Big Flame

1970-1984

OPINIONS ABOUT BIG FLAME no 5: KEVIN McDONNELL

Posted by archivearchie on January 18, 2010

This post is a behalf of Kevin McDonnell. It is the fifth in the series of “Opinions about Big Flame”, providing a variety of different assessments of the organisation by ex-members.

Kevin McDonnell was a member of Big Flame from the beginning of 1978 to the end of 1981 in Hackney and then Camden. He worked on the newspaper for a couple of years and was active in the Anti-Racism Anti-Fascism Commission. He spent many decades working in the voluntary sector and, then, local government. He is currently early retired/unemployed.

Kevin McDonnell writes:

This article can be seen as a contribution to the debate about Big Flame’s legacy for today which John Waller has called for (see Opinion no 3 and Opinion no 3 part two). Although in fact the first draft was written before John’s articles appeared.

Apologies for the length of this article. It started out being of a much more reasonable length, but as I have continued to revise it seems to have grown and grown.

Because I think it very important that the discussion is open and honest, as well as highlighting what was of value about Big Flame, I also write about its problems and failures.

Like Mike Jones I would like to dedicate this article to some people who made a major contribution to Big Flame and aren’t around to read and disagree with it. Particular strong in my memory are: Nina Hutchison, George Molnar, Kate Truscott, and Roy Webb.

 

BIG FLAME’S LEGACY: WHAT IS OF VALUE AND WHAT ISN’T

Kevin McDonnell

 Introduction

Big Flame (BF) was unsuccessful in achieving a socialist revolution in Britain, and with the rather more limited ambition of growing beyond a group of 100 to 200 members. You don’t hear its name mentioned much in discussions about the British left of the twentieth century [Note 1]. Many of the interventions BF members would have claimed as successes around a particular workplace, neighbourhood, or campaign may now seem fairly minor in light of the tide of things which will have occurred in the same places since those days.

However, I still believe that this tiny organisation developed ideas and forms of activity which are of value to socialists in 2010, and this is what this article is about. Before I set out the aspects of Big Flame which are valuable (and those which are less valuable), I want to lay some groundwork by reviewing some key issues about BF’s history, theory and practice which are relevant to the task. I need to make clear upfront that I wasn’t there at the beginning or at the end of BF. Further, my experience was restricted to a single one of its local groups.

The main issues I want to address are:

  • Can BF’s history be divided into distinct phases and can any of these be described as its peak and its decline?
  • Who were the people who made up the membership of BF?
  • To what extent can BF’s development be seen as the struggle between two distinct competing currents?
  • How significant a part of BF history was the debate about joining the Labour Party?
  • Did BF have a coherent theory?
  • Did BF have a distinctive practice?
  • Which things about BF are of value to socialists today?
  • Which things about BF are not of value?
  • If BF was valuable, why did it only last 13 years?
  • If BF was valuable, why have there been no similar organisations since? 

What follows is very much my first stab at addressing these issues, and could definitely be improved with further research and discussion. This article assumes a certain level of familiarity with the history of BF, or that readers have taken a look through the “Episodes in Big Flame History” series on this website (hereafter referred to as Episodes). Descriptions of events in the series have not been repeated in any detail. Posts in “Opinions about Big Flame” series (hereafter Opinions) and several of the comments left on the website by former BF members and others have also proved very helpful to me in writing this post. As have the discussions I have had with former members (I would particularly like to thank Max Farrar). 

Can BF’s history be divided into distinct phases and can any of these be described as its peak and its decline?

Big Flame began in 1971 (born out of a community newspaper on Merseyside which had been published in the previous year) and lasted for 13 years. At a conference in May 1984 it fragmented into a number of small groupings some of which carried on for a few years more (and one which carried on with the name). The organisation changed significantly over these 13 years. Is any particular part of its history the place to look for the things of value? I’ll start by considering whether an understanding of this history is enhanced by dividing the years between 1971 and 1984 into distinct periods. For me the key phases of BF’s life were:

  • 1971-74: BF was born on Merseyside and became the dominant force of the revolutionary left in the Liverpool.
  • 1974-77: BF expanded to a national organisation, initially when Merseyside BF group was joined by some other groups who were part of a network formed by the Libertarian Newsletter. BF went on to launch the Project for a New Revolutionary Organisation, an attempt to link up with others who were seen as part of the same “working class autonomy tendency”.
  • 1977-81: Although the Project failed to deliver the new organisation BF desired, it continued to grow. Some members looked for greater unity through Socialist Unity and Beyond the Fragments. A minority of members argued unsuccessfully that the organisation might grow better if some members joined the Labour Party, and some of these then leave BF.
  • 1981-84: BF carries on to its eventual fragmentation.

See the entire series of posts Episodes nos 1 to 30 for a fuller account of key events and issues over these years.

When was Big Flame at its peak? Some might argue 1977-81 when it had the largest number of local groups spread around England, and the highest total membership figure (see next section). Others might suggest 1974-77 when some of the interventions for which it is best known (Ford Halewood, Tower Hill Rent Strike) were at their height, and BF became better known amongst the left nationally. Finally some might even favour 1971-74 as that this was when BF developed a distinct theory and practice and had an impact in Liverpool which was never to be repeated in any other city or town.

When did Big Flame go into decline? From fairly early on the feelings of many members were that the organisation was in crisis. Believing that the working class will spontaneously struggle against capitalism made it more vulnerable than other political traditions to self doubts in a period of downturn in the class struggle. Probably most members, whatever current they supported in the internal debates, would see 1981-84 as period of decline with falling numbers, a reduced national political presence on the left and much talk of a crisis in the organisation [Note 2]. Many would also say the same of 1977-81 despite the highest membership numbers. The base group model had been abandoned. There were fewer joint interventions by local groups, with members mostly acting on their own as militants in their own sectors. Important Commissions no longer functioned effectively, such as the Industrial (from around 1977) and Women’s (from around 1976). Although I need to add immediately that both these Commissions were revived later.

My view is as follows: During 1971-74 BF seems to have been at its most coherent, committed, optimistic (no doubt excessively) and effective. This peak probably carried on through 1974-77 despite increasing internal differences. The decline started from around 1978 onwards after the Project failed, and talk grew of problems and crisis. Some commentators have viewed BF in terms of two competing currents (see a later section of this article), and the gloom affected both sides of this perceived divide.

One current wanted to revise some of BF’s traditional politics, and called meetings in October 1978 to discuss a document by one of its main writers. According to an account of one meeting “most contributors seemed to agree that BF faced major problems”. The same writer talked later of further meetings to discuss “the crisis” in BF. From the very different perspective of other members who tended to defend the organisation traditional politics, things seemed even worse. They wrote of “BF’s problems”, “the crisis of BF as an organisation” and of BF “the cracks were papered over … but the real crisis remained” [Note 3].

I am sure that the extent of the decline was frequently exaggerated by members at the time (including myself). Things don’t seem nearly as bad from this distance. Whilst some things were going badly, others were going well – some of the local groups, some sectors of struggle, etc. For example, for a long time difficulties in northern cities like Liverpool and Manchester, were more than balanced by substantial growth in London. It was during the 1977-81 period that a lot of the best BF pamphlets were published e.g. The Revolution Unfinished?: A Critique of Trotskyism (1977), Organising to Win (1979) [about workplace struggles], The Past Against Our Future: Fighting Racism and Fascism (1980) and Walking a Tightrope: Big Flame Women’s Pamphlet (1980) (see Episodes nos 3, 4, 14 and 24). A counter argument would be that many these publications wrote up the experience gained in interventions in an earlier period.

The decline was a gradual process, only becoming much more pronounced around 1982-83, with the disappearance of the both the paper and journal, and with no new pamphlets added to those already published. This decline, as I will argue later, was not just a result of the organisation’s weaknesses but a general demoralisation of the left in the face of the rise of the Thatcherite right, and neo-liberalism globally.

Even if certain phases in Big Flame’s history can be fairly described as peaks or periods of decline, focussing attention on the former is not necessarily the best way of identifying what is most useful today. BF’s successes were related to the context in which it operated and the early 1970s were definitely a time with a higher level of class struggle than the years that followed. Also it is reasonable to expect any political organisation to learn lessons as it develops and to find some errors in its past. Thus when I do start identifying things of value in BF’s theory and practice, I will draw both on things which persisted throughout its life and others more associated with particular periods.

Who were the people who made up the membership of BF?

A proper understanding of Big Flame needs to include a discussion of who was part in it. Details of the Big Flame membership, apart from an overall national total, were only collected erratically. The following picture is compiled form the sources I have been able to locate [Note 4].

Total Numbers

Big Flame membership was always tiny. According to various reports to its Conference the figures were

  • May 1978: 160 members.
  • Nov 1980: 125 members.
  • Dec 1981: 125 members – of which 86 were employed and 39 unemployed.
  • June 1982: 90 members and 30 sympathisers.
  • April 1983: 71 members and 28 sympathisers.
  • May 1984: Before the conference – 25 members and formal sympathisers and another 20 who might be considered as such. After conference in the main fragment which decided to carry on using the name – 17 members (see Episode no 30).
  • Jan 1985: 15 members.

BF always found itself surrounded by a much larger body of people sympathetic to its ideas. More than were ever formally characterised as such (a point to which I will return).

Location

The geographical locations of Big Flame members changed over time [Note 5]. It originated on Merseyside, and the early BF was extremely unusual among left groups in having the bulk of its membership in the north of England, with smaller numbers in the midlands and London. My estimate would be that around 1976 two thirds of the BF membership would be in one of the four local groups in the north (Liverpool, Manchester Sheffield and Leeds). In 1978 the proportion of members living in the north was still 48% of all members. By 1981 the proportion of regular attenders at branches in the north was down to 34% of all attenders. The major reason was the decline of the Liverpool group. In 1976 Merseyside BF had 38-39 members (45% of them women), and 1978 there were 40 members. Moving on to 1979 Liverpool BF had approximately 30 members, and by 1981 only 10 regular branch attendees (all men), with another 10 attending irregularly.

