectic is at work throughout the continent. In Bolivia, Ecuador and Argentina reformist governments rode to power on the back of waves of mass mobilisations by social and indigenous movements, and there is intense debate about whether those governments are co-opting and demobilising the struggle, or opening up space for a deeper radicalisation, whether by conscious intent or not.

John Waller

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INTERNATIONAL SOCIALIST ALLIANCE [ISA] (Groups who joined Big Flame [or in this case didn’t] no3)

Posted by archivearchie on December 10, 2009

This is the final post in a mini-series. The two previous posts looked at organisations which decided to join Big Flame. This one is about a group which didn’t, despite a lot of discussions and the hopes of some in BF. Like the other two organisations, it came from a very different political background to BF. In this case, the International Socialists tradition.

International Socialist Opposition

The International Socialists (IS) were the forerunners of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). The name change came in 1977. Before that in 1973-74 the IS leader, Tony Cliff, initiated a series of changes. A new emphasis on “young workers” rather than shop stewards, and what was presented as the need for the group’s paper Socialist Worker to become more popular. Jim Higgins was removed as National Secretary, Roger Protz as the Socialist Worker editor, and a number of others from the Executive Committee.

Looking back later, opponents of the leadership saw these moves as preparations for the redefinition of IS as a party. There are two articles which discuss the events of these years: More Years for the Locust: the Origins of the SWP by Jim Higgins, available at both marxists.org and andyw.com, and The Making of a Party? The International Socialists 1965-1976 by Martin Shaw, which was originally published in the 1978 edition of the Socialist Register.

The opponents of the changes declared themselves as the International Socialist Opposition (ISO) in 1975. By May that year 135 IS members had indicated their support for its platform. Their position was lost at the IS Conference that year (new arrangements for appointing delegates were introduced which the ISO saw as a manoeuvre to limit their numbers). At the end of the year the ISO’s leaders were expelled, and many others followed them out of IS.

Some commentators have drawn attention to the fact that those who became the ISO had supported, or at the very least not opposed, previous expulsions from IS: the Trotskyist Tendency in 1971, and the various currents called by their opponents the “Right Opposition” in 1973, (these groupings survive today as the Alliance for Workers Liberty, and partly through the Revolutionary Communist Group).

Workers League

Of the several hundred people who left IS following the expulsion of the ISO, about 150 formed a new group called the Workers League (WL). It included Roger Protz, John Palmer and (for a time) Jim Higgins. It published its own paper Workers News (first issue in Feb/March 1976), later renamed Socialist Voice.

Shaw writes of WL: “Although it expected to quickly double its original 150 membership with further refugees from the SWP, it failed to project itself as a political alternative and in fact recruited very few. Its leaders were initially committed to the “workerist” politics of IS in the early ’70s, although very slowly as their membership declined a re-valuation of some key questions began to take place. Very many more IS members left as individuals, rather than with the ISO. Among the intellectuals, there were a number who were critical of the organisation’s degeneration, but it was here perhaps that there entered an element of farce: there was no concerted protest, and a number left as individuals while others made their peace with the leadership”.

Not only did the WL not grow, but it seems to have started losing substantial numbers fairly soon, long before the ISA was established. One explanation which has been advanced suggests that it never saw itself as a new political group, but as an external faction to influence the SWP, and it was soon clear that this strategy was a hopeless one. Within a couple of years those remaining in WL dissolved themselves into a new grouping.

ISA

This was established at a conference of International Socialists and Revolutionary Unity in February 1978. Martin Shaw (who wasn’t in WL) seems to have been one of the main movers. The conference established the International Socialist Alliance (ISA) This was more of a network than a membership organisation, and spent a lot of its time talking to the IMG (International Marxist Group) and Big Flame, discussing the steps towards regroupment.

