Big Flame

1970-1984

Posts Tagged ‘Revolutionary Marxist Current’

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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REVOLUTIONARY MARXIST CURRENT [RMC] (Groups which joined Big Flame no 1)

Posted by archivearchie on November 19, 2009

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

The Revolutionary Marxist Current (RMC) joined Big Flame in 1977. Its origins were in the Trotskyist movement. Specifically the International Marxist Group (IMG). When members of the RMC began a period of joint work with BF in July 1977 a couple of joint Internal Bulletins were produced. One of these contained a brief history of the RMC written by members. Here it is: About the Revolutionary Marxist Current.

In the IMG

In May 1972 there was a fusion conference between the IMG and a separate youth movement it had established, the Spartacus League. At this conference some key figures from the IMG’s leadership over the previous period (e.g. Pat Jordan, Bob Purdie) were replaced by others. Several of these were originally part of the IMG’s Oxford branch, and had written a historically important document proposing a modified course two years previously. Two of them – John Ross and Bob Pennington were to be key members of the leadership of the IMG and its successor the Socialist League (SL) for many years to come.

I find it difficult to get a handle on the different political positions in 1972. In part because what happened was not an open tendency battle like the many which IMG/SL members would engage in over the coming years. Documents tended not to explicitly criticised those of other writers, and the positions emerged more in the form of nuances. The differences appear to be these: the new leaders wanted a re-orientated towards the working class, an end to eclectic leaping about from issue to issue and a proliferation of front organisations, and to cease going overboard with abstract calls to action issued to the working class (i.e. grandiose plans which were impossible to achieve, whose purpose was usually to outbid the lines of other groups).

The new leadership did not stay together long. By the IMG’s Easter conference in April 1973 there were six different grouping arguing different lines, two of them formed by sections of the new leadership who had broken away. By the end of 1973 many well known figures who had been part of the new leadership were in opposition (e.g. Tariq Ali, Peter Gowan, Robin Blackburn).

Another tendency, which didn’t contain such well known figures, was called the Left Opposition Tendency (LOT). The appeal for a tendency was issued in February 1973 by a former member of the Oxford Group, who had since become a member of the IMG Political Committee and the Manchester Organiser (and later to join Big Flame). A key criticism of the new leadership was that it had now started issuing abstract calls to action to the working class, in particular repeatedly calling for a general strike to bring down the Tory government, with little consideration of the realities of the situation. For other LOT criticisms of the IMG see “About the Revolutionary Marxist Current”.

At the IMG Easter Conference the LOT position came third out of six with 13.4% of the delegate votes (behind both the leadership, who retained control, and the other breakaway group from it). At an aggregate over a weekend at the end of June/beginning of July 1973 LOT decided to dissolve. Thus it had no presence at the next IMG conference in December 1973.

During the course of 1974, there were multiple resignations from the IMG. Many were by former LOT supporters, although others who supported LOT stayed on and became members of different opposition tendencies in the future.

The Manchester Organiser mentioned above (by now in London and running the IMG bookshop) resigned in March 1974, saying in his resignation letter that “The IMG’s political line is comical, its internal education abysmal, and its regime contemptible”. Other followed. The IMG November Internal Bulletin contained resignation letters from Manchester members, the December one, letters from Liverpool and Bolton members.

As the RMC

Some (but not all) of the former LOT supporters came together to form the RMC. Its first Internal Discussion, with a draft constitution came out in April 1975. Between July 1975 and December 1976/January 1977 a newspaper the Spectre was published, with 16 issues in total. The “Where We Stand” statement in the paper said the following about the group’s politics: “These struggles can only be successful under the leadership of parties and of an International based on the ideas develop by Marx, Lenin and Trotsky, and we intend to play a part in the fight for such a party and such an International”. Areas in which members were particularly active were Irish solidarity, Anti-Fascism and the women’s struggles.

One of the RMC’s priorities was regroupment. To this end it held discussions in:

–                Late 1974 to early 1975 with Workers Fight – This group founded in 1966 is now known as the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty.

–                Spring to Summer 1976 with Marxist Workers Group – Formed by a split from the Bolton branch of Workers Fight in 1975. Subsequently joined the IMG.

“About the Revolutionary Marxist Current” discusses the political differences which caused these regroupment discussions to fail.

The majority of the RMC saw its regular paper as vital to its impact on the left and wider working class audience, and as playing a key role in keeping the group together. However, the paper became a bigger and bigger burden on the small organisation. The RMC decided at the end of 1976 to accept the view, formerly held by a minority of its members, to replace the paper by a quarterly journal. However, this didn’t happen.