By way of contrast the proportion living in the south grew to 42% of members (1978) to 51% of regular attenders (1981), with 41% of the latter in London. The main factor was clearly the expansion by the London branches. In 1976 there were 11 members in West London and 2 South London members. By 1978 there was a new North London branch, and the overall London membership figures were: West 10, South 20 and North 17. In 1981 the numbers of regular attenders for the same three groups were 6, 15 and 29 respectively.

Women

The only breakdowns of membership by gender breakdown I have found contain these figures [Note 6]:

  • 1974: A document claimed “almost half of Big Flame” were women.
  • 1981: 30% of the regular attenders at branches were women.
  • 1982: 25% of the membership were women.
  • 1984: 20% of the membership were women.
  • 1985: Only 2 of the remaining 15 members were women, i.e. 13%.

The proportion of women in BF was probably 30% or more for most of its life until the decline in the last few years. The figure might not be what the organisation would have wanted, but was probably far higher than many left groups – then and now.

The loss of membership in the late 1970s from the north of England was more pronounced amongst women. In 1981 34% of all regular attenders lived in the north, but only 25% of all the female regular attenders.

Class

There are no statistics which break down the membership by other dimensions. In terms of class, the composition of Big Flame was in the main ex-students, and thus nearly all middle class. Probably the only real exception was Merseyside in the earlier days where some members, and even more contacts were working class, particular those linked to the North End branch and the Ford Halewood and Tower Hill base groups (see 1976 Liverpool group report to the Big Flame conference). One BF writer claimed that those who did join BF were “mainly inexperienced working class people at industrial and community level” [Note 7]. I don’t have sufficient information to confirm or challenge this statement. Some BF members with a student background (some of them after having worked in professional middle class occupations) took manual jobs e.g. in a car plant or as a hospital domestic. However, as far as I am aware, these were relatively few in number and the decision was a matter of their personal choice. This distinguished it from some Trotskyist and Maoist groups where there was a collective decision that members undertake a “turn to industry”.

Political background

In terms of political background Mike Jones in his website post (Opinions no 4) states that few members of the original Big Flame in Liverpool had been in other left groups, with former political allegiances including the Labour Party Young Socialists, the CPB (ML) [Communist Party of Britain (Marxist Leninist)] and the SLL [Socialist Labour League]. BF was unique on the British left in being influenced by sections of the revolutionary left in Italy. These links were strengthened by an Italian member of Lotta Continua moving to England and joining BF whilst doing a B.Sc in Mathematics at Liverpool University.

Libertarian groups emerged in many cities in the early 1970s, specifically in response to the emergence of the women’s and gay movements, claimants unions, anti-racist and anti-fascist struggles, international solidarity movements, and to the impatience supporters of all those movements had with the traditional anarchist formations that were present in all these towns. Libertarian groupings were often as large in membership as the Trotskyist groups. Their politics arose directly out of the events of 1968, compared to the much earlier periods in which the politics of the Communist Party and Trotskyist groups were formed. (see Max Farrar’s Opinions no 1 and the post 1960 and 1970s British Left Libertarianism).

The groups which joined up with Merseyside BF at a 1975 Conference to create the national organisation had mostly been part of the Libertarian Newsletter network. Other groups or individuals who joined later (e.g. in Leeds, Nottingham and Islington) contained members who had also been part of this network. The people libertarians who joined BF wanted to be part of something which espoused organisation, but rejected democratic centralism (as traditionally understood). Most had a history of working together in a range of campaigns, on alternative local newspapers, in unions, women’s groups, tenants’ associations, solidarity movements and the like. Almost always, these were people who had quite a lot of political experience, who had read BF publications, particularly the newspaper, which sold well on demonstrations, at meetings etc.

Some of those who joined BF in the course of the 1970s did have a background in left organisations. Probably the largest number joining as individuals came from the International Marxist Group (IMG), but there were others who had been in IS (International Socialists) or were former Marxist-Leninists (Maoists). As well as those who joined BF as individuals, two small groupings fused with BF. Both consisted of around a dozen people (some of whom seem to have drifted away from BF quite soon). The groupings were the RMC (Revolutionary Marxist Current) (joined 1977), and the Libertarian Communist Group (LCG) (joined 1980). Largely unsuccessful attempts were made to recruit members of a third grouping in 1979 – the International Socialist Alliance (ISA), although very few people seem to have taken up the offer. Interestingly, these groups had their origins in three very different political traditions – Trotskyism (the RMC originally split away from the IMG), Class Struggle Anarchism and the (IS (see the website posts on the three organisations).

The politics of both the RMC and LCG had moved significantly from their starting point, The RMC members were ceasing to describe themselves as Trotskyists around the time they joined, and the LCG thought of itself as Libertarian Communist rather than Anarchists. The ex-IS members had left it when the group adopted a more tradition form of left organisation and declared itself “the party”- the SWP (Socialist Workers Party).

To what extent can BF’s development be seen as the struggle between two distinct competing currents?

There were always significant differences of opinion on many issues amongst Big Flame members. This raises the question of whether the valuable ideas or activity I want to identify were the property of BF as a whole or of one strand within it.

Both at the time and since the days of BF, various writers have represented the organisation in terms of a struggle between two competing currents (see for example Opinion no 4 and Episodes no 5, 11, 22, 27 and 30). There is a problem giving names to these current. In other groups like the IMG, tendencies or factions chose their own letter, number, or name. Only in BF’s later years were formal tendencies declared and explicit names adopted, and then not by all the groupings. There is a danger if we come up with our own labels, that they would be contested by those involved. Certainly the terms “Leninists” and “Libertarians” applied by some during the 1975 debate weren’t acceptable to either side. The labels Plan X and Plan Y used briefly in 1976 to distinguish the two positions at the Conference did avoid the difficulties of the descriptions being value laden. The problem is that most people have difficult remembering which was Plan X and which was Plan Y without going back and checking.

The “Episodes in Big Flame History” series made a distinction between “those striving to uphold Big Flame’s traditional political positions and those who felt these needed some form of revision” (Episode no 11). Unfortunately, the problem occurs when this is reduced to one word tags in the rest of the series: Defenders and Revisers. They just sound awkward. Mike Jones in his website post used the terms “Autonomists” and “Centralists” (Opinions no 4). The former label would probably be accepted by those it is meant to describe. When in 1981 a formal tendency was created under the name “Facing the Challenge”, its members saw “working class autonomy” as key to their approach. However I would dispute whether it is accurate to sum up the other current with the label “Centralists”. Only in the 1975-78 period was “centralisation” the key issue they focussed on. In addition several of the “Autonomists” believed just as much in a form of centralisation (probably more than much of the membership), issuing a stream of criticisms of the organisation: for abandoning mass work, not prioritising Irish solidarity or anti-racist anti-fascist work and so on [note 8]. For the purpose of this article the labels I will use will be the “Autonomist” and the “New Direction” currents. The latter current advocated a series of new directions for BF. First it was centralisation, then Socialist Unity, next “transitional politics”, and finally (in the case of some of them) the Labour Party. Sometimes the phrase “New Direction” was actually used in the title of a document [Note 9].

There are four main problems with any dichotomy. First, at various times there were more than two groupings in BF, and some of them can not easily be labelled as part of one or the other of the two main currents. In 1980 there was also the “North London Group”. In 1981 there was “Emerald Street” and the “North London four”, a minority of the local group (see Opinions no 4, see Episodes nos 22 and 27 for more information on the groupings). They all advanced different positions at Conferences from the two currents previously discussed, and are not easily placed along any single axis. It is not accurate to portray, as Mike Jones does, “Emerald Street” as a watered down version of the “Autonomist” current, and the “North London four” as having this same position in relation to what I call the “New Direction” current

Second, while it is tempting to apply the dichotomy to the 1974-75 debate in BF, I think that a different dynamic underlay the different perspectives from the earlier period. ELBF in 1974-75 and Plan X in 1976 (the then incarnation of the “Autonomist” current) both feared a process of centralisation. However what worried them was something different. Plan X agreed with Plan Y (the 1976 version of the “New Direction” current) that there was an immediate need to start “building an organisation which can be one of the embryos of the revolutionary party” [Note 10]. The ELBF of 1974-75 did not accept this position (see Episode no 5).

Third, were the two currents continuing entities, or did they change sufficiently over time (despite continuities in personnel) to challenge the usefulness of a dichotomy? Although the “Autonomist” current was fairly consistent in its political perspectives, the “New Direction” current as mentioned above went through a series of very sharp turns in its strategic impetus. If there is one consistent factor about the “New Directions” current which runs through its different phases, it is perhaps a greater stress on the role of leadership.

Finally, the talk of a dichotomy disguises what BF members had in common. Max Farrar has suggested that “the ideological difference between ELBF [East London BF] and MBF [Merseyside BF] was not huge, and that the split was probably as much to do with personalities (hard/soft; noisy/quiet; macho/femmo; tolerant/intolerant etc, to hazard at guesses in improperly binary terms) as to do with ideologies” (comment on Episode no 5). There is a tendency within left groups for some people to see as their biggest enemies those of different views within their own organisation, and present the gap as much bigger than it actually is. It would be misleading to adopt a view of BF which reinforces this sort of perspective.

Apart from two brief periods 1980-81 (“Tendency One”) and 1981-82 (both “Emerald Street” and “Facing the Challenge”) political currents only came together for Conferences, and did not aim for a life afterwards. The Conference general strategy motions made little difference to political activity in most areas of work e.g. Irish solidarity or anti-racist anti-fascist work. Conferences are usually focused on such motions, and these tend to polarise discussion. They are the way the most members of organisations, usually the most active intellectuals, develop specific proposals: ‘”for Centralisation”, “for a New Revolutionary Organisation”, and so on. Since most history is based on documents like these, histories of organisations are usually written from this perspective.

A large number of Big Flame members had no fixed allegiance to a particular current, and shifted in how they voted depending on the issues as they were presented at each Conference. Take myself as an example. Most of my time in Big Flame I took positions at Conferences contrary to those of the “New Direction” current, although the alternative I supported changed. The one exception came in 1981 after this current split into “Emerald Street” and what I will call the “Group of Nine” (they didn’t adopt a clear label, so I have taken this term from a letter from a key member of the group in which he uses it to describe the supporters of his motion – nine people in all). The “Group of Nine” formed a tactical alliance for the Conference that year with the “North London four” over the issue of the Labour Party, and the latter was the position I supported.

