Big Flame

1970-1984

Posts Tagged ‘Base Groups’

COMMUNE FORUM ON BIG FLAME

Posted by archivearchie on September 25, 2010

In August the political organisation the Commune (which describes its politics as “for workers’ self-management and communism from below”) held three meetings in London looking back at previous groups. The first two looked at Kamunist Kranti (India) and Potere Operaio (Italy). The final forum on the 30th August discussed Big Flame.

The person who introduced the discussion was never a member of BF (instead he was in the International Socialists until 1974). He gave an outsiders view of the organisation for the perspective of a line worker at Ford Halewood on Merseyside for seven years in the 1970s. It was at this plant that BF had its longest running base group. These previous posts discuss this intervention: Industry and Workplace and Ford Halewood Leaflets and Bulletin.

The speaker gave a vivid account of life in the Halewood plant, a massive place with 14,000 workers in the 1970s. He mentioned Beverly Silver’s book Forces of Labor: Workers’ Movements and Globalization since 1870 (Cambridge University Press.2003) to suggest that the nature of the automobile production process led to worker militancy. The book argues that wherever production was relocated (first to Detroit, then to northwestern and southern Europe, then to ex-colonial countries), there followed a relocation of workers’ struggles. The speaker discussed several struggles at Halewood, including one where workers fixing window glass to Capri doors were denied overalls to avoid their ripped jeans. As a result the number of shattered glass panes increased massively, with Fords calling in experts to investigate problems with the glass.

The Big Flame intervention was initiated by people from outside the plant (none of whom the speaker thought came originally from Liverpool). The leaflets they handed out at the gates were a vital source of information about what was happening across the plant. The plant was so large, that people only heard vague rumours of disputes in other sections. Later, he thought, up to five workers joined the BF (at least for a spell). The important role of BF in a long running dispute to end Friday night working (which it called “Friday Night is Music Night”) was described. In the end the Big Flame intervention at Halewood burnt out (with members moving on to other struggles). Getting up to leaflet the plant gates early most morning was “bloody hard work”.

He was highly critical of the role of the senior stewards (called the “Huyton Mafia” because they were also active in Huyton Labour Party), who thought nothing to trying to get those more militant than themselves sacked (the deputy convenor once reported the speaker to management when he let a representative of the Tower Hill rent strike into the plant to see the senior stewards to ask for support). They blamed Big Flame as the “scapegoat” when things happened with which threatened them.

The discussion ranged broadly across a variety of issues. The audience included four ex-Big Flame members (three of them involved with the planned book about Big Flame). None were involved with BF on Merseyside or were members in the early days when the Ford Halewood intervention was at its peak. However, they did there best to answer other questions about BF.

Issues raised by those present included:

  • How did the Base Groups strike a balance between providing outside support and not substituting themselves for workers or imposing lines on those in struggles?
  • What was BF’s position on its members becoming shop stewards?
  • How did BF see the relationship between workplace and community struggles?
  • What did BF understand by autonomy – of the working class and oppressed groups?
  • Why was BF much more successful in Liverpool than elsewhere in the country?
  • Why did BF grow after the downturn in class struggle after 1974?
  • Why did some former BF members join the Labour Party in the early 1980s when its politics was so different from those of BF?
  • Why did BF collapse in the 1980s?
  • Where did other BF people go after BF?
  • What are the lessons for today from the BF experience?
  • In the 1970s it was easier to identify the working class (Fords, Dockers, etc), but who are the working class today?
  • Where do ex-BF members see as potential areas of struggle today where we can win?

I am not sure how successfully the ex-BF members present answered these questions on the night. They are all certainly things to address in the book.

Some of those present said complimentary things about Big Flame – that ex-members must pass on their experiences to those involved in today’s struggles; that left politics today is weaker for the lack of an organisation with its politics leading some of them to join organisations with much more orthodox politics. Hopefully this website and the book will contribute to these tasks.

Archive Archie

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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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EPISODES IN BIG FLAME HISTORY: No 23. Health

Posted by archivearchie on November 23, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

These are few examples of BF discussions of health issues:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Archive Archie

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

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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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EPISODES IN BIG FLAME HISTORY: No 6. Italy

Posted by archivearchie on May 26, 2009

In the pamphlet Towards a New Revolutionary Socialist Organisation written in 1977, Big Flame said: “We emerged as a rank and file grouping in Liverpool in 1971, owing no allegiance to any particular current or historical tradition”. I have a problem with this statement. Big Flame never saw itself as part of a linear tradition, promoting the texts or programme of one or more great thinkers. However, it is not possible to have a proper understanding of the group without acknowledging the impact on its development of certain currents in Italian Marxism.

