Big Flame

1970-1984

Posts Tagged ‘Big Flame’

POSITION ON INTERNATIONAL SOLIDARITY (Miscellaneous Big Flame Documents no 4)

Posted by archivearchie on June 24, 2010

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

This series aims to add to these documents by making available others I find interesting which didn’t fit with any of the post themes, were overlooked when the posts were written, or a copy was not available to me at the time of the post.

Elsewhere on this site I mentioned that at the 1981 BF conference its approach to international solidarity was extended to Ireland (see the post on Ireland). This post discusses that position, which was adopted at the previous year’s conference.

This is the motion passed in December 1980: International Solidarity Work. The main points are:

  • Support for all national liberation struggles which are anti-imperialist. This support not being conditional on them being struggles for socialism.
  • The right to criticise movements for not advancing the position of workers, women etc. Criticisms to be made within the context of solidarity and an understanding of the history and conditions of the movement.
  • Criticisms after a movement comes to power being made on the basis of a realistic assessment of the possibilities open to it.
  • In certain circumstances (not specified in the motion) not making criticisms or other facts public.

A document printed in pre-Conference bulletins help clarify the discussions within Big Flame:  Towards a New Approach to International Solidarity Work (1980 Conference Bulletin). This document:

  • Argues that the traditional left approach to solidarity glorifies movements before they come to power and totally denounces them afterwards.
  • Counterposes a moral or human rights approach to solidarity(appealing to people’s good nature) with a materialist one (which seeks to identify the interdependency of struggles i.e. how international struggles fit in with workers in Britain’s own struggles against capital).
  • Seeks a position between total subservience to the positions of the leaders of liberation movement to arrogantly lecturing them on the “correct line” with little knowledge of the struggle.

In many ways it is easier to establish general principle than to know how to apply them in specific situations. In a later post in this series I will return to these issues in the context of a discussion of a specific struggle.

Archive Archie

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FORD HALEWOOD LEAFLETS AND BULLETIN (Miscellaneous Big Flame Documents no 3)

Posted by archivearchie on May 31, 2010

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

This series aims to add to these documents by making available others I find interesting which didn’t fit with any of the post themes, were overlooked when the posts were written, or a copy was not available to me at the time of the post.

A wide variety of different sorts of documents have been published on this site. However up to now, there has been little in the way of Big Flame’s more agitational publications. This most aims to provide a few examples of leaflets and a Bulletin.

Over the years Merseyside Big Flame attempted to intervene at a considerable number of different industrial workplaces. However, the one which was the most long lasting and involved the most effort on the part of members was the Ford Halewood Assembly Plant. The documents in this post were handed out or sold outside the gates to Ford workers.

First, three examples of leaflets.

Halewood carries on the Fight  April 1971.

The nine week “parity strike” at Fords took place in January-March 1971. The objective was to bring the wages of Fords workers operating under a Measured Day Work system in line with Midlands car workers on piece rates. The eventual settlement was Initially oppose by workers at Halewood, whilst other plants accepted the offer. This leaflet was produced on the 7th April, the day mass meetings at Halewood decided to go back to work. It argues that the problem is not individual trade unions leader like Jack Jones and Hugh Scanlon who had called for an end to the strike. Rather the differences between rank and file power and trade union officials.

The Fifth Column at Fords November 1971.

The starting point of this leaflet was a dispute in the PTA (Paint, Trim and Assembly), one the two main parts of the Halewood site. It looks at the role of foremen in pushing through speed ups, and argues for collective mass action as the only way to oppose them.

An Open Letter by a Group of Ford Halewood Workers to their Sisters and Brothers September 1972.

The “parity strike” settlement was a two year deal which expired in March 1973. This leaflet reminds workers of developments in the plant since 1971, and sets out a list of demands for the new contract.

As well as the leaflets there was a Bulletin. Consisting of around 12 to 20 duplicate pages, it sold for 2p. There were 14 issues between 1974 and 1976.

Halewood Bulletin no 2 1974.