Looking back now with 30 years of hindsight, I don’t think any current was all right or all wrong. I don’t think it is necessary today to make a clear choice to favour of one or the other. Later in this article, when I start to identify the aspects of BF which are of value today, many of the things I mention were supported across all the currents in the organisation. There is also a case for arguing that what made BF what it was can in large part be attributed to the dynamic created by the two different currents. The clash of different perspectives, sectors of work, etc. had for a long time a creative impact on the organisation. It was a good thing to have within it both people strongly asserting the importance of traditional aspects of BF politics, and others wanting to open up new questions. On the other hand, you can take this argument too far. The differences within BF clearly had negative effects as well as positive ones. They diverted attention inwards, and often prevented the organisation for following a clear path. Also, as I will discuss below, there is a difference between the impact over the short term and a situation where the same divisions have become entrenched over many years.

How significant a part of BF’s history was the debate about joining the Labour Party?

Early on in the publication of posts in the “Episodes in Big Flame History” series on the website, a former Big Flame member criticised the website in a comment on another blog. It was “partial”, and ignoring “the most important debate in BF in the late 70’s/early 80s” concerning “attitudes towards Reformism, esp. the Labour Left” (developments were covered later in Episodes nos 22 and 27). On another website, someone dismissed BF on the grounds its members all joined the Labour Party and became “Blairites”.

The focus of this article is BF, although the political trajectory of those ex-members who did join the Labour Party would certainly make another interesting topic for discussion. I will only say a few things here. There was a fair degree of diversity in where ex-BFer were to be found later in the spectrum of views held by Labour Party members (and I would also question whether the label “Blairite” is the most accurate description of the views of those who took an anti-Militant pro Labour Co-ordinating Committee position). In addition a majority of the ex-BFers who joined the Labour Party seem to have left by the late 1990s. The different paths are partly explained by Labour Party membership having been supported by at least two distinct groupings in 1981. One which wanted move away from much of BF’s politics thinking (the “Group of Nine”), and another which wanted retain much of BF’s politics but to apply it in a new forum as well as the traditional ones (the “North London four”). The former tended to view the Labour Party as the only show in town, the latter more cautiously as something worth trying amongst other areas of struggle (see Episode no 27 for more on the positions of the two groupings).

I believe that the significance of the Labour Party discussion in Big Flame can be easily overstated:

  • The debate over whether members of BF should or could join the Labour Party occupied only some months in 1981, compared to BF’s life of 13 years. There was a slightly more extended interest in focussing on reformism as a key issue, but this impetus probably only extended across a two year period in 1979-81.
  • Even when the two groupings presented a joint position to the 1981 Conference, those in favour of joining the Labour Party were a minority in the organisation by a significant margin. I will return below to the questions of the size of the minority and the impact on BF when some of them left the organisation.
  • Even those who supported this position would acknowledge that it was more of a departure from traditional BF politics than a logical development out of it (although they did challenge claims that their position was directly contradictory to that politics). Thus assessments of the value of BF should not stand or fall by the positions these people took in 1981.

This is not to deny that the debate raised important issues about a strategy for socialist transformation. I will return to this below, including something about own views on Labour Party membership discussion in the 1980s.

Did BF have a coherent theory?

You don’t find much in the way of discussion of theory in Big Flame’s external publications, and little more in its internal ones. Where theory was invoked, the reference point was almost always a current in Italian Marxist – Operaismo of the 1960s and 1970s (which should not be confused with the related but later writings known as Autonomism) (see Episode no 6 and Lotta Continua Parts 1 and 2). Towards the end of BF’s life the theoretical approach inherited from Operaismo was the subject of a much criticism by some BF members. It is also important to remember that the influence was not felt to the same degree by all members of the early BF, and that many, if not most, of those who joined BF later came from very different political traditions, with little knowledge of Operaismo.

What BF members took from Operaismo (which was itself a complex body of work incorporating writers with significant differences in approach) was mostly just two phrases – autonomy of the working class and mass politics. How much the later term really came from these theorists can be queried. Perhaps a more significant source was Maoism via Lotta Continua. I will largely fall in line and review the Italian connection in terms of just three phrases (these two plus one other). My views fall somewhere between those who were very much in favour of the theory (the “Autonomist” current) and those who increasingly wanted to move away from it (the “New Direction” current). I recognise that there were both good and bad aspects to the ideas.

Class Composition Analysis

Operaismo saw Post Second World War capitalism in terms of a recomposition of the working class, summed up by the effects of Keynesian state economic policies and Fordist organisation of the workplace. Many industries were changing, creating new mass workers on production lines. At the same time capital was taking over the social sphere creating the social factory.

This discussion helped highlight significant trends which had occurred. However, as taken up by some it often exaggerated their extent and became a form of conspiracy theory, seeing everything that occurred as the unfolding of capital’s latest plan (see Opinions no 1) – odd for a perspective intended to place the working class at the centre of its analysis. There was an over-reliance on Fordism as the model for industry. There is an assumption that all workers were on the way to being mass workers. Changes even in sectors of mass production were developing in a more complex ways. Keynesianism is used extremely broadly to refer to a variety of approaches in different countries at different times – both in terms of state economic policies and the character of the state in general. Sometimes it was stretched to such an extent to lose its meaning.

BF produced much less that was new  in the way of theoretical discussion after about 1980. This is precisely when new approaches for capital and the state were coming to the fore, Thatcherism and neo-liberalism. Keynesianism was replaced by monetarism. Fordism was modified (some talk of post Fordism). There were the odd interesting piece of analysis by BF writers, but the organisation as a whole never really got to grips with this new phase of capitalism, which was addressed more systematically by other political currents.

Working Class Autonomy

Operaismo argued that the working class determines the nature of capital and the state, through its struggles to exert its autonomy. Spontaneous struggles manifest a political content which foreshadows the future. It is the working class exerting its autonomy which forces capital to restructure the way it rules.

This emphasis was a useful corrective to the more common approach which dismissed most working class struggles as just economic or irrelevant. On the other hand, there is a tendency to be over-optimistic. The role and durability of reformism was underestimated. The phrase sometimes used in the early BF “communism is inherent in the working class” can be seen as a good illustration of how an emphasis on working class autonomy runs the danger of becoming simplistic and teleological.

Mass Politics

Operaismo writers talked about mass struggles and mass practice. As adopted by Big Flame, mass politics meant that instead of targeting interventions at the “leadership” of the working class or its institutions, they should be aimed at the mass of workers.

The mass politics approach was much better than others which targeted all efforts within bureaucratic structures or just postholders in trade unions. The activities of BF members often displayed genuine flexibility, an interest in open democracy and a genuine interest in workers’ real experience. However, as BF later acknowledged, this approach led for a time to being too hostile to shop stewards (see Episode no 3). Also to a belief that all that is required is hard work with the masses, when the overall economic and political situation can render such efforts problematic.

More generally, the Italian theory BF adopted was very much of a time and place, and its impact fell way even in Italy. It was never adequately adapted to fit England and changes in class struggle over the 1970 and 1980s.The proponents of the “autonomy/mass politics” approach either didn’t see this as necessary, or in most cases, never got round to writing the promised documents.

Other theoretical approaches which had an impact on Big Flame came from the women’s movement of the 1970s (the autonomy of oppressed groups, the personal is political) [see Episodes nos 4, 17 and 29; 18 to 21] and from Chile and Portugal (popular power) [see Episode no 10]. There were also a few who were influenced by C.L.R. James.

I have focussed on the impact of theories developed outside the organisation because BF didn’t really develop much in the way of theory itself. The two BF pamphlets which might be considered the most “theoretical” – those on Trotskyism and State Collectivism (see Episodes nos 24 and 25) were largely syntheses of the ideas of others. Nevertheless, I think it is possible to talk of BF’s having made a contribution to the movement as it advocated theoretical ideas ignored or treated with hostility by much of the British left.

To summarise the influences on Big Flame: From Italy it adopted an approach that placed the working class at the centre of its analysis and appreciated that capital operated simultaneously in the workplace and in the neighbourhood, and that working people’s struggles in both these fields were both important; from the black and anti-racist and women’s movements BF took to its heart the theory that struggles over race and gender were of equal importance to those motivated by class exploitation. BF was fairly unique on the left in extending a theory of the personal which emanated from the women’s and gay movements. From the international solidarity movements it adopted the position that these were not add-ons to revolutionary practice but absolutely crucial, since capital was inherently international and thus had to be fought across all nations. BF’s theory of organisation (see the next section), and its approach to linking all these theoretical positions in practice, was also distinctive compared to much of the left.

Did BF have a distinctive practice?

Big Flame members differed a lot on the question of leadership. What they had in common was that, unlike orthodox Leninists, the problem for working class struggle was seen as more about connectivity (although this wasn’t a phrase actually used at the time) than leadership. “Mass Politics”’ was about assisting in the process of clarifying the most radical demands emanating from actual struggles, rather than inserting the “correct” demands drawn up by the vanguard in the central committee. BF understood that the really difficult issue was how to connect the various types of struggle. Again, it eschewed the Leninist impulse to produce directions and demands, and it certainly did not solve the problem it diagnosed. But its members’ practice usually exemplified the organisation’s theory that the working class would only have a chance of developing real power if it recognised the need for unity across all the sectors of struggle, and all the different dimensions of oppression. This was far from the simplistic “unite and fight” position of the rest of the far left as it recognised that divisions were based on material differences. Whilst again there were differences between BF members about whether or not all struggles are of equal value, they were all resolutely opposed to all other far left groups’ hierarchy which invariably puts top of the list the struggles of the (usually male, usually white) more skilled industrial workers.

I now want to see how this theory was embodied in specific practices and organisation arrangements.