The RMC had failed to achieve a growth in membership. When Big Flame launched the Project for a New Revolutionary organisation in 1976/77 (see Episode 11 in the Big Flame History series), the RMC responded. In June 1977 the two organisations agree to fuse for a 2 to 3 month trail period of joint work. The actual fusion seems to have taken a bit longer, happening around December 1977.

In BF

Around a dozen RMC members joined Big Flame. There were groupings in Liverpool and London with individual members in such places as Birmingham, Brighton and Nottingham.

Within BF ex-RMC members developed away from Trotskyism. They also identified with one of the two main political currents in the organisation, joining Tendency One (see Episode 22), and later, when this split, the Emerald Street Tendency (see a future episode – see Episode 27).

The RMC had a significant impact on Big Flame. The constitution adopted by BF in 1978 was derived from the RMC one. At different times three former RMC members were part of the BF National Committee (NC). Ex-RMCers were active in a number of BF Commissions e.g. Irish, Anti-Racist Anti-Fascist and the International Committee. Some drifted away from BF, feeling frustrated by the level of organisation in BF and a lack of ability to focus its interventions (see for example a resignation letter from the NC in a March 1979 Discussion Bulletin which refers to NC meetings “hampered by old arguments and patterns of behaviour” and the “deeper political problems of BF”; and a resignation from the organisation by another person in the June-July 1982 Bulletin which talks of the “continuing decline of Big Flame as an interventionist organisation” and how it has “failed to achieve (or even seek) a national political profile in terms of presence on national political activities”).

Others stayed the course for a long time. 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 had been in the RMC in the previous decade.

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EPISODES IN BIG FLAME HISTORY: No 12. Internal Organisation

Posted by archivearchie on July 7, 2009

ConfAg-p1Episode 11 of this series examined one issue which was the subject of debate at the 1976 and 1978 Big Flame conferences – building a new, larger organisation. Another issue discussed at these meeting was the process by which people were appointed to its National Committee. This post looks at this debate in the context of a more general discussion of the group’s internal organisation. Along with an earlier post – Episode 8 in this series – it provides a basis for judging Big Flame’s relationship with Leninism.

The early Big Flame had no constitution to set out formally the way it was organised. It adopted a Constitution for the first time at its May 1978 Conference. This was based on the one adopted by the Revolutionary Marxist Current (see post about the RMC), which had joined Big Flame the previous year. Click here to view Big Flame Constitution [as amended at the 1980 Conference].

The Conference

The key decision making body within Big Flame was the conference. One was held every year from 1975 to 1984 apart from 1977 (when there was an open conference of the Project) and 1982. It was open to any member of BF to attend and vote (given the size of the organisation this never presented any practical problems). The format for conferences was fairly traditional – mostly large plenary sessions with voting on motions and amendments.

Branches and Commissions

The most important level of involvement in Big Flame was the local branch. The organisation constantly grappled with the problem of how to provide support to isolated members or small branches. Thus branches in towns like Brighton. Leamington and Oxford came and went, whilst those in the larger cities were usually constant throughout BF’s history. However, the way they functioned did change. The early branches adopted the base group model with members focussing their political activity on a small number of joint interventions. As time went on this was largely abandoned, with branches bringing together members with active in different struggles.

Before Big Flame became a national organisation in 1975 and was a federation of autonomous groups, it established a number of commissions. These brought together from around the country any BF member who wanted to attend (and sometimes sympathetic non-members) and was engaged in the same area of political activity e.g. women, Irish solidarity, anti-racism/anti-fascism, industry, health workers, teachers, etc. Meetings rotated around the country and the structure was minimal (someone agreeing to be the convenor for a period, the chairing of meetings rotated). They became a vital source of support and tactical ideas for those who attended (particularly if no-one in the local branch was engaged in the same activity). Many of the Big Flame pamphlets were written jointly by Commission members.

There was a tendency at the time for some writing about BF’s internal organisation to contrast the healthy democracy of the commissions with other things they wished to criticise. Therefore, it is worth remembering that Commissions were not without their own problems. Several reached a peak, fell apart and had to be revived later. Even when things were going well, there might be no more than half a dozen at any particular meeting, and these could be mostly different people from those who attended the previous meeting.

Membership, Discipline and Full Timers

The first section of the Constitution (see above) sets out the requirements of membership. This is fairly vaguely worded, and apart from the critique of “traditional models of the revolutionary party” are probably little different from many other left groups. Despite numerous efforts to improve internal education in Big Flame, it never developed a comprehensive education programme which might have clarified the grounds for membership. The norms of what membership of BF meant (in the later days at least) were fairly loose, and largely a matter for the individual member’s own decision.

