Big Flame

1970-1984

Posts Tagged ‘Politics of Personal Life’

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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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

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EPISODES IN BIG FLAME HISTORY: No 21 The Summer School

Posted by archivearchie on November 9, 2009

SSshotFor many former members the annual Summer Schools are one of the most fondly remembered aspects of being in Big Flame were . In “Coming Down to Earth”, an article in Revolutionary Socialism which was part of the “Daily Life” theme, the author wrote: “At our Summer Schools, when many of us live together for a week. It is remarkable how thoroughly we try and act on our ideals of open, supportive, and non-sexist relationships” (article available via a link in Episode 18).  The Summer Schools were generally felt to be one of more successful examples of collective childcare (and probably something the present government has rendered illegal with the requirement for all those providing childcare to be registered). It should also be acknowledged that they resembled life in the real world with their share of bust ups.

A very good introduction to the Big Flame Summer Schools can be found in an article in the February 1981 Discussion Bulletin: A Short History of Big Flame Summer Schools (Warts and All).

Using this article, and another “Summer School Feedback 1980” from the August 1980 Discussion Bulletin, the following picture of the annual event emerges:

–                The first one was in 1977. Most lasted a week. The intention was to combine education with comradeship. The venue moved around, with Beechwood House near Leeds the most common one.

–                Some years had a theme for the educational sessions, other not. Sometimes “big name” speakers were invited. Other times they were “home grown”. There was a combination of large plenary sessions and small workshops.

–                Tasks were shared, the exact arrangements changing from year to year. The 1980 approach was to assign people into groups for the week, ensuring a balance of gender and their local group. Each day they had a task: crèche, cleaning, washing up, bar tendering, and baby sitting. The groups also provide the basis of educational workshop discussions, and a support group, especially for people new to Big Flame.

–                Entertainment, apart from the bar, included films, sing songs and sometimes an outing away from the venue.

–                Controversial flash points included the choice of films. “Themroc” and “Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment” were strongly criticised for sexism, with walkouts. There was never agreement on the plenary/workshop split, with some unhappy with having the former, and others feeling speakers went on too long.

SSTimetable

The Big Flame paper carried reports on many of the Summer Schools. Often a new woman member or sympathiser was commissioned to write it (sometimes with additional comments by children). Here are the relevant articles:

Big Flame on Sea: Paper September 1978.

On Our Hols: Paper September 1979.

Summer Support: Paper November 1979 (letter).

“Its Magic” with Big Eric: Paper September 1980.

A Sado-Masochist Bonanza?: Paper October 1981.

A Working Class Woman’s View: Paper November 1981.

Archive Archie

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

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EPISODES IN BIG FLAME HISTORY: No 20 Children

Posted by archivearchie on November 2, 2009

Children-p1As the 1970s developed more and more members of Big Flame became parents and  the organisation’s interest in children as a political issue increased. In May 1980 BF held a Day School for its members on the topic of “Children and Socialism”. This was an opportunity to bring into the open the dilemmas and contradictions they felt. Much of the Discussion Bulletin for that month was given over to articles on this theme. Here are two of the articles:

Children and Socialism: Discussion Bulletin May 1980 and Children and Socialism (1981). 

Draws on an experience of collective childcare involving 6 adults and 3 children in two homes. Talks about supporting members of BF with children, noting some improvements in childcare within the organisation. Also considers the issue of passing politics on to children – letting them learn how politics is part of everyday life, that socialist politics can be fun, and that children must be given a chance to define what they do.

Socialism and Childcare: Discussion Bulletin May 1980 and Children and Socialism (1981).

Discusses the pressures on isolated mothers with very young children, the factors crucial to the job of bringing up children, and the how the medical profession controls women (induced childbirth, breast feeding) and how schools exclude them from involvement with the children (in relation to the last two issues there may have been some improvements over the last 30 years).

Other articles in the Bulletin were “Notes on Being a Red Teacher” (included in the post on Education see Episode 13), a guide to organising a crèche and one on Kinderhaus, a childcare facility in Hamburg.

The Day School involved workshops on the topics Women’s and Children’s Oppression; Possessiveness and Jealousy; Racism and Children; and Class Differences in the way we deal with Children. In 1981, about a year after the Day School, a pamphlet entitled Children and Socialism was issued. It included the previous Bulletin articles, the workshop notes (where available), a talk given in a general session and notes for the Opening Plenary session. Here are the Plenary notes:

Children and Socialism: Opening Plenary Session: Children and Socialism (1981). 

Covers a range of issues such as the difficulties of bringing up children as socialists; non-parents and kids; state nurseries and the interaction between revolutionary politics and bringing up children (the lack of sympathy from many on the left to the problems, resentment from children with parents constantly out at meetings).

Archive Archie

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

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EPISODES IN BIG FLAME HISTORY: No 18. Sexual Politics and Life Part 1

Posted by archivearchie on October 20, 2009

Canoe-p1I struggled to find a title for this post before, after seeking advice, deciding to opt for the one above. I wanted something which would manage to cover all of the Politics of Personal Life, Gay Politics and Men’s Politics. Although in the end I decided I had sufficient interesting material on Men’s Politics to hold this topic over to another time (see future Episode in this series – Episode 19). I also plan separate posts on Children and the Big Flame Summer School (see future Episodes – Episode 20 and Episode 21).