This is one of the earlier issues. It reflects the typical mix of articles about what is happening in Fords with events in the wider world (in this case the new Labour Government’s “Social Contract”).

For some context on how the perspective in the leaflet and bulletins fitted into Big Flame’s developing positions, see the post on Industry and Workplace.

Archive Archie

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LABOURING UNDER THE TORIES? (Miscellaneous Big Flame Documents no 2)

Posted by archivearchie on April 21, 2010

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

This series aims to add to these documents by making available others I find interesting which didn’t fit with any of the post themes, were overlooked when the posts were written, or a copy was not available to me at the time of the post.

The second document I want to discuss is: Labouring Under the Tories? This short pamphlet was written in the summer of 1979. I’m not sure of the exact date, but it is first mentioned in the September issue of the Big Flame newspaper. Thus it was produced only a few months after the Tories General Election victory in May of that year.

Given the publication date, it is surprising that the analysis of Thatcherism is not especially prescient (what became known as Thatcherism only emerged over a period of time). This is not to argue that the Tory polices described weren’t important features of Thatcherism – structural long-term unemployment, removal of trade union rights, cuts in public expenditure, the strong state, etc. Like rest of left Big Flame not appreciate immediately how fundamental a change had occurred. The pamphlet did acknowledge that election victory signified that the Tories had won working class support for their “vision of an individualistic, competitive society”. However, the new government is mainly seen as “consolidating” the previous Labour government’s adoption of similar polices at the behest of the IMF.

The pamphlet is less about the Tories, than the Labour Party and need to develop a socialist alternative. The problem is how to break out of the cycle of militancy, followed by reformist politics and back again. The key message is to avoid the mistake made under the previous Tory spell in government 1970-74, and for those struggling against the government to limit themselves to calls for the return of a Labour government, and to rely on Labour and the trade union left to lead the struggles. In this respect the position laid out in the pamphlet is very similar to the 1971 broadsheet featured in the previous post in this series: How To Fight Them (link to https://bigflameuk.wordpress.com/2010/03/24/how-to-fight-them/). The key task is to develop wider perspectives which link defensive struggles to a challenge to capitalist ideas and control.

I can’t recall much disagreement in Big Flame about the pamphlet. However, there were clearly some members who weren’t happy with the contents. One referred to it a few years later (1983) as “that terrible pamphlet” and dismissed “the battle of ideas, ideologies, alternative plans and similar wishful thinking” by counter posing them to “solid working class organising”. This suspicion of the pamphlet may in part be due to the fact that by then some main of the authors had departed BF for the Labour Party. Myself I can’t see that pamphlet says much which leads on to that decision. Entryism in the Labour Party is rejected as based on a “fundamental misconception about the relationship of the Labour Party and reformism, and to the working class”. It also argues that “slogans and demands” will not prove to people that socialism is the answer, and that alternative plans are not ”the solution” and can’t be “a substitute” for more familiar forms of struggle.

If I have a criticism of the pamphlet it is that it is very limited in developing the wider perspectives it said were needed. I don’t disagree with any of the things it supports: alternative plans, rank and file organisation, solutions based on the needs of all oppressed classes and groups, material internationalism, a strategy based on the active participation of the working class, and making the struggle for socialism “meaningful, worthwhile and enjoyable”. The problem is that it fails to go beyond this level of generality. However, to expect much more is probably unrealistic from something brought out very quickly to promote a position as soon as possible after the election. Further, everyone else on the left, at the time and since, equally failed to develop much in the way of perspectives which would make socialism meaningful and popular.

If the coming election works out as predicted in the opinion polls, socialists will face a situation in some ways similar to that of 1970 and 1979. However, there is little need to warn anyone about the need to avoid having illusions in the Labour Party.

Click here to read: Labouring Under the Tories?.

Archive Archie

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HOW TO FIGHT THEM (Miscellaneous Big Flame Documents no 1)

Posted by archivearchie on March 24, 2010

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

The first document is “How To Fight Them” from early 1971. It took the form of a two sided broadsheet, slightly larger than A2.

