Big Flame

1970-1984

Posts Tagged ‘Big Flame Conferences’

THE YOUTH DEBATE (Miscellaneous Big Flame Documents no 13)

Posted by archivearchie on April 24, 2011

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

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

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

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

The Youth Group

I have chosen to represent this position with three documents:

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

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

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

The points made in these and other documents are:

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

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

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

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

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

Critics of the Youth Group

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

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

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

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

The author:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thoughts and Questions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Archive Archie

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EPISODES IN BIG FLAME HISTORY: No 30. The Last Years

Posted by archivearchie on January 11, 2010

This Episode, the final one in the series, takes the story of Big Flame up to and beyond its fragmentation in 1984. Previous Episodes have discussed key debates at Big Flame Conferences, from the first in 1975 through to 1981.This one covers the last two BF Conferences in 1983 and 1984 and, more generally, looking at the organisation’s last years.

1982-84 saw membership numbers continue to fall. Relatively few of those who were members at the time of the 1975 founding national conference remained in BF. Judged by the makeup of the National Committee (NC), the leadership of the organisation had passed to a new generation. Nearly all had joined BF around 1977, or even later. The NCs elected (or appointed) in 1981 and in 1983 both suffered from the resignation of members (some from BF as well), in many cases with no replacement coming forward.

There were less publications. No new pamphlets were published. The last issue of the journal Revolutionary Socialism was Autumn 1982, and of the paper July-August 1982. One BF publication, Anti-Nuclear Action, did carry on appearing in 1983-84.

Minutes of NC meetings in 1982-84 reveal several discussions of “the crisis” in Big Flame. This was linked to a general down turn for the left and many members prioritising local work. A small number of individuals were keeping the organisation going. To counter a lack of direction in BF, the idea of a relaunch was proposed on a number of occasions.

1982 to 1983

Two tendencies remained in Big Flame after its 1981 Conference: “Emerald Street” (whose perspectives had won the Conference vote) and “Facing the Challenge” (for the positions they argued at the Conference see Episode 27). Because the NC was split between the two tendencies, it found it difficult to give a lead to the organisation. Some NC members saw the next Conference as the way to restore a sense of direction. In the words of one NC member: the NC was “locked in a dead end argument”, there was a need to “move the debate forward” and the next Conference would be “decisive” (Discussion Bulletin September 1982).

However, in 1982 there was no annual Conference. The next Conference did not take place until April/May 1983. By then the membership of BF had fallen from 125 in 1981 to 71 members and 28 sympathisers (a 1981 Conference motion had made the latter a formal category). Four Big Flame local groups had disappeared, leaving groups in only seven cities or towns (including London which did had a number of separate branches). Surprisingly, by the Conference both tendencies had also stopped functioning, and no-one submitted a “future perspectives” document setting out priorities for the organisation.

Indeed, there seems to have been relatively little disagreement at the Conference. The two most contentious issues were:

  • The position on voting at the next General election which took place soon after the Conference. In a rerun of the 1978 Conference both motions lost narrowly: a call for a Labour vote on the grounds that this would express class solidarity and defeat the Tories, and one which opposed supporting a vote for any of the main political parties. In the absence of a new position, BF reverted to a 1981 Conference motion and took the line: “Vote Labour, but … KEEP ON FIGHTING!”
  • The approach to Irish solidarity work, between support for the Troops Out movement (TOM) positions and some who wanted clearer support for the forces resisting the army in Ireland. The issue was deferred to a Day School, where the TOM position was confirmed.

The closest thing to a document which assessed the current situation was this article, written in support of motion calling for BF to produce an updated and comprehensive statement of its politics: Big Flame in the Blip Chip Age. It argued that the crisis in BF was part of a general crisis of revolutionary politics. To pick up the pieces again an open and honest debate was required which would look changes in class composition, the impact of new technologies, and the decline of working class and autonomous movements.

Rather than the Conference documents a more developed discussion of the current situation could be found in the columns of the newspaper. Particularly two article in the February-March 1983 issue. The first was: Britain in 1982. This rejected the idea that there had been a down turn, even though it acknowledged that traditional working class struggles were at a low point. It drew attention to the inner City riots and Greenham Common protests, and looked to the peace movement to turn the tide.

