Big Flame

1970-1984

Posts Tagged ‘International Solidarity’

POSITION ON INTERNATIONAL SOLIDARITY PART 2: SOUTHERN AFRICA (Miscellaneous Big Flame Documents no 10)

Posted by archivearchie on January 31, 2011

This post is the tenth in an occasional series. This site already contains a large number of documents produced by Big Flame or its members. Most can be found in the 30 posts in Episodes in Big Flame History series. Each post contains links to documents which relate to its theme. Links to the same documents are also listed on the website’s Publications 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.

Earlier in this series I published some documents reflecting Big Flame’s approach to International Solidarity.

Over on the Commune website there is a discussion following a report in issue 18 of its paper on a forum about BF. One of the contributors responded to someone saying that BF’s position on anti-imperialism being superior to that of “libertarians” with: “I think that BF’s relatively uncritical attitude to certain concrete national liberation movements looks very problematic in hindsight”. Of course the position set out in the previous post is inevitably very abstract. It can only be judged properly by seeing how it was applied. Was Big Flame able to raise substantive criticisms of liberation movements from within a position of overall solidarity? I’ve gone back and looked at some of the newspaper articles which reflected a key priority area for BF international solidarity in the 1980s – Southern Africa. These contain criticisms of national liberation movements, within a context of support for independence.

An article How shall we fight the oppressor? The British Left and the Anti-Apartheid Movement from the April 1982 newspaper takes issue which the RCG (Revolutionary Communist Group)’s position of unquestioning support. It gives as an example trade union solidarity. The ANC was insisting that its component part SACTU (South African Congress of Trade Unions) could be the only vehicle for solidarity. This would mean cutting yourself off from the independent trade union movement FOSATU (Federation of South African Trade Unions) which was more active in struggles within the country.

Another article “Workers Power” in a Southern Africa Special Supplement to the February 1986 paper (produced by the handful of people who carried on as BF after the organisation’s effective demise in 1985) discusses how the ANC in ignoring independent trade unions was effectively leaving the question of workers’ rights until after the revolution. Documents like the “Freedom Charter” are said to provide little information about forms of workers’ control in the new South Africa. Raising questions about whether the ANC would confront capital or whether there would be the rise of a new bourgeoisie aligned with internal capital.

Turning to Zimbabwe, an article Women in Zimbabwe from the October 1982 paper describes how most women were being denied a right to land under the resettlement programme, striking teachers and health workers were being labelled “criminals” and the co-ops which had been established were being assessed in terms of profits rather than politics.

A few months later in Zimbabwe: ZANU Turns Sour in the April-May 1983 paper discusses how a wave of strikes had been put down by the army (with a representative of the Zimbabwean Congress of Trade Unions expressing opposition to the right to strike), in Matabeleland how the army was not only fighting dissidents from its armed wing but terrorising their potential supporters in the local population. ZANU is seen as having made massive compromises with international capital. The writer argues that this is not surprising as it was by no means certain that national liberation would immediately provoke a struggle for socialism.

These articles show that Big Flame did express criticisms of national liberation movements at a time when much of the left was silent. Apart from groups like the RCP (Revolutionary Communist Party) which were judging them against an impossiblist pure standard. No doubt other examples could be cited were BF was slow in making criticisms (and perhaps even others where it went too far). However, what I think this shows is that it was possible to reflect in practice the position on international solidarity set out in the previous post.

Archive Archie

Advertisements

Posted in Miscellaneous Big Flame Documents | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

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

Posted in Miscellaneous Big Flame Documents | Tagged: , | 3 Comments »

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.

Posted in Big Flame History | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

OPINIONS ABOUT BIG FLAME no 3 part 2: JOHN WALLER

Posted by archivearchie on December 14, 2009

This is a follow up to an earlier post: Opinions about Big Flame no 3: John Waller.

John Waller was an active member of Big Flame in Nottingham and nationally from 1977 to 1981. When Big Flame started to disintegrate in 1982 he drifted away from the organization to be involved in community politics and then solidarity with the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. Since the early 90s his political practice has been dominated by solidarity work with the Cuban revolution. For many years this was as a part of the national leadership of the British Cuba Solidarity Campaign. This politically led him to the heartland of the empire and he now pursues the same ends from his US home.

John writes:

What does Big Flame’s theory and practice have to offer the future?

Three months ago I wrote a short opinion piece for this website to stimulate debate about what of Big Flame’s theory and practice was still relevant and important today. The response was unfortunately minimal. SO I’ve tried to take the issue one step further by enlarging on what I wrote and drawing my own conclusions. The expanded piece appears below. One person cannot possibly do justice to this topic. What I offer below is I hope the beginning of a conversation with more ex-members of Big Flame.