Another section of the Constitution sets out disciplinary procedures. As far as I am aware (and I have tried to do some research) no member of Big Flame was ever disciplined in any way, still less expelled from the organisation.

Big Flame chose not to devote its limited resources to paying full timers. In its later days a National Secretary was paid. This was an administrative rather than a political post (for example, the National Secretary was not a member of the National Committee).

Tendencies

The first informal faction meetings in Big Flame were one offs after the 1976 Conference when supporters of both Plan X and Plan Y (see Episode 11) met to assess the outcome. The Constitution agreed in 1978 included the right to establish tendencies. However, they were regarded with some suspicion. The conference rejected one amendment saying that whilst tendencies were permitted they should be discouraged, and agreed another which said that tendency meetings had to be open to any member of the organisation.

The first formal tendency (called Tendency One) was established in 1980. Although it broke up fairly soon afterwards, the proliferation of tendencies reached a peak in 1981 with a total of four (two formally declared). These developments will be covered in a later Episode in this series (see Episode 27).

National Committee

The National Committee (NC) agreed at the first Big Flame Conference in 1975 was based on delegates from local branches. In 1976 Plan Y supporters unsuccessfully raised the issue of a directly elected NC. The change to an elected NC of eleven persons was agreed narrowly (45 votes to 41) at the 1978 Conference as part of the new Constitution, with an amendment limiting continuous service on the NC to no more than 3 years.

The movers of the new constitution described the proposed approach as “democratic centralism” and argued that the NC should be a body of “the most experienced and politically educated comrades” (1978 Conference document). Another supporter of an elected NC rejected the phrase “democratic centralism” (on the grounds no-one knew what this meant and most things associated with it were bad) and the emphasis on getting “the best” to serve on the NC (instead seeing the arrangement was giving the most democratic representation of different views) ” (1978 Conference document). Surprisingly little attention was given to problems with a delegate arrangement e.g. branches not having a single political view, a body appointed this way not necessarily reflecting the majority view. For example, despite Plan Y losing the vote at the 1976 Conference, the delegate NC arrangements resulted in Plan Y supporters being the majority on the new NC and given the responsibility of launching the Project.

One opponent of the change saw it as “a massive over-centralisation of power” and creating a “self perpetuating leadership” and a “remote base”. BF’s perspective was based on leaders having regular experience at the base, and delegation created direct accountability. The change would lead to the same degeneration as had occurred with the International Socialists (1978 Conference document).

A few years later an article in the discussion Bulletin linked the discussions over an elected NC since 1978 back to previous debates about internal organisation. It concluded that the arguments on both sides had not been not productive, and parodied their opponents and exaggerated the effects of particular proposals. Unfortunately, the author was unable to suggest any alternative arrangements which might provide a way out of the impasse. Click here to view Why We Need a Discussion of Internal Organisation (Discussion Bulletin July 1981)

How well did the structures work?

After two years of the elected NC, one member attempted an honest assessment of how things were going. Click here to view National Committee (1980 Conference document).

For the most part discussions of BF’s internal effectiveness reflected where the authors stood on the recent changes. One analysis saw the problem as the relationship between the leaders and the rank and file not being a two way process. The author saw as a common rank and file attitude: If the rank and file accepted what the leadership said, they agreed to go along with it. If they disagreed, they did as they wanted. Click here to view National Growth, Local Stagnation (Internal Bulletin May 1978). An alternative analysis of BF’s problems attributed the problems to a difference source. NC “directives” were the result of trying to impose the methods and structures of a larger organisation. These “male dominated power structures” were not conducive to genuine participation. Click here to view Wot Crisis? (1980 Conference document)

Perhaps a better way of seeing how the NC related to the rest of the organisation is to look at some conflicts which occurred.

–          The NC took a position in 1978 supporting the emergence of the Anti Nazi League. The Anti-Racist Anti-Fascist Commission (some of whose members had reservations about the ANL’s impact on local anti-racist work) reacted strongly against the decision, arguing that its members had not been consulted. The NC defended its position, arguing that its discussion had been flagged up with branches through the agreed procedures.

–          In 1980 the Women’s Commission after a debate agreed a paper for the National Abortion Campaign conference. When discussed at the next NC, the women members present did not agree with the position set out in the paper. The NC as a whole decided that the paper should not be submitted in BF’s name. The NC subsequently decided that it had acted wrongly in not endorsing the Women’s Commission position.