Hot Autumn

Italian Background

The Italian Marxist theoretical approach called Operaismo originated with two journals in the 1960s: Quaderni Rossi (Red Notebooks) and Classe Operaia (Working Class). There was never a single viewpoint, but a variety of different perspectives from such writers as Mario Tronti, Sergio Bologna, and Toni Negri. I will use the Italian phrase Operaismo as the literal translation – Workerism – has a different meaning. In recent years the phrase Autonomism has gained a lot of currency. However, it is more closely associated with the developments of the “autonomia” movement in Italy from the mid 1970s on and the later writings of Negri (which are a significant development from his earlier works), than the earlier phase I am interested in here.

In May 1969 there were strikes in FIAT. By later in the year (the Hot Autumn), these had spread, for example, to Chemical factories and Pirelli. Many new political groups came out of the events of 1969. Two of them were particularly influenced by Operaismo – Lotta Continua (The Struggle Continues), which I will discuss in more detail in my next post (see Lotta Continua, and also Lotta Continua Part 2), and Potere Operaio (Workers’ Power). These are only two groups out of a complex pattern of developments. For a fuller picture see the Red Notes pamphlets Working Class Autonomy and the Crisis and Italy 1977-9: Living with an Earthquake (now available at libcom.org as a pdf  and Class against Class as text).

I don’t have the space here to do more than take the briefest glimpse of some of the ideas of Operaismo (which anyway are often complex and difficult to understand), nor the differences between the writers. Similarly I will only briefly discuss the practice of groups like Lotta Continua. I will focus of two ideas which had an impact on Big Flame: the phrases – “autonomy” and “mass politics”. These have a history which goes back well before Operaismo. Autonomy was frequently discussed in moral and political philosophy. Sociologists have talked of mass politics as a political order in the era of mass political parties. There are also earlier uses on the Italian left. Gramsci in The Modern Prince talked of mass politics as “real political action of the subaltern classes” as distinct from “merely an adventure by groups claiming to represent the masses”.

However, in the 1960s and 70s these phrases were given a new twist and prominence. The starting point for Operaismo was that the working class determines the nature of capital and the state, through its struggles it exerts its autonomy. Spontaneous struggles manifest a political content which foreshadows a powerful organisation. The working class exerting its autonomy forces capital to restructure the way it rules. Since the Second World War this has involved a massification of production with new machinery, the destruction of hierarchies, deskilling and (in the case of Italy in particular) the recruitment of a new workforce of young, inexperienced migrant workers. The new mass workers particularly characterise industries like automobiles, steel, rubber and radios. After an initial quiescence, these workers demonstrate a stubborn denial of all but the most minimal collaboration with the labour process (sometimes referred to as a refusal of work). Also over the post war period exploitation in the factory links up with social life beyond its walls. Workers live in a social factory where no moment of their life escapes capitalist domination.

The working class’s political refusal to resolve the contradictions of capitalism takes the form of mass struggles. The highest level of such struggles, and the model for Italy, was seen as taking place in the USA in the 1930s and 1940s. Operaismo reinterpreted Leninism. To realise the revolutionary destiny of the masses a form of mass practice is required. If a political organisation is to construct the unification of the working class, it can not do so from a position external to the masses, but only from the internal standpoint of the masses. The role of a party is to transform mass struggles into the mass political re-appropriation of power.

Italy paper

Big Flame and Italy

Sometimes the influence of Italy on Big Flame is implicit rather than spelt out. Two headlines in the newspaper come to mind. Both are talking about Britain. In August 1972 the paper predicted a Long Hot Autumn. In October 1977 it claimed sections of the Army were pursuing a Strategy of Tension.

Two of Big Flame’s earliest publications contained material on Italy: the pamphlet Italy 1969-70, published in 1971, and “The Struggle in Italy” in Fact Folder no2 published in 1972.

Italy 1969-70 details how the Hot Autumn developed in 1969, including articles about the struggles in FIAT, the different tactics in the factories, the attempt to introduce line delegates (similar to shop stewards), a demonstration in Turin which developed into a battle with the police, and a discussion with migrant workers from the south). “The Struggle in Italy” consists of a discussion with two people with recent experience of events in Italy, and of notes written by a member of Potere Operaio.

The bulk of Italy 1969-70 was republished in the US magazine Radical America. Click here to view Radical America September-October 1971 issue at the magazine’s archive on the web. (The article can be found at pp10-38 of the magazine, pp12-40 of the document). Two of the six sections of the pamphlet are omitted, along with the Preface, the Appendix, and some other supplementary material.

Big Flame was an organisation which emphasised practice rather theory. After the two documents mentioned above discussion of Italy in Big Flame publications was mostly confined to news articles in the paper. Even in internal documents, it is very rare to see explicit references to Operaismo writers. The influence of Italy is probably best seen in Big Flame’s practice. Here the influence of Lotta Continua is most apparent. From early 1969, through the Hot Autumn, and for many years thereafter Lotta Continua members regularly went down to the factory gates. Initial help with leaflets led to student worker assemblies. It was this which Big Flame was attempting to copy, on a much smaller scale, in its base group model. Lotta Continua didn’t support the introduction of line delegates into the factories, seeing this as leading to union control over struggles. This influenced Big Flame’s early positions on shop stewards.

