Big Flame

1970-1984

Posts Tagged ‘Libertarian Communist Group’

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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LIBERTARIAN COMMUNIST GROUP [LCG] (Groups who joined Big Flame no 2)

Posted by archivearchie on December 3, 2009

This post is the second in a mini-series about other political organisations which decided to join Big Flame.

The group discussed in the previous post had its origins in Trotskyism. The background of this one was Anarchism. When the Libertarian Communist Group (LCG) joined Big Flame in 1980, two members wrote an account of their group, which has been very useful in putting together this post: A Short History of the Libertarian Communist Group (from 1980 Conference documents). Also worth reading are some accounts of the same history from a more critical perspective. Written many years later, from within the anarchist movement, they are Anarchist Communism in Britain (available both on the libcom site and the afed one), and In the Tradition.

ORA

The Anarchist Federation of Britain (AFB) has an extremely long history, and always contained within it a large variety of differing and opposing ideas. In 1971 the Organisation of Revolutionary Anarchists (ORA) was founded as a ginger group within the AFB, but soon left. ORA’s criticisms of the AFB were mostly organisation rather than theoretical, but it started to develop a class struggle perspective. I have seen different figures quoted for the maximum number of members achieved by ORA – from the 70s up to the 100 mark. It produced an agitational newspaper Libertarian Struggle.

ORA suffered from a series of losses of membership, some to Trotskyist groups, and by the mid 1970s came to something of a standstill. In 1975 it changed its name to the Anarchist Workers Association (AWA).

AWA

In 1976 the AWA had around 50 members, and the paper was called Anarchist Worker. An important influence of the developing politics of the group was “The Organisational Platform of the Libertarian Communists”. This was first published by a group of Ukrainian and Russian anarchists in Paris in 1926. It was reprinted in France in 1972, and in 1977 the AWA brought out an English edition. The Platform is available with background material on the internet at The Nestor Makhno Archive.

The AWA’s “Aims and Principles” stated: “Capitalism is a class society” and “the position of the working class as the collective producer of society’s wealth makes it the only force capable of replacing capitalism by a classless society”. On the role of the AWA this document said: “The task of the AWA is to aid the preparation of the working class for their seizure of power. The establishment of an anarchist society is something that has to be consciously fought for by the working class. … The AWA aims to offer a lead within the working class movement by example and explanation. … The AWA does not seek independent power for itself but seeks to work through the working class organisations”.

Between 1976 and 1977 there was a bitter split. The immediate issue under dispute was Ireland. The AWA opposed internment and favoured the withdrawal of troops (but not immediately and only as a result of united class action), and was strongly opposed to the IRA (“we reject all para-military groups as nationalistic, elitist and divisive”. A grouping which emerged with the AWA – the Towards a Programme Tendency (TAP) – labelled this position “absentionist”, and took the line of the Troops Out Movement. For more information on the issues at stake, see this document written by a former LCG member for a conference in 2004: Coalitions, Libertarian Communism and Ireland.

The dispute was about other issues than Ireland. TAP also argued for a less “ultra-left” position on the unions favouring their “democratisation”. According to the Anarchist Communism in Britain article mentioned above “The TAP tendency accused their opponents of “traditional anarchism” and wishing to “lead the AWA back to the days of the AFB” whilst the TAP tendency was accused by its opponents of “Trotskyism”. One former LCG member who later joined Big Flame recalled recently that the situation was “two quite incompatible philosophies co-existing in the same organisation. The non-TAP tendency seemed to me like religious fundamentalists, insisting on the letter of their sacred texts no matter how irrelevant or impractical in the real situation of the time”.

At the May 1977 Conference TAP supporters had a majority. Apparently without prior notice they proposed a motion expelling their opponents, which was carried. The expulsions were later defended on the ground that those expelled “had reached the stage of behaving in a wilfully disruptive manner” and that life for the AWA “would have proved impossible had the people concerned continued as members” (“We Reply” in Libertarian Communist no3). Others have argued that the split was badly handled and took the course it did because of a lack of a tradition of political debate in the AWA.

LCG

In 1977 there was another name change: the organisation became the Libertarian Communist Group (LCG), and after that the paper was renamed Libertarian Communist. An article in the October 1977 issue of Anarchist Worker “What is in a Name … Why We’re Changing” said that while the AWA had developed out of traditional anarchism, this had fossilised. It affirmed its allegiance to working class revolution, and acknowledged that Marx had made a “great historical contribution”. The new name proclaimed an identity with other groups on the continent who described themselves as libertarian communist.

