Big Flame

1970-1984

Archive for the ‘Big Flame History’ Category

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

EPISODES IN BIG FLAME HISTORY: No 20 Children

Posted by archivearchie on November 2, 2009

Children-p1As the 1970s developed more and more members of Big Flame became parents and  the organisation’s interest in children as a political issue increased. In May 1980 BF held a Day School for its members on the topic of “Children and Socialism”. This was an opportunity to bring into the open the dilemmas and contradictions they felt. Much of the Discussion Bulletin for that month was given over to articles on this theme. Here are two of the articles:

Children and Socialism: Discussion Bulletin May 1980 and Children and Socialism (1981). 

Draws on an experience of collective childcare involving 6 adults and 3 children in two homes. Talks about supporting members of BF with children, noting some improvements in childcare within the organisation. Also considers the issue of passing politics on to children – letting them learn how politics is part of everyday life, that socialist politics can be fun, and that children must be given a chance to define what they do.

Socialism and Childcare: Discussion Bulletin May 1980 and Children and Socialism (1981).

Discusses the pressures on isolated mothers with very young children, the factors crucial to the job of bringing up children, and the how the medical profession controls women (induced childbirth, breast feeding) and how schools exclude them from involvement with the children (in relation to the last two issues there may have been some improvements over the last 30 years).

Other articles in the Bulletin were “Notes on Being a Red Teacher” (included in the post on Education see Episode 13), a guide to organising a crèche and one on Kinderhaus, a childcare facility in Hamburg.

The Day School involved workshops on the topics Women’s and Children’s Oppression; Possessiveness and Jealousy; Racism and Children; and Class Differences in the way we deal with Children. In 1981, about a year after the Day School, a pamphlet entitled Children and Socialism was issued. It included the previous Bulletin articles, the workshop notes (where available), a talk given in a general session and notes for the Opening Plenary session. Here are the Plenary notes:

Children and Socialism: Opening Plenary Session: Children and Socialism (1981). 

Covers a range of issues such as the difficulties of bringing up children as socialists; non-parents and kids; state nurseries and the interaction between revolutionary politics and bringing up children (the lack of sympathy from many on the left to the problems, resentment from children with parents constantly out at meetings).

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 19. Sexual Politics and Life Part 2 – Men’s Politics

Posted by archivearchie on October 26, 2009

Men79May-p1One of the earliest anti-sexist (or pro-feminist) Men’s Groups in Britain was established by members of East London Big Flame around the end of 1973, which led on to the East London Men’s Group. As discussed in Episode 5 of this series, ELBF parted company with the rest of Big Flame in 1975. Two ex-ELBF men were afterwards involved in setting up a “magazine of men’s politics” Achilles Heel in 1978. The publication ran for 24 issues until 1999. Around the early 1980s the editorial group involved two different men who were part of North London Big Flame.

Here are some extracts from the discussions which occurred in BF over the years on “men’s politics”.

Following the first couple of issues of Achilles Heel an article appeared in the Big Flame paper May 1979 issue: Why a Men’s Movement? (article). It is sympathetic to the emerging Men’s Movement and wants revolutionary organisations to adopt “these new insights into sexuality”. There is a discussion of the debate about whether men are oppressed or not. This was a position some men in the Men’s Movement advocated, whilst others strongly rejected it.

Two articles appeared in the Discussion Bulletin of February 1981: Is a Men Against Sexism Politics Needed? and The Problem of Men in Big Flame. The authors argued that a “men against sexism politics” is urgently needed, with men taking responsibility for supporting feminism in practice.

Back to the paper and an article in the May 1982 issue: Anti Sexist Practice!  This outlines some of the things men could do to make anti-sexism a priority in their political work. Particular political importance is assigned to childcare.

A women member of BF responded in a letter in the July-August 1982 issue of the paper to some of the articles which had been written by men: Why a Men’s Movement? (letter). She believes that there can’t be a men’s movement because men are not oppressed, and finds the concept “dangerous”. Men should focus on taking anti-sexism into the areas of struggle they are already involved in, and participating in childcare as a way of supporting women.

Finally in the Discussion Bulletin of March 1983 the Women’s Commission responded to a proposal for an Anti-Sexist Commission in Big Flame: Why the Women’s Commission are against an Anti Sexist Commission. Their objection is that this would mean women taking responsibility for working out men’s positions. Instead men should use men’s meetings to understand their sexism and develop anti-sexist practice.

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 18. Sexual Politics and Life Part 1

Posted by archivearchie on October 20, 2009

Canoe-p1I struggled to find a title for this post before, after seeking advice, deciding to opt for the one above. I wanted something which would manage to cover all of the Politics of Personal Life, Gay Politics and Men’s Politics. Although in the end I decided I had sufficient interesting material on Men’s Politics to hold this topic over to another time (see future Episode in this series – Episode 19). I also plan separate posts on Children and the Big Flame Summer School (see future Episodes – Episode 20 and Episode 21).

At its 1978 Conference Big Flame passed a motion on ‘The Politics of Personal Life’. In it BF resolved:

–   “To develop the organisation’s political understanding of the ways that capitalism distorts our personal lives. To ensure that the development of a political approach to personal life forms an integral part of the general politics of our organisation.”

–   “To support those existing political activities which are attempting to deal with the crises which are sometimes called ‘personal’ in a political way.”

–   “To ensure that our organisation is structured in such a way that the fullest participation is encouraged of those groups of people that most revolutionary organisations, including our own, discriminate against: parents, particularly single parents, youth, retired people, women, people who have not been to university.”

–  “To ensure the highest standards of socialist comradeship operate inside the organisation and in our relations with other comrades.”

–   “To give priority to the development, within our organisation and on the left as a whole, of a socialist culture. We should contribute to and initiate outings, holidays, festivals, cultural events – all those activities which provide pleasure, mutual awareness and solidarity amongst colleagues.”