Introduction

Big Flame (BF) completely failed to achieve its goal of socialist revolution in England/Britain. The entire revolutionary left in the advanced capitalist world failed (and is failing) equally. Nowhere has there been anything approaching a rerun of Russia’s October 1917 revolution to validate the wider applicability of the Leninist model of revolution. Revolutions that were a mix of socialism and national liberation did occur in a number of economically poor countries but their primary route was via prolonged (more or less) guerrilla struggle. Of these successful overthrows of capitalist state power only Cuba continues to espouse a socialist project. Meanwhile advances in military technology and communication, and in the power of the modern state, combined with the loss of the military and financial support that once the Soviet Union, or sometimes China, provided, make the guerrilla road to revolution increasingly unlikely.   

Soviet style communism, or state collectivism as Big Flame had started to call it, has gone – replaced in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe by outright and often brutal capitalism, and in Asia by Chinese style capitalism under Communist Party leadership.  Meanwhile the goal of socialism via gradual reform has, in the last 30 years, virtually disappeared from the discourse of the main social democratic parties in most of the world. At best they aim for a kinder caring capitalism, at worst they have become barely indistinguishable from the right in competing to manage the capitalist economy and the, usually declining, public services.

Yet ‘history has not ended’ in a bright shining capitalist future.  We see the economic turmoil of the last year, global warming and rampant environmental degradation, the Middle East turned into a zone of war and occupation, while the gap between rich and poor grows inexorably wider both between and within countries.  We are living under a world order that is economically and environmentally unsustainable.

“A better world is possible” says a new generation of activists, but so is a worse one, and the Bush regime was the harbinger of what that world would look like. For the peoples of Iraq and Afghanistan they already know what the new world order could mean, and a year into the Obama administration, the language is softer than Bush, the politics smarter, but the policies have barely changed.  For now, in the advanced centres of capitalism, life is still pretty comfortable for many, but the slow dismantling of the post second world war welfare state is underway and in Britain and some other countries the developing space for working class revolt is being occupied by fascist or neo-fascist parties.

The only continent that has partially bucked the trend is Latin America.  Back in 1981 the continent was dominated by military dictatorships. They were replaced by right wing civilian governments implementing neo-liberal economic policies devised in Washington. The repression and impoverishment lead to the growth of powerful urban and rural social movements, based largely in the community rather than the workplace. These movements were/are inspired by socialist ideas in the broadest sense, and also by the continuing example of the Cuban revolution. Across much of Latin America the neo-liberal regimes have been brought down by mass struggle and/or voted out. Their replacement has been by what some commentators call a ‘pink tide’ – governments that domestically are socially reforming, and externally espouse a mix of progressive nationalism and Latin American unity against the empire to the north. The nature of the tide varies from country to country, but at its most radical end we have Venezuela and Hugo Chavez’ Bolivarian Revolution committed to trying to build a vaguely defined but definitely highly participatory ‘socialism for the 21st century’. 

Thirty years ago I contributed to an internal BF document called ‘Facing the Challenge of the Eighties’. Thirty years on, does BF politics (theory and practice) have anything to offer to the revolutionaries who are facing the challenges that the next decade will bring, wherever they are in the world. I believe it does, and this is my attempt at summarising what was, and is, worth taking from our past. It focuses therefore on the most positive elements of our history, though in the context of some assessment of the failings.

Historical Truth .v. Current Analysis

Perhaps the starting point is that unlike most of the left we didn’t seek to locate ourselves in a historical tradition – Leninist, Trotskyist, anarchist, Maoist etc. Rather we said that Marxism had to be updated to the world as it is now, and that any lessons about revolutionary strategy handed down from past ‘masters’ had to be resituated in the new context to see whether they still made sense.

Specifically we said that since Lenin’s day capital, the working class, and the relationship between them had changed dramatically. The working class was no longer dominated by skilled white heterosexual males in blue collar jobs. The new working class was skilled and unskilled, blue collar and white collar, male and female, white and black, gay and straight. And increasingly it was/is an international working class, spawned by capitalist production processes that span the globe. Capital also had moved on, not just in its global reach but in the way it structured society. Workers were now also consumers and their behaviour in both roles needed to be as compliant as possible, which meant that capital had to invade our lives not just in the factory or office, but in our schools, communities, homes and families.  Capital had also learnt the value of the State to both prepare the workforce, through healthcare and education, and to control it through laws and if necessary repression. Workers had also learnt the value of the welfare state as a way of getting their needs met, and public services and personal life had become a terrain of material and ideological struggle.