–          In 1981 the NC asked one of its members to write an editorial for the newspaper. The Newspaper Collective decided that the article’s contents did not reflect BF’s positions and printed it as a signed article rather than editorial. The author (who argued that his article was in line with BF policy) was not consulted. The NC’s response was to agree new procedures to try to avoid a recurrence.

It is difficult to generalise too much from these examples. At the very least they show an NC willing to admit mistakes and to avoid future conflicts where possible.

Only in 1978 were there more candidates for the elected NC than positions available. There were constant problems finding women willing to stand for the minimum four positions reserved for them on the NC. In recognition of this continuing problem a motion was passed at the 1981 Conference reducing the number of directly elected NC members from 11 to 6. There were still problems with people resigning from the NC. So at its 1983 Conference Big Flame again changed its constitution to having only four directly elected NC members (one of them the Education Organiser). The NC was now a hybrid, with another five members being delegates. Only this time they were appointed by Commissions rather than local groups.

Some final comments

In retrospect the debate about an elected NC was not one of the most illuminating in Big Flame history. An elected NC neither solved nor created Big Flame’s problems. Whatever, the theoretical merits of the arguments on either side, the organisation proved incapable in practice of maintaining an elected NC. BF, by its very nature, attracted a membership who were suspicious and critical of “leaders” and gave priority to local struggles. They believed in the idea of a national organisation, but sustaining and supporting it was usually not a top priority.

However, like every other organisation whatever the formal structures, Big Flame still included amongst its membership (and on both sides of its various debates) a number of confident, articulate (mostly male) people who exerted a significant influence on the organisation’s direction. This was despite the arrangements in place at the time for the NC and, indeed, whether or not these individuals were part of it or not. The best way of judging an organisation is not whether there are such formal or informal “leaders”, but how genuine and sustained are the efforts to involve a wider group of members in decision making. I think Big Flame was always trying.

Although some individuals cited Lenin in their arguments for particular arrangements, the way the organisation functioned (under both the delegate and elected NC) was significantly different from the proclaimed Leninism of other organisations. It may have been in some respects a chaotic and not fully effective organisation. Maybe this was a fair price to pay for not adopting some of the alternatives.

Archive Archie

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EPISODES IN BIG FLAME HISTORY: No 11. 1976-78 Debate – The Project and Socialist Unity

Posted by archivearchie on June 30, 2009

78ConfMot-p1Episode 5 of this series covered a Big Flame internal debate in 1975. This post covers one aspect of the debate between 1976 and 1978 – how to create a larger organisation with others who had similar politics.

The history of Big Flame can be seen as an ongoing debate with members pulling in two directions – those striving to uphold Big Flame’s traditional political positions and those who felt these needed some form of revision. This is inevitably a simplification – sometimes there were more than two positions, the issues being debated often changed, and people moved in and out of the two camps – but it does help provide one key to understanding of the organisation’s development. There were no permanent names for the two groupings. In 1976 the labels Plans X and Y were used. Unlike 1975, the split was not a geographic one. For example, the three movers of the Plan X position came from West London, Liverpool and Leeds, whilst the three movers of Plan Y came from Liverpool, South London and Manchester.

The Project

The Plan X motion at the October 1976 Big Flame conference proposed what became known as the Project for a New Revolutionary Organisation. The starting point was that Big Flame’s politics had a lot to offer the working class, but were having little impact. This was because BF has a “small organisation mentality” and those who shared its politics were fragmented and isolated. There were many, perhaps without realising it, who shared the same ideas as BF (referred to as the working class autonomy tendency). To make a qualitative leap forward a new organisation was required which would be different from Big Flame simply growing. BF should be willing to dissolve itself within a year to help the new organisation come into being. The first step to bring potential members together would be to write a Manifesto/strategic programme.

Plan Y’s alternative approach was for political centralisation of leadership, ideas and resources. This together with systematic mass work inside key united fronts would enable Big Flame to grow steadily. The proposal for the Project was criticised. Plan Y supporters didn’t believe there was a semi-constituted political tendency similar to BF. They doubted whether several of the names mentioned in the Plan X document as people who could be approached had common politics with BF. The argued that trying to create a new organisation in a period of political defeat before and to stimulate a higher level of class struggle was a denial of materialism. Finally, they queried the suggestion that women’s and black groups should be approached to be part of the organisation was a misunderstanding of autonomy.