Base Groups

The Big Flame Base Group approach was developed in industry in factories like Ford Halewood (see Episode no 3), and later applied in the community, such as on the Tower Hill estate (see Episode no 4). It was adopted from Lotta Continua as a way of doing mass politics – interventions at factories like Fiat in Turin and the programme Take over the City (see Episode no 6 and Lotta Continua Parts 1 and 2). In its industrial incarnation, the aim of the interventions was to target activity at the mass of workers rather than to work through union structures. Activity was (usually) initiated by external militants who developed regular contact with those working at a factory. The basic activity was regular factory gate leafleting. Through this workers were invited to open meetings, where they had the final way over the content of the next leaflet. Thereby, a permanent relationship was developed with the workers.

The problem with the base group approach was its dependence on the existence of external militants. If they moved away from the local area, got a job or were burnt out by continuous activity, the interventions suffered a serious blow. Downturns in worker militancy also impacted on base groups. By the late 1970s the base group approach had largely been dropped by BF. Apart from the intense activity required, other local groups had much fewer members than Merseyside BF, and found it difficult to focus activity in this way. There might be occasional joint leafleting but most BF members engaged in struggles at their own workplace or in joint campaigns with others on the left. The latter was not completely new. As well as base group activity, BF had always been involved in campaigns like the Troops Out Movement (see Episode no 9) and the Chile Solidarity Campaign. Many of the approaches to political work developed in Base Groups were later applied by BF in joint campaigns and by individual BF members in their own areas of struggle, Important examples of the latter were a member who worked at Ford Langley, a member who helped start the Fightback campaign against Health Service cuts, and some members who were involved in Southern Africa solidarity work.

Another criticism which has been made of the base groups is that they had the “potential to degenerate into Leninism-lite, with the ‘educated militant’ dominating the ‘worker militants’” (Max Farrar comment to Episode no 6). My opinion, from what I know about the BF base groups, is that they were less manipulative than most other interactions between working class militants and left groups. However, no doubt there were power differences in the relationships.

I am sure that to a certain degree myths built up in BF about the success of some of the base group interventions from the early days. At the same time they were impressive examples of political activity [Note 11]. If they subsequently collapsed as the world moved on, this does not negate them. Whilst base groups may have disappeared, many of the practical ways of working with people carried other in other types of interventions.

Commissions

Many other political organisations had forums which brought together militants active in the same sector. What made Big Flame’s Commissions (Anti-Racist Anti-Fascist, Irish, Industrial, Education, Women’s, etc.) different is that they were open to any member (and sometimes close contacts) who were interested in attending, rather than membership being elected or appointed. Also members of Commissions usually felt that these bodies should have the lead role in determining policy for the sector. See Episode no 12 for examples of disputes between Commissions and the National Committee.

I believe that when Commissions worked well they were a wonderful experience, and when they didn’t they were a dismal one. For those active in a particular area of struggle, including myself, they could be great source of support and ideas, particular for those new to activity in the sector. Many Commissions produced a pamphlet, and for those involved in this process the educational benefit was exhilarating as Commission members debated ideas. Drafts (which large numbers of Commission members were involved in writing different sections) were discussed in a genuinely collective manner.

However, Commissions didn’t always thrive. Sometimes they collapsed, normally after periods when only a few people turned up to meetings. It was very demoralising to travel a great distance to a meeting (they rotated round the country rather than the London-based approach common in other organisations) to find this happening. If they had been elected or appointed, a great opportunity would have been denied to many members. At the same time, this might have meant members would have had an increased commitment to them and helped with attendance.

Internal Democracy

The structures of Big Flame represented a high degree of internal democracy. Much anguish was spent in a debate about whether the National Committee (NC) should be delegate or elected (see Episode no 12). However, when this change took place it made much less of a difference than those on both sides of the argument anticipated. Someone who was on the NC before and after it became an elected position said to me: “there was never any sense at all of us directing anything at all about the organisation!  We checked documents, made comments but I can’t remember ever really disagreeing” (the last point certainly wasn’t true in the final years of BF).

I believe that BF was most strongly driven from the centre was not when it had an elected NC, but earlier (1976-78) when the NC was delegate, but supplemented by an elected five person elected National Secretariat (NS). This was a seen as temporary measure to support the Project. The role of this NS was more significant than the purely administrative series of National Secretaries which came later (who role was no more duplicating and circulating documents, keeping the financial records, replying to letters in terms decided by the NC, etc.). They were not members of the NC.

The problem with the debate about whether BF was or should be “democratic centralist”, was that the term is fairly meaningless. It means so many very different things to different people, as was pointed out by one contributor to the internal debate in 1978 [Note 12]. It is enough to say that BF throughout its life had very different internal arrangements to those of the various left groups who called themselves “democratic centralist”. I will return to the topic of BF’s internal democracy below.

Which things about BF are of value to socialists today?

I now want to move on to discuss the things which are part of Big Flame’s legacy which I see as valuable and those I do not, trying to avoid too much repetition of points I made during the discussions of BF’s Theory and Practice. I will argue that many of the characteristics of BF which I value were simultaneously the source of problems.

Not confined by an immutable Political Tradition

Big Flame never saw itself as part of a linear tradition, promoting the texts or programme of one or a small number of founding theorists. Left groups which do often experiences difficulties in responding to changed reality. There was the significant influence of Operaismo, but this was definitely not the only source of inspiration.

There was nevertheless a tendency for some in BF to see any departure from cornerstones of “autonomy” and “mass politics” as a betrayal. It was also as if some people felt that for their own perverse reasons, others in BF were deliberately abandoning mass work. As one BF member argued at the time this came close to adopting the “bad leaders” explanation of political failure. People who lacked faith in the right ideas had by some mysterious mechanism succeeded in diverting the organisation along the wrong path [note 13].

Relationship with the Working Class

Libertarians, from which background some Big Flame members came, believed in organising around their own oppressions. Thus they gave little attention to the working class, or workplace struggles. The same can be said about many of those who in the new social movements in the decades which have followed. On the other hand, whilst Leninist groups talk a lot about the working class, this is from a perspective of knowing very firmly what is best for the class.

Big Flame saw the contradiction between capital and labour as fundamental to an understanding of capitalism. It also believed that the best way to lean is through practice, by actively engaging in struggles. As mentioned above, it took seriously forms of resistance to capital neglected by others on the left as non-political or irrelevant: both in the workplace, and in the community. Rather than think it had all the answers to pass on to the working class, it emphasised listening to and learning from workers’ experiences.

As mentioned above, BF recognised there were divisions in the working class, and avoided the focus on more skilled industrial workers with was the norm in some other organisations. However, it never really made any substantially analysis of these divisions and how they might be overcome. Like many on the left it paid little attention to the professional managerial strata (or class) which despite their identity with the working class composed most of the membership of left groups.

Sometimes the result of the valuing of practice above theory was a dismissive attitude towards “intellectuals”, both inside and outside the organisation. BF did contain within it members who were reading Gramsci or the Frankfurt School or the various other Marxist writers in vogue at the time. Rarely, if ever, did they bring these ideas into discussions within BF. Part of the reason must have been fears of being denounced for talking a language others would find difficult to understand (which is not to deny that there is a responsibility for the more highly educated members of a political organisation to express their ideas as clearly and simply as possible). The exception to this picture was BF’s journal Revolutionary Socialism which sometimes strayed towards the discussion of theoretical issues. However most BF members did not identify with the publication (see Episode no 16). The suspicion of “elitism” and “intellectualism” was something members of the Emerald Street tendency felt was directed towards them in 1982, and was a contributory factor to at least one person leaving Big Flame [note 14]. The failure to develop theory became more of a disadvantage with the downturn in the class struggle and a decline in past forms of practice.

Class before Party

Much of the left believes that the main requirement for a movement towards socialism is a new leadership for the working class i.e. their taking on this role. They have a tendency to jump in and out of particular sectors and struggles to best advance the development of their own organisation. Big Flame’s approach was one of consistent, hard work in a non-sectarian manner. Both in the interventions it initiated like the base groups and in campaigns with others. I may be being naïve and others may be able to quote examples of times when BF fell short of this standard. However, at the very least this is an accurate picture of the way BF members operated a considerable amount of the time.

Reading old BF documents, both internal and external, I am surprised to see how frequently references to Lenin were positive ones. The explanation probably lies with some members being keen to distance themselves from the libertarianism out of which BF grew. They could have still done this and been more critically of Lenin’s writings and the actions of the Bolsheviks in Russia. This would have increased the correspondence between what appeared in BF’s publications and the inclinations of most members.

There was a downside to this shunning of manipulation. BF was often extremely slow to recruit the people it worked with. There was a desire not to press people to join and a tendency to wait for them to take the initiative. A consequence of a suspicion of organisation was the absence of good administrative arrangements which would have made recruitment easier (for example, it took six months between the time I wrote to the national office expressing interest in BF and anyone contacting me). These issues which were all internal to BF were reinforced by the reluctance on the part of many of those whom BF members felt had shared the same politics to commit themselves to any national organisation. “Humanoid 2” (a BF member from its earliest days) has written “The fact is, BF had a penumbra of fellow travellers who didn’t actively take part. But it is amazing how many people claim that they were in BF…” (comment on Episode no 5).

The approach of putting class before party inevitably led to a prioritisation of local struggles over maintaining the national organisation. For many members devoting significant time to the tasks that kept things going at a national level (and there are many required, not just membership of the NC) was something they did reluctantly, if at all. Their allegiance was to their local BF branch, and their main involvement beyond that level was attending the approximately annual conferences. They may have believed in a national organisation rather than a federal one, but their practice more closely resembled support for the latter.

Reflecting back on BF, what gave it its distinctive character was the sort of people it recruited. Often with a lot of political experience, suspicious of proclaimed leaders, stubbornly independent and usually dedicated to carrying on working in a particular area of struggle. An intellectual argument can be made that BF could have been more effective and influential if it had been more disciplined and focused. However, given the membership it had there was never that much hope of this happening.

The “New Direction” current in Big Flame frequently felt impatience with members who arguments for autonomy for the commissions or local groups. They felt that such debates had been settled in 1974-75 (when BF became a national organisation) or 1978 (when it was decided that the NC should be elected), and should now be closed. The relationship of class and party is, however,  one that merits continuous discussion. As is the question of whether or not something larger than BF be ever be constructed from people from a “movementist” perspective? The Project was BF’s attempt to unify the movements, and it failed. As did the Beyond the Fragments (BTF) initiative a few years later (this involved a book with that title, followed by a conference and bulletin). This aimed to build up and co-ordinate networks rather than creating a new organisation, although it did target many of the same people. BTF stood a much better chance of success than the Project as it was less ambitious and did not come solely from a single small political group. Analysis of what happened with BTF would be of significant political benefit to anyone who would like to see something similar in the future. Unfortunately, I have been unable to find much that has been written about what happened after the book’s publication.