–   “To acknowledge that these changes will not come about by fine words and resolutions at Conference. These ideas have to be translated into our everyday practice; in particular they need to be integrated into all aspects of our mass political work.”

The motion contains no specific new measures for BF to implement. As the last point above makes clear it was more of an exhortation to others to identify and implement the changes. The degree to which people did was undoubtedly mixed.

1978 also saw the circulation of a document around Big Flame members:  In a Barbed Wire Canoe. This was inspired by the author trying to understand at a political level some personal traumas he experienced. He rejected the views of those on the left who acted as if they didn’t feel personal problems like the rest of the world, or believed that discussing them was subjectivism. Using ideas drawn from Ely Zaretsky, he sets out ways personal problems are caused by capitalism – stripping any meaning from work, splitting work and home, attributing fulfilment to the possession of things. He concludes with the lessons for BF. If it is to attract and keep people in the organisation, they need to feel at home and enjoy a sense of collectivity.

Another discussion of personal life can be found in Revolutionary Socialism no4 Winter 1979-80: Daily Life. First there is an “Introduction”, which takes up the phrase “you must live your politics” and argues that changing ourselves is an essential part of making the revolution. This is followed by “Living Your Politics” a discussion between four people (two men and two women) about collective living. It ranges across a range of issues including childcare, monogamy and the relationship between personal politics and “public politics”. Finally, “Coming Down to Earth” examines the libertarian movement of the 1970s (anticipating many of the themes of the later article republished in Opinions about Big Flame no 1).

Articles on personal life were also included in the paper. Two of the better discussions were an article and subsequent exchange of letters on sexual behaviour between men and women, which extended through three issues (July/Aug, Sept and Oct 1980) and three views on marriage by women based on their own experiences, to coincide with the Royal Wedding of the Prince of Wales and Diana Spencer (July/Aug 1981).

From the 1981 Women’s Conference Discussion Bulletin comes: Notes from Sexuality Workshop at Women’s Weekend. Though short in length the notes summarise a discussion which covered a lot of ground – the problems of talking about sexuality in large meetings, how it is not just an issue of sexual preference but also “all things relevant to your biological sex as a woman”., and the need to develop a feminist politics based on an understanding of the way capitalism and patriarchy attempt to control sexuality as much as every other area of life.

The paper’s coverage of Gay issues was very limited. Apart from short news stories, this consisted of interviews with people outside BF or reviews of publications by non-members (on one occasion another group – the Revolutionary Gay Men’s Caucus was invited to write an article). Articles in the journal were even sparser. There was nothing in the two issues of Big Flame Journal. In the ten issues of Revolutionary Socialism, there was just a single review article which examined a book on personal politics and a book on gay politics.

The same lack of discussion applied to the Internal/Discussion Bulletin. There were two articles in the Internal Bulletin on Lesbianism in the mid 1970s by a woman who left BF not that long after. The second appeared in the June 1977 Internal Bulletin: Letter to the Editorial Collective of Women’s Struggle Notes (Warning: this is difficult to read because of the poor quality of the duplicated original copy). She had been asked to write an article for a BF publication, which she did in the form of an interview with a lesbian friend. This was turned down as “too personal and not political enough”. When later asked to write something else for a Conference that was “less heavy”, she declined giving her reasons in the article. She wanted to not just talk about oppression, but convey the joy, strength, confidence and power that lesbianism gave her. [Note: the rejected article was subsequently published in Women’s Struggle Notes (second series) no4.]

A few years later as part of a broad critique of Big Flame a gay man wrote about how in an organisation whose members are almost all straight that “people can find it very oppressive and difficult to talk about homosexuality” (“Why I am Pissed off with Big Flame” July 1981 Discussion Bulletin). Despite all the correct position on gay liberation BF adopted on paper, this was clearly an issue.

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 17. Women and Feminism Part 2

Posted by archivearchie on October 12, 2009

WomConfDBEpisode 4 of this series contained the two Big Flame pamphlets on women, published in 1975 and 1980. Episode 16 included two articles on feminist issues from the journal Revolutionary Socialism, published in 1978 and 1980. This post provides a further selection of short articles on feminist issues from 1980-81, with a particular focus on the topic of women in Big Flame. A later post will contain a selection of articles to cover the final phase of BF’s life (see Episode 29).

A Day Return Ticket – Written for an educational session at the 1980 Big Flame Summer School.

Provides a quick guided tour of attempts to develop a Marxist feminism theory, including writers like Juliet Mitchell, Mary McIntosh and contributors to the domestic labour debate of the 1970s. Argues that many theorists have started off with Marxism and tried to fit women in. thus neglecting the fact that women’s oppression has a different logic to capital. A theory of patriarchy needs to be developed first. When this is worked out the interrelation with class can be considered.

Socialist-Feminism Today – From the 1981 Big Flame Women’s Conference Bulletin.

Looks at what is happening to a divided women’s movement after two years of Conservative Government. In particular, operating in separate women’s groups around particular issues, and working in mixed campaigns like CND or the Labour party to riase women’s issues.

Big Flame Discussion Paper for the NAC Conference 1980 – From the Discussion Bulletin May 1980.

Agues that NAC needs to be a mass campaign with an orientation towards the labour movement, but that to assert women’s autonomy local NAC groups need to be women only. This is the document mentioned in Episode 12 which caused, at least temporarily, a dispute between the National Committee and the Women’s Commission.

The remaining four articles are part of a discussion about women being members of Big Flame (which included an ultimatum at the 1980 conference that women would leave the organisation unless it genuinely integrated feminism within its politics). This discussion is worth considering in some detail as important questions were raised about the membership of women in mixed organisations.