When the vote was taken, it was Plan X which won the day. Click here to view the two positions Towards a New Communist Movement [first part] (Plan X) and Put Politics in Command [first part] (Plan Y) [the second half of both document are omitted as they name a lot of individuals whom the Plan X document suggested could be approached to form part of the proposed new organisation].

DraftMan-p1In line with the motion passed at the 1976 Conference, in March 1977 Big Flame published a Draft Manifesto for the proposed new organisation Towards a New Revolutionary Socialist Organisation. It provides the best extended discussion of BF’s general politics ever published. The pamphlet contains an analysis of modern capitalism, the changing composition of the working class, the nature of reformism, an explanation of the terms mass politics and working class autonomy, and an understanding of the dynamic between party and class.

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

Towards a New Revolutionary Socialist Organisation: front-pviii

Towards a New Revolutionary Socialist Organisation: p1-p10

Towards a New Revolutionary Socialist Organisation: p11-back

The Project fizzled out with out much in the way of an explanation or balance sheet of the experience. There were some successes, as in West London where the local BF group’s contacts were brought together to create a large Socialist Network. But this was the exception. There was some growth in Big Flame – the Revolutionary Marxist Current (RMC) (see post about the RMC) and some individuals who responded to Project decided to join BF. However, this was very different from the original aim. Opponents of the Project repeated their criticisms: “The mistake of the project was to believe that BF could be the major centre and organisational focus for creating such a qualitatively different organisation. We simply do not have the political clarity, size and roots in the struggle to play such a role” (Internal Bulletin October 1977).

At the next Big Flame conference in May 1978, two motions were passed on left unity – one from former Plan X supporters and one from former Plan Y supporters. However, because of an amendment to the latter which inserted text from the former, the key sections of both motions were identical. The common text rejected regroupment, merger or reallignment as the solution and reflecting on the past few years stated “It has been a failing of BF to believe it could achieve such a project in isolation from the rest of the left, and in a relatively short space of time”. This replaced some text which was against regroupment as the fusion of existing organisations but added “we should be willing to unite with any force on the revolutionary left on given conditions”.

SULogoSocialist Unity

At a conference to assess developments with the Project in July 1977 Tariq Ali of the International Marxist Group (IMG) had invited Big Flame to participate in the IMG’s newspaper Socialist Challenge. Big Flame had already taken a decision in favour of standing independent working class candidates at elections, and in September 1977 supported an IMG candidate at a Parliamentary by-election in Birmingham. This led on to the IMG’s next proposal – for candidates to stand at Parliamentary and local elections under the name Socialist Unity (SU). A motion passed at the 1978 Big Flame conference confirmed BF’s position: “We should continue to support SU as a priority area of our work and continue with our perspective that it is more than an electoral alliance”. BF had argued with Socialist Unity for a continuing presence in an area after elections were over.

The Internal Bulletin included a series of articles on Socialist Unity. Nearly all of them described problems encountered working with the IMG. Several argued that Socialist Unity should not aim to be anything more than an electoral alliance. There is caution about Socialist Unity being seen as another “miracle solution” like the Project. Click here to view some of the articles from the debate.

Big Flame and Socialist Unity (Internal Bulletin October 1977)

The Debate on Socialist Unity (Internal Bulletin October 1977)

Socialist Unity (Internal Bulletin December 1977)

Socialist Unity: A Critical Assessment (newspaper June 1979)

Only the last article draws attention to one matter. However well it is felt things went locally in terms of independents being drawn into joint work, the overall voting figures were invariably disappointing. No better than those achieved by previous far left candidates at elections.

Big Flame decided not to participate in Socialist Challenge, keeping its own paper. When the IMG suggested unity talks between the two organisations and the ISA (International Socialists Alliance, a group of former International Socialists members – see post about the ISA), very few people in Big Flame had any sympathy with the idea, and the proposal was rejected. Soon after the overtures from the IMG came to an end, as it directed its attention to a “turn to industry” and then the Labour Party.

Those who had been most supportive of participation in SU believed it was “highly successful political initiative” improving BF’s profile on the left (Discussion Bulletin October 1978).The 1978 conference vote on supporting Socialist Unity had been overwhelming, with little in the way of opposition voices. In retrospect, some others in Big Flame came to see this phase in BF history as another step in the path away from its traditional positions. The mass work which had previously characterised BF had been “unconsciously undermined” by a series of debates about “joining with the IMG, joining Socialist Challenge, getting involved with Socialist Unity” (Discussion Bulletin October 1981), These debates were also seen as leading on to a later one about Labour Party membership. However, further discussion of this must wait until a later episode in this series (see Episode 27).

Archive Archie

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