The second article was No More the Working Class. This saw the Labour left in retreat and the socialist strands of the autonomous movements as in decline. It saw Andre Gorz’s book Farewell to the Working Class as providing a useful analysis of the way the working class had been transformed. BF supporters needed to prioritise work where revolutionary ideas were still alive or can be developed e.g. anti-imperialist campaigns, anti-police campaigns.

A letter in the next issue of the paper – April-May 1983 – responded to the two articles: Red and Green (letter). It accused the authors of finding forced optimism which bore little resemblance to their previous analysis. Gorz’s investment in the new social movements as the bearers of the communist project was criticised. These movements might share a theme of autonomy, but not a common politics. The development of utopian politics along green lines contained pitfalls. Not just a tendency to insular first-worldism, but also an anger which might be easily contained.

1983 to 1984

As well as agreeing to produce a new statement of Big Flame’s politics, the 1983 Conference passed two parallel motions. One was to aim to publish a book on BF containing extracts from previous pamphlets and documents. The other was to produce a programme which would contain “plans for future priorities”, an “assessment of tasks” and “political slogans”. These can be added a project already underway since the 1981 Conference – to rewrite the “Introduction to Big Flame” pamphlet, a version of which was last published in 1980 (see Episode 2).

None of the four ideas reached fruition. Of the four, the NC seems to have taken up the Programme project most enthusiastically. There were several discussions about its contents at NC and Commission meetings during 1983-84. Drafting the Programme does not appear to have got anywhere near the final stages, and an increasing number of number of BF members expressed disquiet. Some at the length of time the project was taking, others questioned the priority it was being given or even the need for it at all.

The next, and final, Big Flame Conference took place in May 1984. There had been a further fall in membership numbers. According to the National Secretary there were now 45 members or sympathisers still active in BF (compared to 99 at the time of the previous Conference). One contributor to the debate (who was arguing for the organisation to carry on) put the number of activists remaining at 30. There were now only four local groups (and none in London).

The key debate at the Conference was whether BF should continue, and in what form. The suggestion that Big Flame might turn itself into a network rather than an organisation had been flagged up much earlier. For example in 1982 by those attending a “Facing the Challenge” meeting and in a letter from a prominent member of this tendency (see Discussion Bulletin April-May 1982 and Information Bulletin June 1982).

However, I believe that the first time this was strongly advocated rather then included amongst a list of options was in this article by another ”Facing the Challenge” supporter in the Discussion Bulletin of June-July 1982: Death & Birth. The article argues that Big Flame’s lack of self-confidence is part of a crisis of the left due to a restructuring of capital. It should seize the initiative and fight on new ground. The future lay in local groups. BF should disband and its politics arise anew. As the author of the document said at an earlier NC meeting: “Death is positive. It is proof of progress” (NC Minutes April 1982).

The network option was not the property of one political current. Someone who had supported “Emerald Street” also argued the BF should dissolve in a letter published in an Information Bulletin dated 1 June 1983: A Letter from a Leeds Comrade. It should be replaced on a loose network focusing on local work, apart from the production of a magazine publication.

Those who argued for the network option believed local political activity would be more effective without the burden of maintaining a national organisation. At the same time educational discussions and the exchange of ideas could continue. Those who argued for the organisation believed, that despite the reduced numbers, collective decision-making, collective activity and collective responsibility were important and should continue.

Three different local groups submitted motions for the 1984 Conference advocating a network. The one selected for voting was Motion from Sheffield BF (not agreed). The vote was tied 16-16, so the motion fell. A motion in favour of an organisation was then taken: Motion from Furness/Amendment from Kimberley. After the amendment was agreed 11-9, the amended motion was passed 17-14.

One other motion was passed before the two groupings divided to consider their futures. This welcomed the formation of the Socialist Federation, and encouraged BF members to work with it at the local and national level. The Federation, largely formed through the coming to together to a number of different groupings which had left the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), seems to have only lasted a couple of years after 1984.

After 1984

The 17 people who voted for the successful motion remained members of what they continued to call Big Flame (sympathiser status was abolished after the Conference). Instead of an NC there were National Meetings open to all members every month or two. Only one local branch carried on meeting (with the BF story turning full circle as this was in Liverpool). The main achievement of the grouping was to bring back the newspaper for three issues between November 1985 and Summer 1986. Here is the first of them: Big Flame Newspaper November 1985.