Big Flame’s links with Lotta Continua are mentioned in the pamphlet Big Flame: Our Perspectives and Work discussed in Episode 2  of this series. There was continuous contact between the two groups in the early to mid 1970s with mutual visits. In 1975 Lotta Continua organised a “cadre school” for Big Flame members. Big Flame also had less regular links with another Italian group Avanguardia Operaio (Workers Vanguard) during the same period.

Too much can be made of the Big Flame’s Italian connection. Not everyone in Big Flame was influenced by Italian Marxism. The few early internal documents which mention Operaismo writers were extremely critical of both Tronti and Negri. Not everyone took Lotta Continua as a model. Big Flame never tried to set itself up as the English franchise of Lotta Continua as some have suggested. Before the latter’s implosion, some Big Flame members raised criticisms (e.g. its response to feminism, lack of internal democracy) in internal documents (as mentioned above there was barely a reference, favourable or unfavourable, in its open publications). Most Big Flame members had even stronger criticisms of Potere Operaio. As time went on newer members joining Big Flame were much less likely to see the Hot Autumn as the source of their inspiration, or even be aware of the currents in Italian Marxism discussed here.

1981-82 Debate

The 1974-75 debate in Big Flame about the meaning of autonomy was mentioned in Episode 5 of this series. In 1981-82, there was another debate covering both autonomy and mass politics. Starting in the run up to the 1981 Conference, which lead on a Day School on Autonomy in July 1982.

Here are some of the articles from the debate. They are listed in order of my assessment of the extent to which they departed from Big Flame’s traditional positions. The defenders come first, and the critics later.

(1) Mass Work and Big Flame (Discussion Bulletin Sept 1981)

(2) Does the Struggle Continue? (Information Bulletin June 1982 – Day School document)

(3) A Critical Look at Big Flame Theory (Discussion Bulletin April 1981)

(4) Autonomy and Mass Practice (Discussion Bulletin Nov 1981)

(5) Autonomy: A Case of Too Many Meanings (Information Bulletin June 1982 – Day School document)

(6) The Struggle for Mass Politics  (Discussion Bulletin Sept 1981)

[These documents come from the days of stencil duplicators/mimeograph machines and therefore aren’t the easiest to read]

Article (1) sees the problem as Big Flame’s abandonment of ideas like mass politics. It particularly supports the base group model, and wants to see this readopted. Article (2) sets out to defend the idea of Working Class Autonomy from its critics. Its sees as its strength seeing the working class as an active force (the only tendency to “put the horse before the cart”), It concludes the acknowledging that the approach was developed 10 years before, and needs to be updated for the 1980s.

Article (3) is mostly devoted to a lengthy exegesis of Big Flame’s traditional theory. It sees these as a significant improvement on other ideas current amongst the left at the time. It ends with some critical comments e.g. questioning the notion that communism is inherent in the working class, and believing that Big Flame does not take reformism seriously enough. Article (4) wants to retain but modify the terms autonomy and mass politics. With autonomy, the author wants to retain the idea of independence of the working class, but questions the assumption that there is inherently a progressive tendency to focus on class objectives. With mass politics, he recognises the need to work directly with the mass of the work class and oppressed, but finds the idea of mass politics vague, often with little more meaning than mass leafleting.

Article (5) argues that from the beginning the idea of autonomy made no sense in the Britain of the 1970s. The writer suggests that it is impossible to set up permanent working class institutions without some labour movement support. Article (6) wants to reinterpret the notion of mass politics. It criticises the base group model for operating independently of the institutions of the labour movement. To create socialist politics in a conservative culture new alliances are required.

The authors of both articles (3) and (6) raise the question of working within the Labour Party. By the end of 1981 at the conclusion of a debate about the Labour Party (on which see a future Episode in this series – see Episode 27), they had both left Big Flame. The organisation never resolved the differences between the positions of those who remained in the rest of its life up to 1984.

Archive Archie

 

Sources on Operaismo

Back in the 1970s and 80s, it was hard to get hold of translations into English of relevant documents. Publications released in England consisted of a few Red Notes pamphlets (such as Italy 1977-8: Living with an Earthquake and Italy 1980-81: After Marx,Jail!); a CSE pamphlet on The Labour Process and Class Strategies; plus a joint publication between the two: Working Class Autonomy and the Crisis which came out in 1979. If you were lucky enough to live near an alternative bookshop like Compendium in Camden Town, you could also get hold of US journals like Radical America, Telos and semiotext(e).