The people signed the call for the International Socialists and Revolutionary Unity conference were: Bob Cant, Ray Challinor, Tony Clark, Celia Deacon, Soonu Engineer, James Hinton, Richard Hyman, Hugh Kerr, Richard Kirkwood, Richard Kuper, Stephen Marks, John Anthony, Mary Pearson, Gordon Peters, Pete Sedgwick, Martin Shaw, Mike Sheridan, Leni Lolinger, John Whitfield, Granville Williams, John Whitfield, and Harry Wicks. I don’t know how many of them stayed after the conference. There were over 150 at Revolutionary Unity conference. The first two ISA conferences were attended by 50 to 100 persons. Towards the end the numbers involved in the ISA were much smaller.

When the ISA was formed, the prevailing view was against fusion with the IMG unless wider forces were involved. As numbers dwindled and IMG pushed strongly for regroupment, the views of some changed. Back in 1978 Big Flame hadn’t agreed to sign a declaration intended to lead to fusion between it and the IMG and ISA (see Episode 24 in the Big Flame history series). Then in 1979 it rejected another approach from the IMG for fusion.

The ISA dissolved in November 1979, and according to both the final ISA bulletin and an issue of Socialist Challenge newspaper of the time, two caucuses had formed. One of people considering joining the IMG, and the other considering BF.

Big Flame

In various places BF writers had acknowledged the positive contribution of the IS tradition to the revolutionary left in Britain, for example, seeing some parallels with mass politics in “the IS tradition’s break with orthodox Trotskyism, which particularly enabled them to re-analyse post-war relations between reformism, working class consciousness and organization” (“Has Big Flame got a Future?” Internal Bulletin October 1978). In 1977 at the time of the Project for a New Revolutionary Organisation (see Episode 11) amongst the various groups flagged up as targets for discussions was a group of ex-IS members in Coventry. About half a dozen of them, including Roger Klein, decided to join BF in late 1978 (as far as I know they weren’t involved in the ISA). They all appear to have left by the early 1980s.

During the last few months of the ISA, this document was produced by BF addressed to ISA supporters (dated October 1979, it was also published in a BF conference bulletin): Big Flame contribution to the ISA post-conference bulletin.

The document sets out at length a history of BF’s relations with the IMG, and some political differences between BF and the IMG. It argues that the previous two years had seen BF “move politically towards more ‘classical’ positions” on such issues as voting Labour and the importance of trade union work. It goes on to suggest that ISA supporters could “enrich and to a certain extent help transform BF”, and could survive politically and personally in BF’s “healthy internal life”. The document concludes “we hope that as many IS supporters as possible who agree with the general approach of BF” will participate in the ISA caucus discussing BF.

After the ISA

The November 1979 Big Flame National Committee heard that some ISA members would probably join BF “quite soon”. I can find no further mentions in old BF documents. I don’t know what happened to the ISA BF caucus, and can’t find anyone who is able to help me. At least two people who attended ISA meetings (one in Haringey and one in Leicester) did join BF (Gordon Peters was one), but apparently as individuals rather than through any caucus. If others did join in this way at the very end of the ISA, they were clearly few in number and probably didn’t stay in BF that long.

Those who had been involved in the ISA went in many different directions. A few did join the IMG (e.g. Steve Marks, Jonathan Baume), some the Labour Party (e.g. Martin Shaw), some put their efforts into the Socialist Society (e.g. Richard Kuper, John Palmer). Most seem to have carried on as independent socialists or left active politics.

Why did so few ISA members join BF?

The reasons why Big Flame was not a particularly attractive option can be found in a series of articles in an ISA Bulletin from 1979. On the one hand BF had “improved enormously last couple years”, evolving from what was seen as “naïve anarcho-libertarianism”. It was “more open” than the IMG. On the other hand it tended to have “a rather sectarian approach toward the IMG”. It was “very small”, its “influence patchy”, and “been in somewhat of a mess of late” losing working class and women members.

For people who had set out hoping to achieve a large scale unity project, there can have been little attraction in joining a tiny group of around 150. Particularly when their past experience was in a group of over 3,000 members.