Of those who supported the network option, the largest local group which carried on was in Sheffield using the name Moving On. They maintained a loose relationship with a smaller grouping of ex-members (who had left before the 1984 Conference) calling themselves the East London group. For both the primary focus was on local political activity.

All these grouping were tiny, even in comparison to the small organisation Big Flame had always been. Therefore, I think it most appropriate to say that the BF story ended in 1984 with the May Conference.

Since the 1980s former members of Big Flame have pursued many different political trajectories. Some (including people who voted against the membership motion at the 1981 Conference) spent time in the Labour Party. Very few are members today. A smaller number joined the Greens (and again some of these have left). Hardly any seem to become members of another revolutionary socialist group. However, a high proportion of former BF members are still political active 30 years later in anti-racist campaigns, international solidarity work and other forms of struggle.

Archive Archie

Notes: (1) This series does not give a full picture of Big Flame. Doing that would need more than another 30 Episodes. There are some omissions of which I am particularly conscious: BF’s involvement in Southern Africa solidarity work, the Anti-Nuclear movement, community struggles particularly housing, other areas of workplace struggle (apart from the few mentioned), and the approach to culture/the arts.

(2) For BF’s last years I have been able to uncover far fewer old documents. I also sought information from some of those who were around at the time, but and found their memories to be somewhat foggy. Therefore, I would be even more grateful than usual if anyone is able to help fill the gaps in my knowledge.

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EPISODES IN BIG FLAME HISTORY: No 27. 1981 Debate – The Labour Party and the Alternatives

Posted by archivearchie on December 21, 2009

A number of episodes in this series have focussed on the key debates at Big Flame conferences between 1975 and 1980 (see Episode 5, Episode 11 and Episode 22). The main December 1981 Conference debate was about joining the Labour Party.

Today Labour Party membership isn’t seen as a credible option by most of the left. Back in 1981 the situation was different. The Labour left seemed to be gaining ground, with Tony Benn narrowly losing a battle for the Deputy Leadership of party. Many others had recently joined the Labour Party. Not just various Trotskyist groups pursuing an entryist tactic, but substantial numbers of the independent left including many ex-members of the IMG (International Marxist Group) and IS/SWP (International Socialists/Socialist Workers Party). This trend across the left struck no chord amongst the Big Flame membership before 1981. There was little dissent from the view was that revolutionaries should take no interest in attempts to transform the Labour Party, and placing any hopes in the Labour left could only lead to disillusionment.

Past Positions on the Labour Party

Only a few years before Big Flame had been unable to agree a position on whether or not to call for a Labour vote. Back in 1974 Merseyside BF had supported voting Labour on the grounds it was the weaker enemy. By May 1978 BF was a national organisation, and its Conference took place with a General Election expected soon. A vote Labour “but build the class struggle against Labour policies” position was lost 43-44. A “there are no tactical advantages” in voting Labour position also lost 37-45. The issue went to a ballot of the BF membership later on in the year. This agreed that unless revolutionaries were standing the organisation’s perspective should be “the working class will have to fight any government” and “vote Labour to keep the Tories out”.

This article in the Discussion Bulletin of April 1981 brought together all the previous positions adopted by Big Flame in relation to the Labour Party. Not just the issue of voting Labour, but also reformism in general, past Labour governments, the Labour left, the Alternative Economic Strategy (AES) and campaigns to democratise the Labour Party: Big Flame and the Labour Party.

The Different Positions

During 1981 four distinct currents emerged in Big Flame. Two became formal tendencies and adopted a name: “Facing the Challenge” and “Emerald Street”. Two didn’t, so I have had to choose names for them: the “Group of Nine” (a phrase used by one of its better known members in a private letter) and the “North London four” (they were a minority of this local group).