Drawing from the theoretical work of groups in Italy, we asserted that class struggle was the motor force of history and that within everyday struggles, in the workplace, community and personal life, could be found the ‘seeds of communism’ which it was the responsibility of an interventionist revolutionary organisation to draw out and generalize. This ran counter to the classic Leninist notion that particular struggles were solely economic or sectional and that revolutionary/communist demands had to be brought in from the outside. From this basis we followed the then new Italian Marxist thinking into asserting that what was needed was for the working class to struggle for demands that asserted its needs autonomous from capital – Workers Autonomy.

In applying this analysis in practice we made mistakes. We took what was happening in one sector of capitalism that we understood well, the mass production assembly line, and sought to apply that understanding universally. The more general concept of Workers Autonomy became partially conflated with a much narrower notion of the rejection of work, which was how production line workers were expressing their autonomy. We also drastically overestimated the potential for drawing out these seeds of communism, because daily life contains many seeds: reactionary, reformist etc. that except in time of struggle are far more likely to bloom than revolutionary ideas.

The point here is not to regurgitate our analysis of 30-40 years ago, but rather to reaffirm a Marxist tradition that sees the need for continually updating its understanding of capital and class, and that reaffirms the centrality of class struggle in societal change. When Thatcher took the decision in the mid-80s to decimate the coal mining industry it was a decision that from a narrow economic perspective made no short or long term sense for British capitalism. But from a political perspective she saw clearly that destroying the most combative section of the working class would clear a key road block in her plans to restructure the British economy and society.

Class .v. Movement

We also used the word Autonomy in a different context. We fully supported the development of autonomous movements of oppressed groups – women, black people, gays and lesbians. We asserted that the divisions in the working class between men/women, white/black, gay/straight were not just ideological and based on false consciousness. They were/are also rooted in real material and power differences between the groups – differences generated and used by capital to divide and rule. To understand and to overcome these differences requires that the oppressed groups organise autonomously and will inevitably generate some conflict with their immediate oppressor. We were unequivocally on the side of the oppressed, but not to see the oppressor as the enemy. Rather our goal was to help develop the power of the oppressed group and change the behaviour of the oppressing group so that both could reunite against the capitalist class on a basis of true equality. Whether in the Tower Hill rent strike or working with miner’s wives, our intervention was to build women’s power and the overall struggle. We sought demands that strengthened both the position of the oppressed group and that of the class as a whole, and we believed that this required some level of autonomous organisation by those groups, without rejecting the need for a higher level of unified organisation.

The complex interplay between capitalism, imperialism, racism and patriarchy and how to move forward can only be worked through in concrete situations in time and place, but such issues were and are increasingly central to the struggle for socialism. In Latin America the Cuban revolution has continually grappled with these dynamics, with great advances and major mistakes, while in Bolivia and Ecuador now the race question is central to the mass struggles in those societies for social advance. In reassessing BF’s legacy on this question, we undoubtedly struggled to apply theory to concrete reality. We also tended to act as unconditional cheerleaders for autonomous group organising without engaging in a critical debate from which both sides might have learnt lessons.  But we were way ahead of the revolutionary left pack in understanding and supporting the political/organisational need for autonomy.

Our thinking on autonomy and about party and class caused us to develop the notion of parallel organisations – that the party was necessary, but so were the mass organisations and the autonomous groups. The different organisations had different roles to play, which brings me to the role of the revolutionary party.

Party .v. Class

BF as a national grouping affirmed the key need for an organisation of activists with centralized perspectives that would intervene in the class struggle. That we took from Lenin, but overall our aim was not to be for or against Lenin’s legacy but rather to interpret it critically and resituate what we felt was good into the modern world. Most crucially we disagreed with the theory of consciousness that underlay Lenin’s views on the role of the revolutionary party.

For Lenin revolutionary socialist consciousness had to be brought to workers from outside, by party cadre. BF reinterpreted this to argue that revolutionary consciousness could not be developed from within one particular sectional struggle but rather the role of BF members should be inside all these sectional struggles, whether they be autonomous organisations, workplaces, or single issue campaigns, and whether they be domestic or international. We believed we had to earn respect, listen and learn, and from that learning seek to develop a broader overview and general strategies and demands. From this generalized view BF members could feed back into the sectional struggles. BF members aimed to give a lead politically, rather than the common left practice of taking administrative/bureaucratic control of such organisations, or of building their own front organisations. This also differed from the common Trotskyist understanding of the role of the party, which tended to see all the crucial questions of revolutionary strategy as already answered by Marx, Lenin and Trotsky and the party needed to serve as the transmission belt for these lessons from history.

Our practice fell well short of our desires. Part of the membership never really acted as if they were in a national organisation with centralized perspectives, and we paid too little attention to developing theory and got too wrapped up in day to day activism. Getting the balance right between building the struggle and building the organisation often eluded us (usually at the expense of building the organisation) but we rejected any notion that building the party was more important and potentially counter posed to building the struggle.

