Big Flame


Archive for the ‘Big Flame History’ Category

Key areas of activity and events in the life of Big Flame


Posted by archivearchie on January 11, 2010

This Episode, the final one in the series, takes the story of Big Flame up to and beyond its fragmentation in 1984. Previous Episodes have discussed key debates at Big Flame Conferences, from the first in 1975 through to 1981.This one covers the last two BF Conferences in 1983 and 1984 and, more generally, looking at the organisation’s last years.

1982-84 saw membership numbers continue to fall. Relatively few of those who were members at the time of the 1975 founding national conference remained in BF. Judged by the makeup of the National Committee (NC), the leadership of the organisation had passed to a new generation. Nearly all had joined BF around 1977, or even later. The NCs elected (or appointed) in 1981 and in 1983 both suffered from the resignation of members (some from BF as well), in many cases with no replacement coming forward.

There were less publications. No new pamphlets were published. The last issue of the journal Revolutionary Socialism was Autumn 1982, and of the paper July-August 1982. One BF publication, Anti-Nuclear Action, did carry on appearing in 1983-84.

Minutes of NC meetings in 1982-84 reveal several discussions of “the crisis” in Big Flame. This was linked to a general down turn for the left and many members prioritising local work. A small number of individuals were keeping the organisation going. To counter a lack of direction in BF, the idea of a relaunch was proposed on a number of occasions.

1982 to 1983

Two tendencies remained in Big Flame after its 1981 Conference: “Emerald Street” (whose perspectives had won the Conference vote) and “Facing the Challenge” (for the positions they argued at the Conference see Episode 27). Because the NC was split between the two tendencies, it found it difficult to give a lead to the organisation. Some NC members saw the next Conference as the way to restore a sense of direction. In the words of one NC member: the NC was “locked in a dead end argument”, there was a need to “move the debate forward” and the next Conference would be “decisive” (Discussion Bulletin September 1982).

However, in 1982 there was no annual Conference. The next Conference did not take place until April/May 1983. By then the membership of BF had fallen from 125 in 1981 to 71 members and 28 sympathisers (a 1981 Conference motion had made the latter a formal category). Four Big Flame local groups had disappeared, leaving groups in only seven cities or towns (including London which did had a number of separate branches). Surprisingly, by the Conference both tendencies had also stopped functioning, and no-one submitted a “future perspectives” document setting out priorities for the organisation.

Indeed, there seems to have been relatively little disagreement at the Conference. The two most contentious issues were:

  • The position on voting at the next General election which took place soon after the Conference. In a rerun of the 1978 Conference both motions lost narrowly: a call for a Labour vote on the grounds that this would express class solidarity and defeat the Tories, and one which opposed supporting a vote for any of the main political parties. In the absence of a new position, BF reverted to a 1981 Conference motion and took the line: “Vote Labour, but … KEEP ON FIGHTING!”
  • The approach to Irish solidarity work, between support for the Troops Out movement (TOM) positions and some who wanted clearer support for the forces resisting the army in Ireland. The issue was deferred to a Day School, where the TOM position was confirmed.

The closest thing to a document which assessed the current situation was this article, written in support of motion calling for BF to produce an updated and comprehensive statement of its politics: Big Flame in the Blip Chip Age. It argued that the crisis in BF was part of a general crisis of revolutionary politics. To pick up the pieces again an open and honest debate was required which would look changes in class composition, the impact of new technologies, and the decline of working class and autonomous movements.

Rather than the Conference documents a more developed discussion of the current situation could be found in the columns of the newspaper. Particularly two article in the February-March 1983 issue. The first was: Britain in 1982. This rejected the idea that there had been a down turn, even though it acknowledged that traditional working class struggles were at a low point. It drew attention to the inner City riots and Greenham Common protests, and looked to the peace movement to turn the tide.

The second article was No More the Working Class. This saw the Labour left in retreat and the socialist strands of the autonomous movements as in decline. It saw Andre Gorz’s book Farewell to the Working Class as providing a useful analysis of the way the working class had been transformed. BF supporters needed to prioritise work where revolutionary ideas were still alive or can be developed e.g. anti-imperialist campaigns, anti-police campaigns.

A letter in the next issue of the paper – April-May 1983 – responded to the two articles: Red and Green (letter). It accused the authors of finding forced optimism which bore little resemblance to their previous analysis. Gorz’s investment in the new social movements as the bearers of the communist project was criticised. These movements might share a theme of autonomy, but not a common politics. The development of utopian politics along green lines contained pitfalls. Not just a tendency to insular first-worldism, but also an anger which might be easily contained.

1983 to 1984

As well as agreeing to produce a new statement of Big Flame’s politics, the 1983 Conference passed two parallel motions. One was to aim to publish a book on BF containing extracts from previous pamphlets and documents. The other was to produce a programme which would contain “plans for future priorities”, an “assessment of tasks” and “political slogans”. These can be added a project already underway since the 1981 Conference – to rewrite the “Introduction to Big Flame” pamphlet, a version of which was last published in 1980 (see Episode 2).