This is how the different positions evolved. First, there was a split in Tendency One (the latest incarnation of the current in BF which sought to revise its traditional politics. For a discussion of this tendency see Episode 22  of this series). Differences emerged in the run up to the December 1980 Conference. Amendments to the Tendency’s motion which would have made the criticism of the AES much stronger were rejected. Thereafter the Tendency ceased to function as a group. The majority, who I will call the “Group of Nine”, moved towards a position of support for Labour Party membership. This position was first set out in a document for a Day School on the Labour Party in June 1981 which was included in the May 1981 Discussion Bulletin.

Second, a BF member dissatisfied with the 1980 Conference drafted a document on the 24th December 1980 entitled “Facing the Challenge of the ‘80s” to begin the process of thinking ahead to the next Conference. He wanted the organisation to focus on rebuilding working class power and to discuss restarting base groups. In the course of 1981 a tendency was formed based on a restatement of “working class autonomy” and “mass politics” in the changed conditions of the 1980s. Documents were published in various Discussion Bulletins throughout 1981. The name of the first (and subsequent) documents was adopted as the name of the tendency. This tendency constituted a re-emergence in BF debates of the current which aimed to defend traditional BF politics, and was thus a successor to “Plan X” at the 1976 Conference (see Episode 11).

Third, in response to the positions being argued by the “Group of Nine” the “North London four”, who had previously presented a perspectives document to the 1980 Conference as part of a larger “North London group” (also see Episode 22), started to develop their own approach to the Labour Party as well as more general issues, starting with a document for the June 1981 day school (reprinted in the July Discussion Bulletin).

Finally, after an initial discussion at the Summer School in August 1981, another tendency was established at a meeting the next month (taking the name of the venue of this meeting – “Emerald Street”). In the words of the invitation the tendency wanted to adopt “a middle way between accommodating to left reformism and ultra leftism”. It included both members of the former Tendency One, and others who had not been part of it. The first position statements from this tendency appeared just before the conference in the November Discussion Bulletin (although individual supporters had made previous contributions to the debate).

I now want to examine each of the four positions in more detail.

Group of Nine

As mentioned above, the first document from members of the “Group of Nine” was included in the May 1981 Discussion Bulletin: Big Flame and the Labour Party: A New Political Direction?

The authors argued that the key question was not Labour Party (LP), but a long term political direction. BF would be unable to make its politics effective unless it merged into a larger force. The LP had become an attractive option for increasing numbers of people, and was now the place to find the largest number of people who shared BF’s conception of politics. It was the place to build a new revolutionary socialist tendency “at the present time”, which was distinguished from arguing for permanent work in the LP, or against independent revolutionary organisation.

Another document by “Group of Nine” supporter argued that they have no illusions about the labour Party, which “is not, and never will be the agent of socialist transformation in this country”. Additionally, “it is not a matter of some of us asking to be ‘allowed’ to join the LP. It is a matter of the whole organisation, LP members or not, relating keenly to that work, supporting it” (October 1981 Discussion Bulletin).

In one more document the authors argue that there is a prospect, at least in some parts of the country, of “considerable recruitment” to BF within the LP. A best outside the LP BF might double in size to 300. Even with 600 members, it would still be “a pimple” (October 1981 Discussion Bulletin). No figures are given for (the presumably much larger) forces which might be brought together inside the LP. Aside from general references to a “transitional strategy of reforms” to put socialism on the agenda, none of the documents say much about what people would do once inside the LP.

North London four

The two documents produced by this grouping were: For a New Relationship with the Labour Party (July 1981 Discussion Bulletin) and A Perspective for Big Flame in the 80’s (September 1981 Discussion Bulletin).

The “North London four” argued that joining or not joining the Labour Party was the wrong starting point and subsidiary element of an overall strategy. They criticised the “Group of Nine” for being too soft on the AES, and overestimating the likely level of support for BF politics within the LP (disputing the suggestion of the potential for forming something larger than the Project or Socialist Unity). Their starting point was the recession and the way it was being used to restructure the working class (Andrew Friend and Andy Metcalf’s book Slump City was a key influence). BF should focus of activities which created bridges and healed divisions across the working class. LP activity was one of a number of forums where this might be attempted.