Lynne Segal in her book Is the Future Female? does include a brief discussion of BTF [note 15]. She makes two points. Different people took very different message from BTF (from enthusiastic endorsement of joining the Labour Party to opposition to all organisational and political structures, none of which were in the minds of the authors) and BTF took place at the time of a shift in the political climate (embodying the “last fading hopes” of the previous period). Thatcherism brought “disarray and despair”, a shift to “defensive protectionism”, and was instrumental in many people joining the Labour Party. I am not sure how important the first factor was. The title of the book should have made clear that it was about more than celebrating the fragments (although a lot more of the space in the book was devoted to negative examples of political organisation rather than positive ways of bringing people together). Would it have made much difference if the authors (and their immediate supporters) had been more upfront at the conference arguing for specific things to happen without abandoning their commitment to feminist open and democratic ways of organising things? Certainly the climate of early 80s was a key factor. Which leads on to a key question: Could something like BTF be more successful in a different political climate? (although as we may be on the verge of another period like Thatcherism, this may not be the best time to thing about repeating something like BTF).

BF members often talked about “our tendency” [note 16]. I sometimes wonder whether to some extent this was an imaginary construct. Sometimes this tendency was defined as a section of the working class “developed in the course of the struggle”. More commonly, it was identified in terms of a political perspective, being “based on the politics of class autonomy, and the struggle against work (wage-labour) in the waged workplace and in the community. Sometimes, notably in 1976, long lists were given of those identified as part of the tendency, either named individuals or those belonging to specific types of community or movement organisation. However, they often seem to have little in common apart from adhering to a form of non-Leninist, revolutionary politics or having recently broken from one of the Leninist groups. I doubt whether this in itself is sufficient to place them in the same tendency. Certainly it was not enough to expect them to be seriously interested in joining a new political organisation.

Looking back from the perspective of 30 years on, I am somewhat puzzled by the dichotomy of local good, national bad which was fundamental to the politics of the East London BF group of 1974-75, and was carried on to an extent by some members afterwards. I am referring to the structure for political organising, not the form of political activity (most forms of the latter are necessarily local). Even in the early federal days, there were significant differences within local groups as well as between groups. There is no reason to believe that you must share a unified political identity with others just because they live closer to you. ELBF was a case in point. A member from another group wryly recalled a meting with three people from ELBF representing “three of their eight tendencies” [Note 17]. Geographical proximity brings more regular contact and therefore the possibility of finding ways of working through differences. Another possibility is that they intensify and explode.

High Level of Internal Democracy

In the early Big Flame statements about the need for a revolutionary party in a transition to socialism seem to have been made without much contradiction. This was rendered easier by the absence of any discussion about when this might happen and what form the party might take. There were debates about how the organisation should function until this future was reached. The first major discussion was in 1975 when most members of the East London BF group decided they didn’t want to be part of an organisation which brought local groups together through a national newspaper, a statement of shared politics and a delegate NC (see Episode no 5). Whatever, the differences which were to emerge amongst those who remained, they all accepted the principle of collective responsibility operating across the organisation as a whole.

This still left open the exact set of internal arrangements. In 1978, there were members who didn’t agree with the Conference decision to agree a constitution which introduce an elected NC, and in the course of the debate some questioned the long term aim of a party (see Episode no 8). However, at no time did anyone in BF regard it as being the party, or anything more than a small part of something which might eventually come into being.

There was a partial echo of the 1974-75 debates in 1982-84 when some BF members started to favour the idea of a network over an organisation (see Episode no 30). However, none of the participants in the debate appear to have been in principle against the idea of a national organisation with collective decision making. The argument was pragmatic (the effort required to keep BF going as an organisation was not viable or even counterproductive). Or (in at least the case of one person) the previous form of organisation was no longer the most appropriate in the new phase of class struggle.

Some left groups ban tendencies. In many, which are theoretically democratic, there are abuses of the formal procedures. For example, opponents of the leadership are denied the ability to write in internal publications or obtain the address list of members. Meetings are packed and so on. BF functioned in a much more genuinely democratic manner. Even before there was a formal constitutional right for tendencies, there were meetings of those advocating the same political positions. Every article submitted to the Internal Discussion Bulletin was printed (no-one ever considered introducing any sort of mechanism for vetting any submission), and every motion submitted to the national Conference was tabled. While there was no central list of members’ names and addresses, it was always easy to communicate to the membership through each local group.

Big Flame managed to include within itself people with different political perspectives. The written record and the memories of those whom I have asked reveal no instance of anyone being expelled, or even disciplined on any grounds. I did come across one reference in a 1977 National Secretariat minute to someone being asked to leave, which he did, after he apparently stated that he disagreed with BF’s politics.

The flipside of some of these good characteristics was sometimes problematic. On some issues BF seemed unwilling to take a stance because of differences within the organisation. Sometimes this lack of clarity proved debilitating to the organisation. An absence of central direction contributed to a reduced effectiveness in such matters as internal communication, its interventions and political profile. A member of BF who joined it from the RMC and left in 1982 produced over the years some devastating criticisms of BF’s effectiveness [Note 18].

Max Farrar reports of his days in BF “very few of us cared too much about what the NC said” (comment on Episode no 12). There is a point where healthy suspicion of leaders can become unsupportive and undermining, and thus mean those people are less likely to achieve the tasks the organisation expects of them. One NC member whose experience was along these lines wrote that anyone standing for the NC was seen as a “power seeking baddie” and “one of the free floating middle class intellectuals who dominate left groups” [Note 19].

No organisational arrangements can override human behaviour. Big Flame’s membership included a number of confident, articulate, mostly male, people who jockeyed for influence on the organisation’s direction. They were not confined to a single current within it. It made no difference whether the NC was delegate or elected or, indeed, whether or not these individuals were even on it or not. An organisation can’t just be judged on whether there are formal or informal “leaders”, but how genuine and sustained are the efforts to involve a wider group of members in decision making. Big Flame was always trying.

Back in 1978 I voted to retain a delegate NC. Today I think that elections stand the better chance of greater democracy unless the constituent units for appointing delegates contain people of a united perspective. I do concede that for practical reasons the organisation might have been better advised to move towards a smaller NC earlier than it did. However, both the delegate and the elected options share the same belief in BF as a national political organisation. Whether this was better than the alternatives is a question I will return to towards the end of this article.

Largely comradely behaviour within and outside the Organisation

Many outside BF who worked alongside members in different struggles saw the organisation as “nicer” than the other left groups. Those who were part of BF would agree that internal behaviour was largely comradely. For example the 1981 the conference debate and split in the organisation was conducted in a civilised manner.

It would be wrong to see BF as perfect. Max Farrar whilst in agreement with the previous paragraph qualified it by writing: “For all BF’s ‘the personal is political’ mantra, we never really understood this; we never had the self-knowledge nor the self-criticism which helps us overcome our egotism and authoritarianism. (Yes, the BF men were worse at doing this than were the women, but the women weren’t perfect either)” (comment on Opinions no 3).

The years which have passed probably mean that for some instances of personal attacks and other uncomradely behaviour are now forgotten, although for others they remain vivid. I do believe that the problem was much less frequent then in other left groups, and those responsible were often criticised at the time for their behaviour.

Awareness of Divisions of Class, Gender and Race, and support for autonomous organisation

The impact of feminism on Big Flame did not come without a whole series of skirmishes, including a threat by women to leave the organisation. I do believe that BF as a whole was more open to learning from feminism than any other mixed left group in Britain at the time. It believed that there were divisions within the working class on the basis of race, gender, skill, etc which had a material basis rather than being a matter of false consciousness. It supported the autonomous organisation of woman, black and gay people. It made efforts to come to grips with the personal being political. All these positions were not that widespread or successfully embedded in the British left of the time (see Episodes nos 4, 17 to 21, and 29).

BF lacked a clear idea of how groups which are oppressed on a different basis might come together to fight for socialism. At times it seemed to believe that those suffering one form of oppression will automatically support those oppressed on a different basis, which clearly isn’t the case. BF was supportive of the various Marxist and socialist tendencies within the black movement, but it never found a way of working effectively with those tendencies, and its enthusiasm for black autonomy meant that it never made any attempt to recruit black members.

It was also never really clear about what it meant by the autonomy of women within the organisation (see Opinions no 4). This became especially tricky with issues where BF women were to an extent divided e.g. over an independent state income for women, and over whether men should have a role in the National Abortion Campaign (see Episodes nos 4 and 12). Did autonomy really mean that a Women’s Commission meeting, usually with less than a dozen or often no more than half dozen attendees), should be able to overturn a decision of the last conference (with many more women voting)? Fortunately for BF its position on autonomy was never fully tested. The women in the organisation were able to resolve amongst themselves both of the issues mentioned.

Two BF members (one man, one woman) argued that there were those in BF who would endorse everything anyone in the women’s liberation movement said, including crude anti-men attitudes [Note 20]. Some people today would go much further and criticise BF’s for adhering to what is now labelled “identity politics”. It would be wrong to suggest that there were any women in BF who took a “revolutionary” or “radical” feminist” position (as opposed to a socialist feminist one). They wouldn’t have been in a mixed group like BF. However, being influenced by feminist ideas and supporting autonomy shouldn’t necessarily mean agreeing with, or not feeling able to speak out against, all the ideas and actions coming from members of an oppressed group, or from an organisation set up to represent it. Nevertheless, I can’t recall examples of this ever happening.

Certainly there were quite a few men in BF who felt unable to challenge anything said by the women in the organisation, and some men who made statements at times which verged on self-hatred of their sex. Looking back on BF not everything done in the name of feminism can be fully endorsed. I remember a scene at a Summer School educational when a male speaker took a lot of stick for his patriarchal approach for wanting to separate himself off from other in the room by having in front of him a table for his notes. This is just humorous now, but totally serious at the time.

