Big Flame

1970-1984

Posts Tagged ‘Autonomous Movements’

THE YOUTH DEBATE (Miscellaneous Big Flame Documents no 13)

Posted by archivearchie on April 24, 2011

This post is the thirteenth in an occasional series. This site already contains a large number of documents produced by Big Flame or its members. Most can be found in the 30 posts in Episodes in Big Flame History series. Each post contains links to documents which relate to its theme. Links to the same documents are also listed on the website’s Publications page , this time sorted by type – pamphlets, journals, newspaper, internal documents.

First, some brief context. The 1970s were a time of political activity amongst school students, as it was in many other spheres. The School Action Union, founded in January 1969, organised a London Schools strike in May 1970. The Little Red Schoolbook was published in English in 1971, and attempts were made to sell it outside school gates. There were explosions of activity in particular schools, for example a strike in Stepney in 1971 when a teacher, Chris Searle, was sacked for publishing children’s poems. By the mid 1970s the School Action Union had gone, but there was the more moderate National Union of School Students (NUSS).

Big Flame had very few members under 18 (though on the other hand, it would have had very few over 30). On the contributors to the debate discussed below, three give their ages. They were 24, 19 and 14. It was mostly the case of people in their twenties trying to support struggles of those younger than themselves. Merseyside Big Flame was involved in the youth movement Rebel (initiated by the International Socialists, but in Liverpool there was the odd situation of IS having expelled all their Rebel members as part of a factional struggle). BF Local Groups which gave particular emphasis to youth interventions were those in Birmingham and Leeds. Other Local Groups tried to support the formation of branches of the NUSS. Some BF members had links with an organisation formed by school students called Youth Liberation. Activity around school students was supported at the 1976 Big Flame Conference, but within three years seems to have petered out.

Within Big Flame, there was a debate between two positions. One side went under the name of the “Youth Group”. There is no readily available label to apply to the critics of this position, many of whom worked as teachers.

The Youth Group

I have chosen to represent this position with three documents:

The Needs and Struggles of Youth  Internal Bulletin May 1976. This seems to the document which kicked off the discussion in BF.

An Anti-Report to the Education Commission Report 1976 Conference Document. The Education Commission report to Conference to which this was a response mentioned only teachers and students in higher and further education.

The Youth Question: Where are we now? Internal Bulletin March 1978. This document was written following a BF National Secretariat reply to a draft leaflet from Youth Liberation. Unfortunately I have seen neither of these items. The article is still interesting without reading them. It is a much more cautious statement of the position, taking some account of the criticisms set out in “The Youth Question in Big Flame” (see below).

The points made in these and other documents are:

– Revolutionary organisations do not take working class kids seriously. A strong emphasis on youth is required.

– There is a role for older people supporting children. However they should aim to work themselves out of a job, to increase the self activity of youth and create an independent youth movement. Parallels are drawn with the struggles of women and black people.

– Children face oppression at the hands of parents and teachers who have institutionalised power over them. These divisions are glossed over by others in BF. Many working class fathers take out their frustrations from work on their children. There is a parallel between the role of a teacher and a foreman.

– Attempts to seek unity with school children are often very patronising seeking to incorporate them in anti-cuts campaigns, but taking no notice of their demands e.g. over school uniforms and the cane (corporal punishment in state schools was not abolished until 1989).

– Cuts campaigns which seek to preserve things as they are do not interest children who are anti-school. This takes the form of truancy and pissing off teachers.

Critics of the Youth Group

Whilst there was a lot of common ground between the members of the Youth Group, it is less clear how much their critics had in common, and whether it is even fair to suggest their was an alternative position. I have only been able to locate two significant documents.

What has Big Flame got to offer Youth in Leeds?  Internal Bulletin December 1976. This is in part an angry response to a leaflet distributed to school children by someone from the Youth Group who was a member of the same BF Local Group. Again, I haven’t seen the leaflet. However, the document also attempts to raise some general issues beyond voicing concerns about the leaflet.

They argue that the Youth Group in presenting things in terms of an oppressor/oppressed have no understanding of the complexity of the role of a parent. That a blanket anti-adult perspective denies the efforts of progressive teachers (note: these were the days before extensive central control over the form of education). The talk of autonomy for youth is seen as “separatism”. There is a role for adults who do not try to dominate. The article doesn’t develop this argument and set out a version of autonomy for youth which is distinct from the ones BF supported for women and black people.

