Big Flame

1970-1984

Posts Tagged ‘Beyond the Fragments’

OPINIONS ABOUT BIG FLAME no 5: KEVIN McDONNELL

Posted by archivearchie on January 18, 2010

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

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

Kevin McDonnell writes:

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

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

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

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

 

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

Kevin McDonnell

 Introduction

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

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

The main issues I want to address are:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Total Numbers

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

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

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

Location

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

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

Women

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

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

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

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

Class

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

Political background

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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OPINIONS ABOUT BIG FLAME no 4: MIKE JONES

Posted by archivearchie on September 11, 2009

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

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

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

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

Mike comments:

Dear Reader, please forgive the following:

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

[a]. my being more turgid then

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

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

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

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

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

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

6. These observations will not be televised

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

 

BIG FLAME: 1971 TO 1981

INTRODUCTION

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

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

PART ONE

THE ORIGINS OF BIG FLAME

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

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

(a)        Student Radicalisation in the 1960’s

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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OPINIONS ABOUT BIG FLAME no 2: PAUL THOMPSON

Posted by archivearchie on July 17, 2009

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

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

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

Socialist Register draft article

BIG FLAME: HISTORY AND POLITICS

1. THE EMERGENCE OF A NEW POLITICS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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EPISODES IN BIG FLAME HISTORY: No 8. Party and Class

Posted by archivearchie on June 10, 2009

LeninFrom its earliest days Big Flame was called “Leninist” (by Libertarians) and “libertarian” (by Leninists). It even rang both bells when described as “schizophrenic libertarians/Leninists” in Anarchist Worker (published by Anarchist Workers Association, some of whose members would a few years later join BF via the Libertarian Communist Group) [see post on LCG].

My impression (and I have no statistics to back this up) is that at the beginning, and also later on, more of those who joined Big Flame were libertarians seeing the need for a greater emphasis on organisation, rather than ex-members of Leninist groups moving in the opposite direction. The libertarians in the early Merseyside Big Flame had to break with such ideas as anti-interventionism, only organising around your own situation, a disdain for the industrial sector, fears of any form of leadership, and seeing recruitment as a form of manipulation. Traditional libertarianism eliminated the role of organisation in the revolutionary process. Traditional Leninism saw the relationship between the party and the Class as a static one. Communists form the Party, develop their strategies and programmes, and take these out to the working class.

When left groups fall under the influenced of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, it usually impacts on two things – their understanding of the relationship between Party and Class, and their mode of internal organisation. This post examines Big Flame’s approach to the former. A later Episode in this series will look at BF’s internal organisation (see Episode 12).

Big Flame’s Position

The pamphlet Towards a New Revolutionary Socialist Organisation written in 1977  (see a future Episode in this series for more information – see Episode 11) is the Big Flame document with the clearest statement of the group’s position on Party and Class.

“A vanguard organisation that collectively intervenes to direct and develop class struggle is necessary. That necessity arises out of consciousness, experience and struggle in the working class. It needs to be a vanguard because the function of a revolutionary organisation is to earn the right to lead by being rooted in the working class and its struggles. This enables it to systematically express the needs of the class through demands, programmes and action.

… At a further stage, when the struggle and the vanguard have reached a certain level of maturity, the party will also be necessary. …The existence of autonomous working class organs of popular power (Soviets, People’s Councils etc) is the most important aspect of the revolutionary process; but they do not guarantee victory. They do not dissolve differences of interest and ideology overnight, solving all tactical and strategic problems. …This is not to underestimate the complexity of the problems, nor to reduce everything to the existence of the party” (p15).

This position distinguished Big Flame from, on the one side, those who were anti-organisation; and, on the other, those who see vanguards and parties as things arising outside the working class.

This was not a new position. Back in 1974 Merseyside Big Flame argued in a document From Organising to Organisation argued that the Party is a long term necessity to enable the working class to successfully confront the bourgeois state, but that no party existed or can be built outside of the political development of working class struggle. The 1975 Conference which established Big Flame as a national organisation accepted a Minimum Political Agreement which stated: “At this stage BF is neither the revolutionary party or its embryo” and “recognises that it must be a product of a new level of class struggle and real working class needs”. The ELBF group which decided not to be part of the organisation said in its conference document: “In the long run we’re in favour of some idea of the party” (see Episode 5 in this series).

Another Big Flame document from 1977 Towards a New Revolutionary Organisation put to the Open Conference of the Project (the Project is also something which will be discussed in a future Episode – see Episode 11) developed the point: “No group in Britain has earned the right to call itself the party, or even the sole embryo of the party. The party cannot be built in a linear way, gradually accumulating members to one organisational focus. As the struggle develops we will be forced to re-define our politics and re-organise our forces. Of necessity this means a combination of traditions and experiences, not one historical model. Yet even this recognition does not go far enough, we must go beyond re-groupments” (p12).

This position on the party is not one all Big Flame members were happy with. At the 1980 conference, there was an unsuccessful attempt to delete from the BF constitution the phrase “The achievement of socialism requires the formation of a revolutionary party”.

Beyond the Fragments

Beyond the Fragments: Feminism and the Making of Socialism was a book by Sheila Rowbotham, Lynne Segal and Hilary Wainwright. The first version was published early in 1979 by Islington Community Press. An expanded version was published later the same year by Merlin Press. All three authors had extensive experience in the women’s movement, plus spells, with varying degrees of unhappiness, in (mixed) left organisations. Their concern was to address “the problems that hold back the creation of a socialist organisation from the fragmented movements and struggles in which so many socialists are involved”. Whilst the three of them shared common criticisms of existing left organisation, and agreed about the questions to be asked “we still argue about the answers”.