Further we said that we were not The Revolutionary Party. We argued that a true revolutionary party could not be announced or bureaucratically brought into being. Rather that it had to be built within the processes of class struggle and we were just a stepping stone towards that party. Nor did we ever think that we would linearly grow into that party, arguing instead that it could only fully come about at a higher level of struggle and through a long process of fusions and realignments as well as splits from within the dominant reformist party i.e. the Labour Party. Indeed we did not necessarily assume that at the point of taking state power there would be just one revolutionary party.

Democracy .v. Centralism

Our view of the party underlay BF’s non-sectarian unity in action practice. We never believed that we had all the answers, just some of them. We were open to debating with and learning from other groups and traditions, and most crucially we were open to learning from the class and its current struggles. It also underlay our internal practices. We tried, although often far from successfully, to have coordinated action throughout the organisation based on centralised agreement, but we fiercely valued our ability to debate and disagree internally in a comradely way and to share our differences in public. We were for a democratic and effective interventionist organisation but not for Democratic Centralism as it had come to be defined.  We experimented with differing national structures, none of which seemed to work satisfactorily, but perhaps the greatest guarantee of our internal democracy was the relatively high level of comradeship, mutual respect and awareness of gender, race and sexuality issues within the organisation. In the end we were better at being democratic than being effective.

Personal .v. Political

We asserted that the personal is political and that our relations within the organisation had to prefigure the kind of society we were trying to build – anti-racist/sexist/heterosexist etc. That the political was personal flowed from our broader analysis of how modern capitalism penetrated every aspect of our lives, how it created divisions within the class, and how daily life was a terrain of struggle. But turning the phrase round to say that the personal is political, while correct, had a danger. In practice it tended to drift into the dead end of lifestyle politics – namely that the way we, a bunch of largely white educated people in a rich imperial country, lived was the correct way to live.

Workplace .v. Community

Our analysis of Capital made us understand that we had to struggle in both the workplace and the community, and that we needed to link the two, recognizing for instance that struggles by workers in the public services needed the support of the users of those services if they were to succeed. This linking of workplace and community was perhaps best exemplified by our work around the Hounslow Hospital occupation and in the subsequent creation of a national health organisation called Fightback. We further emphasized that campaigns to defend services against cuts also had to have a perspective of improving those services and giving workers and users greater control over them.

Conditional .v. Unconditional Solidarity

From the beginning we were very concerned about the international dimensions of the class struggle and bringing those issues into our domestic practice, and nowhere more so than over Ireland where BF formed much of the long term backbone of the Troops Out Movement. In practicing solidarity with a struggle directly against British imperialism, and later in the Zimbabwean liberation struggle, BF had to confront the issue of solidarity with struggles whose full goals, strategy and tactics we didn’t always agree with. The position that emerged was one of unconditional solidarity with their struggle against imperialism, regardless of the tactics. But, as revolutionaries committed to challenging imperialism at home and throughout the world, we reserved the right to express criticisms of the liberation movement. We however made clear that the right to criticise had to be earned through our solidarity and had to be exercised with discretion to avoid giving succour to the class enemy. We also emphasised giving particular support where possible to any explicitly socialist, feminist and/or anti-imperialist sections of the liberation movement.

Crucial to the debate about solidarity with the Irish struggle for unification was the tension between our whole hearted support for the aims, and our unhappiness with one of the methods – the IRA’s bombing campaigns. We were not pacifists, we supported the necessity in some situations of armed struggle, but within that were some methods unacceptable? We were active at a time when national liberation and anti-imperialist struggles were, if not socialist, at least broadly politically progressive in their policies and views. 30 years on some of the main opponents of US and British imperialism are inspired by a reactionary version of Islam, and the debate about terrorism has sharpened. Imperialism seeks to brand all violent resistance as terrorist. In defending the ‘violence of the oppressed’ would a modern BF state that some forms of struggle are never legitimate, and truly terrorist?

We tried to analyse the behaviour of third world liberation movements, or the governments they sometimes lead to, from within the real context and limitations they faced – an approach very different from that of say the British SWP which tended to glorify their struggle up to the point of seizing power and then denounce them afterwards for selling out. Within the international revolutionary left there was some dichotomy between those who took a view that socialism could only be achieved by the actions of the working class of advanced capitalist countries, and others who saw third world liberation movements as the vanguard of revolutionary struggle. BF avoided any one sided analysis or global theoretical conclusions. We struggled for socialism at home, we supported liberation movements and workers’ struggles abroad, and we tried to find real material links between the two, via for instance the Ford Workers Combine making links with Ford plants around the world.