The Youth Question in Big Flame Internal Bulletin December 1976. This is a more theoretical polemic against the Youth Group position. It builds its case by quoting extensively from a document which presented the Youth Group arguments in their purest form (“Some Last Minute Notes on the Youth Question”) which is not one of those I selected to illustrate the discussion.

The author:

– Argues that the Youth Group approach is ultra-leftist, taking no account of the actual consciousness of school children. Struggles cannot be created from nothing.

– Disputes the notion that BF should support youth as the least powerful. Even if it is possible to quantify levels of powerlessness, which he doubts, this is not the way the organisation has decided how to intervene. Car workers, for example, are part of the potential vanguard because of their advanced place in the developing capitalist production process.

– Disagrees with an approach that sees any form of rebellious activity by pupils as essentially correct.

– Rejects the simple equation of schools with capitalist brainwashing with no scope for socialist teachers.

– There are issues like the victimisation of a pupil or the sacking of a teacher where there is scope for unity.

– Criticises the notion of autonomy as applied to youth, while, again, not being that explicit about his alternative perspective.

Finally, for a public discussion of youth issues by Big Flame, it is worth taking a look at an article which I previously included in the Episodes in BF History post on the BF Journal: Youth Politics & Youth Culture Revolutionary Socialism No2. Spring 1978.

Thoughts and Questions

Reading the debate, I wonder if the two positions were as far apart as their proponents believed they were (despite the occasional stark statement or angry denunciation on both sides). I would like to be able to ask Youth Group supporters if they really thought children could be brought up without parents at times exercising some sort of authority, or education being provided without at times students doing things they would rather not do. The real issue is what sort of authority, and when should it be used. Similarly to be able to press the critics of the Youth Group to go beyond an abstract recognition that students will have their own agenda. How can they be persuaded of the importance of unity against cuts, and how can their demands be supported when the likely result is a clash between teachers and their superiors (heads, governors, local authorities, etc).

I think this mid 1970s debate is till relevant today for the issues it brings to the fore:

– How can you transfer the analogy of one form of oppression or power relation to another, whilst being aware of the differences?

– How should socialists decide where they intervene? Does the notion of the most oppressed make sense, and  how significant criterion should it be?

– How can socialists work with school students without using them for their own purposes, which is so frequently the case?

– Big Flame compared to other political groups saw actions like sabotage at work as more significant in understanding the work process. Is this the same as celebrating purely negative actions like truancy and annoying teachers?

– Because a group of people experience a form of oppression or are at the wrong end of a power relation are the ways they perceive the experience necessarily right? In what ways is it right to criticise them, whilst remaining supportive?

– To what extend was the understanding of the parent-child and teacher-student relationships sometimes advocated too simplistic, and what would a more complex account look like?

– To what extent can you develop a strategy around a handful of very radical people you come across? This last issue is one which has much broader application than just school students.

Archive Archie

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POSITION ON BLACK AUTONOMY (Miscellaneous Big Flame Documents no 8)

Posted by archivearchie on November 28, 2010

This post is the eighth in an occasional series. This site already contains a large number of documents produced by Big Flame or its members. Most can be found in the 30 posts in Episodes in Big Flame History. Each post contains links to documents which relate to its theme. Links to the same documents are also listed on the website’s Publications page, this time sorted by type – pamphlets, journals, newspaper, internal documents.

A post in Episodes in BF history series on Racism and Fascism  touched on the issue of the autonomy of black people. I would now like to focus specifically on this topic.

At the May 1978 Conference a motion passed on the Struggle against Racism and Fascism which included this point: “BF sees the strengthening of autonomous and socialist movements amongst all sections of the Black communities as of great importance. BF recognises that autonomous revolutionary socialist organisations of blacks have the most important role to play in this process and pledges political, and if necessary practical, support for the strengthening of such organisations.”

Nevertheless, there remained differences between members of Big Flame in their understanding of autonomy.

A document produced for the conference, which took the form of a draft article for the Big Flame journal Revolutionary Socialism, developed the position: Black Autonomy: Why Big Flame Offers Unconditional Support. It aimed to counter the argument that support for black autonomy encouraged divisions in the working class. There are already real division in the working class based on divisions in power. Black people require their own organisations to reflect their needs. There are no short cuts to unity, which can only be genuine when both white and black revolutionaries have developed their strength. The white left needs to avoid parachuting into black struggles and crude attempts to recruit black people. It priority (as written in 1978) should be to counter fascism.

