Big Flame

1970-1984

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Personal opinions about Big Flame, its strenghts and weaknesses

OPINIONS ABOUT BIG FLAME no 5: KEVIN McDONNELL

Posted by archivearchie on January 18, 2010

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

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

Kevin McDonnell writes:

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

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

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

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

 

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

Kevin McDonnell

 Introduction

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

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

The main issues I want to address are:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Total Numbers

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

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

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

Location

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

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

Women

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

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

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

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

Class

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

Political background

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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OPINIONS ABOUT BIG FLAME no 3 part 2: JOHN WALLER

Posted by archivearchie on December 14, 2009

This is a follow up to an earlier post: Opinions about Big Flame no 3: John Waller.

John Waller was an active member of Big Flame in Nottingham and nationally from 1977 to 1981. When Big Flame started to disintegrate in 1982 he drifted away from the organization to be involved in community politics and then solidarity with the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. Since the early 90s his political practice has been dominated by solidarity work with the Cuban revolution. For many years this was as a part of the national leadership of the British Cuba Solidarity Campaign. This politically led him to the heartland of the empire and he now pursues the same ends from his US home.

John writes:

What does Big Flame’s theory and practice have to offer the future?

Three months ago I wrote a short opinion piece for this website to stimulate debate about what of Big Flame’s theory and practice was still relevant and important today. The response was unfortunately minimal. SO I’ve tried to take the issue one step further by enlarging on what I wrote and drawing my own conclusions. The expanded piece appears below. One person cannot possibly do justice to this topic. What I offer below is I hope the beginning of a conversation with more ex-members of Big Flame.

Introduction

Big Flame (BF) completely failed to achieve its goal of socialist revolution in England/Britain. The entire revolutionary left in the advanced capitalist world failed (and is failing) equally. Nowhere has there been anything approaching a rerun of Russia’s October 1917 revolution to validate the wider applicability of the Leninist model of revolution. Revolutions that were a mix of socialism and national liberation did occur in a number of economically poor countries but their primary route was via prolonged (more or less) guerrilla struggle. Of these successful overthrows of capitalist state power only Cuba continues to espouse a socialist project. Meanwhile advances in military technology and communication, and in the power of the modern state, combined with the loss of the military and financial support that once the Soviet Union, or sometimes China, provided, make the guerrilla road to revolution increasingly unlikely.   

Soviet style communism, or state collectivism as Big Flame had started to call it, has gone – replaced in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe by outright and often brutal capitalism, and in Asia by Chinese style capitalism under Communist Party leadership.  Meanwhile the goal of socialism via gradual reform has, in the last 30 years, virtually disappeared from the discourse of the main social democratic parties in most of the world. At best they aim for a kinder caring capitalism, at worst they have become barely indistinguishable from the right in competing to manage the capitalist economy and the, usually declining, public services.

Yet ‘history has not ended’ in a bright shining capitalist future.  We see the economic turmoil of the last year, global warming and rampant environmental degradation, the Middle East turned into a zone of war and occupation, while the gap between rich and poor grows inexorably wider both between and within countries.  We are living under a world order that is economically and environmentally unsustainable.

“A better world is possible” says a new generation of activists, but so is a worse one, and the Bush regime was the harbinger of what that world would look like. For the peoples of Iraq and Afghanistan they already know what the new world order could mean, and a year into the Obama administration, the language is softer than Bush, the politics smarter, but the policies have barely changed.  For now, in the advanced centres of capitalism, life is still pretty comfortable for many, but the slow dismantling of the post second world war welfare state is underway and in Britain and some other countries the developing space for working class revolt is being occupied by fascist or neo-fascist parties.

The only continent that has partially bucked the trend is Latin America.  Back in 1981 the continent was dominated by military dictatorships. They were replaced by right wing civilian governments implementing neo-liberal economic policies devised in Washington. The repression and impoverishment lead to the growth of powerful urban and rural social movements, based largely in the community rather than the workplace. These movements were/are inspired by socialist ideas in the broadest sense, and also by the continuing example of the Cuban revolution. Across much of Latin America the neo-liberal regimes have been brought down by mass struggle and/or voted out. Their replacement has been by what some commentators call a ‘pink tide’ – governments that domestically are socially reforming, and externally espouse a mix of progressive nationalism and Latin American unity against the empire to the north. The nature of the tide varies from country to country, but at its most radical end we have Venezuela and Hugo Chavez’ Bolivarian Revolution committed to trying to build a vaguely defined but definitely highly participatory ‘socialism for the 21st century’. 

Thirty years ago I contributed to an internal BF document called ‘Facing the Challenge of the Eighties’. Thirty years on, does BF politics (theory and practice) have anything to offer to the revolutionaries who are facing the challenges that the next decade will bring, wherever they are in the world. I believe it does, and this is my attempt at summarising what was, and is, worth taking from our past. It focuses therefore on the most positive elements of our history, though in the context of some assessment of the failings.

Historical Truth .v. Current Analysis

Perhaps the starting point is that unlike most of the left we didn’t seek to locate ourselves in a historical tradition – Leninist, Trotskyist, anarchist, Maoist etc. Rather we said that Marxism had to be updated to the world as it is now, and that any lessons about revolutionary strategy handed down from past ‘masters’ had to be resituated in the new context to see whether they still made sense.

Specifically we said that since Lenin’s day capital, the working class, and the relationship between them had changed dramatically. The working class was no longer dominated by skilled white heterosexual males in blue collar jobs. The new working class was skilled and unskilled, blue collar and white collar, male and female, white and black, gay and straight. And increasingly it was/is an international working class, spawned by capitalist production processes that span the globe. Capital also had moved on, not just in its global reach but in the way it structured society. Workers were now also consumers and their behaviour in both roles needed to be as compliant as possible, which meant that capital had to invade our lives not just in the factory or office, but in our schools, communities, homes and families.  Capital had also learnt the value of the State to both prepare the workforce, through healthcare and education, and to control it through laws and if necessary repression. Workers had also learnt the value of the welfare state as a way of getting their needs met, and public services and personal life had become a terrain of material and ideological struggle.

Drawing from the theoretical work of groups in Italy, we asserted that class struggle was the motor force of history and that within everyday struggles, in the workplace, community and personal life, could be found the ‘seeds of communism’ which it was the responsibility of an interventionist revolutionary organisation to draw out and generalize. This ran counter to the classic Leninist notion that particular struggles were solely economic or sectional and that revolutionary/communist demands had to be brought in from the outside. From this basis we followed the then new Italian Marxist thinking into asserting that what was needed was for the working class to struggle for demands that asserted its needs autonomous from capital – Workers Autonomy.

In applying this analysis in practice we made mistakes. We took what was happening in one sector of capitalism that we understood well, the mass production assembly line, and sought to apply that understanding universally. The more general concept of Workers Autonomy became partially conflated with a much narrower notion of the rejection of work, which was how production line workers were expressing their autonomy. We also drastically overestimated the potential for drawing out these seeds of communism, because daily life contains many seeds: reactionary, reformist etc. that except in time of struggle are far more likely to bloom than revolutionary ideas.

The point here is not to regurgitate our analysis of 30-40 years ago, but rather to reaffirm a Marxist tradition that sees the need for continually updating its understanding of capital and class, and that reaffirms the centrality of class struggle in societal change. When Thatcher took the decision in the mid-80s to decimate the coal mining industry it was a decision that from a narrow economic perspective made no short or long term sense for British capitalism. But from a political perspective she saw clearly that destroying the most combative section of the working class would clear a key road block in her plans to restructure the British economy and society.