The decision to join the LP or not was a tactical question at any particular time. The first document talked about how a left reformist government might open up political space outside it. The second criticises it for placing too much emphasis on something that might not happen. Its focus is on the immediate future in Constituency parties and Labour Councils. Whether or not LP membership would be of value would depend on the local situation. The authors stressed the dangers of LP membership – making adaptions, too much time devoted to internal struggles, etc. They expected that only a minority of BF might join the LP but, similar to the “Group of Nine”, it was important that a “substantial majority” of BF believed that those who did were making “a valid contribution to the class struggle”.

Facing the Challenge

There was an article by the initiator of “Facing the Challenge of the ‘80s” tendency in the May 1981 Discussion Bulletin. He started from the position that the 1980s were very different from the late 1960s (when a lot of the ideas which influence BF originated). What was needed was a “radical rethink of the working class autonomy tendency”. This would create a “more politically decisive BF” which would be “a rich meeting place for mass organisers”.

The final, and clearest, statement of the perspective of this tendency was in Facing the Challenge of the 80s (October 1981 Discussion Bulletin). The authors argued that BF needed to rebuild “in a modest fashion” mass work both theoretically and in practice. It should get closer to “our tendency” (as with Plan X in 1976, groups were listed as containing people who shared BF’s politics. This time the Conference of Socialist Economists, community and trade union resource centres). The fault for the lack of influence of this politics can be “laid at the door of BF”. Thus, mass politics has been “virtually chucked away”, the organisation’s distinctiveness has been lost by “neglecting our theoretical heritage”, “we haven’t sufficiently aided the building of a mass independent working class organisation” by having “having an unclear idea of what the role of BF is”.

None of the “Facing the Challenge” documents had much to say about what rethinking the “politics of working class autonomy” for the 1980s actually meant. The Conference motion from the tendency called for a six month period of “major debate” after which BF would decide on “a clear strategy” which would then be publicised in a series of events and conferences. There is room to work with LP members on particular issues but the position of “having any members in the Labour Party” was rejected.

Emerald Street

The two documents produced by this tendency were: Discussion Document on Big Flame’s Perspectives and Notes about Reformism (both in the November 1981 Discussion Bulletin).

The authors argue that over the previous 2½ years the Tories had decisively affected the dynamics of class struggle, whilst the LP had moved away from non-class modernising highly technocratic politics to an earlier traditional rhetoric of socialism. In turn much of the left had adapted to left reformism. Criticism was directed not at reforms in themselves, but reformism which always disorientated and demoralises the working class. Because of this understanding of reformism, the relationship of the LP to the state and the weakness of revolutionaries relative to left reformism, LP membership as a strategy for BF was rejected.

At the same time “Emerald Street” believed that the wishes of “Facing the Challenge” to launch a new project was “wildly over-optimistic”. The alternative strategy can be summed up (and these are my words, not theirs) as consolidation for long term survival. It was “vital to strengthen BF” by such measures as more rigorous application of membership norms, more attention to political education, and a better expression of BF politics in the paper and other publications.

The Conference

Immediately prior to the Conference the “Group of Nine” and the “North London four” dropped their separate motions and produced a combined motion: Motion 3 – Big Flame’s Strategy (defeated). The composite owes more to the latter’s position than the former, with LP membership occupying only one page of six (with objectives spelt out and problems acknowledged). Nevertheless, the “North London four” were aware that the new motion disguised significant differences. They agreed to a composite through their feelings of isolation because of the lack of support for their position in BF.

A transferable vote system was used to ensure a clear outcome. The initial result of the vote was: Emerald Street 42%, Combined LP position 29% and Facing the Challenge 27%. With votes transferred, this became: Emerald Street 53% and Combined LP position 29%. Finally on a straight yes/no vote for the Emerald Street position the figures were 65% yes and 19% no.

After the Conference

Following the conference some (but not all) of those who voted for the combined position on the Labour Party left Big Flame. My estimate is that no more than about 20% of the organisation’s 125 members left. The Conference alliance between the two pro-Labour Party membership groupings came to end, as those who left BF decided not to form a new grouping and went their separate ways.

The original “North London four” position can be seen as an attempt to keep BF together. As were a set of amendments from another BF member to their withdrawn motion – after the compositing these were themselves withdrawn. Their net result of the amendments would have been to allow some members to go off and do their thing in relation to the Labour Party, whilst distancing the organisation from it.