What things about BF are not of value?

In addition to some aspects of Big Flame which had both a positive and a negative side, there were others which were more or less entirely negative. Many of the things I will mention were by no means unique to BF. Rather they were fairly widespread on the left at the time.

Hyperactivity and Burnout

An article in Revolutionary Socialism discusses how many activists come into politics prepared to sustain an incredibly high level of political activity, giving little space in their lives for anything else. This leads to burn a few years later [Note 21]. This experience was probably not uncommon in Big Flame in its early days. It wasn’t, however, the ethos of the local group I was part of from the late 1970s to early 1980s. This is no doubt something varied between different local groups as well as over time. Others I’ve spoken to do feel burnt out by their time in BF. The view of one former member as expressed to me is that “activism” in the general used in BF was “unbelievably moralistic” and “holier than thou”. This is an example of where statements about “the personal is political” were sometimes superficial. Developing the personal requires time and space for just that, personal development.

Failure to Recruit and Retain Working Class People

It was no doubt unrealistic to expect a major influx of working class people into a left group like Big Flame. Nevertheless this is exactly what the early BF expected. In reality, as discussed above, not many of Big Flame’s members were ever working class. The lack of working class members was always seen as a major problem. Major efforts were made to encourage and support the working class members who did join. Obviously the cultural gap they faced as part of the organisation was a major contributing factor. It has to be acknowledged that some fundamental aspects of BF politics would have presented a barrier to many male, and some female, militants. The emphasis on anti-sexism and personal politics would have been unfamiliar and probably challenging to them. More generally BF members must have seemed a very strange bunch of people, at least initially.

If many of the working class people who joined BF didn’t stay the course, this issue needs to be seen as part of an overall problem of burn out and turnover of membership amongst BF as well as other left groups. No doubt the problems with recruitment increased in the later BF years as the organisation spent more time introspectively discussing its state of crisis. As one member said when she decided to reduce her status to that of a sympathiser: ”not many women and fewer working class people join us. Why? Personally, I stopped trying to recruit anyone, and especially those two groupings, long ago. Because I though we had nothing to offer them. The few working class people who do keep struggling on against all the odds tell me that they cannot bring themselves to involve militant working class people they know who are looking for an organisation to get involved with” [note 22].

Self Censorship in holding back from making Criticisms

I mentioned above the absence of criticisms of any current within the women’s movement. The same applies to international solidarity. The 1980 Big Flame Conference agreed a nuanced position on international solidarity which made support unconditional but reserved the right to make public criticisms on the basis of a set of specified grounds. A year later the Conference agreed to apply the same stance to Irish solidarity (see Episode no 9 for the full position). However, it is difficult to find any examples of the right to criticism being applied. One exception is an article “What Future for Zimbabwe Now” in Revolutionary Socialism no 6 Winter 1980-81 (now available at http://www.labournet.net/world/0806/zimbab4.html). This made what now seem fairly mild criticisms of the Mugabe Government. This was apparently strongly criticised by some BF members at the time as verging on being racist or imperialist because it included criticisms.

I am aware that there are issues in a predominantly male group criticising women’s organisations or a predominantly white group criticising black organisations or anti-imperialist movements. Nevertheless, where criticisms are appropriate they should be made. Failure to make them can devalue an organisation’s claims to represent the sort of values it advocates for a future socialist society.

Failure to provide Internal Education

Big Flame’s emphasis on learning through practice and the suspicion of many members of “intellectuals” made it to a certain extent anti-theory. This and its emphasis on the local, will have contributed to the organisation’s failure to adequately implement an internal education programme across the organisation as a whole. No doubt there were a lot of pockets of good practice in several local groups. This is not to say there weren’t serious efforts. Over the years a succession of national Education Organisers were appointed, and they worked away preparing internal education programmes – both materials and guidelines. For reasons I do not clearly understand their plans never seemed to come to fruition and a functioning programme delivered. No doubt time problems on the part of those commissioned to write documents played a major role.

Ambiguous Attitude to the Chinese Cultural Revolution

Not all the original members of Big Flame took the Chinese Cultural Revolution as a source for inspiration, and certainly very few of those joining by the mid 1970s did. However, BF took a fairly supportive position towards China in 1976, seeing it as “building socialism”. It later backtracked on this position and saw it as “state collectivist” along with the USSR and Eastern European countries. I find most of the left to be too quick to find fault with any country trying to replace capitalism, ignoring all the practical problems they inevitably face in favour of abstract standards. There is an expectation that everything will change immediately, rather than a long process of simultaneous compromise and contestation.

Nevertheless, I accept that the BF’s criticisms of Chinese developments did not go far enough. Despite this, applying the label “Soft Maoist” to BF, as some Trotskyists and the SWP has done, gives a very misleading impression of its politics (see Episode no 7 for a fuller discussion of BF’s position on China and the label “Soft Maoist”).

Strategy for a Transition to Socialism

The early Big Flame underestimated the hold of reformism and of the traditional institutions of the labour movement. It was assumed that these would be swept away in a tide of militancy. The emphasis was on building a mass movement. A crucial identity of BF members was that they were revolutionaries as opposed to reformists, and this made them suspicious of those interested in political activity within the state. At a time of an upsurge in working class struggle such as the early 1970s those with such interests could be easily dismissed. What BF’s perspective lacked was any reflection on how to bridge the gap between immediate struggles and a strategy for the transition to socialism.

For the autonomists of today (in many ways the equivalents of the libertarians BF counterposed itself against in the 1970s), the lack of a strategy isn’t a problem. The revolution cannot be predicted. It is the sum of all the diverse struggles underway against the current order. These need to stay outside any form of institutions unless they become tainted. They cannot be organised. Any talk of a strategy is about some people doing the thinking for other people. Whatever the differences which existed within BF, I assume that everyone would distance themselves from autonomism in its purest form.

An important part of any strategy is the approach socialists should take to developments at the level of the state, particularly the actions of a reforming government? In fairness we need to recognise that BF’s analysis of events in Chile did include some discussion of how the actions of such a government opened up space for popular power initiatives amongst the mass movements (see Opinions no 1 and Episode no 10).

The “New Direction” current in 1980 in the guise of “Tendency One” appreciated that there was a problem which needed to be addressed, and tried to develop an understanding of reformism and advocated “transitional politics” (see Episode no 22). This transitional politics, they argued, particularly needed to be applied to industrial struggles. What was required were alternative economic strategies (which would not, they maintained, be the same as the AES developed by the Communist Party and the Labour left, and which was in vogue at the time) and counter planning in the workplace (along the lines of Lucas Aerospace plan) and for particular sectors (e.g. health). Whist plans have a role in defensive struggles and in propaganda for socialism, they can’t really be the major basis for winning people to socialism. It is difficult to envisage a strategy for the left being predominantly based on producing such documents.

By the next year some members of “Tendency One” had become the “Group of Nine” (whilst others had gone in a different direction with “Emerald Street”). They had a news focus – joining the Labour Party (see Episode no 27). I see a decision on whether to join the Labour Party as a tactical issue. A lot of arguments could be advanced on both sides about the merits of doing this or not in the early 1980s (it would be much, much harder to make the case in today’s situation), but any proper strategy needs to contain much more than a view on this tactic. The “Group of Nine” gave little indication what they would do once in the Labour Party to avoid the trap of reformism.

It is easy to criticise the “New Direction” current (or indeed the “Autonomist” one) for having no strategy for the transition to socialism. As I will readily admit, I don’t have one either. A lot is often made by people on the left of their self identity as “revolutionary” socialists. However, this side of the anticipated revolution, what distinguishes their practice? On a day-to-day basis these proclaimed revolutionaries do much the same sort of things as the reformists they denounce (e.g. selling papers, going on demos, engaging in struggles over limited demands, etc). They only differ in their use of a fiercer level of rhetoric about their rivals, often labelled reformists or fake revolutionaries.

Big Flame writers were extremely critical of the initiatives of left Labour Councils in the 1980s (see Episode no 28). I accept that they were right to see these efforts as problematic and unsuccessful. Then, so were most struggles of the period. The issue is whether the local state as an institution where progressive efforts are automatically doomed. It is certainly not a neutral area for struggle. I agree that struggles come against the whole ethos and ways of working which are embedded in state institutions (which redirect attempts at radical changes back along safe lines), and are likely to be difficult and flawed. However, I wouldn’t want to rule out totally the prospect of them opening up some form of political space for the left.

I would like to see a very different form of society, and remain sceptical about the achievement of socialism by reforms. Despite my pessimism about the chances of success when socialists try to use the state, I can’t see how any mass movement for change could arise in most countries in the world without significant conflict within the state apparatus. We in Britain today are a long way from such a situation. We need to take actions in the meantime and the reform/revolution dichotomy doesn’t provide much of a useful standard to judging the value of different interventions. I tend to use the much less exacting standard – does something potentially help promote socialist ideas or achieve some form of victory for working people. In terms of both objectives, I believe (and indeed believed 30 years ago) that some kind of gains (plus the potential for defeats) are possible both within the institutions of capitalist society and by those pressuring them from outside.

It is in this context that the Big Flame discussion on the Labour Party should be judged. As previously mentioned, I think that Labour Party membership is tactical question. To be determined by what is happening in the party and the alternatives available at any particular time (and the early 1980s were a very different time to today). If there is ever to be any mass socialist movement in Britain, it will bring together people who are now inside and outside the Labour Party. My views at the time were that the Labour Party was like a trade union, a tenants’ association and many other institutions. In them you would find many people whose politics was far from on the left, membership meant spending time on largely unpolitical activity, but there were opportunities for engaging in or supporting struggles. I am glad today that in 1982-94 I was active in the Labour Party, despite many defeats experienced on the way. Being active elsewhere would probably have been even more depressing. What I do accept now, contrary to what I argued in 1981, is that BF wouldn’t have been able to function effectively with some members in and some out of Labour (as plenty of other groups have managed to achieve). On both sides of the argument too many people saw the argument as one of principle. They either saw Labour Party membership as inherently reformist or felt it was the only place to be.

If BF was valuable, why did it only last 13 years?