Class .v. Movement

We also used the word Autonomy in a different context. We fully supported the development of autonomous movements of oppressed groups – women, black people, gays and lesbians. We asserted that the divisions in the working class between men/women, white/black, gay/straight were not just ideological and based on false consciousness. They were/are also rooted in real material and power differences between the groups – differences generated and used by capital to divide and rule. To understand and to overcome these differences requires that the oppressed groups organise autonomously and will inevitably generate some conflict with their immediate oppressor. We were unequivocally on the side of the oppressed, but not to see the oppressor as the enemy. Rather our goal was to help develop the power of the oppressed group and change the behaviour of the oppressing group so that both could reunite against the capitalist class on a basis of true equality. Whether in the Tower Hill rent strike or working with miner’s wives, our intervention was to build women’s power and the overall struggle. We sought demands that strengthened both the position of the oppressed group and that of the class as a whole, and we believed that this required some level of autonomous organisation by those groups, without rejecting the need for a higher level of unified organisation.

The complex interplay between capitalism, imperialism, racism and patriarchy and how to move forward can only be worked through in concrete situations in time and place, but such issues were and are increasingly central to the struggle for socialism. In Latin America the Cuban revolution has continually grappled with these dynamics, with great advances and major mistakes, while in Bolivia and Ecuador now the race question is central to the mass struggles in those societies for social advance. In reassessing BF’s legacy on this question, we undoubtedly struggled to apply theory to concrete reality. We also tended to act as unconditional cheerleaders for autonomous group organising without engaging in a critical debate from which both sides might have learnt lessons.  But we were way ahead of the revolutionary left pack in understanding and supporting the political/organisational need for autonomy.

Our thinking on autonomy and about party and class caused us to develop the notion of parallel organisations – that the party was necessary, but so were the mass organisations and the autonomous groups. The different organisations had different roles to play, which brings me to the role of the revolutionary party.

Party .v. Class

BF as a national grouping affirmed the key need for an organisation of activists with centralized perspectives that would intervene in the class struggle. That we took from Lenin, but overall our aim was not to be for or against Lenin’s legacy but rather to interpret it critically and resituate what we felt was good into the modern world. Most crucially we disagreed with the theory of consciousness that underlay Lenin’s views on the role of the revolutionary party.

For Lenin revolutionary socialist consciousness had to be brought to workers from outside, by party cadre. BF reinterpreted this to argue that revolutionary consciousness could not be developed from within one particular sectional struggle but rather the role of BF members should be inside all these sectional struggles, whether they be autonomous organisations, workplaces, or single issue campaigns, and whether they be domestic or international. We believed we had to earn respect, listen and learn, and from that learning seek to develop a broader overview and general strategies and demands. From this generalized view BF members could feed back into the sectional struggles. BF members aimed to give a lead politically, rather than the common left practice of taking administrative/bureaucratic control of such organisations, or of building their own front organisations. This also differed from the common Trotskyist understanding of the role of the party, which tended to see all the crucial questions of revolutionary strategy as already answered by Marx, Lenin and Trotsky and the party needed to serve as the transmission belt for these lessons from history.

Our practice fell well short of our desires. Part of the membership never really acted as if they were in a national organisation with centralized perspectives, and we paid too little attention to developing theory and got too wrapped up in day to day activism. Getting the balance right between building the struggle and building the organisation often eluded us (usually at the expense of building the organisation) but we rejected any notion that building the party was more important and potentially counter posed to building the struggle.

Further we said that we were not The Revolutionary Party. We argued that a true revolutionary party could not be announced or bureaucratically brought into being. Rather that it had to be built within the processes of class struggle and we were just a stepping stone towards that party. Nor did we ever think that we would linearly grow into that party, arguing instead that it could only fully come about at a higher level of struggle and through a long process of fusions and realignments as well as splits from within the dominant reformist party i.e. the Labour Party. Indeed we did not necessarily assume that at the point of taking state power there would be just one revolutionary party.

Democracy .v. Centralism

Our view of the party underlay BF’s non-sectarian unity in action practice. We never believed that we had all the answers, just some of them. We were open to debating with and learning from other groups and traditions, and most crucially we were open to learning from the class and its current struggles. It also underlay our internal practices. We tried, although often far from successfully, to have coordinated action throughout the organisation based on centralised agreement, but we fiercely valued our ability to debate and disagree internally in a comradely way and to share our differences in public. We were for a democratic and effective interventionist organisation but not for Democratic Centralism as it had come to be defined.  We experimented with differing national structures, none of which seemed to work satisfactorily, but perhaps the greatest guarantee of our internal democracy was the relatively high level of comradeship, mutual respect and awareness of gender, race and sexuality issues within the organisation. In the end we were better at being democratic than being effective.

Personal .v. Political

We asserted that the personal is political and that our relations within the organisation had to prefigure the kind of society we were trying to build – anti-racist/sexist/heterosexist etc. That the political was personal flowed from our broader analysis of how modern capitalism penetrated every aspect of our lives, how it created divisions within the class, and how daily life was a terrain of struggle. But turning the phrase round to say that the personal is political, while correct, had a danger. In practice it tended to drift into the dead end of lifestyle politics – namely that the way we, a bunch of largely white educated people in a rich imperial country, lived was the correct way to live.

Workplace .v. Community

Our analysis of Capital made us understand that we had to struggle in both the workplace and the community, and that we needed to link the two, recognizing for instance that struggles by workers in the public services needed the support of the users of those services if they were to succeed. This linking of workplace and community was perhaps best exemplified by our work around the Hounslow Hospital occupation and in the subsequent creation of a national health organisation called Fightback. We further emphasized that campaigns to defend services against cuts also had to have a perspective of improving those services and giving workers and users greater control over them.

Conditional .v. Unconditional Solidarity

From the beginning we were very concerned about the international dimensions of the class struggle and bringing those issues into our domestic practice, and nowhere more so than over Ireland where BF formed much of the long term backbone of the Troops Out Movement. In practicing solidarity with a struggle directly against British imperialism, and later in the Zimbabwean liberation struggle, BF had to confront the issue of solidarity with struggles whose full goals, strategy and tactics we didn’t always agree with. The position that emerged was one of unconditional solidarity with their struggle against imperialism, regardless of the tactics. But, as revolutionaries committed to challenging imperialism at home and throughout the world, we reserved the right to express criticisms of the liberation movement. We however made clear that the right to criticise had to be earned through our solidarity and had to be exercised with discretion to avoid giving succour to the class enemy. We also emphasised giving particular support where possible to any explicitly socialist, feminist and/or anti-imperialist sections of the liberation movement.

Crucial to the debate about solidarity with the Irish struggle for unification was the tension between our whole hearted support for the aims, and our unhappiness with one of the methods – the IRA’s bombing campaigns. We were not pacifists, we supported the necessity in some situations of armed struggle, but within that were some methods unacceptable? We were active at a time when national liberation and anti-imperialist struggles were, if not socialist, at least broadly politically progressive in their policies and views. 30 years on some of the main opponents of US and British imperialism are inspired by a reactionary version of Islam, and the debate about terrorism has sharpened. Imperialism seeks to brand all violent resistance as terrorist. In defending the ‘violence of the oppressed’ would a modern BF state that some forms of struggle are never legitimate, and truly terrorist?

We tried to analyse the behaviour of third world liberation movements, or the governments they sometimes lead to, from within the real context and limitations they faced – an approach very different from that of say the British SWP which tended to glorify their struggle up to the point of seizing power and then denounce them afterwards for selling out. Within the international revolutionary left there was some dichotomy between those who took a view that socialism could only be achieved by the actions of the working class of advanced capitalist countries, and others who saw third world liberation movements as the vanguard of revolutionary struggle. BF avoided any one sided analysis or global theoretical conclusions. We struggled for socialism at home, we supported liberation movements and workers’ struggles abroad, and we tried to find real material links between the two, via for instance the Ford Workers Combine making links with Ford plants around the world.

Reform .v. Revolution

BF never developed a coherent theory and practice of how to bring about revolution in an advanced capitalist country, nor how to overcome the hold that reformist institutions and ideas had over the working class. Initially we emphasized how reformist institutions like the trade unions and the then Labour Party fostered passivity within the class and sought to incorporate radical struggle into channels that might modify but not fundamentally threaten the capitalist structure. For us even shop stewards were not necessarily a radical force and could well act as the lowest level face of incorporation. This lead us to emphasise mass practice and the mass line – attempting to work with the whole class rather than focusing on winning over a representative layer,  though later we came to recognise the need for also working through structures, most especially perhaps during a long term period of limited struggle.