However, the differences were too great for this sort of compromise. As an Emerald Street supporter argued a “half in half out” position would probably have structurally reinforced the divisions in the organisation and created serious problems for the paper and other public pronouncements (Discussion Bulletin May 1981). The “Group of Nine” and “Facing the Challenge” were in complete agreement that BF was drifting and lacked a sense of direction. That it could no longer be “all things to all people” or “muddle on and hope for the best”. Both were extremely hostile to each others position (This refers to what was said in the written documents. The debate at the conference was conducted in a comradely manner). Probably the only solution was to go off along separate paths.

Archive Archie

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

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EPISODES IN BIG FLAME HISTORY: No 22. 1979-80 Debate – Transitional Politics and Alternative Plans

Posted by archivearchie on November 16, 2009

80ConfMot-p1Episode 5 and Episode 11 of this series covered key debates at Big Flame conferences between 1975 and 1978. This post takes the story forward from 1979 to 1980.

In Episode 11 I wrote that a simplified version of the history of Big Flame “can be seen as an ongoing debate with members pulling in two directions – those striving to uphold Big Flame’s traditional political positions and those who felt these needed some form of revision”. Unfortunately, it is difficult to come up with simple and accurate labels for the currents. The first one (who I will here call the “defenders”) was much less active at Big Flame Conferences during this period, compared to the previous one or the one which followed. The second (the “revisers”) did aim to make an major impact at Conferences during these years.

 

1979

The November 1979 Conference was unique in the history of Big Flame in that the only general perspectives motion came from the National Committee (NC) as a whole, rather than one or more of the different currents.

Here is the motion: Motion on Perspectives and Priorities. It argued that strategic goal was to break the cycle of Tory and Labour governments pursuing anti-working class policies. “We must resist the drift on the Left to channelling struggles through the Labour Party and placing demands on them and the Labour Left which reinforce illusions”. The goal is to build the socialist opposition in the working class. Although BF was small, it has a key political role to play.

Also on the Conference agenda was a document from some of the “revisers”. Here is the document: Theses on Reformism. This defined reformism as those who didn’t base themselves on class struggle or seek to destroy the capitalist state, and includes the parties of the old Third International which had adopted Euro-Communism. Various approaches to reformism are examined such as the orthodox Trotskyist one, with the poles of entryism and exposure. They are criticised for failing to see reformism as a “multi-levelled phenomenon” which “reproduces itself in everyday life”. The authors argue that a perspective on reformism is necessary to “aid our political work”.

The Theses were not voted on. A procedural motion was passed welcoming them as a “useful contribution” and calling on the NC to organise a detailed discussion.

1980

The “revisers” were unhappy with the outcome of the conference, principally because of what they saw as a kicking into the long grass of the “Theses on Reformism”, and the passing of a motion on “Socialist Alternatives”. This gave a very qualified welcome to alternative plans such as that of the Lucas Aerospace Combine Committee. It stated that there were ”no socialist alternatives to running capitalism” and “nothing inherently anti-capitalist” about alternative plans. Although, according to the motion, they could be supported if they helped fight closures and provided propaganda for socialism.

Tendencies in BF were formalised for the first time in the constitution passed at the 1978 conference. The idea of setting one up had first been floated with the publication of the documents “Has Big Flame got a Future?” in October 1978 and “Seizing the Power” in January 1979. It wasn’t pursued. Now in March 1980 an Appeal to establish a tendency was published, followed by a Statement, taking the name Tendency One, in the Discussion Bulletin of July 1980. In the Appeal a tendency was described as a group of people within an organisation with common positions on specific aspects of an organisation’s politics, and work openly to develop it further.

Here is the Statement: Statement of the Political Basis for the Formation of a Tendency In Big Flame. The political basis of the tendency is defined in terms of three points: (a) transitional politics (linking short term demands to the long term struggle for socialism); (b) revolutionary strategy on reformism (including favouring a Left Labour government as aiding the development of class struggle) and (c) central role of revolutionary organisation (against any moves towards federalism and for rebuilding BF’s interventionist capacity). The launching of the Tendency produced a hostile response from some in BF, in part because they felt that the creation of such a grouping was against the BF tradition.