Archive Archie

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EPISODES IN BIG FLAME HISTORY: No 25. State Collectivism

Posted by archivearchie on December 7, 2009

When many on the left discuss “soviet type societies”, there seems to be an obsession with labels. It is almost as if many of them feel the need to have a “unique selling position” on these societies to distinguish them from rival groups. Big Flame’s contribution to these discussions, as should everyone else’s, needs to be judged on the basis of whether or not the terminology increased our understanding of these societies, and the sort of the nature of the socialist society to which we aspire.

The October 1976 Big Flame conference had passed a motion “Resolution on the Nature of Russia, China and Post-Revolutionary Societies” which took the position that the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe countries “are not socialist or even in transition to socialism” with China “building socialism” but with the possibility that it might “degenerate into a new class system” (see Episode 7). As we have seen The Revolution Unfinished? published in 1977 (see Episode Episode 24) used the term “state collectivist” in relation to Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, while again taking a more favourable position on China.

The Pamphlet

Debate about the pamphlet carried on in BF’s International Committee (which included non-members of the organisation), primarily about the pro-Chinese Cultural Revolution positions contained within it. In particular by a BF member who had helped the authors of The Revolution Unfinished? with their pamphlet and by Moshe Machover of the Israeli Socialist Organisation Matzpen. They collaborated on what was originally going to be an article for Revolutionary Socialism, but instead became a pamphlet Century of the Unexpected: A New Analysis of Soviet Type Societies, published in 1979. A Preface makes clear that the views expressed in the pamphlet were not BF’s agreed position, rather a contribution to an open debate taking place within it.

Here is the pamphlet – split into two parts:

Century of the Unexpected front-p12

Century of the Unexpected p13- back

The pamphlet rejects the views that the mode of production in the Soviet Union and other countries is either a degenerate workers state or state capitalist. Rather than a transient aberration or half way house, they represented an alternative path for underdeveloped countries. The new term state collectivist is appropriate as it “emphasises the fact that in these systems the principle means of control is not through private property but through formally collective property controlled from above by the state and by the ruling bureaucracy”. The authors recognise that (up to 1976) there were some differences in the Maoist and Soviet conceptions of socialist construction, the lack of proletarian democracy at the state level placed China in the same category. The pamphlet is influenced by a variety of authors (some of whom used a different label or others no new label at all): Max Schachtman, Jacek Kuron and Karel Modzelewski, Antonio Carlo, Umberto Melotti and writers from the journal Critique.

The pamphlet was relatively short in length, and the nature of a state collectivist mode of production was never really explored in any depth. Neither in general, or in the very different countries to which the label was applied. The link between state collectivism and underdevelopment is stated rather than argued.

After the Pamphlet

In 1980 Big Flame published another pamphlet The Nature of So-Called Socialist Societies. It contained 6 articles by 5 authors as a contributing to a continuing debate. I will consider three of them here.

The Origins and Basis of State Collectivism.  Argues that there two conceptions of the origins and basis of state collectivism. The first, set out in the previous pamphlet, saw it as a theory of underdevelopment. From such societies a transition to socialism was difficult if not impossible. The second, held by the author, saw it as the product of a “failed” revolution. The revolutionary overthrow of capitalism leaves open three roads – a return to capitalism, a new class society, or a transition to socialism. A “failed” revolution is as possible in an advanced capitalist country as well as an underdeveloped one.

Some Notes on Big Flame’s Contribution to the Discussion of Soviet-Type Societies. Believes that the previous pamphlet failed to present a cogent argument about what are the driving forces in a soviet society, shying away from a detailed discussion of soviet production relations. The author believes that a more productive approach is being developed by Critique writers.

The Failure of So-Called Socialism. Suggests that both external and internal factors need to be examined to understand why so-called socialist societies bear no relation to socialism. The article is critical of the notion that the state immediately withers away after the overthrow of capitalism, and the conception of socialism as state planning. Concludes that socialists need to provide their own detailed and concrete model of socialism if they are to have any chance of mass involvement in the struggle to achieve it.

