Big Flame



Posted by archivearchie on June 9, 2010

In an earlier post I drew attention to a couple of websites which, like this one, documented the activities of a political organisation – the Sojourner Truth Organization in the USA. This led to an interesting series of comments where sites for other groups were mentioned. In this post I want to draw attention to some sites which reflect on another aspect of the politics of the period – student protest.

I have found two websites (and would be very interested to hear about more). They are:

An Emotional Involvement which covers the March 1970 occupation of Senate House at Liverpool University.

Essex 68 which covers the events at Essex University in 1968, particularly the occupation in May.

Both websites are an interesting mixture of documents and photos from the period and modern reflections back on the events. Both held reunions to bring together some of those involved.

I would also like to mention what I think is the best book about student protest of the 1960s and 1970s: Ronald Fraser 1968: A Student Generation in Revolt (London: Chatto and Windus, 1988). It is based on hundreds of interviews with activists – not just in the UK but also from Europe and the USA. Tapes and transcripts of the interviews were donated to the British Library in London, and most are available for public access (although one person who went on to became a Government Minister did withdraw his interview!).

Incidentally, both the websites include reflections (and the book an interview) with people who were later members of Big Flame.

Archive Archie

13 Responses to “1960s AND 70s STUDENT PROTEST: SOME WEBSITES”

  1. max farrar said

    Thanks Archie. These were formative experiences for me, as for many others who joined the far left in the late sixties and early seventies. Even Jack Straw (notoriously New Labour) nominally led the sit-in at Leeds University in the 1967- 1968 academic year, just before I arrived there. BBC Radio 4 recently reminded its listeners of the 40th anniversary of the Kent State These murders, like Mayor Daley’s assault on the anti-Vietnam War protesters at the Democratic Party Convention in 1968 alerted us to just how brutal the state could be when it felt itself to be seriously threatened.

  2. archivearchie said

    Thanks, Max, for your comments. 1960s/1970s student protests have had a bad press. Not least from the left. Notions like “red bases” have been sneered at, and the whole thing seen as naive and irrelevant compared to the “real” struggles elsewhere. The importance of these student movements is bigger than the fact that many of those involved went on to be part of the left (some through all the decades until today). As the Ronald Fraser book I mention argues the movement in Britain contributed largely to increasing the internationalism and focus on personal life amongst the left. Ideas developed as part of counter-course element of the movement led to a flowering of radical academic publications in the 70s (from economics to philosophy to history and so on). Above all, as with and other offspring of 1968, there was an new anti-authoritarianism and utopianism underlying this movement. This was greatly missed when left politics became more “realistic” and adopted more traditional forms in the 70s and, to a greater extent, the 80s. So for all the sillyness and errors it is easy to see when we look back, these are times and movements worth remembering. Which is why I was so pleased to discover these two fascinating websites.

    • max farrar said

      All good points, Archie, and when we do the book about Big Flame, you must make sure that all this goes into the legacy. In some ways, BF was the embodiment of the best things about the student movement, and the best things about the working class movement. I suspect we inherited the defects of both, as well.

  3. archivearchie said

    Max, any thoughts on what you think were the main defects Big Flame inhereted?

    • max farrar said

      Well, off the top of my head, I’d say the defects we inherited from the student movement included an unbridled optimism (about human nature, about the capacity for people to change, about the revolutionary process itself) and an almost equally unbridled arrogance (we were cleverer and more committed than everyone else). Perhaps these are simply the defects of our excessive youthfulness! From the workers’ movement, we inherited at least some of its economism and its workerism (ie the reduction of politics to the economic dimension and the faith that the working class was the potential salvation. For all our efforts to overcome this, aspects of BF were economistic, and those of us who were middle class – the overwhelming majority! – did tend to fetishise the working class in general and our w/c members in particular, because of our intense belief that the w/c would, and should, lead the revolution. I do hope these remarks stir us some controversy!

  4. archivearchie said

    There is a lot here I could respond to. However, I’ll focus mainly on one point – the optimism.

    My starting point is similar to that of the author of the “Opinions about Big Flame no5” post – a lot of BF strengths were simultaneously weaknesses.