Big Flame Socialist Feminist Perspective – Two related document from a 1980 Conference Bulletin.

Maintains that up to 1976 Big Flame made an important contribution to feminist politics, but since then it has played no significant role. This is associated with a decline in women’s power in the organisation. Details changes which would enable BF to keep women in the organisation.

Women and Big Flame –  A response to the previous articles in another 1980 Conference Bulletin.

Shares the approach of the previous pair of articles, but disagrees with the suggestion that Big Flame has played no significant role post 1976. Mentions the involvement of BF women in Health Fightback, NAC and anti-imperialist women’s groups. Also includes suggestions of ways of improving the functioning of the Women’s Commission.

Women in Big Flame: Some Considerations – From the 1981 Big Flame Women’s Conference Bulletin.

Argues that current problems stem from a critical ambiguity in Big Flame’s politics. This is about the functioning of autonomous organisation of oppressed groups within and outside revolutionary organisations. The prefigurative efforts of BF, such as those around childcare, are very partial. Autonomous organisation does leave women in Big Flame free to discuss whatever they wish free from male pressures. Concludes with some proposals to reduce the marginality of women both as a feeling and in practice.

Women in Big Flame and Elsewhere – Notes of a women’s meeting, perhaps a workshop at the 1981 Women’s conference.

Discusses such issues as women as parents, their double workload and the “male methods” implicit in Big Flame’s structures. Maintains that their aim is not to simply list problems which weigh them down. Rather to establishing their general experience, building understanding which could alter the politics of BF to make it more accessible to women.

However I think that it is fair to say whatever the intention, all these contributions to the debate are better at outlining problems rather than identifying solutions. Those solutions presented are often quite sketchy and usually structural changes.

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 16. The Journal

Posted by archivearchie on October 5, 2009

BFJ-p1As well as a newspaper and pamphlet, at different times Big Flame produced a number of periodic publications. In the early years Merseyside BF produced Big Flame Bulletin (3 issues in 1971-72), a duplication collection of leaflets and documents. Then there was Fact Folder (3 issues in 1972-73), an envelope containing duplicated documents primarily documenting struggles. However, the two periodicals which probably had the greatest impact were the journals – two series in a printed magazine A4 format. The first called the Big Flame Journal and the second Revolutionary Socialism.

There were two issues of Big Flame Journal in 1974-75. The first issue reflected the federal character of BF at the time with most of the articles appearing in the name of a specific local group. It was succeeded by Revolutionary Socialism which had a longer life, 10 issues between 1977 and 1982. It came to end after that National Committee in October 1982 decided, in the light of sales going badly and members not using the journal, to suspend publication until further notice. Some Big Flame members who had worked on Revolutionary Socialism, and some who had not, joined together with some non-aligned socialists and feminists to publish another magazine independently of BF called Emergency (5 issues between 1983 and 1990).

A full list of all the articles published in both journals can be found here:  Contents of Big Flame Journal and Revolutionary Socialism.

As discussed in the last episode in this series – Episode 15 – there was an ongoing discussion in the organisation about the newspaper. This is not the case with the journal. Whilst the paper induced a variety of emotions including hostility, the journal mostly stirred up indifference. All the mentions of the Journal I can find in Internal/Discussion Bulletins or Pre-Conference Bulletins are written by members of the editorial group (with the one exception of a motion at the 1979 conference to abandon publication).

A report from a member of the editorial group to the same conference noted the lack of feedback from local groups apart from one which refused to sell the journal because of its content and style. In 1981 the journal collective asked local groups to complete a questionnaire about it. Only one responded. This is despite efforts of various editorial groups to print articles which related to BF’s organisational and political priorities, and to foster discussion of selected articles by local groups.

This document written around 1979 gives a flavour of discussions within the editorial group: Some Thoughts on the Journal. The potential audience was clearly identified as “the left” and not “the working class”. The aim of the journal was to open up debate and discussion in an open and honest way. Independents were to be encouraged to write for the journal or to join the editorial group.

Negotiations took place with both the LCG (Libertarian Communist Group) [see post on LCG] and the ISA (International Socialist Alliance) [see post on ISA] about them having representatives on the editorial group. Instead the LGC as whole joined Big Flame and the ISA dissolved itself (with I believe a few of its former members becoming part of BF). Some independents did get involved the journal, and a large number of articles and reviews were written by non-members. Some of the authors were relatively well known figures on the left e.g. Leo Panitch, Richard Hyman, Hilary Wainwright, Shelia Rowbotham, Anne Phillips.

The presence of such writers may have made the journal a better read, but it also probably contributed to the lack of identity with the publication by many Big Flame members. Of those articles included by BF members, a high proportion of them were written by less than half dozen authors. I am sure that this is despite constant efforts by various editorial groups to get others to contribute.

The circulation of Revolutionary Socialism was always tiny. Figures from the 1980 conference report show 500 being sold in bookshops through PDC (the Publications Distribution Co-operative) and 800 going to local groups for direct sales (although loose accounting procedures failed to reveal exactly how many of these were actually sold). A circulation of over 1,750 would have been required to break even.

RS4-p1To give an indication of the sort of things Revolutionary Socialism published, I have chosen five articles written by Big Flame members.

1968: Ten Years On No2. Spring 1978

Looks at the crisis of the post-1968 revolutionary left, focussing on its separation of the “personal” and the “political” and its failure to develop a prefigurative politics. The optimism of 1968 meant those who came into politics were prepared to sustain an incredibly high level of political activity with little space in their lives for anything else, leading to burn out 10 years later.

Youth Politics & Youth Culture No2. Spring 1978

Argues that the “primary determinal form” of youth culture is class rather than age, and that the “general corporativeness” of working class consciousness means that class contradictions expressed are only indirectly political. The political youth movements which currently exist are appendages of parent parties who see them as conveyor belts to membership. The prospects for a socialist youth movement have never been brighter. It should to be independent of any one organisation, although it would need the aid of left organisations to survive or grow.