The early BF made its most significant interventions through Base Groups of external militants working around selected factories and communities such as Ford car plants, and the Tower Hill estate in Kirby. Such base groups proved to be unsustainable in the long term, and not to be a model that could generate a revolutionary movement from the bottom up, but the insights into the nature of struggle they developed and the successes they achieved in the short term showed their potential value as part of what a revolutionary organisation can do.

We always argued that to counter pose revolution to reforms was wrong. What mattered about struggles for particular reforms was how they were conducted. Through the process of struggle were they building class power, organisation and self confidence to keep going forward? Or were they undermining and co-opting the movement for the price (at best) of a minor and probably temporary victory.

But how does one combine building a movement from the base with developing a national strategy for the seizure of state power? We turned to Chile for ideas. While the rest of the left argued over the reasons for the disastrous overthrow of Salvador Allende’s Popular Unity government in Chile in 1973, we attempted a wider analysis because we felt that government marked a highpoint of socialist struggle in a (relatively) advanced bourgeois democracy. We argued then that the election of a radical reformist government had created space for a grass roots mass movement with a revolutionary wing to develop.

It was a theme we returned to in the early 1980s as the Labour Party was seemingly moving leftwards. Could the election of a left Labour government and local councils similarly open up space for more radical struggle and demands in Britain, and if so what relationship should we and other revolutionaries have to the Labour Party. It was an issue which eventually split the organisation, with no effective way forward emerging on either side of the debate.

But it is a theme that has reemerged through the developments in Latin America over the last decade. Hugo Chavez has most definitely learnt lessons from the Chilean defeat. He has cut through the sterile Communist Party versus Trotskyist debates about whether Allende’s government went too far too fast or didn’t go far enough – pursuing a political process that in its policies initially proceeded more cautiously than Allende, but in its development of popular mobilisation and penetration of the armed forces has been more radical. The reformist government – mass movement dialectic is at work throughout the continent. In Bolivia, Ecuador and Argentina reformist governments rode to power on the back of waves of mass mobilisations by social and indigenous movements, and there is intense debate about whether those governments are co-opting and demobilising the struggle, or opening up space for a deeper radicalisation, whether by conscious intent or not.

John Waller

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OPINIONS ABOUT BIG FLAME no 4: MIKE JONES

Posted by archivearchie on September 11, 2009

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

Mike was a member of Big Flame in Liverpool from 1976 to 1981. He left that year to join the Labour Party. He was later the lyricist for the band Latin Quarter, and is now Lecturer in Music at the University of Liverpool. Back in 1985 he was working on a thesis, which took Big Flame as one of the case studies. It is this chapter which is included here. It does not discuss the latter years of Big Flame from 1981 onwards.

The article is published as written in 1985, and has not been updated. If he were to revise it today, Mike would want to expand on Big Flame’s relationship to the women’s movement.

This is the second article in the series written by someone who left Big Flame over the issue of Labour Party membership. Those who were supportive of Labour Party membership were by a significant margin a minority in the organization. However, I am limited in what I can post to those who volunteer articles and those unpublished documents of which I am aware. I would be very keen to include in the series articles by ex-members who took a different position.

Mike comments:

Dear Reader, please forgive the following:

1. These observations are turgidly written – this is a result of

[a]. my being more turgid then

[b]. immersing myself in turgid [CP and Trotskysist] documents for several years.

They are also part of a much longer, and equally turgid, work so that some points only make full sense in the context of the missing parts.

2. These observations do not convey any of the good, positive aspects of being in BF – notably great Summer Schools, great Dayschools, great comrades and great laughs.

3. These observations convey none of the sacrifices of being in BF and none of the loss of the great friends who have died since these events took place [Steve, Kate, Ian and Nina that I know of].

4. These observations can never convey watching the SPG charge towards us on the morning of the last mass Grunwick picket.

5. These observations cannot represent what it felt like to have to allow fellow Liverpool BF members to help themselves to your last pint after having failed to buy their own when ‘last orders’ were called.

6. These observations will not be televised

In the thesis, I trace the history of Big Flame from its origins in Liverpool, and its links to the radicalisation of students and of the trade union rank and file. It begins with the base groups around factories and on the Tower Hill estate, then on to Big Flame becoming a national organisation. It traces the group’s involvement in a project to form a new revolutionary organisation, the Socialist Unity Campaign, and the movement which arose out of the book Beyond the Fragments. A particular theme is how, from a group which thought that the working class could bypass the institutions of reformism, some members were arguing by 1981 for joining the Labour Party.

 

BIG FLAME: 1971 TO 1981

INTRODUCTION

Big Flame, (BF) was founded 1971.  In the next ten years, it grew from a single group in one city (Liverpool) to an organisation twenty times its original size with branches spread throughout England.(1)  At the same time, especially through its pamphlets,(2) BF exerted and influence throughout the rest of the Far Left that ended to further outstrip its (relatively) large growth.  The principal reasons for this were two-fold: firstly, in its attempt to fashion the insights of the new movements and new concerns thrown up in the course of the late-1960’s into a distinct, Marxist project, BF developed relationships with, and derived members from, a wider constituency than the CP, the Trotskyist groups and the ‘Marxist-Leninists’ previously; secondly, (and as a concomitant of this) BF represented the British variant of a process which was international in its scope.  Although not identical with any other organisation, in, (particularly), its use of some of the ideas thrown up by the new Italian Marxist groups (especially ‘Lotta Continua’(3)) BF became the ‘voice’ of this international current inside the British Far Left.  However, the period of its greatest impact (the late-70’s) was one very different from that which had given it birth.  The various revolts that BF grew out of and responded to (the student movement: trade union rank and file opposition to the Labour Government; the new concern with personal politics and with women’s liberation etc.) were very much ones associated with, and stimulated by, the expansion of capitalism and the attempts made to continue this expansion.

Under these conditions, it was the organisation’s belief that the experience and institutions of Reformism would, eventually be ‘by-passed’ by the working class.  As the recession began to gather momentum and the Conservatives regained the ascendancy, the need for the organisation to develop some new and changed understanding of the relationship between the working class sand the Labour Party was posed.  Yet, such was its understanding of working class struggle (and, with it, the form of organisation that this struggle required) that BF could neither make the necessary theoretical adjustments nor contain the effects of the debate.  The split in the organisation which the debate provoked had the effect of destabilising it and precipitating its later collapse.

PART ONE

THE ORIGINS OF BIG FLAME

In its original form, BF was not a Marxist organisation, nor even an organisation as such, but a newspaper.  The newspaper, which ran to seven issues, was launched in February 1970. In the composition and (partly) in the concerns of the newspaper some of the later BF was already present.  Thus, as the previous case-study and also the remarks made in the first chapter have indicated, the Labour Government elected in 1964 had been greeted by the Party’s own left; the Trade Union movement and by much of the Far Left as a positive step forward – both for the working class and for socialism.  However, in its elaboration and its execution, Harold Wilson’s commitment to state planning soon came to dash those hopes; to frustrate many of his supporters and to provoke different kinds of opposition.  All of this tended to merge then into the wider oppositional currents of the period out of which Marxism as a body of critical theory and the far Left as a collection of groups that identified with this theory were both revived.  Nevertheless, so extensive were the concerns and forms of expression of this general ‘opposition’ that the newspaper ‘Big Flame’ (because of its motivation and the still limited perspectives of its loose editorial group) could not hope (and did not wish) to respond to them all.  As the political questions thrown up by the general movement of events came to demand some more consistent response in the pages of the newspaper, so the producing group fell apart.  In the wake of this collapse a residue of the production team then set about creating a more cohesive and politically-focussed BF.  However, before we can examine this, we need to know what, in general, were the wider issues and currents of the period in question.