There were seven issues of Libertarian Communist in A3 newspaper format (the first dated Jan/Feb 1978) and one in A4 journal format. The new paper continued the tradition of the Anarchist Worker in supplementing short news stories with the centre pages devoted to an interesting extended feature: Russia 1917, France 1968, Spain 1936, Germany 1918-1919 and so on. The article mentioned above from issue no 3, accepted some criticisms of the paper: insufficient space devoted to sexism and patriarchy, or “quality of life”.

From 1977 onwards the LCG never had more than 20 members, and numbered about 16 in August 1980. They decided that they were too small and lacked adequate collective practice. This led to the decision to join Big Flame.

To others in the anarchist movement the LCG, and its predecessors, were “Anarcho-Trots” or a form of “Bolshevised Anarchism”. They were accused of “leftism” – tailing leftist organisation. Particular objection was taken to their position on Ireland, their participation in elections through Socialist Unity and, of course, their decision to join Big Flame. In the words of In the Tradition mentioned above  “the short-lived Libertarian Communist Group also displayed Leninist and reformist tendencies that would eventually see their abandoning libertarian politics”.

In BF

The Big Flame Conference in December welcomed the LCG’s decision to fuse. About 10 LCG members joined BF. 5 others decided not to do so (1 of whom a few years wrote an article in the Discussion Bulletin as a BF sympathiser). Within a year, 2 of those who joined BF had left, feeling it lacked “cohesive politics”. Several never became that active in the organisation. In part this was due to their geographical location. Those in London and Norwich were able to join local BF groups (as did someone from York who moved to Birmingham). Others, for example those living in Lancashire and Middlesbrough, found themselves isolated. These notes of a meeting 10 months after joining BF provide an interesting account of the experience of BF: Report of a Meeting of ex-LCG Members (from October 1981 Discussion Bulletin).

A handful of former LCG members were very active in BF. At different times two of them were part of the BF National Committee (NC). Ex-LCGers were active in a number of BF Commissions e.g. Irish and the International, and helped produce the newspaper. Like ex-Revolutionary Marxist Current members (see post on the RMC), former LCG members identified with one of the two main political currents in the organisation, joining the Emerald Street Tendency (see a future episode – Episode 27). Therefore, contrary to the comments on some other websites, the former LCG members were not part of the BF minority which left the organisation in 1981 to join the Labour Party.

In May 1984 Big Flame effectively ceased to be a national organisation, with only 17 people carrying on under the name (see another future episode – see Episode 30). Two of these 17 were previously in the LCG.

At least one former LCG member has returned to class struggle anarchism. He lasted less than a year in Big Flame, and later helped form the Anarchist Communist Federation in 1985. It has since become the Anarchist Federation.

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EPISODES IN BIG FLAME HISTORY: No 16. The Journal

Posted by archivearchie on October 5, 2009

BFJ-p1As well as a newspaper and pamphlet, at different times Big Flame produced a number of periodic publications. In the early years Merseyside BF produced Big Flame Bulletin (3 issues in 1971-72), a duplication collection of leaflets and documents. Then there was Fact Folder (3 issues in 1972-73), an envelope containing duplicated documents primarily documenting struggles. However, the two periodicals which probably had the greatest impact were the journals – two series in a printed magazine A4 format. The first called the Big Flame Journal and the second Revolutionary Socialism.

There were two issues of Big Flame Journal in 1974-75. The first issue reflected the federal character of BF at the time with most of the articles appearing in the name of a specific local group. It was succeeded by Revolutionary Socialism which had a longer life, 10 issues between 1977 and 1982. It came to end after that National Committee in October 1982 decided, in the light of sales going badly and members not using the journal, to suspend publication until further notice. Some Big Flame members who had worked on Revolutionary Socialism, and some who had not, joined together with some non-aligned socialists and feminists to publish another magazine independently of BF called Emergency (5 issues between 1983 and 1990).

A full list of all the articles published in both journals can be found here:  Contents of Big Flame Journal and Revolutionary Socialism.

As discussed in the last episode in this series – Episode 15 – there was an ongoing discussion in the organisation about the newspaper. This is not the case with the journal. Whilst the paper induced a variety of emotions including hostility, the journal mostly stirred up indifference. All the mentions of the Journal I can find in Internal/Discussion Bulletins or Pre-Conference Bulletins are written by members of the editorial group (with the one exception of a motion at the 1979 conference to abandon publication).

A report from a member of the editorial group to the same conference noted the lack of feedback from local groups apart from one which refused to sell the journal because of its content and style. In 1981 the journal collective asked local groups to complete a questionnaire about it. Only one responded. This is despite efforts of various editorial groups to print articles which related to BF’s organisational and political priorities, and to foster discussion of selected articles by local groups.