It was published between the demise of first Merseyside newspaper called Big Flame (produced by a coalition of those on the left) in October 1970 and the relaunch of the new Big Flame (produced by a new group of the same name) in June 1972. See the post on The Beginning in the “Episodes in Big Flame History” series.

The first side of the broadsheet “How To Fight Them” focuses on how to fight bosses in the workplace. The second “How Not To Fight Them” looks at the Government’s Industrial Relations Bill and the response of the trade unions and the Labour party.

There is no date given in the broadsheet, but it contains lots of clues. The Industrial Relations Bill, was first presented to Parliament on the 1st December 1970, with the Act becoming operative on the 5th August 1971. There is a mention of it being “5 months” since the Bill came out, suggesting the broadsheet was produced in April 1971. This date fits well with the mentions of the power and postal worker strikes as recent defeats (they happened between Dec 1970 and Feb 1971).

What makes “How to Fight Them” particularly interesting is that it is the clearest statement of Big Flame’s general perspectives before the publication in 1977 of the Draft Manifesto for a proposed new organisation Towards a New Revolutionary Socialist Organisation. See the post on The Project and Socialist Unity.

The broadsheet contains many of the themes which would come to characterise BF:

–                An emphasis on workers’ self organisation.

–                The advocacy of forms of industrial action which raise issues of control.

–                An understanding of trade union leaders which seems the problem as one of the system rather than with individuals.

–                A suspicion of left groups which proclaim themselves the leadership of the working class.

There are other aspects of the politics of the broadsheet where BF changed over the years:

–                The focus is almost entirely on workplace struggles with only a couple of passing references to struggles in the community, and no mention of women.

–                The perspective for what is happening in the workplace seems the world almost exclusively in terms of mass assembly production lines.

–                Whilst the need to involve rank and file militants is stressed there are no criticisms of shop stewards. Soon after the broadsheet was published Big Flame  adopted a critical line on shop stewards, strongly influenced by events at Ford Halewood. Later on, this position was also modified. See the post on Industry and Workplace.

–                The desirability of a “revolutionary movement” is mentioned, although there is little clue of what this might entail apart from possibly a coming together of “Councils of Action”. The form of organisation required by the working class to achieve a transition to socialism was the subject of further debate in BF over they years. See the post on Party and Class.

Because of the size of the broadsheet it was not possible to do a normal scan of it. So I’ve cut and pasted the text into an A4 document, keeping the original graphics. Click here to read: How To Fight Them.

Archive Archie

Update (31/8/2010): A new version of the attached document How to Fight Them has been uploaded which corrects the small gaps of missing text in the previous version.

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OPINIONS ABOUT BIG FLAME no 5: KEVIN McDONNELL

Posted by archivearchie on January 18, 2010

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

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

Kevin McDonnell writes:

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

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

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

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

 

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

Kevin McDonnell

 Introduction

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

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

The main issues I want to address are:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Total Numbers

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

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

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

Location

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

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

Women

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

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

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

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

Class

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

Political background

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by archivearchie on January 4, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

Archive Archie

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

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EPISODES IN BIG FLAME HISTORY: No 28. The Local State

Posted by archivearchie on December 28, 2009

Over the years Big Flame members were involved in many struggles  for better local government services, or to defend those already provided from cuts in expenditure. A major influence in the late 70s/80s on the left’s perspective on local government and community struggles came from some books published around that time (see 1960s And 70s British Left Libertarianism: A Reading List) for some of the most significant).

In and Against the State

Cynthia Cockburn’s The Local State: Management of Cities and People published by Pluto in 1977 was one of the first to appear. However, probably the most influential was In and Against the State by the London Edinburgh Weekend Return Group. This was self published in 1979, then reissued by Pluto Press the next year. The name is derived from the fact that most of the authors lived in London or Edinburgh, and travelled by rail to one or the other of these cities to work on the publication. Many Left discussions of the state, both at the time and since, make references to the book. However, I sometimes wonder if the commentators have read further than the title. The book is presented as if it was a call to get involved with the state, including standing for elections. Rather the book is about the difficulties of struggling on the terrain of something whose every aspect reflects capitalist social relations. It does recognise that for some on the left this is their form of employment (indeed most of the authors were academics), so they need to find some way of challenging those social relations.