The Big Flame Conference of December 1980 saw a debate between Tendency One, and a position argued by members of one local group North London, which does not fall neatly into the “revisers”/”defenders” dichotomy.

Here is the Tendency One document: Towards a Transitional Strategy: Prospects for Class Struggle. This includes a good analysis of Thatcherism (coming in only the second year of the Thatcher government), whilst continuing the arguments included in the Statement. It maintains that it is in favour of socialist alternatives, not in abstract, but as revolutionary interventions in class struggle. The Statement argues that the relationship between local struggles and the state at national and local level cannot be bypassed.

Here is an alternative position signed by some members of the North London group: A Contribution towards a General Direction for Big Flame. As subsequent events demonstrated, the signatories probably covered a range of different positions, rather than a fully united one. The document talks of a “reassessment” of BF’s politics, but the document is better described as a consolidation of the past. It aims to emphasise some positions formally supported, but not taken seriously enough in the past. The document describes itself as a limited “ungrand” conception of political strategy and seeks an integration of socialism and feminism. It sees much of the talk of socialist alternatives as putting a lot of different ideas in one bag, and advocates them as a form of organising rather than abstract programmic exercises.

One of the signatories of the North London position wrote a document of his own in response to those of the Tendency: Comments on the Tendency Motions and Documents. The Tendency are criticised for the language used to dismiss previous BF positions as “stale, unimaginative … negative … conservative”, and for adding feminism on to the end of motions rather than integrating it within them. Its discussion of socialist alternatives is said to remain abstract, rather than looking at specific plans. The approach to reformism is felt to be too close to the Trotskyist one, with the insight that reformism is reproduced in everyday life never developed.

Supporters of Tendency One and North London argued that their positions were incompatible, and that the Conference should vote for only one of them. This wasn’t accepted by those present and the motions from both were passed overwhelmingly.

The two motions took are more sympathetic approach to alternative plans than the previous year’s one. Tendency One said: “we fight for counter planning from below and workers’ plans, the design and production of socially useful goods, and production for use value”. According to North London (as amended): “Big Flame will call for and support workers’ plans in workplaces where their development seem appropriate and useful. … We also recognise that workers’ plans, by themselves, cannot constitute a general strategy for workplace struggles, and the form and content of counter planning will vary according to the needs of the situation”.

As mentioned above, the “defenders” current didn’t submit a general perspective document or motion in these years. In the Discussion Bulletin February 1981, one of the current’s supporters wrote about the 1980 Conference. He criticised both motions on the grounds they were vague, written in difficult language, and unclear what they meant in practical terms. This perspective was probably shared by others from this current.

The Reformism and Transitional Politics discussions led on to another one about the Labour Party (see a future episode in this series – see Episode 27).

Archive Archie

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

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

Posted by archivearchie on June 30, 2009

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

The history of Big Flame can be seen as an ongoing debate with members pulling in two directions – those striving to uphold Big Flame’s traditional political positions and those who felt these needed some form of revision. This is inevitably a simplification – sometimes there were more than two positions, the issues being debated often changed, and people moved in and out of the two camps – but it does help provide one key to understanding of the organisation’s development. There were no permanent names for the two groupings. In 1976 the labels Plans X and Y were used. Unlike 1975, the split was not a geographic one. For example, the three movers of the Plan X position came from West London, Liverpool and Leeds, whilst the three movers of Plan Y came from Liverpool, South London and Manchester.

The Project

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

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

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

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

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

Towards a New Revolutionary Socialist Organisation: front-pviii

Towards a New Revolutionary Socialist Organisation: p1-p10

Towards a New Revolutionary Socialist Organisation: p11-back

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

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

SULogoSocialist Unity

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

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

Big Flame and Socialist Unity (Internal Bulletin October 1977)

The Debate on Socialist Unity (Internal Bulletin October 1977)

Socialist Unity (Internal Bulletin December 1977)

Socialist Unity: A Critical Assessment (newspaper June 1979)

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

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

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

Archive Archie

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

Posted by archivearchie on May 19, 2009

WhatisMBF-p1

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

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

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

 What the Debate was about: views from the participants

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What the Debate was about: The documents

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

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

This document:

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

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

This document:

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

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

What Happened to East London Big Flame?

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

 Archive Archie

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