Big Flame

1970-1984

Posts Tagged ‘Shop Stewards’

LOTTA CONTINUA Part 3 (Related Political Organisatons no 2)

Posted by archivearchie on May 24, 2011

I posted on this site a brief review of the history and positions of Lotta Continua. I then followed this up in Lotta Continua Part 2 by making available some articles written by or about Lotta Continua from the Big Flame Internal Bulletin. I now want to conclude this series (unless something more BF/LC related which I don’t know about turns up) with two items I have obtained since the last post. Another internal document and a pamphlet published by West London Big Flame.

Discussion with Lotta Continua members no3

I previously published two sets of notes of conversations between BF and LC members from the BF Internal Bulletin. This discussion predates them. The discussions took place in January 1974 before Big Flame had an Internal Bulletin: Italy 1973.

Sections of the notes set out LC’s views on contemporary developments in Italian politics (the fall of one coalition Government and its replacement by another) and the Oil Crisis. Of more interest today are the Lotta Continua members’ responses to three questions from BF:

–   Changes in its attitude towards factory delegates (equivalent to shop stewards in Britain). With the failure of autonomous assemblies LC members were standing for delegate positions, but not feeling obliged to follow the decisions of delegate committees.

–   Its attitude towards the Italian Communist Party (PCI). The LC members took from developments in Chile the importance of the space created by the Allende Government in supporting the formation of bodies like the cordones obreros. Their strategy was for working class pressure to force the PCI into some form of Popular Unity Government (this was despite the PCI having shifted its position in favour of the “historic compromise” of an alliance with forces to its right).

–   Its attitude towards women’s struggles. This was answered by a women LC comrade who was angry with LC’s lack of a perspective on women. She said it was up to women in LC to change this situation. Her remarks are interesting in the light of developments in Lotta Continua in the years which followed.

Documents from the 1975 Lotta Continua Congress

Libcom has posted a pamphlet produced by West London Big Flame: Fighting for Feminism: The ‘Women Question’ in an Italian Revolutionary Group. The local group also produced another Lotta Continua related pamphlet.

Lotta Continua only ever had two National Congresses. It fell apart after the second in 1976. What happened there is recorded in detail in Il 2. Congresso di Lotta Continua, Rimini, 31 ottobre- 4 novembre (Rome: Edizion Co-op Giornalisti LC, 1976). Extracts in English can be found in the Red Notes pamphlet Italy 1977-9: Living with an Earthquake pp 81-96. The West London BF pamphlet covers the earlier Congress which was held in 1975: Documents from Lotta Continua.

Despite Lotta Continua being formed in 1969, it did not hold its first national meeting to constitute itself as a party until January 1975. Three Big Flame members attended as observers. The pamphlet is in three parts:

–   A brief summary of the Congress by BF.

–   Translations of some of the key Congress documents – on Materialism, on Tactics, on Internationalism and on the LC Newspaper.

–   Notes by a BF member on the Workshop on Women. This shows the diversity of opinions held by LC women members, some fairly critical of the organisation.

Archive Archie

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FISHER BENDIX (Miscellaneous Big Flame Documents no 11)

Posted by archivearchie on February 28, 2011

This post is the eleventh in an occasional series. This site already contains a large number of documents produced by Big Flame or its members. Most can be found in the 30 posts in Episodes in Big Flame History. Each post contains links to documents which relate to its theme. Links to the same documents are also listed on the website’s Publications page  this time sorted by type – pamphlets, journals, newspaper, internal documents.

This series aims to add to these documents by making available others I find interesting which didn’t fit with any of the post themes, were overlooked when the posts were written, or a copy was not available to me at the time of the post.

The Fisher Bendix factory in Kirkby, Merseyside produced washing machines, radiators, gas fires and other items. It was taken over by Thorn Electrical in May 1971, who followed a policy of redundancies and transferring production elsewhere. There was a nine week strike in June 1971. This was followed in January 1972 by a five week occupation. This led to government intervention and a promise by the company to retain the workforce and keep the factory open to the end of 1973. Things came to a head again in July 1974 with the factory going into receivership and another two week occupation. This in turn led to the factory being handed over to a co-operative – KME (Kirkby Manufacturing and Engineering). This survived on government subsidies until they were withdrawn. KME was sold off to the private sector in 1980. Immediately the factory was closed and the machinery sold.

In 1972 Big Flame was just coming together as a political organisation, formed out of a previous Merseyside alternative newspaper. Its politics were still developing. Fisher Bendix is notable for one of Big Flame’s rare public debates with another political organisation. The impetus was a pamphlet published by Solidarity (London) and written by Joe Jacobs following a visit to the January/February 1972 occupation: Under New Management? The Fisher-Bendix Occupation.

