Big Flame

1970-1984

Posts Tagged ‘Community Struggles’

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 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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OPINIONS ABOUT BIG FLAME no 2: PAUL THOMPSON

Posted by archivearchie on July 17, 2009

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

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

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

Socialist Register draft article

BIG FLAME: HISTORY AND POLITICS

1. THE EMERGENCE OF A NEW POLITICS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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1960s AND 70s BRITISH LEFT LIBERTARIANISM: A READING LIST

Posted by archivearchie on June 4, 2009

This post arises out of a comment by Nate on “Who We Were” (the post rather than the page version). He asked: “is there anything written about the context that Big Flame comes out of, the time period in the UK in general and the left in particular.” My initial was there isn’t any book that covers this. On further reflection, I realise there are very many books that could be mentioned. Just that each touches on a single aspect of the context

 
Housing Struggles at Villa Road, Lambeth

Housing Struggles at Villa Road, Lambeth

The Libertarian Left

Today the term “libertarianism” has been appropriated by the right or, if not them, the Frank Furedi current (LM / Spiked). There are contemporary successors of the movement I want to talk to talk about – libertarianism of the 1960s and 1970s – in the green and peace movements and elsewhere. However, these don’t seem to adopt the term “libertarianism”.

The milieu of 1960s and 70s libertarianism is a complex one. It bears the imprint of the events of 1968, particularly in France. I want to distinguish between libertarian Marxism and anarchism. This is just one of a number of blurred boundaries of libertarianism. Another similar boundary merges into the Underground. Yet another situationism. A few of those involved in the milieu were members of organised political groups – Solidarity and some small Council Communist groups. The vast majority were not. Libertarians were involved in the following areas of activity:

(a)   community struggles,

(b)   squatting,

(c)   claimants unions,

(d)   local community newspapers,

(e)   arts groups,

(f)     lifestyle politics

 Housing Struggles at Villa Road, Lambeth

I am not saying that all these movements were entirely composed of libertarian Marxists. There were clearly others involved – anarchists, members of Trotskyist groups, the Communist Party, etc. But I don’t believe that in the 1960s and 1970s at the core of many of these struggles/initiatives you would have found libertarians.

From out of the strands, some of the members of Big Flame emerged (not all – some were previously members of Trotskyist, Maoist and anarchist groups). As did, but going in an entirely different direction, those who formed the Angry Brigade.

Books

Below is an initial list of some relevant reading. It reflects things I’ve bought and read, and the fact that I‘m much less in touch with what has been published in the last 20 years. I certainly wouldn’t claim that it covers all the significant movements of the period. The absence of references on/from the women’s and black movements are only the most obvious examples. Where I know a member/s of Big Flame were involved in the struggles/initiatives I will mention this.

On Britain in general

CSE State Group Struggles over the State: Cuts and Restructuring in Contemporary Britain (CSE Books, 1979).

–   Takes a broader approach that most of the other left literature on the crisis from the 1970s e.g. chapters on education, housing, health, etc. The conclusions are somewhat vague reflecting political differences within the editorial group.

There is a voluminous literature on the political and social history of the 1960s, with a slower flow, mostly journalistic, on the 1970s. In the last few months, there have been two additions – Andy Beckett When the Lights Went Out: Britain in the Seventies and Alwyn W. Turner Crisis What Crisis? Britain in the 1970s. I have read either, so I can’t make a recommendation.

On the British left

David Widgery The Left in Britain 1956-68 (Penguin, 1976).

–   Despite a major over-representation of material from Widgery’s own group International Socialists (who became the Socialist Workers Party), the chapters on Student Politics and 1968 reveal the chaotic diversity of the left at the time. The book is also very funny.

Peter Shipley Revolutionaries in Modern Britain (Bodley head, 1976).

–   Written by someone unsympathetic to the left and in many ways flawed. Still the only book I know which seeks to cover the full diversity of the left. There are better books if you focus on specific tendencies e.g. John Callaghan British Trotskyism: Theory and Practice (Basil Blackwell, 1984). 

Squatters from Huntley Street, Bloomsbury Squatters from Huntley Street, Bloomsbury

  

On community struggles

Lynne Segal “A Local Experience” in Sheila Rowbotham, Lynne Segal and Hilary Wainwright Beyond the Fragments (Merlin, 1979).

–   Discusses rather briefly initiatives in Islington, north London including a Women’s Centre and a local newspaper. Some of those involved were later members of North London BF. Some of the same ground is covered in the section “Life as Politics” in her book Making Trouble (Serpent’s Tail, 2007). See also Chris Whitbread (below).

Cynthia Cockburn The Local State: Management of Cities and People (Pluto, 1977).

Despite the then fashionable Althusserian theoretical framework, contains interesting information on struggles in Lambeth, south London. Members of South London BF were involved.

Jan O’Malley The Politics of Community Action (Spokesman Books, 1977).

–   An account of struggles in Notting Hill, west London, mostly around housing. Someone who was later in West London BF is thanked in the Introduction as involved in the activities described.

Nick Wates The Battle for Tolmers Square (Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1976).

–   A very detailed account of struggles against property speculators in Somers Town, north London.