A Woman’s Right to Choose No2. Spring 1978

Believes that a Woman’s Right to Choose is the most revolutionary demand to come out of the Women’s Movement in Britain. Discusses the history of the battle to make contraception widely available to women and struggles around abortion.

Feminism and the Socialist Alternative No5. Summer 1980

Examines the uneasy relationship between feminism and socialism. Marxist theory is adequate to understand women’s oppression. Amongst the contributions of feminism are the concept of patriarchy, the assertion that the personal is political and the exploration of sexuality. Organisations like Big Flame need the autonomous women’s movement to provide a constant reminder of the need for feminist politics.

Crisis of the Revolutionary Left in Europe No5. Summer 1980

Continues the themes of “1968: Ten Years On” by considering the crisis of the revolutionary left in general and of the loose political tendency of which BF was a part. With elements of voluntarism and ultra leftism, the latter was particularly vulnerable to the post 1974 downturn in struggle. A position of “class before party” can lead on to questioning whether a party is really necessary.

Two other articles from Revolutionary Socialism are already available on the net:

What Future for Zimbabwe Now? No 6. Winter 1980-81

Riot and Revolution: The Politics of an Inner City No8. Winter 1981-82

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.

P.S. Episode 15 mentioned a Harvester Press publication The Underground and Alternative Press in Britain as a way of viewing on microfiche (a form of microfilm on flat cards) copies of the Big Flame newspaper. It also includes both issues of Big Flame Journal and a number of pamphlets (Ireland: Rising in the North, Portugal: A Blaze of Freedom, Chile Si! and Shop Stewards and the Class Struggle) all of which can be found on this site.

Harvester Press also produced a companion publication The Left in Britain which contained complete run of Revolutionary Socialism. Fact Folders no 1 and no 3 can be found under Red Notes

The Archiving Big Flame mentions a number of libraries which have paper copies of Big Flame Journal and Revolutionary Socialism.

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EPISODES IN BIG FLAME HISTORY: No 15. The Newspaper

Posted by archivearchie on September 28, 2009

Paper79-p1Episode 1 of this series discussed how the origins of Big Flame can be found in a Merseyside local newspaper, and included two copies of early issues – one from March 1970 (before the political organisation was formed) and another from June 1972 (the first paper produced by the new group).

By way of contrast, here is the issue from May 1979, split into three parts.

Big Flame Newspaper May 1979 p1-p6

Big Flame Newspaper May 1979 p7-p10

Big Flame Newspaper May 1979 p11-p16

Much had changed over the years, not simply to reflect the fact that Big Flame expanded from a Merseyside-based group to a national organisation. The May 1979 issue is described as a “Facelift” and there are some new innovations such as the half back page which when folded allowed the A3 paper to change into an A4 format for display in bookshops. However, many other changes had come about gradually over a period of time. There was a much wider variety of content, beyond news of industrial struggles. The paper is divided into signposted sections – “News” “Workplace News”, “The Struggle Worldwide”, “This is our Life” (the politics of personal life and culture), “Worth Talking About” (for debates) – and there is a cartoon.

The changes in the newspaper between 1972 and 1979 and those which continued until the last issue of July-August 1983, reflected repeated debates over the years about the readership, content and style of the paper. These are worth considering in some detail as the issues raised are ones which face anyone wanting to publish a newspaper of the left.

In terms of readership, the debate was often posed as a choice between a paper for the “the masses” and a paper for “the movement” or “the left” (usually by those arguing in favour of the former). Others rejected this dichotomy as a false choice. The debate on style might be portrayed as a choice between a “left Mirror” and a “left Guardian” (although I am not aware that these terms were ever used).  An explicit discussion along these lines took place a few years later during the early stages of the News on Sunday project (see Peter Chippindale and Chris Horrie Disaster!: The Rise and Fall of the News on Sunday Ch. 1).

I will try to give a flavour of this continuous debate by looking at some contributions. First there is a document from 1975 Propaganda and Consciousness. This was written during the period when there were three versions of the paper – a Merseyside, Manchester and national edition. The document is unusual for a contribution of this debate in that it linked prescriptions for the paper with an explicitly theoretical discussion of media and propaganda. Its starting point is that “militants” are the paper’s intended audience. The author believes would be illusory for Big Flame to aim for “the masses”. The document does discuss what might constitute a mass paper, defined it terms of its political reference point rather than circulation level. As the whole aim is to make people active rather than passive, it couldn’t simply echo the manipulative methods of the bourgeois press. The paper needs to reflect the interests of workers beyond work – sex, sport, culture, etc. It has to recognise that working class modes of expression are direct and expressive rather than abstract, and “translate” appropriately theoretical concepts.

Another view can be found in the letters page of the newspaper itself. The North Branch of South London Big Flame contributed in February 1978 to a discussion following an offer from the International Marist Group, then pursuing a left unity agenda, to participate in its paper Socialist Challenge (SC) (an offer which BF decided not to accept). The letter noted that SC was having an impact on the “politically sophisticate left”, whilst the Big Flame aimed to be a “popular paper”, with the litmus test that it could find readers “in the pubs along the Dock Road in Liverpool”. This made it difficult for Big Flame members to sell the paper to their day-to-day contacts. The authors suspected that the readership of the two papers was actually similar, but the SC was more successful in addressing the political vanguard.