This document written around 1979 gives a flavour of discussions within the editorial group: Some Thoughts on the Journal. The potential audience was clearly identified as “the left” and not “the working class”. The aim of the journal was to open up debate and discussion in an open and honest way. Independents were to be encouraged to write for the journal or to join the editorial group.

Negotiations took place with both the LCG (Libertarian Communist Group) [see post on LCG] and the ISA (International Socialist Alliance) [see post on ISA] about them having representatives on the editorial group. Instead the LGC as whole joined Big Flame and the ISA dissolved itself (with I believe a few of its former members becoming part of BF). Some independents did get involved the journal, and a large number of articles and reviews were written by non-members. Some of the authors were relatively well known figures on the left e.g. Leo Panitch, Richard Hyman, Hilary Wainwright, Shelia Rowbotham, Anne Phillips.

The presence of such writers may have made the journal a better read, but it also probably contributed to the lack of identity with the publication by many Big Flame members. Of those articles included by BF members, a high proportion of them were written by less than half dozen authors. I am sure that this is despite constant efforts by various editorial groups to get others to contribute.

The circulation of Revolutionary Socialism was always tiny. Figures from the 1980 conference report show 500 being sold in bookshops through PDC (the Publications Distribution Co-operative) and 800 going to local groups for direct sales (although loose accounting procedures failed to reveal exactly how many of these were actually sold). A circulation of over 1,750 would have been required to break even.

RS4-p1To give an indication of the sort of things Revolutionary Socialism published, I have chosen five articles written by Big Flame members.

1968: Ten Years On No2. Spring 1978

Looks at the crisis of the post-1968 revolutionary left, focussing on its separation of the “personal” and the “political” and its failure to develop a prefigurative politics. The optimism of 1968 meant those who came into politics were prepared to sustain an incredibly high level of political activity with little space in their lives for anything else, leading to burn out 10 years later.

Youth Politics & Youth Culture No2. Spring 1978

Argues that the “primary determinal form” of youth culture is class rather than age, and that the “general corporativeness” of working class consciousness means that class contradictions expressed are only indirectly political. The political youth movements which currently exist are appendages of parent parties who see them as conveyor belts to membership. The prospects for a socialist youth movement have never been brighter. It should to be independent of any one organisation, although it would need the aid of left organisations to survive or grow.

A Woman’s Right to Choose No2. Spring 1978

Believes that a Woman’s Right to Choose is the most revolutionary demand to come out of the Women’s Movement in Britain. Discusses the history of the battle to make contraception widely available to women and struggles around abortion.

Feminism and the Socialist Alternative No5. Summer 1980

Examines the uneasy relationship between feminism and socialism. Marxist theory is adequate to understand women’s oppression. Amongst the contributions of feminism are the concept of patriarchy, the assertion that the personal is political and the exploration of sexuality. Organisations like Big Flame need the autonomous women’s movement to provide a constant reminder of the need for feminist politics.

Crisis of the Revolutionary Left in Europe No5. Summer 1980

Continues the themes of “1968: Ten Years On” by considering the crisis of the revolutionary left in general and of the loose political tendency of which BF was a part. With elements of voluntarism and ultra leftism, the latter was particularly vulnerable to the post 1974 downturn in struggle. A position of “class before party” can lead on to questioning whether a party is really necessary.

Two other articles from Revolutionary Socialism are already available on the net:

What Future for Zimbabwe Now? No 6. Winter 1980-81

Riot and Revolution: The Politics of an Inner City No8. Winter 1981-82

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.

P.S. Episode 15 mentioned a Harvester Press publication The Underground and Alternative Press in Britain as a way of viewing on microfiche (a form of microfilm on flat cards) copies of the Big Flame newspaper. It also includes both issues of Big Flame Journal and a number of pamphlets (Ireland: Rising in the North, Portugal: A Blaze of Freedom, Chile Si! and Shop Stewards and the Class Struggle) all of which can be found on this site.

Harvester Press also produced a companion publication The Left in Britain which contained complete run of Revolutionary Socialism. Fact Folders no 1 and no 3 can be found under Red Notes

The Archiving Big Flame mentions a number of libraries which have paper copies of Big Flame Journal and Revolutionary Socialism.

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

Posted by archivearchie on June 10, 2009

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

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

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

Big Flame’s Position

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beyond the Fragments

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

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

DB-p1

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

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

(2) Tickling the Clam

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

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

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

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

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

Some Comments

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

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

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

Archive Archie

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