The original editorial team for the newspaper ‘Big Flame’ was a rough amalgam of two, very different, groups: radicalised rank and file workers, principally lay-officials from some of Liverpool’s major manufacturing concerns (Fords, Standard-Triumph and Dunlop Tyres); and radicalised students from the City’s university and colleges.  What needs first to be explained is what had radicalised both groups and what had made for their convergence (a phenomenon whose only near-parallel was the CP recruitment of Cambridge students in the 1930’s when the threat of Fascism had been the spur).

(a)        Student Radicalisation in the 1960’s

In Britain, the material context for the radicalisation of students in the late-1960’s developed through the expansion of higher education: initiated under the 1944 Education Act and supplemented by, for example, the recommendations of the Robbins Report.  The creation of a large, new pool of young people drawn from a wider social class basis than had previously been the case then added an important dimension to the development of a distinct ‘Youth Culture’ can only be touched upon in a study like this, what needs to be recorded about its general social impact is the diffuse oppositional quality of its successive expressions.  Captured in the phrase ‘The Generation Gap;, the arrival of the ‘Teddy Boys’ who would be followed by the ‘Mods’ and ‘Rockers’ of the early-60’s, signalled a growing awareness and a largely unwilling acceptance that young people could expected to be critical of existing social relationships.   Of course this was never more than a very wide generalisation and certainly university students were unlikely to be involved with styles that were almost wholly limited to the young working class. Nevertheless, firstly in the guise of support for CND and the equally pacifist (if less wide-spread) overlapping with the ‘Beat Generation’; and later in a more general identification with the anti-war (then anti-materialist and hedonistic) preoccupations of the emergent folk and rock stars of the period, the atmosphere of opposition settled over large sections of the university and college population. From the outset, the transatlantic and near-global impact of pop music on young people made possible by, and coupled with, the increasing importance of electronic media and especially television, gave an international dimension to this experience.  This, in turn, would become of increasing importance as youth and notably student radicalisation began to make a public and political impression.

In Britain (as Widgery notes (4)), it was at the London School of Economics that the militant politics of what became the ‘student movement’ made their first appearance.  In both the object of the LSE students protest (the appointment, as Director, of Walter Adams; previously Director of UC Salisbury in Rhodesia) and in their eventual tactics (the occupation of the LSE; where ‘sit-ins’ had become an important part of the practice of the Black Civil Rights movement in the USA), the protest was internationalist in its expression.  This concern with the phenomenon of racism (expressed in opposition to the Rhodesian regime) was given an anti-government (and anti-Labour) quality through criticism of Harold Wilson’s failure to achieve any reversal in the Rhodesian government’s ‘illegal’ declaration of independence.  What transformed this, for many more students, into an anti-imperialist position was the escalation of the Vietnam War and the anti-conscription and anti-war activities of the US student movement (SDS (5)).   In the way that this became a positive identification with the aims and methods of the Vietnamese NLF (6), the route to revolutionary, Marxist politics was completed.

The active support of at least a portion of the student population for the Vietnamese cause necessarily introduced them to the existing organisations of the Far Left of which, in 1967 (when the first major demonstration of the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign – VSC, took place), the CPGB (7) and the Trotskyist SLL (8) were the principal representatives.  However, a variety of events during 1968 encouraged revolutionary students to look beyond these particular organisations for their Marxism.  These were (very briefly):

            (i)         The ‘May Events’ in Paris  A protest at the new French University at Nanterre; firstly over a lack of basic facilities and then as a wider critique of the content of courses and the role of the university itself, led to clashes with the police.  Sympathy action by Sorbonne students in the heart of Paris (9) led to much more violent student-police clashes.  Barricades were erected and, in the ensuing crisis, further sympathetic and then parallel protest action by workers culminated in a General Strike. Although the situation was eventually defused, several diverse growing points for evolutionary politics had been initiated: most notably (for these purposes) that,

(a)        The self-confidence of student throughout the West was immeasurably increased.

(b)        The potential for revolution at the centre of capitalism had seemed to be restored; this after years of ‘affluence’ and the announcement, in ‘end of Ideology’ theories, that radical politics and the need for them had been obviated.

(c)        The ‘objective’ identity of the position of students (as ‘intellectual workers’) with the traditional one of manual workers could also now be argued.

(d)        The actions of the French CP in helping to contain the militancy of workers had discredited it as an organisation in the eyes of many young people (not just students) and it has also posed the need for a critique of the type of politics that it represented.  This critique would then be one that grew to encompass the form of revolutionary organisation; the nature of the socialist society that such an organisation was designed to bring about; and the strategy and methods through which it hoped to make possible the transition to such a society.

            (ii)        The Invasion of Czechoslovakia the Soviet decision to enter Prague and to replace the reforming government of Dubcek with one of a more recognisably sympathetic and quiescent kind, added further impetus to the critique of ‘traditional’ Marxist conceptions.

            (iii)       The Responses of the CPGB and the SLL to the VSC In short, at a time when many students were attracted to the late Che Guevara’s dictum, ‘Create Two, Three, Many Vietnams’, the CP’s slogan, ‘Peace in Vietnam’ was long way from their preferred, ‘Victory to the NLF’.  That Ho Chi Minh’s NLF were themselves very much of the old Communist Movement mainstream could be overlooked in the mounting frustration of the USA and the forward advance of the revolutionary opposition (on the campus as well as in Vietnam).  Equally, the decision of the main Marxist opposition to the CP, the Trotskyists led by Gerry Healy, to spurn the BSC as an ‘irrelevant protest activity which separates (students) from the working class’(10) led to the marginalisation of Healy’s SLL.  This did not, however, marginalise the whole of Trotskyism with it.  Rather, it opened the way for the growth of the heterodox Trotskyists, the International Socialist (IS) and it encouraged the revival of the other currents that Healy had worked so hard to stifle in the early 1950’s who would now renew their claim to represent the ‘correct’ interpretation of Trotsky against Healy’s distortions.(11)

Finally, it added yet more reasons for those who had been stimulated by the critical aspects of the French experience (over and above the straightforward oppositional quality of it) to develop their critique of the CP tradition and of Trotskyism.  It was this very, heterogeneous grouping (dubbed ‘Libertarians’ to identify transformation rather than the imposition of a new orthodoxy) that came first to help establish ‘Big Flame’ as a newspaper and then, later, BF as an organisation.  These then found some important (if restricted) common ground with trade union militants for the following reasons:

(b)       The Radicalisation of the Trade Union Rank and File

            The radicalisation of rank and file trade unionists in Britain was again something that had specific domestic origins within the context of developments, internationally.  Thus, in terms of the broader perspective of the development of capitalism as an international system, then the following can be said to have applied in the performance of the British economy during the 1960’s.

            (i)         Although the period from the re-stabilisation of the Western economies after the Second World War to, roughly, the OPEC oil price rises of the early 1970’s, can be regarded as one of considerable expansion, capitalism in Britain began to experience relative contraction (or, at least, a progressively reduced rate of expansion) from the early 1960’s, onwards.  For example, Glynn and Sutcliffe (12) noted that the share of profits (the ratio of total profits to total incomes) was virtually halved between 1964 and 1970.(13) They considered that the overall explanation for the crisis of profitability in British industry was the result of a combination of two factors:

       ‘..the squeezing of profit margins between money wage increases on the one hand and progressively more severe international competition on the other’. (14)

             (ii)        In very broad terms, the connection between the two factors identified by Glyn and Sutcliffe as the root of British capitalist’s problems was the conduct of British management in their relations with the general work-force in the period of post-war economic recovery.  Essentially, employers had not used the ‘boom’ to re-organise or ‘rationalise’ production in a way that would have rendered it more cost-effective (and therefore better able to withstand increasing competition in international markets) when the major areas of domestic consumption had been largely satisfied.  What the rationalisation of production would have meant in real terms was a concerted attempt to introduce new machinery and new work processes which would have stepped up the rate of exploitation.  In the USA, there were few unions strong enough to resist such measures, while in Japan and West Germany the pre-war unions had been all but wiped-out.  In Britain the position was very different.  The long-standing union organisation in manufacturing and in transport proved resistant to change.  Employers preferred to increase the size of dividend to investors rather than use their profits to introduce the kind of technological change that would have provoked strikes and, therefore, interrupted the flow of profits in the short term.  However, as the rise in manufactured imports from Japan (cf. the rapid collapse of the British motorcycle industry), the USA, Germany, and elsewhere began to make their impact, it became increasingly obvious that rationalisation would have to be embarked upon.  This, then, was the brief of the Labour Government under Harold Wilson where Labour was in the unique position of being able to offer its working class supporters the chance that the aspect of Britain’s increasing difficulties which most affected them (price rises and unemployment) would be alleviated and persuade, simultaneously, Britain’s employers that they could use the relationship with the unions to prevent resistance to rationalisation measures.