Big Flame responded enthusiastically to the debate open up by Beyond the Fragments. It published a series of articles in the newspaper (from no 76 July 1979 onwards), and devoted two issues of its Discussion Bulletins to the topic. The November 1979 Big Flame conference passed a notion which began: “Big Flame welcomes the discussions throughout the revolutionary left about “Beyond the Fragments, but regrets the way that many organisations have rushed to put their ‘line’ rather than debate and consider many of the issues raised by it”. The motion went on to say Big Flame should debate the issues raised “in an open way in our own organisation” and to give “any support necessary” to the authors of BtF in their plans for organising a debate around the book.

DB-p1

These three articles below are taken from Discussion Bulletin no33 December 1980:

(1) Rethinking Party & Class [note: this article seems to end mid sentence. This is not a problem with its reproduction here, but was also the case in the original Bulletin]

(2) Tickling the Clam

(3) A Reassessment of ‘Revolutionary Unity’ and the ‘New Revolutionary Organisation’

Article (1) was a restatement of Big Flame’s position. It examines the limits of the Leninist theory and practice of organisation, and aims to set out a new theory of Party and Class.

Article (2), written by one of Beyond the Fragments authors, defends the three articles in the book from their critics. It takes issue with the perspective, sometimes found in Big Flame as well as other groups, which feels impatience with the slow and muddled way political consciousness develops, and has a tokenistic relationship with autonomous movements.

Article (3) argues that Beyond the Fragments constitutes a re-affirmation of Big Flame positions. It develops a number of themes the author sees in the book, such as pre-figurative forms of organisation; linking the local to the regional, national and international (without the local being sunk without trace); combating ‘Party first, Movement second’, etc.

The Beyond the Fragments book lead to a conference, and some people hoped that a non-party tendency might come into being amongst those responding to the book. This wasn’t to be and BtF as a movement was relatively short lived, though we are left with the book to read and learn from.

Some Comments

Those of you reading this post from a more autonomist or anarchist background, are no doubt recoiling in horror at the revelation that Big Flame believed in the ideas of a party.

Yes it did. At some stage in the future in a revolutionary situation. Not anything like any of the contemporary British left groups who called themselves a party. Nor something that was simply Big Flame grown larger.

It also believed, in the days before this party, in vanguards and organisation. As the future Episodes in Big Flame History on Internal Organisation will discuss, some members were suspicious of some of the forms of organisation BF adopted. On the other hand, there were many complaints that the way the organisation worked wasn’t efficient or effective enough for it to be able deliver its aims.

Archive Archie

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EPISODES IN BIG FLAME HISTORY: No 2. Big Flame Politics

Posted by archivearchie on May 2, 2009

From time to time, Big Flame published a short introduction to its politics. This post highlights three of these.

 1975

 intro75-p1

This was the year Big Flame changed from a federation of autonomous groups into a national organisation. It had groups in Merseyside, Manchester, Birmingham and West London (an East London group had left – more about that in a later post [see Episode 5]).

A pamphlet was published to set out the politics of the organisation. Click here to view – Big Flame: Our Perspectives and Work (warning: this may take over a minute to appear).

1978

intro78-p1

In the years since 1975 Big Flame had launched the Project “Towards a New Revolutionary Socialist Organisation”, participated in Socialist Unity and turned down a call by the International Marxist Group and the International Socialist Alliance for a unifed organisation. By the date of its 1978 Conference, Big Flame had 160 members (probably close to its peak). There were now Big Flames groups in Sheffield, Leeds, Nottingham, South London, North London and elsewhere.

 

A new pamphlet was published. Click here to view – An Introduction to Big Flame (warning: this may take over a minute to appear). 

 

This one added sections on Big Flame’s History and Structures.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1980 

 intro80-p1

 In 1979 the first edition of Beyond the Fragments was published, which struck a chord with Big Flame. By the 1980 Conference Big Flame membership was down to 125, although there were probably members in more places than ever before.

That year Big Flame produced another publication. This one was aimed at new members and sympathisers rather than on general sale. Click here to view – Introductory Guide to Big Flame Perspectives (warning: this may take over a minute to appear).

 

It was fuller document than those mentioned above, with references to the documents or decisions from which the text derived. It dropped the History and Structures sections but added a Reading list under each topic.

 

 

 

 

 

It may seem unnecessary to reproduce here all three pamphlets when there is a lot of repetition between them. However, while there is much consistency, there are also differences or at the very least shifts of emphasis.

 

Consistencies include:

·               The idea of mass politics – targeting activity at the working class as a whole, rather than layers of activists or leaders.

·               A similar view of party and class – at a stage when the conditions are right the working class will need a party, but is the working class organs of popular power than will be of greater importance than the party. Big Flame does not claim to be the party, or even the embryo of the party.

 

Differences include:

·               The phrase autonomy is used throughout. In the first pamphlet the emphasis is on the autonomy of the working class. Later, it is on the autonomous movements of oppressed sectors.

·               The first pamphlet gives greater attention to the refusal of work (through absenteeism, sickness, etc) and divisions in the working class The latter one is more concerned with prefigurative politics (not separating what happens before and after the revolution), and struggles in the community and social spheres.

 

I will return to some of these themes in later posts, in particular the changing influence of some Italian left groups on Big Flame [see Episode 6].

 

Archive Archie

 

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