    Optimism in a good thing in the sense of the best of the utopian spirit of 69 – challenge everything, have a vision that things could be different – which has been ditched in the more “realistic” times which followed. When we rarely think about such things and any visions as exist are very limited.

    Optimism is ok where it means holding on to a belief in getting there despite the distance which has to be travelled and all the difficulties in the way. As the phrase goes – pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.

    Optimism is not all right when it means acting in the belief change is easy and will happen tomorrow (as no doubt some did in the 60s and 70s).

    Incidentally the same strength/weakness argunment could be appled to the economism. It was a very useful corrective to others at the time (particularly others who like BF came out of a libertarian background) who took little interest in workplace struggles/the working class. Also BF was always such a diverse organisation made up of people with very different interests that it wasn’t in practice as economistic as it may have appeared.

    • max farrar said

      Archie, are we the only two people in the world looking at these pages??? if others are reading – please write too!

      I think you’re right both about optimism and economism. I now think we must get over is the leftist impulse to split everything into two camps, then build a barricade, and put ourselves on one side of the fence, for ever.

      I think I am an optimist of the spirit and a realist of the intellect.

  5. Wow, Max Farrar, that’s a name from the past. Pity there’s not a great deal on the students’ protests of 1970s especally, “Essex, Oxford, Kent – unite! One struggle, one fight!” in late 70s the Times called for Essex to be closed down after I was expelled for humiliating Sir Keith Joseph….

  6. max farrar said

    Would that be the person formerly known as Bob Findlay? If so, glad to hear from you! In about 1974 I asked Sir Keith (my MP) at an election meeting if there was any possibility that his huge financial investment in Bovis, the housing company (I think I’m right) might have any impact on his judgement as a Cabinet member on housing issues. He went white with fury and announced that he had never before heard such a question in his whole career. Of course it didn’t cloud his judgement. He was pissed off, perhaps a bit humiliated, but it didn’t have any adverse consequences for me. People forget how reactionary universities were – Pete Ayrton and Robin Blackburn were sacked by London University for supporting the students’ sit-ins.

  7. Richard said

    Hi Bob and Max ,

    I was at Essex yesterday as my son , without any intervention from me , went for his interview to get in there . I was also there from 1969 to 1972 . In what was The Hexagon Theatre there was an exhibition of protesters from the early 70’s !
    It bought it all back . And having been there I am really pleased to say that it is still radical . Weird from being somewhat ‘ outsiders ‘ to now being ‘ honoured ‘ by the university . Good for them ! What radicalised me was ( apart from my mum being a conservative who believed in everything the conservative leader of the time supported was right ) was the conservative MP ( I think he was a local one but I can’t remember ) who was asked a question when he visited the university ( I am guessing in late 1969 ) about a country in the Middle East . This country was headline news . But he had never heard of the country never mind have any constructive comment to make .

    Looking back on how I feel now about Essex I feel very grateful personally : being still unencumbered by the weight of unquestioning agreement with the status quo . I just wish the students now with policies like the bedroom tax were as politicised as we were .

    • max farrar said

      Hi Richard – – Thanks for finding our site and writing this! Good to hear your son is going to Essex — key members of BF were there around the time you were leaving. And the notorious and in my view deeply dodgy TJ Clark was on the staff around then too. I’m sure you are heartened by the fact that lots of students today are also ‘unencumbered by . . . unquestioning agreement with the status quo’. I bet your son is among them.

      Archie, if you are picking this up . . . I do think the points above need to find their way int our book about BF, don’t you?

      Bob Findlay . . . please come back into orbit!!

      • Richard Busby said

        Worth going to the Exhibition in the Hexagon . It went from roughly 1970 to 1975. Apparently there is a lecturer there who is researching the politics of Essex from around 1968 to 1975. He has also made a film about 1968 which apparently will come out soon .

      • max farrar said

        Hi Richard . . . Can you tell me the name of the lecturer? I’d like to know what he’s got on the art history lecturer at Essex at the time called T J Clark who was in the King Mob Collective. Thanks, max

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