This prompted a response from Big Flame: Letter to Solidarity. This is very short (a page and a half), and makes the point that Solidarity only spoke to the Occupation Committee, and confused the workers with the shop stewards. For BF the occupation had maintained a distinction between an active minority and a passive majority, and suggested that several workers had been very critical of the Committee.

This prompted a much longer response by Maurce Brinton (Chris Pallis) in a new pamphlet Solidarity and the Neo-Narodniks. As far as I am aware BF never responded to the pamphlet. Certainly the label applied to BF “neo-Narodnik” is the most interesting one the organisation BF received (a refreshing change from the more usual “soft Maoist”). I don’t really want here to defend, or otherwise, the Big Flame of 1972. Rather to set out a bit more its perspectives on the Fisher Bendix occupation.

The main place to find this is in a two sided A3 broadsheet issued during the 1972 occupation: Bendix: How the workers took over. It contains quotes from interviews with some workers about the day the occupation started (also emphasising how it was a much better weapon than a strike as more people were involved) and a statement from the Occupation Committee. There is some commentary from Big Flame which makes these main points:

–     The occupation snowballed from what began as a march of just 18 workers.

–     Some young workers displayed a new attitude – no longer willing to leave things to shop stewards.

–     The lesson to others was to occupy their workplaces to fight redundancies.

Archive Archie

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HOW TO FIGHT THEM (Miscellaneous Big Flame Documents no 1)

Posted by archivearchie on March 24, 2010

This post is the first in what will be an occasional series. This site already contains a large number of documents produced by Big Flame or its members. Most can be found in the 30 posts in Episodes in Big Flame History. Each post contains links to documents which relate to its theme. Links to the same documents are also listed on the website’s Publications page, this time sorted by type – pamphlets, journals, newspaper, internal documents.

The first document is “How To Fight Them” from early 1971. It took the form of a two sided broadsheet, slightly larger than A2.

It was published between the demise of first Merseyside newspaper called Big Flame (produced by a coalition of those on the left) in October 1970 and the relaunch of the new Big Flame (produced by a new group of the same name) in June 1972. See the post on The Beginning in the “Episodes in Big Flame History” series.

The first side of the broadsheet “How To Fight Them” focuses on how to fight bosses in the workplace. The second “How Not To Fight Them” looks at the Government’s Industrial Relations Bill and the response of the trade unions and the Labour party.

There is no date given in the broadsheet, but it contains lots of clues. The Industrial Relations Bill, was first presented to Parliament on the 1st December 1970, with the Act becoming operative on the 5th August 1971. There is a mention of it being “5 months” since the Bill came out, suggesting the broadsheet was produced in April 1971. This date fits well with the mentions of the power and postal worker strikes as recent defeats (they happened between Dec 1970 and Feb 1971).

What makes “How to Fight Them” particularly interesting is that it is the clearest statement of Big Flame’s general perspectives before the publication in 1977 of the Draft Manifesto for a proposed new organisation Towards a New Revolutionary Socialist Organisation. See the post on The Project and Socialist Unity.

The broadsheet contains many of the themes which would come to characterise BF:

–                An emphasis on workers’ self organisation.

–                The advocacy of forms of industrial action which raise issues of control.

–                An understanding of trade union leaders which seems the problem as one of the system rather than with individuals.

–                A suspicion of left groups which proclaim themselves the leadership of the working class.

There are other aspects of the politics of the broadsheet where BF changed over the years:

–                The focus is almost entirely on workplace struggles with only a couple of passing references to struggles in the community, and no mention of women.

–                The perspective for what is happening in the workplace seems the world almost exclusively in terms of mass assembly production lines.

–                Whilst the need to involve rank and file militants is stressed there are no criticisms of shop stewards. Soon after the broadsheet was published Big Flame  adopted a critical line on shop stewards, strongly influenced by events at Ford Halewood. Later on, this position was also modified. See the post on Industry and Workplace.

–                The desirability of a “revolutionary movement” is mentioned, although there is little clue of what this might entail apart from possibly a coming together of “Councils of Action”. The form of organisation required by the working class to achieve a transition to socialism was the subject of further debate in BF over they years. See the post on Party and Class.

Because of the size of the broadsheet it was not possible to do a normal scan of it. So I’ve cut and pasted the text into an A4 document, keeping the original graphics. Click here to read: How To Fight Them.

Archive Archie

Update (31/8/2010): A new version of the attached document How to Fight Them has been uploaded which corrects the small gaps of missing text in the previous version.