Two reviews from within Big Flame did recognise what the book was actually about. The newspaper for February 1980 included a review of In and Against the State: Working for the State . Describing the book as “well worth a read”, the review focuses on its analysis of the way the state perpetuates capitalist social relations between people and how difficult it is to organise within it. The book also provides “good and useful examples” of struggles which show what socialist forms of organising might be.

The journal Revolutionary Socialism also reviewed the book (along with two other publications) in as “Struggling Against the State: Three New Contributions” in its Winter 1980-81 issue. The book is said to provide a “valuable understanding” of the nature of the capitalist state and recent developments in Britain. This review also highlights the book’s focus of the way the state reproduces social relations. As important as what the state does (for example delivering welfare services) is how it does it (confirming the regulation and control over people’s lives). Like the other review, this one notes the books emphasis on struggles which embody prefigurative politics.

Big Flame Discussions of the Local State

The Local State and the Public Sector: Discussion Bulletin April 1981. This article is a briefing on developments in local government. It looks back on five years of cuts to capital expenditure and in Rate Support Grant settlements, and forward to planned Tory legislation which will cap the budgets of individual authorities. It mentions many anti-cuts struggles that were underway at the time, and it sceptical of those campaigns led by Councils. They are seen as having undermined their position with previous rate rises and unlikely at the end of the day to defy the government. The task is to “rescue the kernel of communism that lies within the concept of services and public works run for use rather than profit”. There is a fleeting reference to In and Against the State, seeing as having a major weakness in its neglect of working inside trade unions.

In 1981 a minority of Big Flame left the organisation and joined the Labour Party (see Episode 27). This included many of those BF members who saw the greatest potential in intervening in the local state. One those who left, a supporter of the “Group of Nine” wrote in the Discussion Bulletin in October 1981: “The political approach I am trying to describe means that socialist organising has to ‘in and against the state’.” This was a passing remark. The author didn’t go into any detail of how the “socialist reforms” he desired might be achieved, or the dangers inherent in following this path.

Over the next few years those who remained BF members wrote a number of articles very sceptical of initiatives originating from left Labour Councils.

Working in the Welfare State: Discussion Bulletin June-July 1982. Written from the perspective of someone working in the Housing Department for Hackney Council in London. At the time the newly elected left Labour Council was seeking to decentralised services. The author believes that management hierarchy stifles the energy and enthusiasm of staff, and that Labour Councils carry out cuts in a “more insidious and subtle manner” than the Tories. He believes that the focus on decentralisation was “a way of avoiding problems”, but also suggests that the trade union response of seeing it as an opportunity for more jobs and better grading wasn’t adequate either. The author wonders about the way to applying BF’s politics of “autonomy”, and suggests a demand for a reduction in the number and tiers of management.

Hackney Goes local … Or Decentralisation for Beginners: Discussion Bulletin January 1983. This consists of notes of a discussion between BF members about the Hackney experience. The Council see decentralisation as something to win support against cuts. Instead it is more likely to produce frustration. People are likely to be co-opted and the power of trade unions fragmented. If BF is to get involved it has to be “in a way that encourages joint action to go further than the LP would like” and raise real issues of control over power and resources.

Decentralisation: Labour’s Conjuring Trick: Paper April-May 1983. This author who lived in Haringey discusses developments across London. She believes that they key issue is whether decentralisation “will increase local awareness or involvement, or just co-opt activists”. It was not being introduced because people had asked for it, and the money might be better spent elsewhere.