By the time of the November 1979 Big Flame conference, the style and content of the paper was along the lines of the issue included above. Contributions to the pre-conference discussion criticised the paper for being focused in “the left” with too many articles on “movement” topics like Beyond the Fragments and the Men’s Movement. They argued for an alternative target readership of “the masses” or, alternatively, the network of working class militants. The then editor of the paper responded with a document How Often a Paper and for Whom? in a Conference Bulletin. He argued that working class militants were interested in more than wages and working conditions, and that, whatever efforts were made, the organisation recruited few workplace militants. The paper “is and must remain a compromise” representing the political space Big Flame occupied. The document also discussed another conference theme – the frequency of publication. The 1979 conference agreed “in principle” that the people should be fortnightly, although practicalities prevented this decision from ever being implemented.

A couple of years later a member of a new editorial collective wrote an article in the April 1981 Discussion Bulletin entitled Searching for a Perfect Paper. This was in preparation for a day school on the paper. He rejected the “tired old polarity” for the target readership, arguing that discussions should instead be based on a realistic assessment of members’ experience of selling the paper and discussing it with those outside the group. He notes that paper tended to b a collection of news reports, and that there needed to be more practical political guidance, articles raising difficult political questions and practical manual type material.

The final document I want to mention was written when a decision was taken to temporarily suspend publication (because of a combination of financial problems and finding sufficient volunteers for the editorial/production group). This is an article The Future of the Newspaper from the July 1983 Internal Bulletin, also produced to aid discussion at a day school. Unlike the other documents referred to here, it does not advocate a specific viewpoint. It sets out the advantages and disadvantages for three different options for a relaunched publication – A3 and more analytical, A3 and more agitprop, and a magazine format. In the event the paper never reappeared before the group came to end, although ex-members did bring out a few issues of a paper of the same name after the group’s demise.

The paper, in all of its many guises, never satisfied all of Big Flame’s membership, and there always some who either found it difficult to sell or were reluctant to try to do so. There were always difficulties in maintaining a broad range of articles. The paper was usually better at news coverage than in-depth analysis or practical tools for militants. Sometimes it imitated the practice of other left papers and parroted lists of demands with no chance of realisation.

However, any criticisms of the paper have to balanced by a recognition of the circumstances in which it was produced. There were never any paid or full time workers. It was produced entirely by volunteers –first in Liverpool, then a nation wide gathering in Liverpool, and finally in London. For articles, it was only able to draw on a tiny membership, and a small network of sympathisers. There were constant financial problems with finding funding for the paper.

Looking back, I believe that overall it was a good product in the light of these circumstances. It was much less hectoring and hysterical than most left papers. There was an absence of predictions of the immanent collapse of capitalism, or denunciations of other left groups. By and large the paper reflected an open and undogmatic approach to politics. Over the years the paper contained many informative and useful articles written in an accessible style.

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.

P.S. As mentioned in Episode 1, Harvester Press published on microfiche (a form of microfilm on flat cards) The Underground and Alternative Press in Britain. It includes just about every issue of series one and series two of Big Flame (but not the mid 1980s reprise), as well as many other extremely interesting publications of the 1970s and 80s. It is likely to be available at academic libraries, such as the British Library and LSE Library in London.

As mentioned in the Archiving Big Flame post, the Working Class Movement library in Salford, has an extensive set of paper copies of the newspaper.

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EPISODES IN BIG FLAME HISTORY: No 14. Racism and Fascism

Posted by archivearchie on September 22, 2009

Past-p1Big Flame members were active in the struggle against racism and fascism. Two pamphlets set out the perspectives they brought to these struggles. A Close Look at Fascism and Racism from 1978 is a collection of more journalistic pieces, mostly reprinted from the Big Flame newspaper. The Past against Our Future: Fighting Racism and Fascism from 1980 is a more analytic work, which sought to develop the theory that underlay the practice.

Elements in the Big Flame perspective included:

–          The focus on fascism with little attention to racism by much of the left was a mistake.

–          The term fascism is sometimes used too loosely to describe a variety of movements.

–          The ideas behind fascism are often more extreme examples of the “commonplace” and “common sense”.

–          Racism is more than prejudiced opinions but a whole process of domination built into the institutions of society.

–          Racism within the white working class is more than false consciousness as it has a material basis.

–          Because of the divisions within the working class and because real unity can only be based on equality of power, the autonomous organisation of black people should be supported.

–          Anti-racism and anti-fascism should not be abandoned in favour of other easier struggles or compartmentalised from those struggles.

–          There had been problems with both the network of local anti-racism anti-fascism committees and the Anti Nazi League (ANL) which operated during the 1970s.

CloseLook-p1Click here to view the two pamphlets – split into two and four parts:

A Closer Look at Fascism and Racism: front-p10

A Closer Look at Fascism and Racism: p11-back

The Past against Our Future: Intro & Ch1

The Past against Our Future: Ch2

The Past against Our Future: Ch3

The Past against Our Future: Ch4

As mentioned above, one theme developed in these pamphlets is the need to support the organisational and political autonomy of black people. However, there was not complete agreement within Big Flame on what this position meant. This is discussed in an article from the Discussion Bulletin of January 1984: Black Autonomy and the White Left (Note: This scan of a duplicated document will be difficult to read. I have included it as it is only two pages long).

Archive Archie

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EPISODES IN BIG FLAME HISTORY: No 13. Education

Posted by archivearchie on July 13, 2009

Crisis-p1Teachers in Big Flame came together at various times in the 1970s as part of an Education (or Teachers) Commission or a more general Public Sector Commission.

As with other Commissions experiences and strategic perspective were brought together in a pamphlet. Published in 1977 it was called The Crisis in Education. A draft version had been circulated the previous year, and the final version took on board comments from a broad collection of people involved in education.

Looking back from 2009 in the light of thirty years of Labour and Conservative Government policy on education can influence our perspective. Schools and further education in the 1970s can easily appear in a better light than the way socialists saw them at the time. However, in the mid 1970s schools experienced rounds of severe cuts as part of a general process of the state reducing public expenditure. Right wing traditionalists had launched attacks on progressive methods of education. Steps were underway towards a core curriculum and to increase the links between schools and industry.