At its 1978 Conference Big Flame passed a motion on ‘The Politics of Personal Life’. In it BF resolved:

–   “To develop the organisation’s political understanding of the ways that capitalism distorts our personal lives. To ensure that the development of a political approach to personal life forms an integral part of the general politics of our organisation.”

–   “To support those existing political activities which are attempting to deal with the crises which are sometimes called ‘personal’ in a political way.”

–   “To ensure that our organisation is structured in such a way that the fullest participation is encouraged of those groups of people that most revolutionary organisations, including our own, discriminate against: parents, particularly single parents, youth, retired people, women, people who have not been to university.”

–  “To ensure the highest standards of socialist comradeship operate inside the organisation and in our relations with other comrades.”

–   “To give priority to the development, within our organisation and on the left as a whole, of a socialist culture. We should contribute to and initiate outings, holidays, festivals, cultural events – all those activities which provide pleasure, mutual awareness and solidarity amongst colleagues.”

–   “To acknowledge that these changes will not come about by fine words and resolutions at Conference. These ideas have to be translated into our everyday practice; in particular they need to be integrated into all aspects of our mass political work.”

The motion contains no specific new measures for BF to implement. As the last point above makes clear it was more of an exhortation to others to identify and implement the changes. The degree to which people did was undoubtedly mixed.

1978 also saw the circulation of a document around Big Flame members:  In a Barbed Wire Canoe. This was inspired by the author trying to understand at a political level some personal traumas he experienced. He rejected the views of those on the left who acted as if they didn’t feel personal problems like the rest of the world, or believed that discussing them was subjectivism. Using ideas drawn from Ely Zaretsky, he sets out ways personal problems are caused by capitalism – stripping any meaning from work, splitting work and home, attributing fulfilment to the possession of things. He concludes with the lessons for BF. If it is to attract and keep people in the organisation, they need to feel at home and enjoy a sense of collectivity.

Another discussion of personal life can be found in Revolutionary Socialism no4 Winter 1979-80: Daily Life. First there is an “Introduction”, which takes up the phrase “you must live your politics” and argues that changing ourselves is an essential part of making the revolution. This is followed by “Living Your Politics” a discussion between four people (two men and two women) about collective living. It ranges across a range of issues including childcare, monogamy and the relationship between personal politics and “public politics”. Finally, “Coming Down to Earth” examines the libertarian movement of the 1970s (anticipating many of the themes of the later article republished in Opinions about Big Flame no 1).

Articles on personal life were also included in the paper. Two of the better discussions were an article and subsequent exchange of letters on sexual behaviour between men and women, which extended through three issues (July/Aug, Sept and Oct 1980) and three views on marriage by women based on their own experiences, to coincide with the Royal Wedding of the Prince of Wales and Diana Spencer (July/Aug 1981).

From the 1981 Women’s Conference Discussion Bulletin comes: Notes from Sexuality Workshop at Women’s Weekend. Though short in length the notes summarise a discussion which covered a lot of ground – the problems of talking about sexuality in large meetings, how it is not just an issue of sexual preference but also “all things relevant to your biological sex as a woman”., and the need to develop a feminist politics based on an understanding of the way capitalism and patriarchy attempt to control sexuality as much as every other area of life.

The paper’s coverage of Gay issues was very limited. Apart from short news stories, this consisted of interviews with people outside BF or reviews of publications by non-members (on one occasion another group – the Revolutionary Gay Men’s Caucus was invited to write an article). Articles in the journal were even sparser. There was nothing in the two issues of Big Flame Journal. In the ten issues of Revolutionary Socialism, there was just a single review article which examined a book on personal politics and a book on gay politics.

The same lack of discussion applied to the Internal/Discussion Bulletin. There were two articles in the Internal Bulletin on Lesbianism in the mid 1970s by a woman who left BF not that long after. The second appeared in the June 1977 Internal Bulletin: Letter to the Editorial Collective of Women’s Struggle Notes (Warning: this is difficult to read because of the poor quality of the duplicated original copy). She had been asked to write an article for a BF publication, which she did in the form of an interview with a lesbian friend. This was turned down as “too personal and not political enough”. When later asked to write something else for a Conference that was “less heavy”, she declined giving her reasons in the article. She wanted to not just talk about oppression, but convey the joy, strength, confidence and power that lesbianism gave her. [Note: the rejected article was subsequently published in Women’s Struggle Notes (second series) no4.]

A few years later as part of a broad critique of Big Flame a gay man wrote about how in an organisation whose members are almost all straight that “people can find it very oppressive and difficult to talk about homosexuality” (“Why I am Pissed off with Big Flame” July 1981 Discussion Bulletin). Despite all the correct position on gay liberation BF adopted on paper, this was clearly an issue.

Archive Archie

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

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EPISODES IN BIG FLAME HISTORY: No 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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