As argued above, the decline of Big Flame was evident from 1981 onwards, if not before. However, the reasons for this were not necessarily inadequacies in its theory or practice.

At the time of the 1981 conference BF had 125 members. Of the 83 people who voted at the conference, less than 30% supported the pro-joining the Labour Party motion. The numbers who then actually left BF were probably less. Say around 20% (see Episode no 27). This included a number of experienced members, some of whom had been in the organisation for considerable periods of time. Several of those who departed had made a priority of the tasks required to keep BF going as a national organisation. However, given the numbers who remained in BF in 1981, replacing those who left was far from an insurmountable problem.

I was not a member of BF after 1981, but I have discussed this period with supporters of both “Emerald Street” and “Facing the Challenge” groupings. Some of them have said similar things about 1982-84: there was “a sense the organisation was doomed”, it “was less instantly traumatic but deadly – like a tyre being punctured and slowly losing all its air” or “the camel may have taken 3 more years to die but its back was broken”. On the other hand I am sure that there are others who continued to be active in BF in its last years rather than drifting away, who would want to disagree and make a more positive assessment.

There are a lot of factors which explain why BF came to an end as a significant national organization around 1984 (leaving various fragments which, as mentioned above, carried on for a few years after that – see Episode no 30).

  • An argument can be made that something like 10-15 years might constitute the natural life of most left groups. Paul Anderson (a member of another small left group from the same era Solidarity) has suggested that left groups decline because “small core groups of hyper-prolific writer-activists that gave them political coherence and a public face (leaders, in other words, though the term was anathema) either decided that there were better ways of doing politics or retired from the fray altogether” (comment on Who We Were). Many members had accumulated family or other commitments. They feel worn out. In the case of BF the disagreements which once were a source of creative development, were now stale and repetitive. Some members start to think that their ideas might have more impact in a new environment. Others begin to give more priority to things outside politics. When these things happen, groups tend to shrink and then fall apart.
  • Many people in BF were frustrated with its size, feeling that its politics should lead to larger support. As mentioned above, it had always been surrounded by a large penumbra substantially bigger than itself, both because the reluctance of many of those who BF members referred to as “our tendency” (i.e. those who shared its politics) to engage in more than local struggles and a certain diffidence towards recruitment. Despite initiatives like the Project (see Episode no 11), BF membership numbers had long ago peaked and there had been a steady decline. The desire to be part of something which involved larger numbers, was a key reason some people left.
  • The loss of about 20% of the membership after the 1981 Conference may not by itself been enough to bring BF to an end. However, there is a dynamic between the size of a national political organisation and the resources required to sustain it. It is perfectly possible for a group of less than 100 to function as a source of support and education. The problem comes with sustaining all the paraphernalia of a national organisation – a functioning NC, a monthly paper, a regular journal, an array of Commissions, etc. Particularly in an organisation where most members held local struggles closest to their hearts, with the tasks of a national organisation a distant second. BF doesn’t seem to have tried adjusting to its reduced numbers and having many tired members by being less ambitious. Aspects of BF were abandoned only reluctantly, when there was no other option e.g. the suspension of production of the paper. As such things disappeared, the decline accelerated. This extract from a letter of resignation from BF provides a good illustration of the issues: “I was disappointed that there wasn’t a firm decision [at a weekend meeting on the crisis in BF] to take on fewer priorities. The old priorities instead were restated in their usual broad terms, and commitments made to revive all the commissions – no change equals same old problems (in my local branch too, members hardly ever would change their areas of work so that more people could be working on the same thing and the branch as a whole on fewer areas)” [Note 23].
  • The space between the different currents in Big Flame had grown wider over time. In 1977 it was possible for both groupings to work together on the production of a pamphlet which they both identified with – Towards a New Revolutionary Socialist Organisation: A Draft Manifesto for Discussion. Two years later there was another pamphlet – Labouring Under the Tories – whose ideas of “transitional politics” and “alternative plans” were never really accepted by some in the organisation [Note 24]. Whilst some of those sympathetic to the ideas contained in the latter pamphlet left BF to join the Labour Party, others remained as the core of the “Emerald Street” tendency. The departure of some members after the 1981 Conference did not mean that there were no longer major differences. The main thing which had united them was opposition to Labour Party membership. The Conference vote rejecting this path didn’t address a widespread feeling that the organisation lacked coherence, and was drifting without direction. The two remaining tendencies (“Facing the Challenge” and “Emerald Street”) appear both to have stopped meeting in the course of 1982. However, that doesn’t mean that those who had supported them had reached any form of agreement on perspectives for BF.
  • The departures in 1981 were not the only significant changes occurring to its membership. The political currents which carried on were also affected. Often it was not a matter of people leaving, but rather of being much less active. The prominent figures in “Facing the Challenge” in 1981 were already a different set of people than those of “Plan X” in 1976, despite both being attempts to restate the same politics. Many of the people who had been most active in “Emerald Street” when it was launched left BF around 1982-83, or took a much less active role in the organisation. As a result very few of those active in BF by 1983 (judged by who was on the National Committee, regular attenders at Commissions or the writers in internal publications) were members of BF before 1977. In fact, many had joined much later. In some organisations an influx of new people can be invigorating. In this case, the new generation of activists were less successful than their predecessors in presenting political ideas in an interesting and inspiring way. Those who remained confident in the BF political tradition failed to find a way of recasting it for the 1980s. Those who wanted to move away from the tradition, never developed their alternative. In the absence of either, the remaining BF membership was mostly only united by commonly held criticisms of those who had left and other left groups, and this wasn’t sufficient.
  • As mentioned above, from the late 1970s some in BF started to worry about a crisis facing the organisation. Judging by National Committee minutes and other internal documents this mood became much more pronounced into the 1980s. A self confident, outward looking approach was more and more replaced by self absorbed, negative feelings. This mood must have further undermined the organisation.
  • In so far as there was a focus for BF in its last years, this was an attempt to write a programme (see Episode no 30). This doesn’t seem to have progressed much beyond the discussion of some draft sections. Many felt that the discussions were taking too long and drawing attention away from other activity. During 1983-84 membership numbers fell as some people left BF to focus exclusively on their local political work.
  • The 1980s was a demoralising period, with a downturn in working class struggles reinforced by the defeat of the miners. A political malaise much wider than BF came with the rise of Thatcherism, and neo-liberalism in general. Many local initiatives collapsed, and other revolutionary left groups experienced problems. For example, the IMG/Socialist League fell apart from 1985 onwards.
  • BF’s style of politics was more vulnerable to this downturn. Leninism and Trotskyism groups’ commitment to “their” theory and “their” party tended to make them better equipped for retrenchment. Many had experienced downturns before, and survived, because of their unquestioned commitment to their “true path”.  BF tried to adjust to the new situation, but was unable to find an agreed way of doing this.

If BF was valuable, why have there been no similar organisations since?

It is now more than 25 years since Big Flame reached it end. Over that period there have been no organisations in Britain, as far as I am aware, that, consciously or unconsciously, adopted a similar theory or practice. On the other hand, the number of orthodox Leninist groups which have come (and in many cases gone) is far too many to recall.

The political group which was the biggest influence on BF, Lotta Continua (LC), collapsed earlier in 1977. Since then LC’s politics have been carried on in Italy to a certain extent in the amorphous movement – the “area of autonomy”. However, many of those involved in “movementism” would not look at LC as a model. Indeed many would be pretty dismissive about it.

In my view there are real issues about the value of becoming a member of a national political group. I fully accept the arguments about a need for organisation in any transformation to socialism. However in a situation when such a transformation seems far from close, I can see why many feel a lack of urgency about joining organised groups, particularly national ones. Is it really worth devoting so much energy of keeping going groups of a couple hundred people or less when it is failing to achieve anything like the impact the members would like?

From around 1982 onwards a debate re-emerged in BF which paralleled the one in 1975 about whether BF should remain a federal organisation. This time the alternative was a network, and by 1984 the organisation was fairly evenly split between supporters of BF remaining as it was or changing into a network (see Episode no 30). Some might want to ask if BF might been better off if it had never become a national organisation. By this I mean a group with agreed perspectives (what is happening and what should be done), agreed priorities (what members should do in their political work) and agreed interventions (attempts to influence the left in general or specific campaigns). However to discuss Big Flame should have followed a network rather than an organisation path doesn’t have much value. It was what it was, and this reflected the views of a large majority of those involved from 1975 to 1984. There is no way of knowing whether it might have lasted a longer or shorter time if it had been a network, or whether those who part of it might have achieved more or less in their political work.

My personal choice since BF has been to not join anything else (apart from for a time the Labour Party, but that was a different sort of beast), so I am not in a position to criticise the lack of successors. If this sounds like I have adopted the perspective of BF’s penumbra, at least I can say I tried the once. I certainly don’t regret my BF experience. Indeed I am very glad that it happened. But I have felt no inclination to find a new group in which to repeat it. For orthodox Leninists the need to form parties is self evident. For others it is probably more a matter of assessing options at the time. This I think is one of the key reasons why there have been no successors to BF.

Conclusion

I was a member of Big Flame for only 4 years, approximately 30 years ago. During the last of those years I tended to adopt the “BF is in a dire crisis” way of looking at the organisation, and wrote things in Discussion Bulletins that were fairly negative. However looking back I now see BF as a key part of my political formation. I also believe that BF should be of interest to people who didn’t live through the experience. What is very clear is that BF was a national organisation of a very different type to the others around at the time (despite some members making positive references to Lenin, or even using the phrase “democratic centralism”). At the same time it never grew larger than a miniscule size, and ultimately disappeared with little trace.

Reflecting back on what I have written, I have clearly not presented BF as having fully worked out answers to all the issues socialists face. Rather I have paid a lot of attention to its difficulties – what it didn’t succeed in doing, self doubts and questioning, the internal differences, etc. Part of Big Flame’s attraction was that for the most part its members didn’t think they had everything sorted out, and that its path was a dynamic, irregular journey. Indeed, the membership was often divided and lacking clear ideas about which way it should go. This, though, is far preferable to the single-minded, dogmatic certainty of much of the left.

