Big Flame

1970-1984

Posts Tagged ‘Women / Feminism’

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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WOMEN’S STRUGGLE NOTES (Miscellaneous Big Flame Documents no 5)

Posted by archivearchie on July 29, 2010

This post is the fifth 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.

Elsewhere on this site I mentioned Women’s Struggle Notes (see the post on Women and Feminism Part 1). I would now like to consider it in more detail.

This publication first appeared in a duplicated format for around eight issues in 1975-76 and was described as being produced by the “Big Flame Women’s Group”. It was then replaced by a printed version for around another five issues in 1977. During the course of the second series the Editorial Board was expanded to include women who were not members of Big Flame. Responsibility for issues rotated between women from different parts of the country.

As the title implied the focus was on descriptive accounts of struggles. Most of the articles were fairly short. There was a particular emphasis on personal accounts.

This internal document written in 1976 during the lead up to the relaunch provides an insight into discussions about the publication: A New Struggle Notes and the Need for a Changed Perspective for Women. The author reviews the reasons for starting Women’s Struggle Notes (including wanting to build a working class perspective for women, particularly inside the women’s movement) and the criticisms which had been made about it (including not knowing who it was aimed at). She argued for a new direction, which seems to be the one agreed by Big Flame women, of aiming the publication primarily at working class women rather than the women’s movement, and expanding the editorial group to make the publication more than the voice of Big Flame.

A sample issue from the second series demonstrates the style and contents of Women’s Struggle Notes. There is no date on the cover, but it seems to have been published in the first half of 1977.It contains a typical mix of contents. Articles on struggles in a factory in Luton, a hospital in Liverpool, a Wives Support Group from Leicester, and an unfair dismissal case at a Leeds Grocers. Also articles on the experiences of black women, one parent families, and working in a nursery. Finally, articles on the Spanish Women’s Movement, Women’s Health and Housework, and some poetry.

Click here to read: Women’s Struggle Notes (second series) no2.

Archive Archie

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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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EPISODES IN BIG FLAME HISTORY: No 29. Women and Feminism Part 3

Posted by archivearchie on January 4, 2010

This Episode is the third and final selection of Big Flame documents on women and feminism. It covers the period 1982-84. The periods 1975-80 and 1980-81 having been examined in Episode 4 and Episode 17 of this series.

A previous post mentioned a Day School on Autonomy in July 1982 (see Episode 6). This covered the dual meanings of the term – working class autonomy and the autonomous movements. Here are two contributions to the latter aspect of the debate. One was written by a supporter of the “Facing the Challenge” tendency, the other the “Emerald Street” tendency (see Episode 27) for the general perspectives of these groupings).

On Autonomous Movements: Discussion Bulletin June-July 1982. Looks at a range of different autonomous movements and tries to identify a material basis for their growth. For the women’s movement, this is the contraceptive Pill. For the black movement, the struggle against colonialist rule. For the movement of disabled people, a technological revolution which provided the means to overcome physical limitations. The writer believes that movements based around these oppressions, whilst not free of economism, are less likely to be restricted by it in their struggles. This is because they come up against deep rooted power relations within the culture and organisation of society. The task for BF is seen as building a relationship with those sections of the movements with the most advanced understanding of their oppression and the most politically socialist.

On Women’s Autonomy: Women’s Bulletin Spring 1982. Detects a confused and distanced relationship with women’s oppression within BF. As her experience of oppression is as a woman, women’s struggles come first. She is also committed to revolutionary struggle as necessary for all oppressed groups. A hierarchy of struggles should be avoided. Men don’t have the experience to create feminist theory, although they should organise themselves to undertake anti-sexist work.

The final article was part of a discussion about a specific campaign of the early 1980s – an attempt to get the Labour Party to call for a demonstration around the slogan “A Women’s right to Work”, but it raises more general issue of the relationship with the Labour Party leadership and labour movement institutions.

Women’s Right to Work and the Labour Party: Women’s Bulletin Spring 1982. The author is not opposed to attempts to get the labour movement to organise around feminist issues (although in this case preferring an alternative slogan which would substitute “Waged Work” for “Work”). However, calling on the Labour leadership to organise around demands they don’t believe in places too much reliance on that leadership and runs the danger of reducing popular participation and sacrificing the strength of women.