The pamphlet saw the cuts as not simply about reducing expenditure, but as a process to restructure education to make it more controllable by the state and big business. The task for socialists, it argued, as not just to defend the status quo but to raise questions about the kind of education and learning we wanted. The pamphlet starts to raise these questions. Whilst those involved in producing the pamphlet would later acknowledge that it lacked practical direction and that its feminist content was inadequate, it stands up fairly well to the test of time. Click here to view the pamphlet – split into two parts:

The Crisis in Education: front-p12

The Crisis in Education: p13-back

An article in the Discussion Bulletin May 1980 took up the issue of how socialist teachers might apply their ideas in a classroom. The author writes: “what I have developed is practical and largely an extension of liberal/radical education ideas with a dash of socialism added.” Click here to view Notes on Being a Red Teacher. This article was later reprinted in a pamphlet Children and Socialism.

Archive Archie

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EPISODES IN BIG FLAME HISTORY: No 12. Internal Organisation

Posted by archivearchie on July 7, 2009

ConfAg-p1Episode 11 of this series examined one issue which was the subject of debate at the 1976 and 1978 Big Flame conferences – building a new, larger organisation. Another issue discussed at these meeting was the process by which people were appointed to its National Committee. This post looks at this debate in the context of a more general discussion of the group’s internal organisation. Along with an earlier post – Episode 8 in this series – it provides a basis for judging Big Flame’s relationship with Leninism.

The early Big Flame had no constitution to set out formally the way it was organised. It adopted a Constitution for the first time at its May 1978 Conference. This was based on the one adopted by the Revolutionary Marxist Current (see post about the RMC), which had joined Big Flame the previous year. Click here to view Big Flame Constitution [as amended at the 1980 Conference].

The Conference

The key decision making body within Big Flame was the conference. One was held every year from 1975 to 1984 apart from 1977 (when there was an open conference of the Project) and 1982. It was open to any member of BF to attend and vote (given the size of the organisation this never presented any practical problems). The format for conferences was fairly traditional – mostly large plenary sessions with voting on motions and amendments.

Branches and Commissions

The most important level of involvement in Big Flame was the local branch. The organisation constantly grappled with the problem of how to provide support to isolated members or small branches. Thus branches in towns like Brighton. Leamington and Oxford came and went, whilst those in the larger cities were usually constant throughout BF’s history. However, the way they functioned did change. The early branches adopted the base group model with members focussing their political activity on a small number of joint interventions. As time went on this was largely abandoned, with branches bringing together members with active in different struggles.

Before Big Flame became a national organisation in 1975 and was a federation of autonomous groups, it established a number of commissions. These brought together from around the country any BF member who wanted to attend (and sometimes sympathetic non-members) and was engaged in the same area of political activity e.g. women, Irish solidarity, anti-racism/anti-fascism, industry, health workers, teachers, etc. Meetings rotated around the country and the structure was minimal (someone agreeing to be the convenor for a period, the chairing of meetings rotated). They became a vital source of support and tactical ideas for those who attended (particularly if no-one in the local branch was engaged in the same activity). Many of the Big Flame pamphlets were written jointly by Commission members.

There was a tendency at the time for some writing about BF’s internal organisation to contrast the healthy democracy of the commissions with other things they wished to criticise. Therefore, it is worth remembering that Commissions were not without their own problems. Several reached a peak, fell apart and had to be revived later. Even when things were going well, there might be no more than half a dozen at any particular meeting, and these could be mostly different people from those who attended the previous meeting.

Membership, Discipline and Full Timers

The first section of the Constitution (see above) sets out the requirements of membership. This is fairly vaguely worded, and apart from the critique of “traditional models of the revolutionary party” are probably little different from many other left groups. Despite numerous efforts to improve internal education in Big Flame, it never developed a comprehensive education programme which might have clarified the grounds for membership. The norms of what membership of BF meant (in the later days at least) were fairly loose, and largely a matter for the individual member’s own decision.

Another section of the Constitution sets out disciplinary procedures. As far as I am aware (and I have tried to do some research) no member of Big Flame was ever disciplined in any way, still less expelled from the organisation.

Big Flame chose not to devote its limited resources to paying full timers. In its later days a National Secretary was paid. This was an administrative rather than a political post (for example, the National Secretary was not a member of the National Committee).

Tendencies

The first informal faction meetings in Big Flame were one offs after the 1976 Conference when supporters of both Plan X and Plan Y (see Episode 11) met to assess the outcome. The Constitution agreed in 1978 included the right to establish tendencies. However, they were regarded with some suspicion. The conference rejected one amendment saying that whilst tendencies were permitted they should be discouraged, and agreed another which said that tendency meetings had to be open to any member of the organisation.

The first formal tendency (called Tendency One) was established in 1980. Although it broke up fairly soon afterwards, the proliferation of tendencies reached a peak in 1981 with a total of four (two formally declared). These developments will be covered in a later Episode in this series (see Episode 27).

National Committee

The National Committee (NC) agreed at the first Big Flame Conference in 1975 was based on delegates from local branches. In 1976 Plan Y supporters unsuccessfully raised the issue of a directly elected NC. The change to an elected NC of eleven persons was agreed narrowly (45 votes to 41) at the 1978 Conference as part of the new Constitution, with an amendment limiting continuous service on the NC to no more than 3 years.