The Local State: Information Bulletin 1 August 1983. The final article discussed was written by a community activist in Southwark in South London where the new left has also taken over the Council. A year on and there has been “little change” as major problems have not been “solved”. The new left lacks “any understanding of the fact for most people their experience of the so-called services provided are extremely alienating and oppressive” or “any real relationship” with progressive movements. The writer does accept that an alliance with the Labour left is “necessary” but this has to be one in which Big Flame fights for the right of people to organise autonomously.

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 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 26. Iran and Afghanistan

Posted by archivearchie on December 17, 2009

A major issue for the left today is its response to radical Islam. Therefore, I thought it might be interesting to take a look at the approach Big Flame took to developments during its time. I have been able to find articles in the Big Flame newspaper which discussed events in Iran and Afghanistan, although many of the articles where written by one person and there were no articles in Revolutionary Socialism or the Discussion Bulletin.

Its worth recapping what happened in the two countries during the period of BF’s life.

Iran: The Iranian Revolution began in January 1978, leading to the Shah’s flight in January 1979. Khomeini returned to Iran from exile in February. Banisadr was President from January 1980 until impeached in June 1981. Iraq had invaded Iran in September 1980, leading to a war which continued for eight years. From early on the repression of the Mojahedin and leftist groups began, with many killed or arrested. In June 1981 the Mojahedin went underground to engage in a military struggle.

Afghanistan: In May 1978 the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) overthrew the regime of Mohammad Daoud. The Soviet Union intervened militarily in Afghanistan in December 1979 to support one of the PDPA factions – Parcham. A war between Soviet and government troops and the CIA-funded Mujahideen continued throughout the 1980s.

Iran

Iran 1979: Can Popular Power win?: Paper February 1979. Written just after the departure of the Shah. Sees both progressive and reactionary elements amongst the forces opposed to the Shah. The left is trying to develop workers’ councils, but is “very weak” and “can only play a marginal role at present”. It is already being physically attacked by religious militants.

Khomeiny’s two front war: Paper December 1979. The Khomeini regime “does not know what it is doing” and the country is in a “state of semi anarchy”. There has been a massacre of Kurds and leftists are under threat of execution.

Iran: the Reality is much more Complex: Paper May 1980. Argues that there is a need to look beyond the general picture of reaction. There is a remarkable level of politicisation amongst ordinary people. There are anti-government protests, with more opportunities for the opposition than under the Shah. The potential for a new wave of repression is “very real”.

Gulf War: Paper October 1980. Written immediately after the Iraqi invasion. Saddam Hussein’s regime is “power hungry” with ambitions to dominate the region.

Clerical Fascism: Paper July-August 1981. A struggle to succeed Khomeini is predicated. Following the ousting of Banisadr, a crackdown on the left has begun. A “new fascism” of the Ismalic Guards has come to the fore, and Islamic laws introduced.

Iran: what to make of the Mojahedin?: Paper April-May 1983. The Mojahedin is the largest organisation fighting Khomeini in Iran. Its positions are examined. It is found to present a socialist face in the west, and a different one when recruiting in Iran. The Mojahedin has formed the National Council of Resistance with Banisadr, which has a very moderate programme. One of the main criticisms the author makes of the Mojahedin is its view of women “trapped very much within reactionary Islamic anti-feminist dogma”.

Some other left groups in Britain took a totally uncritical view of the Iranian revolution, before shifting to a totally negative position. Big Flame tired to analyse the contradictions and struggles which were underway.

Afghanistan

Soviet Troops out of Afghanistan!: Paper March 1980. A statement agreed by the Big Flame National Committee condemned the “Soviet invasion” and called for the withdrawal of its troops. It sated “we do not believe socialism can be imposed by force, from above”. The army had not been sent to Afghanistan to benefit the people of the country, or to defend a popular progressive movement, but to protect the Soviet Union’s regional interests. The statement did acknowledge that a defeat for the troops would be “a victory for western imperialism”.

Big Flame as either a paper or an organisation was not around in 1988-89 to see the withdrawal of Soviet troops, or to comment on what happened after that.

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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