For some the attraction of BF is what it wasn’t. It didn’t have many of the characteristics which put many off left groups of the time and since. I would want to make a more positive case for the importance of its legacy. It is true that no aspect of Big Flame’s politics or practice was unique to it. What makes it interesting and different is that they were to be found in a left organisation, when they more commonly appear amongst new social movements. It also brought together some diverse, if not contradictory, strands:

  • Giving support to the working class, as well as the autonomous movements of women, black people, etc.
  • Participating in workplace struggles, struggles in the community, and in members’ own personal lives.
  • Wanting to learn from the working class and oppressed groups, while thinking its politics and experience could contribute something to these struggles.
  • Trying to be very democratic and open in the way it functioned, but also seeking to make organised, directed interventions.

This all resulted in a lot of confusion and problems. Nevertheless the organisation did remain together for around a decade and a half. During that time many of its members, collectively or individually, made significant contributions to the struggles of the day in ways which were democratic and non-manipulative. It is this practice, rather than the theory, which I think was the best thing about BF.

Big Flame was wiped out at a time of extreme difficulty for the left in Britain. Vic Seidler in his book Recreating Sexual Politics discusses the withdrawal from the politics of the 1970s, itself inspired by 1968, when faced with the new situation of the 1980s: “Unfortunately, there was often a turning away from people’s experience rather than a critical learning from it. Surprisingly little has been written about this period. … There has been a turning away towards more theoretical work and a reassessment of traditional forms of politics. This seems to make more sense in the changed political climate of Thatcherism” [Note 25]. The fortieth anniversary of 1968 created a lot of interest about the events of that year, but there has still been little attention to what happened in the years which followed to the movements inspired by those events. Big Flame is an example of a left group whose politics bore the imprint of the 60s and which did not survive the 80s. I see this website and the book about BF planned by ex-members as ways of addressing the task of understanding what happened to the group, and to help draw attention to some forms of politics and practice which deserve wider attention today.

Former Big Flame members today occupy a lot of different political spaces. The overwhelming majority are today in no national organisation. However, they haven’t turned their backs on socialism or feminism and are involved in some form or forms of political activity. No doubt there are exceptions, but in my efforts to track down ex-members I haven’t come across them. Some people will see this adherence to a wide variety of different positions across the spectrum of the left as proof of flaws in Big Flame’s politics. I see it as not surprising in the light of several decades having passed and the interesting range of people drawn to BF. The organisation may never have contained more than around 150 members at any one time. Over its lifetime the numbers who passed through must approach a thousand. I suspect that for most of them, in one way or another, their politics today bear traces of their time in BF.

As well as this legacy in terms of people, Big Flame left an important physical legacy in the body of literature it left behind. The old documents now available on this website are intended to convey the variety of different topics, and of different writing styles. The pamphlets may be the best known BF products. However, the paper and the journal were far better than their readership numbers might suggest. Then there were a whole series of Bulletins based around particular interventions, particularly from the early Merseyside days, (e.g. Ford Halewood Bulletin, Dockside Bulletin, Irish Bulletin, Women’s Struggle Notes) which often tend to be forgotten. Finally I regard the Internal Bulletin/Discussion Bulletin (this is the same thing, the name was changed from the former to the latter) as one of BF’s greatest strengths. The person responsible for printing the Bulletin once wrote: “the overall quality of ideas in the bulletin exceeds that of all the other regular publications Big Flame produces”. He attributes this to the relationship between the readers and writers permitting mass involvement. The content of the Discussion Bulletin was subject to the direct control of its audience [Note 26]. This is why the “Episodes in Big Flame” series has made available a lot of the internal material as well as the external publications.

Of course Big Flame documents were products of their time, bound up with events and debates which are different from those of today. There are many ways in which things have changed since the 1970s and 80s. These differences need to be recognised in any attempt to draw on the BF experience. Any learning from BF also needs to look at new opportunities which have emerged since the 1970s and 80s. To take an apparently trivial example, something as simple as email can make a tremendous difference. BF members spent long hours on trains or in cars attending various forms of national get-togethers. If they couldn’t afford to travel (despite the pooled fares) they ended up feeling isolated.

BF documents need to be read in the light of all the difference and changes. But they are worth reading. This is why I believe this website can play a very useful role. I hope this post will contribute to a continuing debate to identify which ideas and forms of activity associated with BF are worth examining and trying to develop further today.

Notes:

[1] The organisation’s existence did register in many different places at the time, especially when its size is taken into consideration. The most entertaining mentions I have come across were in a the House of Lords speech: “one of the more inflammatory groups … [they] try to seize on every incident, grievance and other cause, however small, as a vehicle for war on the bosses and capitalism” (Hansard 26th February 1975) and in a News of the World exposure: “Out to organise demonstrations in two of Britain’s most vital factories. … [its scheme is for] Ford workers should become the Red Guards of British Industry” (29th October 1972).

[2] For discussions of the crisis in BF see the minutes of the National Committee (NC) meetings in April 1982, August 1982, October 1983 and February 1984. The October 1982 NC felt the need to issue a statement on the state of the organisation with the message: “Big Flame is working again”.

[3] The first set of quotations are from “Report of a London Meeting to discuss Has Big Flame got a Future”, Discussion Bulletin Nov 1978 and “Problems Facing BF: Some Considerations” Discussion Bulletin Jan 1979. The second set are from “Something to Think About” Discussion Bulletin Jan 1979, “Letter of Resignation from Big Flame Newspaper Collective” Discussion Bulletin June 1980, and “Resignation Statement from Four West London Members” Discussion Bulletin April 1981.

[4] The overall membership figures come from reports to Conference, apart from those for 1982 from a NC Report, and for 1985 from a Circular to members.

[5] The branch figures come from two surveys: “Building Big Flame: A report by the AC to the National Conference” 1978 and “National Committee Report on the State of Big Flame” Discussion Bulletin Sept 1981 (note: the latter focuses on regular attenders rather than members and does not include isolated members), or from reports by individual local groups to the Conference.

[6] The quotation is from “The Class Struggle of Women: Report to the Women’s Commission” July 1974. The other figures for the proportion of women members come from the 1981 survey mentioned in Note 3, the 1982 NC report and 1985 Circular mentioned in note 2, and a 1984 report to Conference.

[7] “Has Big Flame got a Future?” Discussion Bulletin Oct 1978.

[8] At the NC in April 1982 the two “Facing the Challenge” supporters on the NC respond to a comment that BF doesn’t take anti-imperialist struggles sufficiently seriously with: “The organisation takes nothing seriously”.

[9] “Socialist Unity and a New Political Direction for Big Flame” Internal Bulletin Supplement Oct 1977 and “Big Flame and the Labour Party – A New Political Direction?” Discussion Bulletin May 1981.

[10] “Towards a New Communist Movement” conference document 1976. 

[11] This is also the position of someone generally very critical of BF’s traditional politics. See “Has Big Flame got a Future?” op cit.

[12] “The Draft Constitution and ‘Democratic Centralism: Some Thoughts” Conference document 1978.

[13] “Why we, too, are pissed off with Big Flame” Discussion Bulletin Sept 1981.

[14] “Letter of Resignation from Big Flame/Letter of Resignation as Big Flame Education Organiser” Discussion Bulletin June-July 1982. The comment is directed towards the “Autonomist” current in BF. However, I can recall not too dissimilar views being expressed by a prominent figure in the “New Direction” current.

[15] Lynne Segal Is the Future Female? Troubled Thoughts on Contemporary Feminism (London: Virago, 1987) pp56, 208-10.

[16] See Plan X documents such as “Towards a New Communist Movement” op cit and Facing the Challenge documents such as “Facing the Challenge of the 80s” Discussion Bulletin October 1981. The most interesting discussion of the term can be found in “Do we have A Future? The meaning of Tendency” (conference document 1976).

[17] “Marcello Has Gone” Internal Bulletin Sept 1977.

[18] See “Problems Facing BF: Some Considerations” Discussion Bulletin Jan 1979 and “Letter of Resignation from Big Flame/Letter of Resignation as Big Flame Education Organiser” ibid.

[19] “Letter of Resignation from NC” Discussion Bulletin March 1979.

[20] “Why we, too, are pissed off with Big Flame” Discussion Bulletin Sept 1981.

[21] “1968: Ten Years On” Revolutionary Socialism No2 Spring 1978. See also “Crisis of the Revolutionary Left in Europe” Revolutionary Socialism No5 Summer 1980. Both documents are available via link from Episode no 16).

[22] “Letter of Resignation” Discussion Bulletin Sept 1982.

[23] ibid. The minutes of an NC meeting in October 1983 reflect similar views: “We should concentrate on 1 or 2 issues because of our size. We are not capable of thinking all the other issues as well” and “we should concentrate on 3 or 4 areas at most”.

[24] A key figure in “Facing the Challenge” talked about Labouring Under the Tories in 1983 as “that terrible pamphlet” and dismissed “the battle of ideas, ideologies, alternative plans and similar wishful thinking” by counterposing them to “solid working class organising” (Letter to the Newspaper Collective in Information Bulletin 1 August 1983.

[25] Victor J. Seidler Recreating Sexual Politics: Men, Feminism and Politics (London: Routledge, 1991) p195.

[26] Note on inside front cover Discussion Bulletin March 1980.

Click here to see this text in PDF format: Big Flame’s Legacy: What is of value and what isn’t

 

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One Response to “OPINIONS ABOUT BIG FLAME no 5: KEVIN McDONNELL”

  1. archivearchie said

    The post includes an estimate of “about 20%” for the proportion of BF members who left the organisation after the 1981 Conference to join the Labour Party.

    I have come across a contemporary document which provides a more accurate figure. An observer from the Chartist magazine who attended the conference wrote a report on it which appeared in Chartist News and Views (Vol 2) No 1 (January 82). He indicates that the 24 people who supported the pro-Labour Party (LP)membership motion met and 15 of them indicated they would resign from BF and join their local Constituency LPs. Compared to the total membershuip of 125, this represents 12% rather than 20%.

    A few of those who had left BF earlier also became LP members, and a few of those who left later (including some who voted for different strategy motions) also spent time in the LP. Nevertheless, the information above confirms that LP membership something which never gained the support of more than a small minority of BF members.

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