Big Flame

1970-1984

Posts Tagged ‘Working Class Autonomy’

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.

Read the rest of this entry »

Advertisements

Posted in Opinions about Big Flame | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

EPISODES IN BIG FLAME HISTORY: No 28. The Local State

Posted by archivearchie on December 28, 2009

Over the years Big Flame members were involved in many struggles  for better local government services, or to defend those already provided from cuts in expenditure. A major influence in the late 70s/80s on the left’s perspective on local government and community struggles came from some books published around that time (see 1960s And 70s British Left Libertarianism: A Reading List) for some of the most significant).

In and Against the State

Cynthia Cockburn’s The Local State: Management of Cities and People published by Pluto in 1977 was one of the first to appear. However, probably the most influential was In and Against the State by the London Edinburgh Weekend Return Group. This was self published in 1979, then reissued by Pluto Press the next year. The name is derived from the fact that most of the authors lived in London or Edinburgh, and travelled by rail to one or the other of these cities to work on the publication. Many Left discussions of the state, both at the time and since, make references to the book. However, I sometimes wonder if the commentators have read further than the title. The book is presented as if it was a call to get involved with the state, including standing for elections. Rather the book is about the difficulties of struggling on the terrain of something whose every aspect reflects capitalist social relations. It does recognise that for some on the left this is their form of employment (indeed most of the authors were academics), so they need to find some way of challenging those social relations.

Two reviews from within Big Flame did recognise what the book was actually about. The newspaper for February 1980 included a review of In and Against the State: Working for the State . Describing the book as “well worth a read”, the review focuses on its analysis of the way the state perpetuates capitalist social relations between people and how difficult it is to organise within it. The book also provides “good and useful examples” of struggles which show what socialist forms of organising might be.

The journal Revolutionary Socialism also reviewed the book (along with two other publications) in as “Struggling Against the State: Three New Contributions” in its Winter 1980-81 issue. The book is said to provide a “valuable understanding” of the nature of the capitalist state and recent developments in Britain. This review also highlights the book’s focus of the way the state reproduces social relations. As important as what the state does (for example delivering welfare services) is how it does it (confirming the regulation and control over people’s lives). Like the other review, this one notes the books emphasis on struggles which embody prefigurative politics.

Big Flame Discussions of the Local State

The Local State and the Public Sector: Discussion Bulletin April 1981. This article is a briefing on developments in local government. It looks back on five years of cuts to capital expenditure and in Rate Support Grant settlements, and forward to planned Tory legislation which will cap the budgets of individual authorities. It mentions many anti-cuts struggles that were underway at the time, and it sceptical of those campaigns led by Councils. They are seen as having undermined their position with previous rate rises and unlikely at the end of the day to defy the government. The task is to “rescue the kernel of communism that lies within the concept of services and public works run for use rather than profit”. There is a fleeting reference to In and Against the State, seeing as having a major weakness in its neglect of working inside trade unions.

In 1981 a minority of Big Flame left the organisation and joined the Labour Party (see Episode 27). This included many of those BF members who saw the greatest potential in intervening in the local state. One those who left, a supporter of the “Group of Nine” wrote in the Discussion Bulletin in October 1981: “The political approach I am trying to describe means that socialist organising has to ‘in and against the state’.” This was a passing remark. The author didn’t go into any detail of how the “socialist reforms” he desired might be achieved, or the dangers inherent in following this path.

Over the next few years those who remained BF members wrote a number of articles very sceptical of initiatives originating from left Labour Councils.

Working in the Welfare State: Discussion Bulletin June-July 1982. Written from the perspective of someone working in the Housing Department for Hackney Council in London. At the time the newly elected left Labour Council was seeking to decentralised services. The author believes that management hierarchy stifles the energy and enthusiasm of staff, and that Labour Councils carry out cuts in a “more insidious and subtle manner” than the Tories. He believes that the focus on decentralisation was “a way of avoiding problems”, but also suggests that the trade union response of seeing it as an opportunity for more jobs and better grading wasn’t adequate either. The author wonders about the way to applying BF’s politics of “autonomy”, and suggests a demand for a reduction in the number and tiers of management.