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OPINIONS ABOUT BIG FLAME no 2: PAUL THOMPSON

Posted by archivearchie on July 17, 2009

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

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

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

Socialist Register draft article

BIG FLAME: HISTORY AND POLITICS

1. THE EMERGENCE OF A NEW POLITICS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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EPISODES IN BIG FLAME HISTORY: No 3. Industry and Workplace

Posted by archivearchie on May 6, 2009

Big Flame gave an extremely high importance to struggles at the point of production, especially in its early days.

 Base Groups

 The early Big Flame adopted the base group model derived from sections of the Italian left like Lotta Continua. The aim of these interventions was to target activity at the mass of workers (often the deskilled line worker) rather than to work through union structures. Instead of a political group deciding that its members would get jobs in a factory (as has been the practice with some groups), the intervention was initiated by external militants who developed regular contact with those working at the factory. The basic activity was regular factory gate leafleting. Through this workers were invited to open meetings, where they had the final way over the content of the next leaflet. This is because it is the workers who have the understanding of what was going on in the plant. The aim was that the workers would develop confidence and power, and eventually take over the group. No pressure was put on them to be recruited to the organisation (this is true of Big Flame at least, during this period). 

In October 1971 Merseyside Big Flame established three base groups. One was at the Ford Halewood plant in Liverpool. The other two groups – at Standard Triumph (another car plant) and Plessey (telecommunications) – only lasted a short period. Other Big Flame interventions in the motor industry followed Ford Halewood. Ford Dagenham (near East London) in January 1973 (by people who later formed East London Big Flame), British Leyland Longbridge (Birmingham) in January 1975) and Ford Langley (near West London) in February 1975.

As of 1975 the situation at Ford Halewood was: 2 external militants who had this work as their main area of political activity, 1 Ford worker member, 3 other Ford workers consistently attending base group educational meetings, another 30 Ford workers consistently attending open meetings and around 120 copies of Big Flame newspaper sold at the plant.

This document, a report to the October 1976 Big Flame Conference, gives a vivid picture of base group activity on a day to day basis.Click here to view Ford Halewood Report (warning: this may take over a minute to appear).

By 1979 Big Flame’s Ford Halewood intervention had suffered a serious decline, with the base group gone. The problem with the base group approach was its dependence on the external militants. If they moved away from the area, got a job or were burnt out by continuous activity, the intervention suffered a serious blow. Later Big Flame workplace interventions were almost always through members working in the sector.

 Shop Stewards

The original (1970) Big Flame newspaper involved left stewards who wrote for the paper. However, in 1971 Big Flame reassessed its position on stewards. A strike at Ford Halewood over the sacking of a militant steward met with a lack of enthusiasm from the other stewards.

StewardsCS-p1 In 1973 Big Flame published two pamphlets Shop Stewards and the Class Struggle and Five Months of Struggle at Halewood. The former set out a critical perspective on shop stewards (as opposed to others at the time like the International Socialists who were promoting them as a key element of the struggle). Stewards were increasingly being integrated into the union hierarchy and management. They were encouraging passive delegation and holding back working class autonomy. The second pamphlet developed a similar argument in the specific context of Ford Halewood. Click here to view Shop Stewards and Class Struggle (warning: this may take over a minute to appear).

 Two of the six sections of Five Months of Struggle at Halewood were republished as “Shop Stewards at Ford” in the US magazine Radical America. Click here to view Radical America September-October 1974 issue  at the magazine’s archive on the web. (The article can be found at pp119-139 of the magazine, pp121-141 of the document). 

Big Flame later clarified its position on stewards, recognising that not all workplaces were like the motor industry. The approach to shop stewards, indeed whether or not to become a steward, depended on where you worked. Click here to view Reply to a Letter to Big Flame, reprinted from the May 1977 Internal Bulletin (warning: this may take over a minute to appear). A similar perspective was set out in a 1977 pamphlet The Working Class, the Unions and Mass Practice.

Workplace Organising

  organising-p1 Car plants were not the only place Big Flame organised. Hospitals were another early priority. By that late 1970s there were Big Flame members involved in struggle at a wide variety of workplaces including rail, the mines, engineering and the public sector such as local government.

 In 1979 Big Flame published a pamphlet Organising to Win which brought together the experience of workplace activists. It aimed to be a manual on how to win struggles in a difficult period.

Click here to view the pamphlet – split into three parts (warning: they may take over a minute to appear)

Organising to Win: Intro and Ch 1-2

Organising to Win: Ch 3-5

Organising to Win: Ch 6-9 

 

 Archive Archie

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