Big Flame

1970-1984

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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One Response to “OPINIONS ABOUT BIG FLAME no 3 part 2: JOHN WALLER”

  1. max farrar said

    Reading John’s account reminded me of how good Big Flame’s thinking and practice was on all these important issues. As a member at the same time as John, I agree with pretty much everything he says. And I agree that the present moment (‘conjuncture’ was the bizarre word some of us used) is far less favourable for our kind of socialism than it ever was then.

    Not only did we (as John says) underestimate the forces operating against the development of revolutionary consciousness, we were barely aware of some of them. We tended to lump all the opposing forces together under political headings (reformism in the Labour Party-Trade Unions and shallow-thinking in the rest of the Left). The force that defeated us was only partly political, in the conventional use of that term. The force we began to understood (through our analysis of the family and sexuality) was beyond conventional politics.

    The postmodernists got somewhere near it with terms like ‘the politics of desire’ and Marxism Today (the thinkers in the British Communist Party) got near it with their analysis of mass consumerism. I think I’d call this force Narcissism. Not just personal narcissism (an aspect of the hyper-individualisation (sorry) that late capitalism developed among us), but a kind of social or collective narcissism. This served to justify the development of industries that supply the means of mass bodily adornment, sexual adventure, cultural exploration and socially-networked digital entertainment.

    The trouble (for socialists) with this force is that it provides a lot of fun, and only the most hardened, hair-shirted politicos can resist it. (Thankfully, BF was full of softened, silk-shirted politicos, which might be why we packed up our bags and went shopping when the force became too strong. Well, I did, anyway, at least for a few years.)

    So, for me, a new politics – based, as John rightly says, on a renewal of many of the best ideas within Marxism – has to confront that force. The Chinese have clearly capitulated to it (probably realising that the N force requires individualisation, which stimulates American style democracy, they simply harden the party control). I hope Chavez is on to it.

    The argument might be that individuals are actually social beings, and require social solidarity. The big question is whether or not our sociality requires equality, or can we accept inequality, so long as we can still get a good deal of what we want as individuals? When the water dries up and the energy runs out we (rather, my grandchildren) won’t get as much as we want: will the next generations go for mutual aid, or for dog eat dog? (I hope everyone is watching The Road, which doesn’t answer that question, but sets it out very forcefully.)

    Because people like us – the 21st century free thinkers who still think socialism is the better option – can think like this, and because we have an eclectic, useful history of political practice, we can (and must) continue to struggle.

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