Hackney Goes local … Or Decentralisation for Beginners: Discussion Bulletin January 1983. This consists of notes of a discussion between BF members about the Hackney experience. The Council see decentralisation as something to win support against cuts. Instead it is more likely to produce frustration. People are likely to be co-opted and the power of trade unions fragmented. If BF is to get involved it has to be “in a way that encourages joint action to go further than the LP would like” and raise real issues of control over power and resources.

Decentralisation: Labour’s Conjuring Trick: Paper April-May 1983. This author who lived in Haringey discusses developments across London. She believes that they key issue is whether decentralisation “will increase local awareness or involvement, or just co-opt activists”. It was not being introduced because people had asked for it, and the money might be better spent elsewhere.

The Local State: Information Bulletin 1 August 1983. The final article discussed was written by a community activist in Southwark in South London where the new left has also taken over the Council. A year on and there has been “little change” as major problems have not been “solved”. The new left lacks “any understanding of the fact for most people their experience of the so-called services provided are extremely alienating and oppressive” or “any real relationship” with progressive movements. The writer does accept that an alliance with the Labour left is “necessary” but this has to be one in which Big Flame fights for the right of people to organise autonomously.

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.

Posted in Big Flame History | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

EPISODES IN BIG FLAME HISTORY: No 27. 1981 Debate – The Labour Party and the Alternatives

Posted by archivearchie on December 21, 2009

A number of episodes in this series have focussed on the key debates at Big Flame conferences between 1975 and 1980 (see Episode 5, Episode 11 and Episode 22). The main December 1981 Conference debate was about joining the Labour Party.

Today Labour Party membership isn’t seen as a credible option by most of the left. Back in 1981 the situation was different. The Labour left seemed to be gaining ground, with Tony Benn narrowly losing a battle for the Deputy Leadership of party. Many others had recently joined the Labour Party. Not just various Trotskyist groups pursuing an entryist tactic, but substantial numbers of the independent left including many ex-members of the IMG (International Marxist Group) and IS/SWP (International Socialists/Socialist Workers Party). This trend across the left struck no chord amongst the Big Flame membership before 1981. There was little dissent from the view was that revolutionaries should take no interest in attempts to transform the Labour Party, and placing any hopes in the Labour left could only lead to disillusionment.

Past Positions on the Labour Party

Only a few years before Big Flame had been unable to agree a position on whether or not to call for a Labour vote. Back in 1974 Merseyside BF had supported voting Labour on the grounds it was the weaker enemy. By May 1978 BF was a national organisation, and its Conference took place with a General Election expected soon. A vote Labour “but build the class struggle against Labour policies” position was lost 43-44. A “there are no tactical advantages” in voting Labour position also lost 37-45. The issue went to a ballot of the BF membership later on in the year. This agreed that unless revolutionaries were standing the organisation’s perspective should be “the working class will have to fight any government” and “vote Labour to keep the Tories out”.

This article in the Discussion Bulletin of April 1981 brought together all the previous positions adopted by Big Flame in relation to the Labour Party. Not just the issue of voting Labour, but also reformism in general, past Labour governments, the Labour left, the Alternative Economic Strategy (AES) and campaigns to democratise the Labour Party: Big Flame and the Labour Party.

The Different Positions

During 1981 four distinct currents emerged in Big Flame. Two became formal tendencies and adopted a name: “Facing the Challenge” and “Emerald Street”. Two didn’t, so I have had to choose names for them: the “Group of Nine” (a phrase used by one of its better known members in a private letter) and the “North London four” (they were a minority of this local group).