            (iii)       As the observations on Labour’s approach to planning made in the previous case study sought to show, the appeal to trade unionists and many socialists was the express commitment to improve working class living standards (by at least curbing price rises) and the less definite (but more grand-sounding) desire to harness private industry in the pursuit of a far more equitable society (which for reformists was equivalent with socialism and for some revolutionaries represented at least a step in the right direction).  The first 18 months of the Labour administration was something of a ‘honeymoon’ period.  However, after the March, 1966 election victory (which left the new Labour Government with a vastly increased majority) the reality of Wilson-led planning proved far removed from its promise; at least where his supporters on the left and, more pertinently, workers were concerned.  At base, the 1966 Labour Government attempted the rationalisation of British industry in two main ways:

(a)        By promoting mergers between companies.  The greater concentration of capital that this produced then left those new concerns (e.g. the creation of British Motor Holdings, later British Leyland (15)) better able and, crucially, more willing both to introduce new plant and machinery (and, with them, new work processes and new challenges to trade union organisation) and to integrate ‘vertically’ (i.e. exert a greater control over the manufacture of related components).

(b)        By attempting to impose an incomes policy. This took the form of the Prices and Incomes Board whose deliberations and decisions were meant to check price increases and ensure that wage increases were not only kept low but were tied to improvements in ‘productivity’; where the latter became  a by-word for the ‘modernisation’ of the economy.  However, what this came quickly to mean, especially in the context of mergers and new investment, was an attack on work organisation.

        (iv)       It was the restriction on wage increases especially those that were granted under the terms of the 1968 Incomes Policy, which meant onerous ‘productivity’ commitments that led to a rapid disenchantment with Wilson and to extreme tensions both within the Trade Union Movement and between the unions and Government.  While the implications for reformism will need to be considered at a later point, what needs to be examined here is the root of the tensions within trade unionism.  This, particularly in the manufacturing industries (and the car industry most of all), was a function of management-workforce relations at the level of individual work-places during the years of economic boom.

Briefly, individual plant managers came to negotiate with shop stewards (lay officials whose function was very often not even recognised in the rule books of the unions involved) over payment for piece-work output.  This local bargaining had a variety of effects; most of them to the advantage of the work-force (for example, once a new rate for a job was agreed, individual groups of workers could still determine how much, and therefore how quickly, they would produce).  As mergers grew apace and multi-national (usually US-owned) companies came rapidly to replace the more traditionalist British employers, various remedies were attempted to restore the initiative to management.  The Ford Motor Company were in the van of this movement.  ‘Ford UK’ was operated directly from the USA after 1960 and the first confrontation with the work-force, and the stewards in particular, came as early as 1963 when, at the Dagenham plant, 17 stewards were sacked (see Beynon (16)).  Ford’s example (their attempt, through the ‘Measured Day Work’ system, of setting agreed daily output targets, for instance) was emulated, with Labour Government approval and encouragement, in spheres as different as the Dock industry and Passenger Bus services.  When met with resistance, the more co-operative aspects of ‘planning’ were then dropped in favour of directly coercive measures which where heralded in Harold Wilson’s direct intervention in the Seamen’s dispute in 1966 and which he sought to culminate in the proposals for new industrial legislation (wherein the emphasis was one strongly on control over, and penalties for, industrial action) that took the form of the 1968 White Paper, ‘In Place of Strife’.(17)

It is far beyond the scope of these remarks to recount the nature and extent of the opposition to ‘In Place of Strife’, here.   What does need to be indicated, however, is the way in which the shop stewards, for a time at least, were forced to confront their own full-time union officials over the latter’s co-operation with the employers and with government in the imposition of productivity agreements.  This is not to say that, at all times and in all ways, the leaderships of the various trade unions agreed with every point of Wilson’s plan for industrial re-organisation on or with the employers’ attempts to enforce their version of it. Even so, there was a disjuncture between what the work-force (and the stewards) desired and had been used to and what the union leadership preferred them to accept. Again there were several notable confrontations over the issue of productivity-linked and restricted wage increases. 

One of the most important of these occurred within the Ford Motor Company and central to it was the Company’s plant at Halewood, Liverpool.  It was, then, workers, and particularly the semi-official representatives from the immediate work-force (the shop stewards and the convenors of stewards) of this plant that came together with similarly placed militant workers from other, similar firms, that provided the original organising point for Big Flame.  In reality this was a (temporary) ‘marriage of convenience’ between students (and ex-students) hostile to traditional Marxist conceptions of working class advance and a practice based around ‘correct’ leadership; and workers who had been forced into opposition with their own leadership and with their traditional conceptions of trade union advance.  That the ‘marriage’ didn’t last was a function, principally, of the very different desires of the two groups; the students wanted revolution and the workers wanted more money and not new forms of work-discipline that would tie them even more closely to their machines.  However, the experience of some mutuality between the groups was sufficient to encourage the first of these to set up an organisation in mid-1971 that might recreate and extend that mutuality into something approaching a revolutionary politics for the new experience of the British working class.   Read the rest of this entry »

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OPINIONS ABOUT BIG FLAME no 3: JOHN WALLER

Posted by archivearchie on September 3, 2009

This post is a behalf of John Waller. It is the third in the series of “Opinions about Big Flame”, providing a variety of different assessments of the organisation by ex-members. It responds directly to the comments of a previous contributor, Paul Thompson, in the second installment (Opinions about Big Flame: No 2) in the series.

John Waller was an active member of Big Flame in Nottingham and nationally from 1977 to 1981. When Big Flame started to disintegrate in 1982 he drifted away from the organization to be involved in community politics and then solidarity with the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. Since the early 90s his political practice has been dominated by solidarity work with the Cuban revolution. For many years this was as a part of the national leadership of the British Cuba Solidarity Campaign. This politically led him to the heartland of the empire and he now pursues the same ends from his US home.

John writes:

A CALL TO REFLECT ON OUR PAST AND SHARE LESSONS WITH CURRENT ACTIVISTS AROUND THE WORLD

It is nearly 28 years since the conference at which Big Flame started to disintegrate, with a significant minority of the organization leaving to enter the Labour Party.  Since 1981 inevitably much has changed in the world.

In the advanced capitalist world politics has moved inexorably to the right with almost all the traditional reformist parties, including perhaps most spectacularly the British Labour Party, having long abandoned any vision of any kind of socialism. Mainstream politics is now about how best to manage the capitalist economy and the slowly diminishing public services. But social reformism’s demise has been shared by other ‘left’ tendencies.  The Leninist/Trotskyist/Maoist revolutionary left has either disappeared or become much less influential than 30 years ago. And of course Soviet style communism, or state collectivism as Big Flame had come to call it, has gone – replaced in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe by outright and often brutal capitalism, and in Asia by Chinese style capitalism under Communist Party leadership. Of the wave of revolutions throughout the 20th century only in Cuba do they still affirm the need to construct socialism.

A bright shining capitalist future?  Hardly given the economic turmoil of the last year. Rather we see a world order that is economically and environmentally unsustainable. The gap between the rich and poor grows inexorably wider – on a world scale, and in Britain. “A better world is possible” says a new generation of activists, but so is a worse one, and the Bush regime was the harbinger of what that world would look like. For the peoples of Iraq and Afghanistan they already know what the new world order could mean. In the advanced centres of capitalism life is still pretty comfortable for most, but the slow dismantling of the post second world war welfare state is underway and, in Britain at least, the developing space for working class revolt is being occupied by the BNP.