At the December 1980 BF Conference this motion was passed: Motion on BF’s Analysis of the USSR, other Comecon Countries and China. Whilst the label state collectivism was adopted, nowhere was it defined. As the motivation for the motion makes clear this still left the field open to a number of different interpretations of what it meant. The short motion was makes no distinction between Russia, China and the other countries. Either in the contemporary period, or previous decades.

The position was agreed by the organisation, but not by everyone within it. However, unlike some other left groups, BF members didn’t regard a position on the nature of the Soviet Union as a fundamental issue in determining their membership. Most were probably only interested in taking a position which highlighted that “soviet type societies” were very different from both the sort of society they wanted to create and the one they were living in. They were less interested in the exact details of how the position was defined. To return to the question posed in the opening paragraph. The label state collectivist may have help, but only to a limited extent.

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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LIBERTARIAN COMMUNIST GROUP [LCG] (Groups who joined Big Flame no 2)

Posted by archivearchie on December 3, 2009

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

The group discussed in the previous post had its origins in Trotskyism. The background of this one was Anarchism. When the Libertarian Communist Group (LCG) joined Big Flame in 1980, two members wrote an account of their group, which has been very useful in putting together this post: A Short History of the Libertarian Communist Group (from 1980 Conference documents). Also worth reading are some accounts of the same history from a more critical perspective. Written many years later, from within the anarchist movement, they are Anarchist Communism in Britain (available both on the libcom site and the afed one), and In the Tradition.

ORA

The Anarchist Federation of Britain (AFB) has an extremely long history, and always contained within it a large variety of differing and opposing ideas. In 1971 the Organisation of Revolutionary Anarchists (ORA) was founded as a ginger group within the AFB, but soon left. ORA’s criticisms of the AFB were mostly organisation rather than theoretical, but it started to develop a class struggle perspective. I have seen different figures quoted for the maximum number of members achieved by ORA – from the 70s up to the 100 mark. It produced an agitational newspaper Libertarian Struggle.

ORA suffered from a series of losses of membership, some to Trotskyist groups, and by the mid 1970s came to something of a standstill. In 1975 it changed its name to the Anarchist Workers Association (AWA).

AWA

In 1976 the AWA had around 50 members, and the paper was called Anarchist Worker. An important influence of the developing politics of the group was “The Organisational Platform of the Libertarian Communists”. This was first published by a group of Ukrainian and Russian anarchists in Paris in 1926. It was reprinted in France in 1972, and in 1977 the AWA brought out an English edition. The Platform is available with background material on the internet at The Nestor Makhno Archive.

The AWA’s “Aims and Principles” stated: “Capitalism is a class society” and “the position of the working class as the collective producer of society’s wealth makes it the only force capable of replacing capitalism by a classless society”. On the role of the AWA this document said: “The task of the AWA is to aid the preparation of the working class for their seizure of power. The establishment of an anarchist society is something that has to be consciously fought for by the working class. … The AWA aims to offer a lead within the working class movement by example and explanation. … The AWA does not seek independent power for itself but seeks to work through the working class organisations”.

Between 1976 and 1977 there was a bitter split. The immediate issue under dispute was Ireland. The AWA opposed internment and favoured the withdrawal of troops (but not immediately and only as a result of united class action), and was strongly opposed to the IRA (“we reject all para-military groups as nationalistic, elitist and divisive”. A grouping which emerged with the AWA – the Towards a Programme Tendency (TAP) – labelled this position “absentionist”, and took the line of the Troops Out Movement. For more information on the issues at stake, see this document written by a former LCG member for a conference in 2004: Coalitions, Libertarian Communism and Ireland.