A version of this document appeared in Revolutionary Socialism no 2 Spring 1978: Black Autonomy in Class Struggle. By them it had been heavily edited by some one else. It still talked about material divisions in the working class, and looked forward to a time of collaboration and co-ordination between equal partners. However, much of the document had been rewrittten and the Jamesian (after the writer C.L.R. James) discussion of material divisions watered down. It was now much less clear what a commitment to the autonomy of black people meant in practice.

In a previous post on “Racism and Fascism” I drew attention to something the author of the original document wrote several years later:  Black Autonomy and the White Left (Discussion Bulletin January 1984). Apologies again for including something which is difficult to read (it has faint typing on a coloured background). It discusses from his perspective the differences between the two articles, and restates his position on material differences. He recognises changes in the years since the mid 1970s – both among black people in general and their political organisations, as well as on the white left.

Archive Archie

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

Posted by archivearchie on January 4, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

Archive Archie

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

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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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EPISODES IN BIG FLAME HISTORY: No 17. Women and Feminism Part 2

Posted by archivearchie on October 12, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Archive Archie

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

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EPISODES IN BIG FLAME HISTORY: No 16. The Journal

Posted by archivearchie on October 5, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1968: Ten Years On No2. Spring 1978

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

Youth Politics & Youth Culture No2. Spring 1978

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

A Woman’s Right to Choose No2. Spring 1978

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

Feminism and the Socialist Alternative No5. Summer 1980

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

Crisis of the Revolutionary Left in Europe No5. Summer 1980

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

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

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

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

Archive Archie

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by archivearchie on September 22, 2009

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

Elements in the Big Flame perspective included:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Closer Look at Fascism and Racism: front-p10

A Closer Look at Fascism and Racism: p11-back

The Past against Our Future: Intro & Ch1

The Past against Our Future: Ch2

The Past against Our Future: Ch3

The Past against Our Future: Ch4

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

Archive Archie

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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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EPISODES IN BIG FLAME HISTORY: No 5. 1975 Debate – National Organisation and Autonomy

Posted by archivearchie on May 19, 2009

WhatisMBF-p1

In Big Flame, like a lot of political groups with some form of internal democracy, members spent a lot of time disagreeing with each other. This series will include coverage of the major debates in the course of Big Flame’s life, starting with one in 1975.

By 1974-75 in five locations groups had decided to call themselves Big Flame – the original Merseyside group and newer groups in Manchester, Birmingham, East and West London. Big Flame was effectively a federation, with a loose delegate National Co-ordinating Committee. There were apparently between 40 and 70 members.

Differences came to a head at a National Conference in March 1975. The debate came to be seen as one between the Merseyside (MBF) and East London (ELBF) groups. However, there were differences within both these groups, and shades of opinion across the other three. Sometimes those involved in the debate slipped into the language of describing the debate as one between “libertarians” and Leninists”. At others they recognised these terms as unhelpful, and simply provoking antagonism. The result of the conference was the East London group deciding not to be part of a newly launched national organisation. All the other four groups did. One writer has claimed that ELBF were thrown out of Big Flame for “being too interested in personal politics and sexual issues”. This is simply not true. The choice was entirely their own.

 What the Debate was about: views from the participants

I want to begin by looking at the way the different positions were described and criticised by their opponents, before moving on to look at the actual conference documents themselves.

Responses to ELBF from members of other local groups tended to describe its positions as “ultra-left”. Sometimes they linked ELBF arguments to the writings of others, such as Power of Women (the Selma James group) or Race Today in Britain, or Potero Operaio in Italy.

A Manchester BF member in a document before the conference challenged ELBF’s notion of autonomy, suggesting that a belief that the working class is autonomous in its struggle against capitalism does not mean that there is no need for working class organisation, and that an optimistic assessment of the state of class struggle is used to provide backing for ideas rather than identify what is happening. Three BF members from London writing around the same time said ELBF saw the tiniest pressure as the worst bureaucratisation, and instead argued that centralisation would bring greater efficiency and reduce wasted effort.