Helene Curtis & Mimi Sanderson The Unsung Sixties : Memories of Social intervention (Whiting and Birch, 2004)

–   Interview accounts of a large number of projects which as Sheila Rowbotham says in her Introduction opened up a precious political space. As well as those mentioned below the sections include ones on Release, a Law Centre, Women’s Aid and a Disability Income Group. Squatting2

On squatting

 
Nick Wates and Christian Wolmar Squatting: The Real Story (Bay Leaf Books, 1980)

 

–   A wonderfully illustrated and detailed account of the whole movement.

Jim Radford “The point of a battle is to win it” in Helene Curtis & Mimi Sanderson The Unsung Sixties : Memories of Social intervention.

–    On the Family Squatting campaign. 

On Claimants Unions

 Bill Jordan “Collective Action and Everyday Resistance” in Rile van Berkel et al (ed) Beyond Marginality: Movements of Social Security Claimants in the European Union (Ashgate, 1998)

–   Draws a lot on the authors involvement in the Newton Abbott Claimants Union in the early 1970s.

Joe Kenyon “I was in the natural way of trying to put something right that was wrong, see” in Helene Curtis & Mimi Sanderson The Unsung Sixties : Memories of Social intervention.

–    On the Union in Barnsley and beyond.

On local community newspapers

Chris Whitbread “Islington” Revolutionary Socialism no4 Winter 1979-80

–   The main focus of the article is Islington Gutter Press, but Community Press, a print workshop, and Islington Socialist Centre are also mentioned.

I am not aware of anything written about local community newspapers. Therefore these books on the national Underground press must suffice. Nigel Fountain Underground: The London Alternative Press 1966-74 (Pluto, 1988) provides accounts of all the main national Underground publications. Jonathon Green’s two book (one a set of interviews, the other his own discussion) Days in the Life: Voices from the English Underground (2nd ed Pimlico, 1998) and All Dressed Up: the Sixties and Counter Culture (Pimlico, 1999) covers publications like Friends and Ink.

Many BF (future or then current) members worked on local community papers. As well as Islington Gutter Press, they include Manchester 11Ned Gate/Nell Gate and Bush News. The first series Big Flame newspaper in Liverpool can be regarded as a local community paper.

The Underground and Alternative Press in Britain from Harvester Press (already mention in Episode 1 of the Big Flame History series as a place to find the newspaper of that name) has a lot of the source material on microfilm or microfiche. Not just Friends, Ink and IT but local publications like Manchester Free Press, Mole Express, Leeds Other Paper, Hackney People’s Press and Nottingham Voice.

On arts groups

It is no doubt perverse to mention articles from an obscure and probably impossible to find source. However, the left cultural magazine Wedge included some extremely interesting articles in its short life of only three issues. The editorial collective was mostly independents, but included 2 members of IMG and 2 from BF (although members at different times). A few of the articles were:

Anon “Grant Aid and Political Theatre 1968-77 Part 1 Wedge no1 Summer 1977 and Part 2 Wedge no 2 Spring 1978.

–   About a lot more than just Grant Aid. Includes the author’s views on the differences between reformist and revolutionary theatre.

Newsreel Collective “Newsreel Collective: Five years On” Wedge no3 Winter 1978.

–   Written by the Agit prop documentary film group. Early version of the collective included 2 members of BF. Within a few years, one left BF and the other Newsreel.

Jane Clarke & Rosie Elliot “The Other Cinema: Screen Memory” Wedge no 2 Spring 1978.

–   Written after the collapse of the film distribution and exhibition collective, the article aims to learn from the experience.

On lifestyle politics

“Revolutionary Household Rotas” in Lynne Segal Making Trouble (Serpent’s Tail, 2007).

–   Discusses collective living arrangements.

Andrew Rigby Alternative Realities: A Study of Communes and their Members (Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1974)

–   A sociological study which brings out the political and religious diversity of communes (e.g. one consisting of Young Liberals). Another book by the same author Communes in Britain consists of more detailed case studies.

In addition there is a enormous literature from the women’s (and men’s) movement on relationships.

The above list is bound to leave out a lot of important books. Please tell what I should have included.

Some questions

If anyone were to sit down and read through this (or a similar) list, what would be the benefit? Well they might be better equipped to start to try to answer the following questions, which I think would improve our understanding of the impact of left libertarianism in 1960s and 1970s Britain:

(i)            Do the various strands I have mentioned have sufficient in common to bear description as a milieu, or going even further a movement? Or should I have adopted a narrower interpretation of the libertarian left?

(ii)          If there is something in common, what were the core ideas which many of the people involved?

(iii)         Am I right in thinking that the influence of libertarianism declined as the 1970s moved into the 1980s?

(iv)        If it did, what were the reasons – the impact of the national Thatcher government? the revival of the traditional left?

Archive Archie

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

Posted by archivearchie on May 12, 2009

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

 Tower Hill

Tower March

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

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

Tower-p1

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

  

  

 

 

 

 

Walking a Tightrope

Tightrope-p1

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

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

Walking a Tightrope: front-p11 

Walking a Tightrope: p12-p25

Walking a Tightrope: p26-back

Women’s Struggle Notes

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

Some Internal Debates

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Archive Archie

Notes:

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

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

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