The movers of the new constitution described the proposed approach as “democratic centralism” and argued that the NC should be a body of “the most experienced and politically educated comrades” (1978 Conference document). Another supporter of an elected NC rejected the phrase “democratic centralism” (on the grounds no-one knew what this meant and most things associated with it were bad) and the emphasis on getting “the best” to serve on the NC (instead seeing the arrangement was giving the most democratic representation of different views) ” (1978 Conference document). Surprisingly little attention was given to problems with a delegate arrangement e.g. branches not having a single political view, a body appointed this way not necessarily reflecting the majority view. For example, despite Plan Y losing the vote at the 1976 Conference, the delegate NC arrangements resulted in Plan Y supporters being the majority on the new NC and given the responsibility of launching the Project.

One opponent of the change saw it as “a massive over-centralisation of power” and creating a “self perpetuating leadership” and a “remote base”. BF’s perspective was based on leaders having regular experience at the base, and delegation created direct accountability. The change would lead to the same degeneration as had occurred with the International Socialists (1978 Conference document).

A few years later an article in the discussion Bulletin linked the discussions over an elected NC since 1978 back to previous debates about internal organisation. It concluded that the arguments on both sides had not been not productive, and parodied their opponents and exaggerated the effects of particular proposals. Unfortunately, the author was unable to suggest any alternative arrangements which might provide a way out of the impasse. Click here to view Why We Need a Discussion of Internal Organisation (Discussion Bulletin July 1981)

How well did the structures work?

After two years of the elected NC, one member attempted an honest assessment of how things were going. Click here to view National Committee (1980 Conference document).

For the most part discussions of BF’s internal effectiveness reflected where the authors stood on the recent changes. One analysis saw the problem as the relationship between the leaders and the rank and file not being a two way process. The author saw as a common rank and file attitude: If the rank and file accepted what the leadership said, they agreed to go along with it. If they disagreed, they did as they wanted. Click here to view National Growth, Local Stagnation (Internal Bulletin May 1978). An alternative analysis of BF’s problems attributed the problems to a difference source. NC “directives” were the result of trying to impose the methods and structures of a larger organisation. These “male dominated power structures” were not conducive to genuine participation. Click here to view Wot Crisis? (1980 Conference document)

Perhaps a better way of seeing how the NC related to the rest of the organisation is to look at some conflicts which occurred.

–          The NC took a position in 1978 supporting the emergence of the Anti Nazi League. The Anti-Racist Anti-Fascist Commission (some of whose members had reservations about the ANL’s impact on local anti-racist work) reacted strongly against the decision, arguing that its members had not been consulted. The NC defended its position, arguing that its discussion had been flagged up with branches through the agreed procedures.

–          In 1980 the Women’s Commission after a debate agreed a paper for the National Abortion Campaign conference. When discussed at the next NC, the women members present did not agree with the position set out in the paper. The NC as a whole decided that the paper should not be submitted in BF’s name. The NC subsequently decided that it had acted wrongly in not endorsing the Women’s Commission position.

–          In 1981 the NC asked one of its members to write an editorial for the newspaper. The Newspaper Collective decided that the article’s contents did not reflect BF’s positions and printed it as a signed article rather than editorial. The author (who argued that his article was in line with BF policy) was not consulted. The NC’s response was to agree new procedures to try to avoid a recurrence.

It is difficult to generalise too much from these examples. At the very least they show an NC willing to admit mistakes and to avoid future conflicts where possible.

Only in 1978 were there more candidates for the elected NC than positions available. There were constant problems finding women willing to stand for the minimum four positions reserved for them on the NC. In recognition of this continuing problem a motion was passed at the 1981 Conference reducing the number of directly elected NC members from 11 to 6. There were still problems with people resigning from the NC. So at its 1983 Conference Big Flame again changed its constitution to having only four directly elected NC members (one of them the Education Organiser). The NC was now a hybrid, with another five members being delegates. Only this time they were appointed by Commissions rather than local groups.

Some final comments

In retrospect the debate about an elected NC was not one of the most illuminating in Big Flame history. An elected NC neither solved nor created Big Flame’s problems. Whatever, the theoretical merits of the arguments on either side, the organisation proved incapable in practice of maintaining an elected NC. BF, by its very nature, attracted a membership who were suspicious and critical of “leaders” and gave priority to local struggles. They believed in the idea of a national organisation, but sustaining and supporting it was usually not a top priority.

However, like every other organisation whatever the formal structures, Big Flame still included amongst its membership (and on both sides of its various debates) a number of confident, articulate (mostly male) people who exerted a significant influence on the organisation’s direction. This was despite the arrangements in place at the time for the NC and, indeed, whether or not these individuals were part of it or not. The best way of judging an organisation is not whether there are such formal or informal “leaders”, but how genuine and sustained are the efforts to involve a wider group of members in decision making. I think Big Flame was always trying.

Although some individuals cited Lenin in their arguments for particular arrangements, the way the organisation functioned (under both the delegate and elected NC) was significantly different from the proclaimed Leninism of other organisations. It may have been in some respects a chaotic and not fully effective organisation. Maybe this was a fair price to pay for not adopting some of the alternatives.

Archive Archie

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EPISODES IN BIG FLAME HISTORY: No 11. 1976-78 Debate – The Project and Socialist Unity

Posted by archivearchie on June 30, 2009

78ConfMot-p1Episode 5 of this series covered a Big Flame internal debate in 1975. This post covers one aspect of the debate between 1976 and 1978 – how to create a larger organisation with others who had similar politics.

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. This is inevitably a simplification – sometimes there were more than two positions, the issues being debated often changed, and people moved in and out of the two camps – but it does help provide one key to understanding of the organisation’s development. There were no permanent names for the two groupings. In 1976 the labels Plans X and Y were used. Unlike 1975, the split was not a geographic one. For example, the three movers of the Plan X position came from West London, Liverpool and Leeds, whilst the three movers of Plan Y came from Liverpool, South London and Manchester.