The dispute was about other issues than Ireland. TAP also argued for a less “ultra-left” position on the unions favouring their “democratisation”. According to the Anarchist Communism in Britain article mentioned above “The TAP tendency accused their opponents of “traditional anarchism” and wishing to “lead the AWA back to the days of the AFB” whilst the TAP tendency was accused by its opponents of “Trotskyism”. One former LCG member who later joined Big Flame recalled recently that the situation was “two quite incompatible philosophies co-existing in the same organisation. The non-TAP tendency seemed to me like religious fundamentalists, insisting on the letter of their sacred texts no matter how irrelevant or impractical in the real situation of the time”.

At the May 1977 Conference TAP supporters had a majority. Apparently without prior notice they proposed a motion expelling their opponents, which was carried. The expulsions were later defended on the ground that those expelled “had reached the stage of behaving in a wilfully disruptive manner” and that life for the AWA “would have proved impossible had the people concerned continued as members” (“We Reply” in Libertarian Communist no3). Others have argued that the split was badly handled and took the course it did because of a lack of a tradition of political debate in the AWA.

LCG

In 1977 there was another name change: the organisation became the Libertarian Communist Group (LCG), and after that the paper was renamed Libertarian Communist. An article in the October 1977 issue of Anarchist Worker “What is in a Name … Why We’re Changing” said that while the AWA had developed out of traditional anarchism, this had fossilised. It affirmed its allegiance to working class revolution, and acknowledged that Marx had made a “great historical contribution”. The new name proclaimed an identity with other groups on the continent who described themselves as libertarian communist.

There were seven issues of Libertarian Communist in A3 newspaper format (the first dated Jan/Feb 1978) and one in A4 journal format. The new paper continued the tradition of the Anarchist Worker in supplementing short news stories with the centre pages devoted to an interesting extended feature: Russia 1917, France 1968, Spain 1936, Germany 1918-1919 and so on. The article mentioned above from issue no 3, accepted some criticisms of the paper: insufficient space devoted to sexism and patriarchy, or “quality of life”.

From 1977 onwards the LCG never had more than 20 members, and numbered about 16 in August 1980. They decided that they were too small and lacked adequate collective practice. This led to the decision to join Big Flame.

To others in the anarchist movement the LCG, and its predecessors, were “Anarcho-Trots” or a form of “Bolshevised Anarchism”. They were accused of “leftism” – tailing leftist organisation. Particular objection was taken to their position on Ireland, their participation in elections through Socialist Unity and, of course, their decision to join Big Flame. In the words of In the Tradition mentioned above  “the short-lived Libertarian Communist Group also displayed Leninist and reformist tendencies that would eventually see their abandoning libertarian politics”.

In BF

The Big Flame Conference in December welcomed the LCG’s decision to fuse. About 10 LCG members joined BF. 5 others decided not to do so (1 of whom a few years wrote an article in the Discussion Bulletin as a BF sympathiser). Within a year, 2 of those who joined BF had left, feeling it lacked “cohesive politics”. Several never became that active in the organisation. In part this was due to their geographical location. Those in London and Norwich were able to join local BF groups (as did someone from York who moved to Birmingham). Others, for example those living in Lancashire and Middlesbrough, found themselves isolated. These notes of a meeting 10 months after joining BF provide an interesting account of the experience of BF: Report of a Meeting of ex-LCG Members (from October 1981 Discussion Bulletin).

A handful of former LCG members were very active in BF. At different times two of them were part of the BF National Committee (NC). Ex-LCGers were active in a number of BF Commissions e.g. Irish and the International, and helped produce the newspaper. Like ex-Revolutionary Marxist Current members (see post on the RMC), former LCG members identified with one of the two main political currents in the organisation, joining the Emerald Street Tendency (see a future episode – Episode 27). Therefore, contrary to the comments on some other websites, the former LCG members were not part of the BF minority which left the organisation in 1981 to join the Labour Party.

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 were previously in the LCG.

At least one former LCG member has returned to class struggle anarchism. He lasted less than a year in Big Flame, and later helped form the Anarchist Communist Federation in 1985. It has since become the Anarchist Federation.

Archive Archie

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