In Episode 11 I wrote that a simplified version of 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”. Unfortunately, it is difficult to come up with simple and accurate labels for the currents. The first one (who I will here call the “defenders”) was much less active at Big Flame Conferences during this period, compared to the previous one or the one which followed. The second (the “revisers”) did aim to make an major impact at Conferences during these years.
The November 1979 Conference was unique in the history of Big Flame in that the only general perspectives motion came from the National Committee (NC) as a whole, rather than one or more of the different currents.
Here is the motion: Motion on Perspectives and Priorities. It argued that strategic goal was to break the cycle of Tory and Labour governments pursuing anti-working class policies. “We must resist the drift on the Left to channelling struggles through the Labour Party and placing demands on them and the Labour Left which reinforce illusions”. The goal is to build the socialist opposition in the working class. Although BF was small, it has a key political role to play.
Also on the Conference agenda was a document from some of the “revisers”. Here is the document: Theses on Reformism. This defined reformism as those who didn’t base themselves on class struggle or seek to destroy the capitalist state, and includes the parties of the old Third International which had adopted Euro-Communism. Various approaches to reformism are examined such as the orthodox Trotskyist one, with the poles of entryism and exposure. They are criticised for failing to see reformism as a “multi-levelled phenomenon” which “reproduces itself in everyday life”. The authors argue that a perspective on reformism is necessary to “aid our political work”.
The Theses were not voted on. A procedural motion was passed welcoming them as a “useful contribution” and calling on the NC to organise a detailed discussion.
The “revisers” were unhappy with the outcome of the conference, principally because of what they saw as a kicking into the long grass of the “Theses on Reformism”, and the passing of a motion on “Socialist Alternatives”. This gave a very qualified welcome to alternative plans such as that of the Lucas Aerospace Combine Committee. It stated that there were ”no socialist alternatives to running capitalism” and “nothing inherently anti-capitalist” about alternative plans. Although, according to the motion, they could be supported if they helped fight closures and provided propaganda for socialism.
Tendencies in BF were formalised for the first time in the constitution passed at the 1978 conference. The idea of setting one up had first been floated with the publication of the documents “Has Big Flame got a Future?” in October 1978 and “Seizing the Power” in January 1979. It wasn’t pursued. Now in March 1980 an Appeal to establish a tendency was published, followed by a Statement, taking the name Tendency One, in the Discussion Bulletin of July 1980. In the Appeal a tendency was described as a group of people within an organisation with common positions on specific aspects of an organisation’s politics, and work openly to develop it further.
Here is the Statement: Statement of the Political Basis for the Formation of a Tendency In Big Flame. The political basis of the tendency is defined in terms of three points: (a) transitional politics (linking short term demands to the long term struggle for socialism); (b) revolutionary strategy on reformism (including favouring a Left Labour government as aiding the development of class struggle) and (c) central role of revolutionary organisation (against any moves towards federalism and for rebuilding BF’s interventionist capacity). The launching of the Tendency produced a hostile response from some in BF, in part because they felt that the creation of such a grouping was against the BF tradition.
The Big Flame Conference of December 1980 saw a debate between Tendency One, and a position argued by members of one local group North London, which does not fall neatly into the “revisers”/”defenders” dichotomy.
Here is the Tendency One document: Towards a Transitional Strategy: Prospects for Class Struggle. This includes a good analysis of Thatcherism (coming in only the second year of the Thatcher government), whilst continuing the arguments included in the Statement. It maintains that it is in favour of socialist alternatives, not in abstract, but as revolutionary interventions in class struggle. The Statement argues that the relationship between local struggles and the state at national and local level cannot be bypassed.
Here is an alternative position signed by some members of the North London group: A Contribution towards a General Direction for Big Flame. As subsequent events demonstrated, the signatories probably covered a range of different positions, rather than a fully united one. The document talks of a “reassessment” of BF’s politics, but the document is better described as a consolidation of the past. It aims to emphasise some positions formally supported, but not taken seriously enough in the past. The document describes itself as a limited “ungrand” conception of political strategy and seeks an integration of socialism and feminism. It sees much of the talk of socialist alternatives as putting a lot of different ideas in one bag, and advocates them as a form of organising rather than abstract programmic exercises.
One of the signatories of the North London position wrote a document of his own in response to those of the Tendency: Comments on the Tendency Motions and Documents. The Tendency are criticised for the language used to dismiss previous BF positions as “stale, unimaginative … negative … conservative”, and for adding feminism on to the end of motions rather than integrating it within them. Its discussion of socialist alternatives is said to remain abstract, rather than looking at specific plans. The approach to reformism is felt to be too close to the Trotskyist one, with the insight that reformism is reproduced in everyday life never developed.
Supporters of Tendency One and North London argued that their positions were incompatible, and that the Conference should vote for only one of them. This wasn’t accepted by those present and the motions from both were passed overwhelmingly.
The two motions took are more sympathetic approach to alternative plans than the previous year’s one. Tendency One said: “we fight for counter planning from below and workers’ plans, the design and production of socially useful goods, and production for use value”. According to North London (as amended): “Big Flame will call for and support workers’ plans in workplaces where their development seem appropriate and useful. … We also recognise that workers’ plans, by themselves, cannot constitute a general strategy for workplace struggles, and the form and content of counter planning will vary according to the needs of the situation”.
As mentioned above, the “defenders” current didn’t submit a general perspective document or motion in these years. In the Discussion Bulletin February 1981, one of the current’s supporters wrote about the 1980 Conference. He criticised both motions on the grounds they were vague, written in difficult language, and unclear what they meant in practical terms. This perspective was probably shared by others from this current.
The Reformism and Transitional Politics discussions led on to another one about the Labour Party (see a future episode in this series – see Episode 27).
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.