An article “Chips with Everything” by two members of MBF in Internal Bulletin no1 (June 1975) soon after the conference, criticised ELBF as proponents of a vulgar economism who failed to appreciate the role of consciousness and lacked a multi-dimensional view of power. Instead of appreciating the uneven and contradictory nature of struggle, they believed there can be no general class interest or organisation until the magical moment when the bottom of the hierarchy has won equal power. Another criticism is that ELBF side step the issue of proletarianising Big Flame by calling themselves proletarians. A member of Birmingham BF in the same Bulletin made similar points. In addition, he queried ELBF’s notion of the sectional autonomy of women, black and gay people. Whilst he agreed it was necessary to organise separately, he felt the question of eventual unification had to be posed.

On the other side of the debate, a member of ELBF responded to “Chip with Everything” in Bulletin no2 July 1975, calling it “sectarian”. He argued that there was no contradiction between ELBF’s position on the mass worker and the hierarchy of labour. He argues that the group never claimed to have any panaceas for unification, and challenges the dubious exercise of stringing together a series of quotes from quite different groups around the world.

Another former member of ELBF, writing over a decade later, identified the critical factors in the break as the ”concept of political organization” (the other groups wanting “to adopt a to adopt a more conventional democratic centralist form of organization, which would see itself developing around an agreed line articulated in a reorganized national newspaper”) and feminism (the rest of Big Flame “believing that it was barely acceptable to discuss men’s sexual politics seriously, let alone therapy”). The two issues were linked, the organisational direction being  “deeply at odds with the form of organization we had learnt about in East London and with what we had learned from feminist theory and practice” (see Victor J. Seidler Rediscovering Masculinity: Reason, Language and Sexuality: Routledge, 1989 pp84,94-95,210-11).

Another document, written soon after the conference, also argues that both men and women in ELBF felt their needs were not being met by the way Big Flame was developing nationally. However, criticisms made in the book mentioned above were also made of the ELBF group itself. The politics of Italian male industrial workers are said to set the terms of political discussion in ELBF, with the men’s group seen as peripheral, something that people did in their private time. There was an informal hierarchy of practice: Fords – Lesneys (a toy model factory in Hackney) – the Food Co-op, with “S road” (a house where many of the Ford base group lived) valued over “Mile End” (where the men in the men’s group and some of the women in the group lived).

What the Debate was about: The documents

Do the documents produced for the conference throw a clearer light on the division? Each group produced its own version of “What is a Big Flame group?” This post will consider two of them.

Click here to view Merseyside Big Flame: What is a Big Flame Group? (warning: this may take over a minute to appear) [This and the other document in this post come from the days of stencil duplicators/mimeograph machines and therefore the documents aren’t the easiest to read]

This document:

  • starts with a reference to the writings of Lenin, but not an acceptance of the practice of Leninist groups. It believes that political organisation is necessary to bring together militants from all sectors and generate revolutionary perspectives. To help the working class express its autonomy, and not to impose on it abstract programmes.
  • states that working class struggle has reached an impasse, and that Britain is unlikely to experience the kind of spontaneous explosions of working class autonomy which occurred in France in 1968 and Italy in 1969. This slow and uneven expression of autonomy has implications for how Big Flame should organise.
  • recognises the need for sections of the class who suffer particular oppressions to organise independently (although this doesn’t really feature at the centre of MBF’s analysis).
  • argues that an organisation which remains locked in small and unrelated units will be passed by, and that the working out of central strategic projects will assist the development of local mass work.
  • supports a National Committee with delegated from the local groups appointed for fixed periods, and able to make binding decisions between conference on issues the organisation thinks appropriate, and claims that a national newspaper is both possible and necessary.

Click here to view East London Big Flame: What is a Big Flame Group? (warning: this may take over a minute to appear)

This document:

  • argues for the need to regain a sense of the strength of working class autonomy in Britain. To this end it gives a long list of recent struggles.
  • questions the old definitions of the working class which places (ex-student) Big Flame members as external to the process of proletarianisation.
  • emphasises a third aspect of autonomy, in addition to autonomy from capitalist development and capitalist institutions. This is about power relations within the working class. Women, black people and gay people need to develop autonomously from the most powerful sectors of the working class.
  • believes that the question of political autonomy inevitably raises the question of organisational autonomy. “We do not feel that it is politically correct or useful, therefore, for women to be answerable to a male-dominated central committee, until the politics of the whole organisation are genuinely feminist politics.”
  • says that they are not ”principled federalists” and that “in the long run” we are in favour of “some idea” of the party. They are “for organisation, but against centralisation”. The political weaknesses of Big Flame mean that the latter would encourage passivity and reinforce the lack of influence of women. They conclude that “for the foreseeable future” it should be “an organisation of semi-autonomous groups” and that each local group should “ultimately determine their own priorities”.
  • wants a National Co-ordinating Committee which confines itself to co-ordination and promoting education, and rules out a national newspaper as Big Flame lacks the time and resources.