Archive Archie

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

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EPISODES IN BIG FLAME HISTORY: No 19. Sexual Politics and Life Part 2 – Men’s Politics

Posted by archivearchie on October 26, 2009

Men79May-p1One of the earliest anti-sexist (or pro-feminist) Men’s Groups in Britain was established by members of East London Big Flame around the end of 1973, which led on to the East London Men’s Group. As discussed in Episode 5 of this series, ELBF parted company with the rest of Big Flame in 1975. Two ex-ELBF men were afterwards involved in setting up a “magazine of men’s politics” Achilles Heel in 1978. The publication ran for 24 issues until 1999. Around the early 1980s the editorial group involved two different men who were part of North London Big Flame.

Here are some extracts from the discussions which occurred in BF over the years on “men’s politics”.

Following the first couple of issues of Achilles Heel an article appeared in the Big Flame paper May 1979 issue: Why a Men’s Movement? (article). It is sympathetic to the emerging Men’s Movement and wants revolutionary organisations to adopt “these new insights into sexuality”. There is a discussion of the debate about whether men are oppressed or not. This was a position some men in the Men’s Movement advocated, whilst others strongly rejected it.

Two articles appeared in the Discussion Bulletin of February 1981: Is a Men Against Sexism Politics Needed? and The Problem of Men in Big Flame. The authors argued that a “men against sexism politics” is urgently needed, with men taking responsibility for supporting feminism in practice.

Back to the paper and an article in the May 1982 issue: Anti Sexist Practice!  This outlines some of the things men could do to make anti-sexism a priority in their political work. Particular political importance is assigned to childcare.

A women member of BF responded in a letter in the July-August 1982 issue of the paper to some of the articles which had been written by men: Why a Men’s Movement? (letter). She believes that there can’t be a men’s movement because men are not oppressed, and finds the concept “dangerous”. Men should focus on taking anti-sexism into the areas of struggle they are already involved in, and participating in childcare as a way of supporting women.

Finally in the Discussion Bulletin of March 1983 the Women’s Commission responded to a proposal for an Anti-Sexist Commission in Big Flame: Why the Women’s Commission are against an Anti Sexist Commission. Their objection is that this would mean women taking responsibility for working out men’s positions. Instead men should use men’s meetings to understand their sexism and develop anti-sexist practice.

Archive Archie

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

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EPISODES IN BIG FLAME HISTORY: No 17. Women and Feminism Part 2

Posted by archivearchie on October 12, 2009

WomConfDBEpisode 4 of this series contained the two Big Flame pamphlets on women, published in 1975 and 1980. Episode 16 included two articles on feminist issues from the journal Revolutionary Socialism, published in 1978 and 1980. This post provides a further selection of short articles on feminist issues from 1980-81, with a particular focus on the topic of women in Big Flame. A later post will contain a selection of articles to cover the final phase of BF’s life (see Episode 29).

A Day Return Ticket – Written for an educational session at the 1980 Big Flame Summer School.

Provides a quick guided tour of attempts to develop a Marxist feminism theory, including writers like Juliet Mitchell, Mary McIntosh and contributors to the domestic labour debate of the 1970s. Argues that many theorists have started off with Marxism and tried to fit women in. thus neglecting the fact that women’s oppression has a different logic to capital. A theory of patriarchy needs to be developed first. When this is worked out the interrelation with class can be considered.

Socialist-Feminism Today – From the 1981 Big Flame Women’s Conference Bulletin.

Looks at what is happening to a divided women’s movement after two years of Conservative Government. In particular, operating in separate women’s groups around particular issues, and working in mixed campaigns like CND or the Labour party to riase women’s issues.

Big Flame Discussion Paper for the NAC Conference 1980 – From the Discussion Bulletin May 1980.

Agues that NAC needs to be a mass campaign with an orientation towards the labour movement, but that to assert women’s autonomy local NAC groups need to be women only. This is the document mentioned in Episode 12 which caused, at least temporarily, a dispute between the National Committee and the Women’s Commission.

The remaining four articles are part of a discussion about women being members of Big Flame (which included an ultimatum at the 1980 conference that women would leave the organisation unless it genuinely integrated feminism within its politics). This discussion is worth considering in some detail as important questions were raised about the membership of women in mixed organisations.

Big Flame Socialist Feminist Perspective – Two related document from a 1980 Conference Bulletin.

Maintains that up to 1976 Big Flame made an important contribution to feminist politics, but since then it has played no significant role. This is associated with a decline in women’s power in the organisation. Details changes which would enable BF to keep women in the organisation.

Women and Big Flame –  A response to the previous articles in another 1980 Conference Bulletin.

Shares the approach of the previous pair of articles, but disagrees with the suggestion that Big Flame has played no significant role post 1976. Mentions the involvement of BF women in Health Fightback, NAC and anti-imperialist women’s groups. Also includes suggestions of ways of improving the functioning of the Women’s Commission.