None of the four ideas reached fruition. Of the four, the NC seems to have taken up the Programme project most enthusiastically. There were several discussions about its contents at NC and Commission meetings during 1983-84. Drafting the Programme does not appear to have got anywhere near the final stages, and an increasing number of number of BF members expressed disquiet. Some at the length of time the project was taking, others questioned the priority it was being given or even the need for it at all.

The next, and final, Big Flame Conference took place in May 1984. There had been a further fall in membership numbers. According to the National Secretary there were now 45 members or sympathisers still active in BF (compared to 99 at the time of the previous Conference). One contributor to the debate (who was arguing for the organisation to carry on) put the number of activists remaining at 30. There were now only four local groups (and none in London).

The key debate at the Conference was whether BF should continue, and in what form. The suggestion that Big Flame might turn itself into a network rather than an organisation had been flagged up much earlier. For example in 1982 by those attending a “Facing the Challenge” meeting and in a letter from a prominent member of this tendency (see Discussion Bulletin April-May 1982 and Information Bulletin June 1982).

However, I believe that the first time this was strongly advocated rather then included amongst a list of options was in this article by another ”Facing the Challenge” supporter in the Discussion Bulletin of June-July 1982: Death & Birth. The article argues that Big Flame’s lack of self-confidence is part of a crisis of the left due to a restructuring of capital. It should seize the initiative and fight on new ground. The future lay in local groups. BF should disband and its politics arise anew. As the author of the document said at an earlier NC meeting: “Death is positive. It is proof of progress” (NC Minutes April 1982).

The network option was not the property of one political current. Someone who had supported “Emerald Street” also argued the BF should dissolve in a letter published in an Information Bulletin dated 1 June 1983: A Letter from a Leeds Comrade. It should be replaced on a loose network focusing on local work, apart from the production of a magazine publication.

Those who argued for the network option believed local political activity would be more effective without the burden of maintaining a national organisation. At the same time educational discussions and the exchange of ideas could continue. Those who argued for the organisation believed, that despite the reduced numbers, collective decision-making, collective activity and collective responsibility were important and should continue.

Three different local groups submitted motions for the 1984 Conference advocating a network. The one selected for voting was Motion from Sheffield BF (not agreed). The vote was tied 16-16, so the motion fell. A motion in favour of an organisation was then taken: Motion from Furness/Amendment from Kimberley. After the amendment was agreed 11-9, the amended motion was passed 17-14.

One other motion was passed before the two groupings divided to consider their futures. This welcomed the formation of the Socialist Federation, and encouraged BF members to work with it at the local and national level. The Federation, largely formed through the coming to together to a number of different groupings which had left the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), seems to have only lasted a couple of years after 1984.

After 1984

The 17 people who voted for the successful motion remained members of what they continued to call Big Flame (sympathiser status was abolished after the Conference). Instead of an NC there were National Meetings open to all members every month or two. Only one local branch carried on meeting (with the BF story turning full circle as this was in Liverpool). The main achievement of the grouping was to bring back the newspaper for three issues between November 1985 and Summer 1986. Here is the first of them: Big Flame Newspaper November 1985.

Of those who supported the network option, the largest local group which carried on was in Sheffield using the name Moving On. They maintained a loose relationship with a smaller grouping of ex-members (who had left before the 1984 Conference) calling themselves the East London group. For both the primary focus was on local political activity.

All these grouping were tiny, even in comparison to the small organisation Big Flame had always been. Therefore, I think it most appropriate to say that the BF story ended in 1984 with the May Conference.

Since the 1980s former members of Big Flame have pursued many different political trajectories. Some (including people who voted against the membership motion at the 1981 Conference) spent time in the Labour Party. Very few are members today. A smaller number joined the Greens (and again some of these have left). Hardly any seem to become members of another revolutionary socialist group. However, a high proportion of former BF members are still political active 30 years later in anti-racist campaigns, international solidarity work and other forms of struggle.

Archive Archie

Notes: (1) This series does not give a full picture of Big Flame. Doing that would need more than another 30 Episodes. There are some omissions of which I am particularly conscious: BF’s involvement in Southern Africa solidarity work, the Anti-Nuclear movement, community struggles particularly housing, other areas of workplace struggle (apart from the few mentioned), and the approach to culture/the arts.

(2) For BF’s last years I have been able to uncover far fewer old documents. I also sought information from some of those who were around at the time, but and found their memories to be somewhat foggy. Therefore, I would be even more grateful than usual if anyone is able to help fill the gaps in my knowledge.