Reform .v. Revolution

BF never developed a coherent theory and practice of how to bring about revolution in an advanced capitalist country, nor how to overcome the hold that reformist institutions and ideas had over the working class. Initially we emphasized how reformist institutions like the trade unions and the then Labour Party fostered passivity within the class and sought to incorporate radical struggle into channels that might modify but not fundamentally threaten the capitalist structure. For us even shop stewards were not necessarily a radical force and could well act as the lowest level face of incorporation. This lead us to emphasise mass practice and the mass line – attempting to work with the whole class rather than focusing on winning over a representative layer,  though later we came to recognise the need for also working through structures, most especially perhaps during a long term period of limited struggle.

The early BF made its most significant interventions through Base Groups of external militants working around selected factories and communities such as Ford car plants, and the Tower Hill estate in Kirby. Such base groups proved to be unsustainable in the long term, and not to be a model that could generate a revolutionary movement from the bottom up, but the insights into the nature of struggle they developed and the successes they achieved in the short term showed their potential value as part of what a revolutionary organisation can do.

We always argued that to counter pose revolution to reforms was wrong. What mattered about struggles for particular reforms was how they were conducted. Through the process of struggle were they building class power, organisation and self confidence to keep going forward? Or were they undermining and co-opting the movement for the price (at best) of a minor and probably temporary victory.

But how does one combine building a movement from the base with developing a national strategy for the seizure of state power? We turned to Chile for ideas. While the rest of the left argued over the reasons for the disastrous overthrow of Salvador Allende’s Popular Unity government in Chile in 1973, we attempted a wider analysis because we felt that government marked a highpoint of socialist struggle in a (relatively) advanced bourgeois democracy. We argued then that the election of a radical reformist government had created space for a grass roots mass movement with a revolutionary wing to develop.

It was a theme we returned to in the early 1980s as the Labour Party was seemingly moving leftwards. Could the election of a left Labour government and local councils similarly open up space for more radical struggle and demands in Britain, and if so what relationship should we and other revolutionaries have to the Labour Party. It was an issue which eventually split the organisation, with no effective way forward emerging on either side of the debate.

But it is a theme that has reemerged through the developments in Latin America over the last decade. Hugo Chavez has most definitely learnt lessons from the Chilean defeat. He has cut through the sterile Communist Party versus Trotskyist debates about whether Allende’s government went too far too fast or didn’t go far enough – pursuing a political process that in its policies initially proceeded more cautiously than Allende, but in its development of popular mobilisation and penetration of the armed forces has been more radical. The reformist government – mass movement dialectic is at work throughout the continent. In Bolivia, Ecuador and Argentina reformist governments rode to power on the back of waves of mass mobilisations by social and indigenous movements, and there is intense debate about whether those governments are co-opting and demobilising the struggle, or opening up space for a deeper radicalisation, whether by conscious intent or not.

John Waller

Posted in Opinions about Big Flame | Tagged: , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

OPINIONS ABOUT BIG FLAME no 3: JOHN WALLER

Posted by archivearchie on September 3, 2009

This post is a behalf of John Waller. It is the third in the series of “Opinions about Big Flame”, providing a variety of different assessments of the organisation by ex-members. It responds directly to the comments of a previous contributor, Paul Thompson, in the second installment (Opinions about Big Flame: No 2) in the series.

John Waller was an active member of Big Flame in Nottingham and nationally from 1977 to 1981. When Big Flame started to disintegrate in 1982 he drifted away from the organization to be involved in community politics and then solidarity with the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. Since the early 90s his political practice has been dominated by solidarity work with the Cuban revolution. For many years this was as a part of the national leadership of the British Cuba Solidarity Campaign. This politically led him to the heartland of the empire and he now pursues the same ends from his US home.

John writes:

A CALL TO REFLECT ON OUR PAST AND SHARE LESSONS WITH CURRENT ACTIVISTS AROUND THE WORLD

It is nearly 28 years since the conference at which Big Flame started to disintegrate, with a significant minority of the organization leaving to enter the Labour Party.  Since 1981 inevitably much has changed in the world.

In the advanced capitalist world politics has moved inexorably to the right with almost all the traditional reformist parties, including perhaps most spectacularly the British Labour Party, having long abandoned any vision of any kind of socialism. Mainstream politics is now about how best to manage the capitalist economy and the slowly diminishing public services. But social reformism’s demise has been shared by other ‘left’ tendencies.  The Leninist/Trotskyist/Maoist revolutionary left has either disappeared or become much less influential than 30 years ago. And of course Soviet style communism, or state collectivism as Big Flame had come to call it, has gone – replaced in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe by outright and often brutal capitalism, and in Asia by Chinese style capitalism under Communist Party leadership. Of the wave of revolutions throughout the 20th century only in Cuba do they still affirm the need to construct socialism.