Looking back with hindsight the level of centralisation in the changes which followed from the conference was modest – a delegate National Committee which took positions on some issues between conferences, and a national newspaper with local pages. However, perhaps opponents would counter that this was just the start of a slippery slope to further changes. Certainly not too dissimilar debates occurred again at later stages in Big Flame’s history. These will be explored in future Episodes in this series (see in particular Episode 11 and Episode 12).

What Happened to East London Big Flame?

ELBF had within itself different perspectives. After uniting together for the conference, these became more apparent. Soon after the conference, the women in ELBF withdrew from it to develop their politics independently. After that all the members of ELBF went their own way in a variety of different directions. Amongst these were being part of Red Therapy (a leaderless therapy group for people involved in political struggles), Achilles’ Heal (a men’s politics magazine), Red Notes (which published documentary accounts of struggles, particularly in Italy), to become a senior support officer in as trade union (and later independent consultant), a film director, a successful novelist.

 Archive Archie

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EPISODES IN BIG FLAME HISTORY: No 4. Women and Feminism Part 1

Posted by archivearchie on May 12, 2009

Big Flame probably made a more serious and sustained effort to incorporate feminism into the organisation than any other British left group of the 1970s and 1980s (If you think I’m wrong, please nominate your contender). This doesn’t mean that things were easy. There were failings, fierce arguments and confrontations along the way. A useful short overview about women in the group is available in an article in the Discussion Bulletin of February 1981. It covers, for example, the interventions by Big Flame women at Women’s Liberation Movement conferences in the 1970s, and the successes and failures of raising feminism within Big Flame. Click here to view the article  History of women’s movement within BF (warning: this may take over a minute to appear).

 Tower Hill

Tower March

From the summer of 1972 women in Merseyside Big Flame started meeting together. By the end of the year, they had formed an autonomous women’s group. Many women withdrew from other base groups, such as the Ford’s one, to focus on the women’s group. The group’s first major intervention was on a Council estate called Tower Hill, outside Liverpool in Kirkby – an estate with 2,500 homes.

The National Government had introduced the Housing Finance Act 1972. This promoted so-called “fair rents”, whereby local Councils would be forced in stages to increase rents according to the value of the house as if it were for sale on an open housing market. The Act came into force on the 2nd October 1972. Rent strikes by tenants followed. One of the most militant was in Tower Hill. 3,000 tenants started a total rent strike on the 9th October 1972. The protest lasted until 24th December 1973. The Big Flame women didn’t live on the estate, and were therefore external militants. They worked with women living in Tower Hill to form a women’s group on the estate.

Tower-p1

Women in Big Flame wrote an account of the struggle in Tower Hill. It does not claim to be a full account of the rent strike, focusing on the role of the Women’s Group and Big Flame. It was first published in Big Flame Journal no1 Winter 1974/75. Then it was reissued as a separate pamphlet in 1975. Click here to view We Won’t Pay (warning: this may take over a minute to appear).

  

  

 

 

 

 

Walking a Tightrope

Tightrope-p1

In 1980 women in Big Flame produced another pamphlet. Its title is explained by this quote: “We are always walking a fine line – between seeing the need for autonomous movements, and seeing the need for a mixed national organisation such a Big Flame. We want our organisation to be a place where we can work out ideas together, make links between the different struggles, understand the relationship between sex and class, and generalise our politics. We are producing this pamphlet despite the difficulties, because we feel it’s vital to walk that line, vital to develop an approach which many people share with us, and we feel confident enough that those links can be made. We do not have all the answers, but we would like to think that we have a specific contribution to make in pointing out ways of fighting as feminists and socialists under this Tory government”.

The pamphlet has sections on male violence, community, work, imperialism and other topics. Click here to view the pamphlet – split into three parts (warning: these may take over a minute to appear):

Walking a Tightrope: front-p11 

Walking a Tightrope: p12-p25

Walking a Tightrope: p26-back

Women’s Struggle Notes

In addition to the two pamphlets, there was a periodical called Women’s Struggle Notes. It first appeared in a duplicated format for around eight issues in 1975-76. It reappeared in a printed version for around another five issues in 1977. The first series was attributed to “Big Flame Women’s Group” and the second “an open editorial group of women”, some members of Big Fame and some not. The publication was made up of short articles. Many of them about workplace struggles, but also on topics like housework, health, rape and sexuality.