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EPISODES IN BIG FLAME HISTORY: No 29. Women and Feminism Part 3

Posted by archivearchie on January 4, 2010

This Episode is the third and final selection of Big Flame documents on women and feminism. It covers the period 1982-84. The periods 1975-80 and 1980-81 having been examined in Episode 4 and Episode 17 of this series.

A previous post mentioned a Day School on Autonomy in July 1982 (see Episode 6). This covered the dual meanings of the term – working class autonomy and the autonomous movements. Here are two contributions to the latter aspect of the debate. One was written by a supporter of the “Facing the Challenge” tendency, the other the “Emerald Street” tendency (see Episode 27) for the general perspectives of these groupings).

On Autonomous Movements: Discussion Bulletin June-July 1982. Looks at a range of different autonomous movements and tries to identify a material basis for their growth. For the women’s movement, this is the contraceptive Pill. For the black movement, the struggle against colonialist rule. For the movement of disabled people, a technological revolution which provided the means to overcome physical limitations. The writer believes that movements based around these oppressions, whilst not free of economism, are less likely to be restricted by it in their struggles. This is because they come up against deep rooted power relations within the culture and organisation of society. The task for BF is seen as building a relationship with those sections of the movements with the most advanced understanding of their oppression and the most politically socialist.

On Women’s Autonomy: Women’s Bulletin Spring 1982. Detects a confused and distanced relationship with women’s oppression within BF. As her experience of oppression is as a woman, women’s struggles come first. She is also committed to revolutionary struggle as necessary for all oppressed groups. A hierarchy of struggles should be avoided. Men don’t have the experience to create feminist theory, although they should organise themselves to undertake anti-sexist work.

The final article was part of a discussion about a specific campaign of the early 1980s – an attempt to get the Labour Party to call for a demonstration around the slogan “A Women’s right to Work”, but it raises more general issue of the relationship with the Labour Party leadership and labour movement institutions.

Women’s Right to Work and the Labour Party: Women’s Bulletin Spring 1982. The author is not opposed to attempts to get the labour movement to organise around feminist issues (although in this case preferring an alternative slogan which would substitute “Waged Work” for “Work”). However, calling on the Labour leadership to organise around demands they don’t believe in places too much reliance on that leadership and runs the danger of reducing popular participation and sacrificing the strength of women.

Archive Archie

Note: Titles of articles or documents in red and bold are links to the full version. Press on them to bring up a PDF of the document.

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Posted by archivearchie on December 28, 2009

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

In and Against the State

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

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

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

Big Flame Discussions of the Local State

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Archive Archie

Note: Titles of articles or documents in red and bold are links to the full version. Press on them to bring up a PDF of the document.

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EPISODES IN BIG FLAME HISTORY: No 27. 1981 Debate – The Labour Party and the Alternatives

Posted by archivearchie on December 21, 2009

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

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

Past Positions on the Labour Party

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

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

The Different Positions

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

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

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

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

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

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

Group of Nine

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

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

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

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

North London four

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

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

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

Facing the Challenge

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

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

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

Emerald Street

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

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

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

The Conference

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

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

After the Conference

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

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

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

Archive Archie

Note: Titles of articles or documents in red and bold are links to the full version. Press on them to bring up a PDF of the document.

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EPISODES IN BIG FLAME HISTORY: No 26. Iran and Afghanistan

Posted by archivearchie on December 17, 2009

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Archive Archie

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EPISODES IN BIG FLAME HISTORY: No 25. State Collectivism

Posted by archivearchie on December 7, 2009

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

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

The Pamphlet

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

Here is the pamphlet – split into two parts:

Century of the Unexpected front-p12

Century of the Unexpected p13- back

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

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

After the Pamphlet

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

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

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

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

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

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

Archive Archie

Note: Titles of articles or documents in red and bold are links to the full version. Press on them to bring up a PDF of the document.

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Posted by archivearchie on November 30, 2009

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

Before the Pamphlet

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

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

The Pamphlet

Here is the pamphlet – split into four parts:

The Revolution Unfinished?: front to section 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

Internal Documents

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

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

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

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

State Collectivism

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

Archive Archie

Note: Titles of articles or documents in red and bold are links to the full version. Press on them to bring up a PDF of the document.

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Posted by archivearchie on November 23, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

These are few examples of BF discussions of health issues:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Archive Archie

Note: Titles of articles or documents in red and bold are links to the full version. Press on them to bring up a PDF of the document.

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

Posted by archivearchie on November 16, 2009

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

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



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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Archive Archie

Note: Titles of articles or documents in red and bold are links to the full version. Press on them to bring up a PDF of the document.

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Posted by archivearchie on November 9, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Big Flame on Sea: Paper September 1978.

On Our Hols: Paper September 1979.

Summer Support: Paper November 1979 (letter).

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

A Sado-Masochist Bonanza?: Paper October 1981.

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

Archive Archie

Note: Titles of articles or documents in red and bold are links to the full version. Press on them to bring up a PDF of the document.

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