A bright shining capitalist future?  Hardly given the economic turmoil of the last year. Rather we see a world order that is economically and environmentally unsustainable. The gap between the rich and poor grows inexorably wider – on a world scale, and in Britain. “A better world is possible” says a new generation of activists, but so is a worse one, and the Bush regime was the harbinger of what that world would look like. For the peoples of Iraq and Afghanistan they already know what the new world order could mean. In the advanced centres of capitalism life is still pretty comfortable for most, but the slow dismantling of the post second world war welfare state is underway and, in Britain at least, the developing space for working class revolt is being occupied by the BNP.

Obama?  Barely 8 months into his administration the policies are already clear – minimal social reform at home, protect the wealth of the capitalist class at all cost, and continuing imperial pillage abroad. The language is softer than Bush, the politics smarter, but in the end, as president Zelaya in Honduras has discovered, if you challenge imperial power without sufficient popular support the US trained, financed and directed military will move in to stop you.

All gloom and doom? No.

The one continent that has partially bucked the trend is Latin America. Back in 1981 the continent was dominated by military dictatorships. They were replaced by right wing civilian governments implementing neo-liberal economic policies devised in Washington. The repression and impoverishment lead to the growth of powerful urban and rural social movements, based largely in the community rather than the workplace. These movements were/are inspired by socialist ideas in the broadest sense, and also by the continuing example of the Cuban revolution, Throughout much of Latin America the neo-liberal regimes have been brought down and/or voted out. Their replacement has been by what some commentators call a ‘pink tide’ – governments that domestically are socially reforming, and externally espouse a mix of progressive nationalism and Latin American unity against the empire to the north. The nature of the tide varies from country to country, but at its most radical end we have Venezuela and Hugo Chavez’ Bolivarian Revolution – committed to trying to build a vaguely defined but definitely highly participatory ‘socialism for the 21st century’. 

Current events in Latin America give support to what Big Flame was saying 30 years ago (see Paul Thompson’s summary document on this website)  – that reformist and revolutionary projects can advance together, and that there is a complex interplay between the two. In Latin America the radical social movements helped bring the reformist governments to power, and in turn those governments can either (wittingly or unwittingly) provide space for the radical movements to develop or else can act to constrain and demobilize them. Latin America today provides examples of all these processes at work.

Back in the mid-1970s Big Flame focused on Chile as an example to learn lessons from because, as we said then, Allende’s Popular Unity government marked a highpoint of socialist struggle in a (relatively) advanced bourgeois democracy. Chavez has most definitely learnt lessons from the Chilean defeat. He has cut through the sterile Communist Party versus Trotskyist debates about whether Allende’s government went too far too fast or didn’t go far enough – pursuing a political process that in its policies proceeded more cautiously than Allende, but in its development of popular mobilization and penetration of the armed forces has been more radical.

If Big Flame were still in existence we should be studying Venezuela, as we did Chile. Not because it offers a new ‘model’ of a revolutionary process, even within Latin America. Rather because it offers important insights which need to be assimilated and resituated in other contexts. Classical Leninist notions of a ‘big bang’ overthrow of capitalist societies are redundant, and the age of liberation by prolonged guerilla struggle has passed, but Venezuela, and the continued survival of Cuban socialism against all the odds and expectations, demonstrates the continuing need for disciplined centralized revolutionary organization and strategies for confronting state and imperial power.

And Big Flame?  Nobody is going to try to recreate it. But has the innovative left politics we developed those decades ago still got any relevance to the new world. I personally believe it has, for Latin America but also for those new activists who everywhere are being formed now. Their numbers are smaller than in the heady days of the 60s/70s but they most certainly exist. I think it is our responsibility to present the lessons of Big Flame – positive and negative – to those activists.

This website, by bringing back to life many of the documents and pamphlets we wrote, is an excellent start to the process, making our experience directly available for those who want to learn from it. But I think we need to go further – to critically reflect back on those experiences and draw some conclusions of our own. We of course won’t all agree, any more than we did at the time and probably rather less, but to have some collective discussion and debate will surely provide a richer set of analyses than the thoughts of any individual.

Others will have their own ideas about the crucial parts of our legacy. My focus and desire to collectively explore is around the following issues:

  •  Building participatory mass movements from the base versus the need for a strategy at the state level.
  •  How to build a revolutionary organization and movement alongside and within the context of a reforming government.
  • The organizational and political autonomy of oppressed groups versus the need for a strategy and demands that unite the class/people against the capitalist state.
  • The nature of the revolutionary party – how to act decisively and collectively without becoming (un)Democratic Centralists – learning the positive and negative lessons of Leninism.
  • The personal is political. How to combat capitalism as it invades every aspect of our lives, without lapsing into a politics that is defined by the personal needs/lifestyles of educated and somewhat privileged activists.