Obama?  Barely 8 months into his administration the policies are already clear – minimal social reform at home, protect the wealth of the capitalist class at all cost, and continuing imperial pillage abroad. The language is softer than Bush, the politics smarter, but in the end, as president Zelaya in Honduras has discovered, if you challenge imperial power without sufficient popular support the US trained, financed and directed military will move in to stop you.

All gloom and doom? No.

The one continent that has partially bucked the trend is Latin America. Back in 1981 the continent was dominated by military dictatorships. They were replaced by right wing civilian governments implementing neo-liberal economic policies devised in Washington. The repression and impoverishment lead to the growth of powerful urban and rural social movements, based largely in the community rather than the workplace. These movements were/are inspired by socialist ideas in the broadest sense, and also by the continuing example of the Cuban revolution, Throughout much of Latin America the neo-liberal regimes have been brought down and/or voted out. Their replacement has been by what some commentators call a ‘pink tide’ – governments that domestically are socially reforming, and externally espouse a mix of progressive nationalism and Latin American unity against the empire to the north. The nature of the tide varies from country to country, but at its most radical end we have Venezuela and Hugo Chavez’ Bolivarian Revolution – committed to trying to build a vaguely defined but definitely highly participatory ‘socialism for the 21st century’. 

Current events in Latin America give support to what Big Flame was saying 30 years ago (see Paul Thompson’s summary document on this website)  – that reformist and revolutionary projects can advance together, and that there is a complex interplay between the two. In Latin America the radical social movements helped bring the reformist governments to power, and in turn those governments can either (wittingly or unwittingly) provide space for the radical movements to develop or else can act to constrain and demobilize them. Latin America today provides examples of all these processes at work.

Back in the mid-1970s Big Flame focused on Chile as an example to learn lessons from because, as we said then, Allende’s Popular Unity government marked a highpoint of socialist struggle in a (relatively) advanced bourgeois democracy. Chavez has most definitely learnt lessons from the Chilean defeat. He has cut through the sterile Communist Party versus Trotskyist debates about whether Allende’s government went too far too fast or didn’t go far enough – pursuing a political process that in its policies proceeded more cautiously than Allende, but in its development of popular mobilization and penetration of the armed forces has been more radical.

If Big Flame were still in existence we should be studying Venezuela, as we did Chile. Not because it offers a new ‘model’ of a revolutionary process, even within Latin America. Rather because it offers important insights which need to be assimilated and resituated in other contexts. Classical Leninist notions of a ‘big bang’ overthrow of capitalist societies are redundant, and the age of liberation by prolonged guerilla struggle has passed, but Venezuela, and the continued survival of Cuban socialism against all the odds and expectations, demonstrates the continuing need for disciplined centralized revolutionary organization and strategies for confronting state and imperial power.

And Big Flame?  Nobody is going to try to recreate it. But has the innovative left politics we developed those decades ago still got any relevance to the new world. I personally believe it has, for Latin America but also for those new activists who everywhere are being formed now. Their numbers are smaller than in the heady days of the 60s/70s but they most certainly exist. I think it is our responsibility to present the lessons of Big Flame – positive and negative – to those activists.

This website, by bringing back to life many of the documents and pamphlets we wrote, is an excellent start to the process, making our experience directly available for those who want to learn from it. But I think we need to go further – to critically reflect back on those experiences and draw some conclusions of our own. We of course won’t all agree, any more than we did at the time and probably rather less, but to have some collective discussion and debate will surely provide a richer set of analyses than the thoughts of any individual.

Others will have their own ideas about the crucial parts of our legacy. My focus and desire to collectively explore is around the following issues:

  •  Building participatory mass movements from the base versus the need for a strategy at the state level.
  •  How to build a revolutionary organization and movement alongside and within the context of a reforming government.
  • The organizational and political autonomy of oppressed groups versus the need for a strategy and demands that unite the class/people against the capitalist state.
  • The nature of the revolutionary party – how to act decisively and collectively without becoming (un)Democratic Centralists – learning the positive and negative lessons of Leninism.
  • The personal is political. How to combat capitalism as it invades every aspect of our lives, without lapsing into a politics that is defined by the personal needs/lifestyles of educated and somewhat privileged activists.

Like the previous contributor Paul Thompson, Big Flame shaped my life and politics and I don’t regret that, and I don’t seek to, as he puts it, ‘repeat and regurgitate it’ – but unlike him, I think many of the questions of socialist/revolutionary strategy that we were grappling with all still crucial and are being played out right now in Latin America – and we had something important to say.

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OPINIONS ABOUT BIG FLAME no 2: PAUL THOMPSON

Posted by archivearchie on July 17, 2009

This post is on behalf of Paul Thompson. It is the third in what will be a series of “Opinions about Big Flame”, which will set out a variety of different assessments of the organisation by ex-members.
 
Paul was a member of Big Flame in Liverpool from its inception to 1981. He was co-author of the pamphlet The Revolution Unfinished? A Critique of Trotskyism (1977), and of numerous contributions to internal Big Flame debates.He left Big Flame in 1981 to join the Labour Party. He became Chair of the Labour Co-ordinating Committee in the mid-1980s and remained on its executive until founding Renewal: A Journal of Labour Politics in 1993, along with three other LCC executive members. He edited the journal for 13 years, working closely with Neal Lawson. In 2003, he was one of the founding signatories to Compass, which has now grown to be a leading left pressure group with a presence inside and outside the Labour Party.
 
Paul has held professorial positions at the Universities of Central Lancashire, Edinburgh and Strathclyde, where he currently has a Chair in Organisational Analysis. He has written or edited a number of books, the most recent of which have been The Oxford Handbook of Work and Organisation (with Stephen Ackroyd, Rosemary Batt and Pamela Tolbert – Oxford University Press, 2004), Participation and Democracy at Work (with Bill Harley and Jeff Hyman – Palgrave, 2005), New Technology @ Work (with Paul Boreham, Rachel Parker, and Richard Hall  – Routledge, 2007) and Work Organisations (with David McHugh – 4th edition, Palgrave 2009) .
 
Note: Paul’s article was originally written for publication in the Socialist Register. The article which was published in the Socialist Register 1981 (Merlin Press) by John Howell can be found here: Big Flame: Resituating Socialist Strategy and Organisation’
 
 
Paul comments:

Designating the article below an ‘opinion about Big Flame’ is a little misleading on two counts. It is not a retrospective ‘take’ from my 2009 incarnation as a left social democrat. Rather it is an account of the evolution of BF’s politics written in 1980/1. Second, whilst all such perspectives are subjective, I intended at the time that it would not be partisan with respect to the organisation’s by then politically fractured membership. Although the article was intended to be signed in my name, it was written to reflect the views of Big Flame as a whole rather than my personal opinions. It was commissioned by Socialist Register (for its 1981 edition) and allocated to me by the National Committee, of which I was a member (and to whom I brought the draft).  My memory at that point is vague, but those with better memories than me say that Socialist Register regarded it as too long and that the editing task was given to another Big Flame member. Apparently he found it easier to write a new article rather than edit the existing one. Therefore the published article was completely different from my draft. Given the amount of time I spent on this, I don’t remember being too concerned. This is probably because I and others (including, ironically, the author of the new version) were on the point of exit from BF and ‘entry’ into the Labour Party.