Women in Big Flame: Some Considerations – From the 1981 Big Flame Women’s Conference Bulletin.

Argues that current problems stem from a critical ambiguity in Big Flame’s politics. This is about the functioning of autonomous organisation of oppressed groups within and outside revolutionary organisations. The prefigurative efforts of BF, such as those around childcare, are very partial. Autonomous organisation does leave women in Big Flame free to discuss whatever they wish free from male pressures. Concludes with some proposals to reduce the marginality of women both as a feeling and in practice.

Women in Big Flame and Elsewhere – Notes of a women’s meeting, perhaps a workshop at the 1981 Women’s conference.

Discusses such issues as women as parents, their double workload and the “male methods” implicit in Big Flame’s structures. Maintains that their aim is not to simply list problems which weigh them down. Rather to establishing their general experience, building understanding which could alter the politics of BF to make it more accessible to women.

However I think that it is fair to say whatever the intention, all these contributions to the debate are better at outlining problems rather than identifying solutions. Those solutions presented are often quite sketchy and usually structural changes.

Archive Archie

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

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EPISODES IN BIG FLAME HISTORY: No 16. The Journal

Posted by archivearchie on October 5, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1968: Ten Years On No2. Spring 1978

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

Youth Politics & Youth Culture No2. Spring 1978

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

A Woman’s Right to Choose No2. Spring 1978

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

Feminism and the Socialist Alternative No5. Summer 1980

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

Crisis of the Revolutionary Left in Europe No5. Summer 1980

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

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

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

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

Archive Archie

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

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

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

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

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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 4. Women and Feminism Part 1

Posted by archivearchie on May 12, 2009

Big Flame probably made a more serious and sustained effort to incorporate feminism into the organisation than any other British left group of the 1970s and 1980s (If you think I’m wrong, please nominate your contender). This doesn’t mean that things were easy. There were failings, fierce arguments and confrontations along the way. A useful short overview about women in the group is available in an article in the Discussion Bulletin of February 1981. It covers, for example, the interventions by Big Flame women at Women’s Liberation Movement conferences in the 1970s, and the successes and failures of raising feminism within Big Flame. Click here to view the article  History of women’s movement within BF (warning: this may take over a minute to appear).

 Tower Hill

Tower March

From the summer of 1972 women in Merseyside Big Flame started meeting together. By the end of the year, they had formed an autonomous women’s group. Many women withdrew from other base groups, such as the Ford’s one, to focus on the women’s group. The group’s first major intervention was on a Council estate called Tower Hill, outside Liverpool in Kirkby – an estate with 2,500 homes.

The National Government had introduced the Housing Finance Act 1972. This promoted so-called “fair rents”, whereby local Councils would be forced in stages to increase rents according to the value of the house as if it were for sale on an open housing market. The Act came into force on the 2nd October 1972. Rent strikes by tenants followed. One of the most militant was in Tower Hill. 3,000 tenants started a total rent strike on the 9th October 1972. The protest lasted until 24th December 1973. The Big Flame women didn’t live on the estate, and were therefore external militants. They worked with women living in Tower Hill to form a women’s group on the estate.

Tower-p1

Women in Big Flame wrote an account of the struggle in Tower Hill. It does not claim to be a full account of the rent strike, focusing on the role of the Women’s Group and Big Flame. It was first published in Big Flame Journal no1 Winter 1974/75. Then it was reissued as a separate pamphlet in 1975. Click here to view We Won’t Pay (warning: this may take over a minute to appear).

  

  

 

 

 

 

Walking a Tightrope

Tightrope-p1

In 1980 women in Big Flame produced another pamphlet. Its title is explained by this quote: “We are always walking a fine line – between seeing the need for autonomous movements, and seeing the need for a mixed national organisation such a Big Flame. We want our organisation to be a place where we can work out ideas together, make links between the different struggles, understand the relationship between sex and class, and generalise our politics. We are producing this pamphlet despite the difficulties, because we feel it’s vital to walk that line, vital to develop an approach which many people share with us, and we feel confident enough that those links can be made. We do not have all the answers, but we would like to think that we have a specific contribution to make in pointing out ways of fighting as feminists and socialists under this Tory government”.

The pamphlet has sections on male violence, community, work, imperialism and other topics. Click here to view the pamphlet – split into three parts (warning: these may take over a minute to appear):

Walking a Tightrope: front-p11 

Walking a Tightrope: p12-p25

Walking a Tightrope: p26-back

Women’s Struggle Notes

In addition to the two pamphlets, there was a periodical called Women’s Struggle Notes. It first appeared in a duplicated format for around eight issues in 1975-76. It reappeared in a printed version for around another five issues in 1977. The first series was attributed to “Big Flame Women’s Group” and the second “an open editorial group of women”, some members of Big Fame and some not. The publication was made up of short articles. Many of them about workplace struggles, but also on topics like housework, health, rape and sexuality.