Like the previous contributor Paul Thompson, Big Flame shaped my life and politics and I don’t regret that, and I don’t seek to, as he puts it, ‘repeat and regurgitate it’ – but unlike him, I think many of the questions of socialist/revolutionary strategy that we were grappling with all still crucial and are being played out right now in Latin America – and we had something important to say.

Posted in Opinions about Big Flame | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

EPISODES IN BIG FLAME HISTORY: No 10. Chile and Portugal

Posted by archivearchie on June 21, 2009

In addition to Italy, the two countries from which the early Big Flame developed the greatest political lessons were Chile and Portugal. Two of its earliest pamphlets were devoted to these countries. The issues which Big Flame emphasised in them were different from those highlighted by the rest of the revolutionary left in Britain – “what was needed was a revolutionary party with the right programme”. Instead Big Fame focussed on the positive things which happened for a brief time in both countries. Developments that can be best viewed through the phrase “Popular Power”. Chile 1970-73 and Portugal 1975 were seen as key moments in the struggles of the working class alongside such other as Russia 1917, Italy 1921 and Spain and France 1936.

Si-p1Chile

The pamphlet Chile Si! was published in 1974. The bulk of it is devoted to the period between the election of the Unidad Popular (Popular Unity) Government in September 1970 to the military coup in September 1973. There are short sections on the period since the coup and on the group Movimiento de Izquierda Revolucionaria (Revolutionary Left Movement) [MIR], which I will discuss in a separate post (see Movimento de Izquierda Revolucionara [MIR]). An article from Lotta Continua “The Chilean Lesson” from February 1974 was reprinted.

During 1970-73 the actions of Popular Unity set in motion a mass struggle in which various forms of direct democracy were created as people gained the confidence to do things for themselves. There were occupations of industry and land, and after taking control of production, this was followed by distribution and transport. The mechanisms were the Cordones Industriales (Industrial Assemblies) and the Comando Comunal (Area Assemblies).

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

Chile Si!: front-p10

Chile Si!: p11-p25

Chile Si!: p26-p37

Chile Si!: p38-back

 

Blaze-p1Portugal

The pamphlet Portugal A Blaze of Freedom was published in 1975. It looks at developments since the military coup which overthrew fascism in April 1974. As in Chile, there was a pattern of occupations, strikes, Factory Commissions, Agricultural Co-ops, Neighbourhood Committees, etc.

Attention is given to the role of the Movimento das Forces Armadas (Armed Forces Movement) [MFA]. While divisions within the MFA were recognised, it was described as in many ways “the party of the working class”. This was because the Portuguese Communist Party was one of the “most Stalinist” and a “break on the development of working class power” and all the revolutionary parties had no roots in the country prior to 1974. Big Flame members were later to acknowledge that they had been too optimistic about the MFA.

After the pamphlet was published, the developments Big Flame championed came to an abrupt end. In September 1975 moderates gained control of the MFA. In November the same year they seized control of the country (the “cold coup”), on the basis that they were responding to a Communist Party attempted coup. Militants from groups like the Partido Revolucionário do Proletariado (Revolutionary Party of the Proletariat) [PRP] were arrested, and the mechanisms of popular power disbanded.

Otelo Saravaria de Carvalho, one of the leaders of the radical elements in the MFA stood as the left candidate in the Presidential election in 1976 and came second with 16.2% of the vote (four years later he got only 1.5%). In 1985 he was arrested a charged with being the leader of a terrorist organisation. He received a 15 year sentence, before being granted an amnesty.

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

Portugal A Blaze of Freedom: front-p12

Portugal A Blaze of Freedom: p13-Supp piv

Portugal A Blaze of Freedom: Supp pv-p22

Portugal A Blaze of Freedom: p23-back

Archive Archie

Posted in Big Flame History | Tagged: , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

EPISODES IN BIG FLAME HISTORY: No 9. Ireland

Posted by archivearchie on June 17, 2009

When Big Flame became a national organisation in 1975, the minimum political agreement for the group stated: “We oppose British involvement in Northern Ireland, and support the republican and revolutionary demands for troops out now, for self determination for Irish people as a whole, and for a united socialist Ireland”. In the years that followed motions on Ireland at Big Flame Conferences repeatedly contained the slogans of the Troops Out Movement: “Troops Out Now” and “Self Determination for the Irish People as a Whole”. Sometimes with an additional one along the lines of “Solidarity with all forces fighting British Imperialism in Ireland”.

Rising-p1Big Flame’s Analysis

Big Flame’s only extended discussion of Ireland was in a 1975 pamphlet Ireland: Rising in the North. The analysis in the pamphlet was largely similar to that of many other left groups: The origin of the situation in the north of Ireland was traced back to British imperialism and the partition of the country. The introduction of British troops was seen not as move not to keep the peace, but to contain Catholic rebellion. However, there were also two themes not so commonly found in other discussions:

(a) An emphasis on the “creative and revolutionary power” of the working class in Ireland. Shown for example in the “massive community mobilisation” in 1972 which led to the abolition of Stormont – the street demonstrations, rioting, strikes, and the withholding of rent, rates and utilities payments.