Some Internal Debates

Inside BF a variety of debates can be found in the Internal Bulletin and other internal documents. This post will focus on that about Wages for Housework and an independent state income for women.

The first phase of the debate was about Wages for Housework. This was a demand first made around 1972. The writings of Mariarosa Dalla Costa, of the Italian group Lotta Feminista, and a British group the Power of Women Collective, played important roles in developing a campaign around the slogan. Here are four contributions to a debate in BF which followed:

Introduction to Meeting of Liverpool Big Flame Women’s Group on Wages for Housework (internal document 1976)

Why Wages for Housework is not Enough (Internal Bulletin April 1976)

A Reply to CD’s Document on Wages for Housework (Internal Bulletin May 1976)

Wages for Housework is not Enough but is Necessary (Internal Bulletin May 1976)

The author of the first article argued in favour of supporting the demand on the grounds that the position of women will not change without them being economically independent and housework being recognized as work. In the second article another women in BF responded not disagreeing with the ideas behind the demand, but felt it lacked the ability to help organize working class power contained in other demands such as A Woman’s Right to Chose (for example in her own situation in a hospital). Also the sectarian behaviour of Power of Women would mean that BF would have to spend endless hours justifying how BF’s demand was different from their’s.

The third article takes a stronger position against Wages for Housework. She argues that feminists must find ways of destroying capitalism’s ability to define women in ways that suit it. They need to struggle against capital’s organisation of work and not work itself. Housework should be socialized on our terms. The original writer returns to the debate in the fourth article. She accepts that Wages for Housework in not enough, but thinks it is right. She sees no alternative to the demand in a society where women are tied to housework. Wages for Housework and the socialisation of housework go together, rather than being alternatives.

Whatever the views of some individuals, Big Flame as a group never endorsed the demand of Wages for Housework. It did come out in support of an independent state income for women. The demand for guarantied independent income was seen as a way of developing the Women’s Liberation Conference’s support for legal and financial independence. Apparently, its origins lay in discussion with housewives from the Tower Hill estate, near Liverpool. At the October 1976 Big Flame Conference the demand was adopted in the following form: “guaranteed, adequate, independent income for all women, including housewives”. It was accompanied by three other demands for “the socialisation of housework, paid for by the state, controlled by the working class”; for “housework to be paid for by the state, whoever does it and wherever it is done”; and “no division of labour between men and women, both inside and outside the home”. The case for this position is argued in this document: Women’s Commission Report to Big Flame Conference 1976 (conference document 1976).

The supporters of the position maintained that it was not the same as Wages for Housework. It did not assume that housework is done by women. Nevertheless, a lot of women in the organisation were unhappy with the approach, and debate continued up to the May 1978 Conference. A new set of demands emerged which aimed to make even clearer that housework was not women’s work, by amending the most ambiguous of the demands. The proposed new position was:

  • A rewording of one demand to read “an independent income for all” i.e. omitting the references to both women and housewives.
  • Dropping the position on housework being paid for by the state and replacing it by one of the state providing money and facilities to make housework easier.
  • Retaining “the socialisation of housework”, but replacing the reference to working class control to community control.
  • Keeping the same wording in relation to “no division of Labour”.
  • Adding a new demand for no cuts and an increase in the social wage.

The supporters of the previous position originally opposed the change, then well in line with the proposals. The Conference adopted the new five demands. No subsequent BF Conference made further changes to this position. However, the 1980 pamphlet Walking a Tightrope does not mention the demand for independent state income.

After the conference another writer sought to take the debate about domestic labour in a different direction: Housework: Its Role in Capitalist Relations of Production and in Revolutionary Strategy (Internal Bulletin June 1977). She argued that BF had theorised about the role of housework without much link to practice. In the struggle against housework, unlike other sectors of struggle, too much emphasis had been placed on money and not enough on structure. Those fighting for a revolution needed to ensure that the manner of the servicing and reproduction of the workforce is not neglected in the new society. Books by Ann Oakley and Delia Davin are examined for the beginnings of a new perspective.

Archive Archie

Notes:

(1) This is the first part of a three part series covering gender issues and Big Flame. See Episode 17  and Episode 29.

(2) This post was amended on October 29, 2009. The second half from the sub heading “Women’s Struggle Notes” downwards was added

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