Everything has changed with the internet. The following sites are worth checking out:

Class against Class

Translations @ generation-online

Aut-op-sy

A useful overall introduction is also provided by Steve Wright Storming Heaven (Pluto, 2002).

For those who can read Italian, I would draw attention to Classe Operaia: Reprint Completo 1964-67 (Milano: Machina Libri, no date). This republishes with the original design the complete run of Classe Operaia, as well as related publications from the same period Gatto Salvaggio, Cronache Operaie, Classe e Partito and Il Potere Operaio.

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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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EPISODES IN BIG FLAME HISTORY: No 3. Industry and Workplace

Posted by archivearchie on May 6, 2009

Big Flame gave an extremely high importance to struggles at the point of production, especially in its early days.

 Base Groups

 The early Big Flame adopted the base group model derived from sections of the Italian left like Lotta Continua. The aim of these interventions was to target activity at the mass of workers (often the deskilled line worker) rather than to work through union structures. Instead of a political group deciding that its members would get jobs in a factory (as has been the practice with some groups), the intervention was initiated by external militants who developed regular contact with those working at the factory. The basic activity was regular factory gate leafleting. Through this workers were invited to open meetings, where they had the final way over the content of the next leaflet. This is because it is the workers who have the understanding of what was going on in the plant. The aim was that the workers would develop confidence and power, and eventually take over the group. No pressure was put on them to be recruited to the organisation (this is true of Big Flame at least, during this period). 

In October 1971 Merseyside Big Flame established three base groups. One was at the Ford Halewood plant in Liverpool. The other two groups – at Standard Triumph (another car plant) and Plessey (telecommunications) – only lasted a short period. Other Big Flame interventions in the motor industry followed Ford Halewood. Ford Dagenham (near East London) in January 1973 (by people who later formed East London Big Flame), British Leyland Longbridge (Birmingham) in January 1975) and Ford Langley (near West London) in February 1975.

As of 1975 the situation at Ford Halewood was: 2 external militants who had this work as their main area of political activity, 1 Ford worker member, 3 other Ford workers consistently attending base group educational meetings, another 30 Ford workers consistently attending open meetings and around 120 copies of Big Flame newspaper sold at the plant.

This document, a report to the October 1976 Big Flame Conference, gives a vivid picture of base group activity on a day to day basis.Click here to view Ford Halewood Report (warning: this may take over a minute to appear).

By 1979 Big Flame’s Ford Halewood intervention had suffered a serious decline, with the base group gone. The problem with the base group approach was its dependence on the external militants. If they moved away from the area, got a job or were burnt out by continuous activity, the intervention suffered a serious blow. Later Big Flame workplace interventions were almost always through members working in the sector.

 Shop Stewards

The original (1970) Big Flame newspaper involved left stewards who wrote for the paper. However, in 1971 Big Flame reassessed its position on stewards. A strike at Ford Halewood over the sacking of a militant steward met with a lack of enthusiasm from the other stewards.

StewardsCS-p1 In 1973 Big Flame published two pamphlets Shop Stewards and the Class Struggle and Five Months of Struggle at Halewood. The former set out a critical perspective on shop stewards (as opposed to others at the time like the International Socialists who were promoting them as a key element of the struggle). Stewards were increasingly being integrated into the union hierarchy and management. They were encouraging passive delegation and holding back working class autonomy. The second pamphlet developed a similar argument in the specific context of Ford Halewood. Click here to view Shop Stewards and Class Struggle (warning: this may take over a minute to appear).

 Two of the six sections of Five Months of Struggle at Halewood were republished as “Shop Stewards at Ford” in the US magazine Radical America. Click here to view Radical America September-October 1974 issue  at the magazine’s archive on the web. (The article can be found at pp119-139 of the magazine, pp121-141 of the document). 

Big Flame later clarified its position on stewards, recognising that not all workplaces were like the motor industry. The approach to shop stewards, indeed whether or not to become a steward, depended on where you worked. Click here to view Reply to a Letter to Big Flame, reprinted from the May 1977 Internal Bulletin (warning: this may take over a minute to appear). A similar perspective was set out in a 1977 pamphlet The Working Class, the Unions and Mass Practice.

Workplace Organising

  organising-p1 Car plants were not the only place Big Flame organised. Hospitals were another early priority. By that late 1970s there were Big Flame members involved in struggle at a wide variety of workplaces including rail, the mines, engineering and the public sector such as local government.

 In 1979 Big Flame published a pamphlet Organising to Win which brought together the experience of workplace activists. It aimed to be a manual on how to win struggles in a difficult period.

Click here to view the pamphlet – split into three parts (warning: they may take over a minute to appear)

Organising to Win: Intro and Ch 1-2

Organising to Win: Ch 3-5

Organising to Win: Ch 6-9 

 

 Archive Archie

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