The Project

The Plan X motion at the October 1976 Big Flame conference proposed what became known as the Project for a New Revolutionary Organisation. The starting point was that Big Flame’s politics had a lot to offer the working class, but were having little impact. This was because BF has a “small organisation mentality” and those who shared its politics were fragmented and isolated. There were many, perhaps without realising it, who shared the same ideas as BF (referred to as the working class autonomy tendency). To make a qualitative leap forward a new organisation was required which would be different from Big Flame simply growing. BF should be willing to dissolve itself within a year to help the new organisation come into being. The first step to bring potential members together would be to write a Manifesto/strategic programme.

Plan Y’s alternative approach was for political centralisation of leadership, ideas and resources. This together with systematic mass work inside key united fronts would enable Big Flame to grow steadily. The proposal for the Project was criticised. Plan Y supporters didn’t believe there was a semi-constituted political tendency similar to BF. They doubted whether several of the names mentioned in the Plan X document as people who could be approached had common politics with BF. The argued that trying to create a new organisation in a period of political defeat before and to stimulate a higher level of class struggle was a denial of materialism. Finally, they queried the suggestion that women’s and black groups should be approached to be part of the organisation was a misunderstanding of autonomy.

When the vote was taken, it was Plan X which won the day. Click here to view the two positions Towards a New Communist Movement [first part] (Plan X) and Put Politics in Command [first part] (Plan Y) [the second half of both document are omitted as they name a lot of individuals whom the Plan X document suggested could be approached to form part of the proposed new organisation].

DraftMan-p1In line with the motion passed at the 1976 Conference, in March 1977 Big Flame published a Draft Manifesto for the proposed new organisation Towards a New Revolutionary Socialist Organisation. It provides the best extended discussion of BF’s general politics ever published. The pamphlet contains an analysis of modern capitalism, the changing composition of the working class, the nature of reformism, an explanation of the terms mass politics and working class autonomy, and an understanding of the dynamic between party and class.

Click here to view the pamphlet – split into three parts:

Towards a New Revolutionary Socialist Organisation: front-pviii

Towards a New Revolutionary Socialist Organisation: p1-p10

Towards a New Revolutionary Socialist Organisation: p11-back

The Project fizzled out with out much in the way of an explanation or balance sheet of the experience. There were some successes, as in West London where the local BF group’s contacts were brought together to create a large Socialist Network. But this was the exception. There was some growth in Big Flame – the Revolutionary Marxist Current (RMC) (see post about the RMC) and some individuals who responded to Project decided to join BF. However, this was very different from the original aim. Opponents of the Project repeated their criticisms: “The mistake of the project was to believe that BF could be the major centre and organisational focus for creating such a qualitatively different organisation. We simply do not have the political clarity, size and roots in the struggle to play such a role” (Internal Bulletin October 1977).

At the next Big Flame conference in May 1978, two motions were passed on left unity – one from former Plan X supporters and one from former Plan Y supporters. However, because of an amendment to the latter which inserted text from the former, the key sections of both motions were identical. The common text rejected regroupment, merger or reallignment as the solution and reflecting on the past few years stated “It has been a failing of BF to believe it could achieve such a project in isolation from the rest of the left, and in a relatively short space of time”. This replaced some text which was against regroupment as the fusion of existing organisations but added “we should be willing to unite with any force on the revolutionary left on given conditions”.

SULogoSocialist Unity

At a conference to assess developments with the Project in July 1977 Tariq Ali of the International Marxist Group (IMG) had invited Big Flame to participate in the IMG’s newspaper Socialist Challenge. Big Flame had already taken a decision in favour of standing independent working class candidates at elections, and in September 1977 supported an IMG candidate at a Parliamentary by-election in Birmingham. This led on to the IMG’s next proposal – for candidates to stand at Parliamentary and local elections under the name Socialist Unity (SU). A motion passed at the 1978 Big Flame conference confirmed BF’s position: “We should continue to support SU as a priority area of our work and continue with our perspective that it is more than an electoral alliance”. BF had argued with Socialist Unity for a continuing presence in an area after elections were over.

The Internal Bulletin included a series of articles on Socialist Unity. Nearly all of them described problems encountered working with the IMG. Several argued that Socialist Unity should not aim to be anything more than an electoral alliance. There is caution about Socialist Unity being seen as another “miracle solution” like the Project. Click here to view some of the articles from the debate.

Big Flame and Socialist Unity (Internal Bulletin October 1977)

The Debate on Socialist Unity (Internal Bulletin October 1977)

Socialist Unity (Internal Bulletin December 1977)

Socialist Unity: A Critical Assessment (newspaper June 1979)

Only the last article draws attention to one matter. However well it is felt things went locally in terms of independents being drawn into joint work, the overall voting figures were invariably disappointing. No better than those achieved by previous far left candidates at elections.

Big Flame decided not to participate in Socialist Challenge, keeping its own paper. When the IMG suggested unity talks between the two organisations and the ISA (International Socialists Alliance, a group of former International Socialists members – see post about the ISA), very few people in Big Flame had any sympathy with the idea, and the proposal was rejected. Soon after the overtures from the IMG came to an end, as it directed its attention to a “turn to industry” and then the Labour Party.

Those who had been most supportive of participation in SU believed it was “highly successful political initiative” improving BF’s profile on the left (Discussion Bulletin October 1978).The 1978 conference vote on supporting Socialist Unity had been overwhelming, with little in the way of opposition voices. In retrospect, some others in Big Flame came to see this phase in BF history as another step in the path away from its traditional positions. The mass work which had previously characterised BF had been “unconsciously undermined” by a series of debates about “joining with the IMG, joining Socialist Challenge, getting involved with Socialist Unity” (Discussion Bulletin October 1981), These debates were also seen as leading on to a later one about Labour Party membership. However, further discussion of this must wait until a later episode in this series (see Episode 27).

Archive Archie

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