No doubt this will lead some to think that my protestations about non-partisanship are bogus or self-deluding. Read and draw your own conclusions. I just want to make a few brief points. The draft tries hard to tell a coherent story that links theory and practice. Of course, it overstates the coherence, partly because hindsight is a good teacher and because publication in Socialist Register would allow us to ‘put our best foot forward’. This also helps to explain why it starts with links to a (larger) international movement. But throughout, the account tries to be honest and reflective about events, experiences; innovations and limitations. After the international opening, it defaults to earlier history and tries to show the impact of the Italian connection, first on industrial, then on community and social movement practices.  Pretty much all the internally and externally contentious issues covered in documentation elsewhere on this site are represented in the rest of the document: the politics of autonomy; the nature of socialist societies; party, class and movements. The only issue I was surprised to find absent was the experience of electoral work in Socialist Unity. It does, however, in the last section address the question of reformism and the state in the context of the downturn in militancy and the eventual rise of Thatcherism. Whilst the discussion probably reflects something of the exit route I and others were taking, the section does engage with issues of ‘transitional politics’ that the whole organisation had been grappling with out of the experience of Chile, Portugal, as well as the domestic political agenda.  Reading the article reinforced the sense for me that it was the end of a journey – one that shaped my life and politics and which I don’t regret, but have no interest in repeating or regurgitating. And that’s pretty much how I view the site in general.

Socialist Register draft article

BIG FLAME: HISTORY AND POLITICS

1. THE EMERGENCE OF A NEW POLITICS

In June 1979, a number of Far Left organisations from different countries came together on a common platform to use the context of the EEC Elections to raise key issues under the theme – ‘Against the Bosses Europe: For workers’ Unity’. The organisations involved, included some of the most significant revolutionary Marxist groupings in Europe, notably Ventresocialsterne (VS:Denmark), Democrazia Proletaria (DP:Italy),. Moviemento Cominista (MC:Spain), Kommunistischer Bund (KB:Germany), and the Oganisation Communist de Travailleurs (OCT:France). DP succeeded in getting a representative elected to the European Parliament, while VS and MC have representatives at national levels. (1)

One of the smaller groupings was Big Flame as the English component of the Co-ordination. In Britain and Europe, Big Flame has had an influence out of proportion to its size in debates among socialist militants. This emphasises the central importance given by militants to questioning vital aspects of socialist theory and practice. The major theme of this article is an attempt to situate such re-thinking and the contribution of Big Flame, in the context of emergence of a new independent Marxist current on an international scale, before, during and after the resurgence of class and social struggles in the late 1960’s.

Despite attempts to stick a common label on this ‘tendency’, like ‘soft Maoist’ (2) it is not politically unified. Nor does it have any desires or pretensions to be a ‘Fifth International’. What they have in common is an attempt to critically evaluate existing political traditions in the light of changes in the nature of capitalist societies. As the Movimento Communista put it:

“Too often past legacies or external contributions are assimilated uncritically, leading to a simple repetition instead of contrasting them with reality and discarding what is erroneous. This has impoverished and atomized the revolutionary left, leading not to a clear divide between revolutionaries and reformist, but to the multiplication of dogmatic sects.” (3)

 Many of the cadres forming the new organizations were ex-members of the orthodox Socialist and Communist Parties, as well as from Trotskyist and radical nationalist formations. The specific national dimensions of these political developments were given added impetus by the uneven impact of international and domestic events. The increasing success of anti-imperialist movements in the Third World, the crisis of the super-powers of the USSR and USA, the emergence of Cuba and China as alternative ‘models’, were all felt differently according to the location and assimilation into the existing political traditions of each country. When combined with the uneven development of worker, student, regional, womens’ and other struggles, diverse political development was guaranteed.

In retrospect, looking back over the last decade, common themes do appear among the new organizations in addition to the points already mentioned. The most prominent of these include:

  • A changed and wider conception of the working class than held by other currents, focusing on the less skilled mass worker, immigrants, tenants and those on the margins’ of modern capitalism.
  • Consequently, a greater sympathy and support for new movements, not only of women and gay people, but national, regional and cultural struggles.
  • Trying to react by constructing more open forms of organization than the traditional vanguard or social-democratic types, with an emphasis on the personal life of the militant and pre-figurative socialist politics.
  • A positive assessment of the Cultural Revolution in China, seeing it as evidence of mass politics, a possibility of avoiding the Russian model and an emphasis on the transformation of social as well as property relations in the transition to socialism.

Yet this is retrospective. It is more important to grasp the process of practical and theoretical development that led in these directions. This is particularly important for Big Flame, for our starting point in the late 1960’s was very different. Big Flame started life as a local socialist newspaper put together by a group of left-wing activists and rank and file workers of various ideological persuasions. It had a specific Merseyside flavour and politically reflected the period of trade union disenchantment with the Labour Government in its last years. The actual politics, however, were based primarily on information about the system and struggles against it, rather than any line. Its orientation was primarily industrial and it built up a very big sale in the larger factories. Even the name reflected industrial roots, being based on the title of a TV play dealing with the imaginary occupation of the Liverpool docks by port workers.

Yet, information was a political issue, as rank and file workers were mot getting it from the official labour movement. ‘Student-worker’ links may not have been as dramatic as in Italy and France, but it manifested itself in initiatives like Big Flame, who were prepared to popularise new ways of working, tactics and demands for a growing number of militants seeking alternatives.

Of course, once information is discussed as politics, it was impossible for the original coalition putting out the paper to survive the inevitable divisions. The nucleus left was made up of people breaking from rival orthodoxies of Leninism and libertarianism. They found themselves thrown into the Pilkington strike in 1971, which was a significant indicator of just how far workers had to struggle against their own union machines, as well as the employers. Big Flame became almost the official paper of the strike committee, and the lessons learnt were useful in a series of servicing jobs that the political collective did for shop stewards’ committees and groups of workers in disputes at Fords, in the Post Office and other places in that year. For while the paper itself collapsed, there was plenty of call for political and technical help with leaflets and other initiatives. The major general initiative was put into an abortive attempt to set up a Merseyside Rank and File Committee.

The rather limited servicing role adopted was a reaction to existing left-wing theory and practice. For even those outside the ‘official’ movement, mainly Trotskyists, had not broken from manipulative and bureaucratic political methods. These primarily consisted of making demands on Labour and trade union leaders in order to ‘expose’ them, calling for general strikes that had no chance of happening and endless new leaders in preference to different politics and ways of organising. Despite the denunciation of existing political programmes, working class politics was still seen as defensive, largely economistic trade unionism, socialism being a sphere of Party propaganda and special occasions like elections and May Day rallies. It was no accident that the organisation seeking to break most from these traditions of the Far Left – the International Socialists – and which put most emphasis on rank and file activity, grew fastest in these conditions.

In opposing these ideas, beyond being committed to exploring new ways of building independent working class activity, Big Flame did not have a well formed political alternative. Nor did the practice extend beyond the industrial sphere. By the middle of 1971, the activists were formed in a number of sexually mixed ‘base groups’ comprising of internal and external militants at places like Fords, Standards and Plesseys. The stress was still mainly on servicing the struggle. Anything more structured and politically directed was seen, misleadingly, as detracting from working class self activity.

More positively, emphasis was laid on learning through practice. This slow and uneven process would have been helped by being more aware of earlier experiences like that of the British New left of the late 1950’s. Their opposition to a tradition on the Left, which had come to see the Party as the subject of history and the working class as passive object, allied to the struggle against theoretical dogmatism, had much to offer. Bur for the ‘children of 68’, that is when history began, and the older groups which had tended to drift away from explicit revolutionary socialist theory and practice were seen as ‘part of the problem’. Big Flame’s main source of inspiration and influence was to come from parallel groups abroad, notably in Italy. The next section explores the basic political foundations of this new tendency in the early 1970’s.

Click here to read the full text of Big Flame History & Politics

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OPINIONS ABOUT BIG FLAME no 1: MAX FARRAR

Posted by archivearchie on June 7, 2009

This post is a behalf of Max Farrar. It is the first in what will be a series of “Opinions about Big Flame”, which will set out a variety of different assessments of the organisation by ex-members.

Max Farrar, born 1949, was by 1969 (at Leeds University) calling himself an anarchist, and by 1979 he was deeply committed to Big Flame.  By 1989, when this article was published, he was starting a part-time job at Leeds Polytechnic.  Over the next 20 years he taught community studies, sociology and cultural studies at what became Leeds Metropolitan University.  He remained involved in local political organising, was a co-editor of the independent journal Emergency, and is a founder of the Taking Soundings, the political-cultural discussion group in Leeds.  In 2008 he was made Professor for Community Engagement and in 2009 he thinks he’s going to be asked to retire.