(b) The differences between the Catholic and Loyalist communities were based in real divisions in the working class, material interests which could not be wished away. Big Flame saw this as a lesson for Britain, where divisions in the working class (e.g. on the basis of race) also needed to be acknowledged.

Another aspect of the pamphlet was the fear that the Government might impose a Loyalist takeover, relying on the war weariness of the Catholic population to achieve this end. This didn’t happen in the form anticipated in the 1970s, although some might argue in the light of recent developments that this perspective was somewhat prescient.

Click here to view the pamphlet – split into three parts [warning: downloading may take some time]:

Ireland: Rising in the North: front-p12

Ireland: Rising in the North: p13-p22

Ireland: Rising in the North: p23-back

Obviously this pamphlet wasn’t the only place where Ireland was discussed. There was a regular series of a bulletin Irish Struggle Notes and extensive coverage in the newspaper (including a history of the last ten years in Ireland published in 1978-79).

TOM2

Troops Out Movement

The Troops Out Movement (TOM) was founded in October 1973 by six people, two of whom were Big Flame militants. Over the next few years, when most left groups abandoned Irish solidarity work, Big Flame had a record of consistent activity. Then when some left groups sought to take over TOM, Big Flame’s so-called “community orientated” approach to solidarity work was dismissed. The BF perspective was the subject to caricature. It was not against work in Parliament, the trade union movement and the Labour Party. It was against these being the sole work for TOM.

This report to the October 1976 Big Flame Conference has a lot of detail about exactly what was happening in that year. It also has an interesting discussion of debates within TOM between those solely interested in work in the labour movement, and those who also advocate “mass work” in local areas, with Irish people, school children, students, etc. Click here to view Irish Commission Report.

Big Flame saw the question of Ireland as something all members should raise, not just those with Irish solidarity as a specific work area. This document written in the lead up to the November 1979 Big Flame Conference was a guide for how this could be done. Click here to view But How Can I Raise the Question of Ireland from Day to Day? [warning: because this document was printed on a coloured background, it is difficult to read in places].

Unconditional Support

At its November 1981 conference Big Flame passed a motion on Irish and other international solidarity work. This sought to remedy an apparent contradiction, which occurred at the 1980 conference when the position set out below was adopted for international solidarity work in general, but for Ireland it was agreed that “any criticism we may have would only be made within the anti-imperialist and solidarity movements”. The position agreed in 1981 was:

“We are in solidarity with all national liberation struggles which are anti-imperialist. We do not make our support for these struggles conditional on them being struggles for socialism. In our solidarity work we give support specifically to those forces carrying forward the socialist and/or feminist and/or anti-racist and/or gay struggles.

…We retain the right to criticise any national liberation struggle because we are concerned with developing an opposition to imperialism the world over – not just in one country. And because we recognise that in itself ‘anti-imperialism’ may not be progressive in the sense of advocacy of the workers, women, peasant and gay movements. Any criticisms we make of a national liberation movement must be made within the general context of solidarity and on the basis of a thorough understanding of the history of the movement and the conditions and needs of its struggle.”

An article in the Discussion Bulletin of March 1983 explains the issues which lay behind the motion: the difficulties campaigners for Irish self determination face in making any criticisms of groups in Ireland in a climate of anti-Irish hysteria. The article was in response to the approach of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). Click here to view SWP and Ireland.

TOM1

Bombings in England

Big Flame was careful in exercising its right to criticise. Such criticisms as were made publicly were oblique and highly qualified. An article in the newspaper no5 Nov-Dec 1972 said that oppressed people in Ireland had the right to use violence, but it did not “necessarily agree with every single act”. In no 23 Dec 1974 the Birmingham bombings were condemned, but attributed to the British presence in Ireland. A further article in no 77 Aug 1979 said of the Provisionals “they may have used tactics we in Big Flame disagree with”.

The November 1979 Big Flame Conference documents included a debate on responding to Irish military activity in England. The first article argues that “moral grounds” can enter into judgements of actions as well as their political objectives, and that a sustained military campaign in Britain could be counter productive to the objective of the withdrawal of British troops. The second article starts from the position that Big Flame has the right to criticise publicly if that is its view. It then goes on to argue that bombings do not aid an anti-war movement. The author’s position is distinguished from one based on “abstract moral rules”. Click here to view Discussion on Ireland and Contribution to the debate on Ireland .

Archive Archie

Posted in Big Flame History | Tagged: , , , | 2 Comments »