Some Internal Debates

Inside BF a variety of debates can be found in the Internal Bulletin and other internal documents. This post will focus on that about Wages for Housework and an independent state income for women.

The first phase of the debate was about Wages for Housework. This was a demand first made around 1972. The writings of Mariarosa Dalla Costa, of the Italian group Lotta Feminista, and a British group the Power of Women Collective, played important roles in developing a campaign around the slogan. Here are four contributions to a debate in BF which followed:

Introduction to Meeting of Liverpool Big Flame Women’s Group on Wages for Housework (internal document 1976)

Why Wages for Housework is not Enough (Internal Bulletin April 1976)

A Reply to CD’s Document on Wages for Housework (Internal Bulletin May 1976)

Wages for Housework is not Enough but is Necessary (Internal Bulletin May 1976)

The author of the first article argued in favour of supporting the demand on the grounds that the position of women will not change without them being economically independent and housework being recognized as work. In the second article another women in BF responded not disagreeing with the ideas behind the demand, but felt it lacked the ability to help organize working class power contained in other demands such as A Woman’s Right to Chose (for example in her own situation in a hospital). Also the sectarian behaviour of Power of Women would mean that BF would have to spend endless hours justifying how BF’s demand was different from their’s.

The third article takes a stronger position against Wages for Housework. She argues that feminists must find ways of destroying capitalism’s ability to define women in ways that suit it. They need to struggle against capital’s organisation of work and not work itself. Housework should be socialized on our terms. The original writer returns to the debate in the fourth article. She accepts that Wages for Housework in not enough, but thinks it is right. She sees no alternative to the demand in a society where women are tied to housework. Wages for Housework and the socialisation of housework go together, rather than being alternatives.

Whatever the views of some individuals, Big Flame as a group never endorsed the demand of Wages for Housework. It did come out in support of an independent state income for women. The demand for guarantied independent income was seen as a way of developing the Women’s Liberation Conference’s support for legal and financial independence. Apparently, its origins lay in discussion with housewives from the Tower Hill estate, near Liverpool. At the October 1976 Big Flame Conference the demand was adopted in the following form: “guaranteed, adequate, independent income for all women, including housewives”. It was accompanied by three other demands for “the socialisation of housework, paid for by the state, controlled by the working class”; for “housework to be paid for by the state, whoever does it and wherever it is done”; and “no division of labour between men and women, both inside and outside the home”. The case for this position is argued in this document: Women’s Commission Report to Big Flame Conference 1976 (conference document 1976).

The supporters of the position maintained that it was not the same as Wages for Housework. It did not assume that housework is done by women. Nevertheless, a lot of women in the organisation were unhappy with the approach, and debate continued up to the May 1978 Conference. A new set of demands emerged which aimed to make even clearer that housework was not women’s work, by amending the most ambiguous of the demands. The proposed new position was:

  • A rewording of one demand to read “an independent income for all” i.e. omitting the references to both women and housewives.
  • Dropping the position on housework being paid for by the state and replacing it by one of the state providing money and facilities to make housework easier.
  • Retaining “the socialisation of housework”, but replacing the reference to working class control to community control.
  • Keeping the same wording in relation to “no division of Labour”.
  • Adding a new demand for no cuts and an increase in the social wage.

The supporters of the previous position originally opposed the change, then well in line with the proposals. The Conference adopted the new five demands. No subsequent BF Conference made further changes to this position. However, the 1980 pamphlet Walking a Tightrope does not mention the demand for independent state income.

After the conference another writer sought to take the debate about domestic labour in a different direction: Housework: Its Role in Capitalist Relations of Production and in Revolutionary Strategy (Internal Bulletin June 1977). She argued that BF had theorised about the role of housework without much link to practice. In the struggle against housework, unlike other sectors of struggle, too much emphasis had been placed on money and not enough on structure. Those fighting for a revolution needed to ensure that the manner of the servicing and reproduction of the workforce is not neglected in the new society. Books by Ann Oakley and Delia Davin are examined for the beginnings of a new perspective.

Archive Archie

Notes:

(1) This is the first part of a three part series covering gender issues and Big Flame. See Episode 17  and Episode 29.

(2) This post was amended on October 29, 2009. The second half from the sub heading “Women’s Struggle Notes” downwards was added

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