 

Max comments:

This article was commissioned by the editor of Edinburgh Review on the recommendation of one of his friends, who was BF’s National Secretary in the early 1980s.  The personal context in which it was written was the bruised emotions of someone whose hyper-political youth seemed somewhat irrelevant.  The wider context was the belief that the political ideals of left libertarianism in general, and Big Flame in particular, remained valuable, even if there seemed to be no political formations at the time in which they might come to life. 

The article itself attempts to trace the strengths of those ideals – the commitment to personal politics; to the feminist, gay and anti-racists movements; to the theory and practice of autonomy – and explain how their weaknesses – inadequate understanding of personal psychology; excessive confidence in the local state; overemphasis on organisational autonomy and lack of understanding of political autonomy – contributed to the political malaise of the left in the late 1980s.

 

The Libertarian Movements of the 1970s

WHAT CAN WE LEARN

Max Farrar 

ITS UNCOMFORTABLE TURNING over your own past. For about ten years, from 1972, I immersed myself in the left political milieu which styled itself libertarian with the enthusiasm of a missionary. Today I am defrocked. I find it hard to believe that I was so impressed by the tall, red-haired man in a pink beret who came to the Leeds University Union Angry Brigade Defence Committee meeting from a commune in Oxford which had a banner on the wall facing the street saying ‘Hey, hey, straight or gay, try it once the other way’. I was never reassured by the ‘once’. He told me that he would never have children of his own because he believed in collective childcare and the abolition of biological parenting. His commune established itself in Leeds and within months they had chivvied our motley crew of anarchists, women’s and gay movement members and community activists into forming the Leeds Libertarian Group. They slaved over typewriters and duplicators; in a selfless effort to recruit for the group and destroy the nuclear family, they took their politics into as many bedrooms as they could.

It’s easy to slide like this from description into mockery but it’s a mistake to do so. I want to argue here that many of the ideas which were briefly established in the libertarian movements during the 1970s are to be revered and refined, but that we held other ideas that were fatal to our cause. A major problem for left libertarianism is that one of its most important insights — about the politics of sexuality under capitalism — became almost completely subversive of the movement. Its other theoretical contributions to modem sodalist and revolutionary politics — the theory of autonomy and the linking of community and workplace struggles — were equally badly applied, leading to the debacle of radical reform in the GLC and other big city councils

What were the libertarian movements of the 1970s? In the late l980s a clear distinction has to be made between libertarians of the left and the right. Today, the expression has been hijacked by people around Margaret Thatcher, and has been thrust into the headlines by young conservatives who champion a form of complete ‘freedom of the market’ which would include the legalisation of heroin. In the seventies, these of us on the far left used the term to distinguish ourselves from Leninists and Trotskyists. It ran alongside the word ‘Liberation’ in the Women’s Liberation Movement and the Gay Liberation Front; it identified us with the historical critique of authoritarianism in the conventional marxist parties but it consciously distinguished us from the antiquated and male-dominated practices of English anarchism.

We had groupings in most of the major cities in Britain, and came together between 1973 and 1975 at ‘National Libertarian Newsletter Conferences’. In common with the rest of the far left, we engaged in struggles around workplace and international issues (particularly supporting republicanism in the north of Ireland), but our distinctiveness lay in our effort to extend the horizons of politics into what were called community issues — Free Schools, playgroups/nurseries, housing, Claimants Unions, local newspapers and so on.

Leeds Libertarians

Within the Leeds Libertarians, the Oxford commune gave such priority to another Libertarian theme — sexual or personal politics — that we gained a certain notoriety even among our most adventurous peers. Their women members formed one of Leeds’ first Women’s Groups and their men established the first Men’s Group. One of them produced a pamphlet on New York’s Revolutionary Effeminists; they circulated information about Berlin’s Kommune 1; they organised a national conference on sexual politics and the family (in Leeds, May 1973) — in short, they pushed us into recognising that, under capitalism, our sexual and personal relationships were oppressive and in just as great a need of transformation as the boss-worker relationships in industry. But it wasn’t just rhetoric. They embodied the new way of living that they proposed in their communal household and collective child care arrangements, immortalised by Nell Dunn in Chapter Four of Living As We Do (Futura. 1977).

Reading the minutes of the Leeds Libertarian meetings fifteen years later, I’m shocked to recall that, as a Group, we were right about so many things, yet we split within two years into separate tendencies and made exactly the same organisational mistake that Beyond the Fragments made in 1980. We thought that people with similar, though not identical, politics would want to meet together to discuss their various points of view and engage in common action. If only political life was so simple. Just like BtF we failed to realise that, if you reject the Leninist fetish of party discipline, you rely upon goodwill, solidarity and political coherence in proportions rarely found in mere mortals – and even less often found among middle class radical intellectuals.

Of course, the humanistic psychology of people’s personal dispositions and methods of relating to each other in groups was not on the agenda. The Leeds Libertarians split on strictly ‘political’ grounds. We discussed in detail the 1973 Miners’ strike and the economic crisis – a discussion led by the people from the Organisation of Revolutionary Anarchists, who soon despaired of the Group’s refusal to organise; we discussed Women’s Liberation, the Gay Liberation Front and Men against Sexism – and the initiators of these discussions soon despaired of the Group’s wavering commitment to these issues; we discussed the position of children in capitalist society – and the most dedicated withdrew into the Free School arid communal childcare movements. Issues that were not so dose to home, like the north of Ireland arid Allende’s socialist victory in Chile, could be discussed and acted upon with less threat to the Group’s dynamic, but, as the numbers who were attracted to our meetings grew, the inclination to spilt grew proportionately.

It was the issue of personal politics which I found hardest to deal with. I turn up pages, handwritten on beaches in Corsica and Sardinia in the summer of 1974, in which I agonise over the problem of relating the massive evidence of Leninist activity in Italy to the failure of marxism to deal with social relationships; these remain crucial issues. The Italian marxists’ failure to deal with personal politics was one reason for the degeneration of that massive popular revolt into the adventures of the Red Brigades, and the parallel, if less dramatic, failure in Britain is part of the explanation of the collapse of movement politics into the soulless corridors of Labour Party bureaucracies.

Instead of indulging in ‘1968’ nostalgia we should examine the political rise and fall of the generation formed by the insurrections of the late sixties. We need to explain why so many have left their collectives, their consciousness-raising groups, their squats, the Black Power organisations, their community action groups, their rank and file workers’ groups. . . and why many of these activists have now buried themselves in labourism.

By July 1975 Leeds Libertarian Group had fallen apart, and another twenty of us were meeting to try to pick up the pieces. The open intention of these meetings was to clarify our theory and organise. The documents we circulated stressed the political limitations of our community-based politics in the Adventure Playground. the Nursery, the Advice Centre and the community newspaper. This new grouping was strongly influenced by the recently formed ‘revolutionary socialist’ organization Big Flame. Big Flame was started in Liverpool in 1971 around local industrial struggles. In 1972, inspired by the Italian marxist organisation Lotta Continua they formed additional ‘base groups’ on some of Liverpool’s housing estates to contribute to the emerging community struggles. BF’s contributions to the Libertarian Newsletter brought a sense of theory and organisation to an otherwise inchoate bundle of duplicated texts, and by late 1974 there were branches of the organisation in East and West London, Manchester and Birmingham.

Some of us former members of Leeds Libertarians joined Big Flame in 1975 because that organisation seemed to provide a theory which linked community, industrial and public sector activity, and which integrated the pro-feminist, anti-racist and internationalist concerns that we had developed. Above all, Big Flame could provide a national and international network with a clear public face, without falling prey to Leninist hierarchies and authoritarianism. The organisational and conceptual breakthrough was the concept of autonomy, which was borrowed from the new Italian marxists and bent into a shape which fitted the development in Britain of the women’s, the gay and the black movements.

Click here to read the full text of The Libertarian Movements of the 1970s.

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