This is how the different positions evolved. First, there was a split in Tendency One (the latest incarnation of the current in BF which sought to revise its traditional politics. For a discussion of this tendency see Episode 22  of this series). Differences emerged in the run up to the December 1980 Conference. Amendments to the Tendency’s motion which would have made the criticism of the AES much stronger were rejected. Thereafter the Tendency ceased to function as a group. The majority, who I will call the “Group of Nine”, moved towards a position of support for Labour Party membership. This position was first set out in a document for a Day School on the Labour Party in June 1981 which was included in the May 1981 Discussion Bulletin.

Second, a BF member dissatisfied with the 1980 Conference drafted a document on the 24th December 1980 entitled “Facing the Challenge of the ‘80s” to begin the process of thinking ahead to the next Conference. He wanted the organisation to focus on rebuilding working class power and to discuss restarting base groups. In the course of 1981 a tendency was formed based on a restatement of “working class autonomy” and “mass politics” in the changed conditions of the 1980s. Documents were published in various Discussion Bulletins throughout 1981. The name of the first (and subsequent) documents was adopted as the name of the tendency. This tendency constituted a re-emergence in BF debates of the current which aimed to defend traditional BF politics, and was thus a successor to “Plan X” at the 1976 Conference (see Episode 11).

Third, in response to the positions being argued by the “Group of Nine” the “North London four”, who had previously presented a perspectives document to the 1980 Conference as part of a larger “North London group” (also see Episode 22), started to develop their own approach to the Labour Party as well as more general issues, starting with a document for the June 1981 day school (reprinted in the July Discussion Bulletin).

Finally, after an initial discussion at the Summer School in August 1981, another tendency was established at a meeting the next month (taking the name of the venue of this meeting – “Emerald Street”). In the words of the invitation the tendency wanted to adopt “a middle way between accommodating to left reformism and ultra leftism”. It included both members of the former Tendency One, and others who had not been part of it. The first position statements from this tendency appeared just before the conference in the November Discussion Bulletin (although individual supporters had made previous contributions to the debate).

I now want to examine each of the four positions in more detail.

Group of Nine

As mentioned above, the first document from members of the “Group of Nine” was included in the May 1981 Discussion Bulletin: Big Flame and the Labour Party: A New Political Direction?

The authors argued that the key question was not Labour Party (LP), but a long term political direction. BF would be unable to make its politics effective unless it merged into a larger force. The LP had become an attractive option for increasing numbers of people, and was now the place to find the largest number of people who shared BF’s conception of politics. It was the place to build a new revolutionary socialist tendency “at the present time”, which was distinguished from arguing for permanent work in the LP, or against independent revolutionary organisation.

Another document by “Group of Nine” supporter argued that they have no illusions about the labour Party, which “is not, and never will be the agent of socialist transformation in this country”. Additionally, “it is not a matter of some of us asking to be ‘allowed’ to join the LP. It is a matter of the whole organisation, LP members or not, relating keenly to that work, supporting it” (October 1981 Discussion Bulletin).

In one more document the authors argue that there is a prospect, at least in some parts of the country, of “considerable recruitment” to BF within the LP. A best outside the LP BF might double in size to 300. Even with 600 members, it would still be “a pimple” (October 1981 Discussion Bulletin). No figures are given for (the presumably much larger) forces which might be brought together inside the LP. Aside from general references to a “transitional strategy of reforms” to put socialism on the agenda, none of the documents say much about what people would do once inside the LP.

North London four

The two documents produced by this grouping were: For a New Relationship with the Labour Party (July 1981 Discussion Bulletin) and A Perspective for Big Flame in the 80’s (September 1981 Discussion Bulletin).

The “North London four” argued that joining or not joining the Labour Party was the wrong starting point and subsidiary element of an overall strategy. They criticised the “Group of Nine” for being too soft on the AES, and overestimating the likely level of support for BF politics within the LP (disputing the suggestion of the potential for forming something larger than the Project or Socialist Unity). Their starting point was the recession and the way it was being used to restructure the working class (Andrew Friend and Andy Metcalf’s book Slump City was a key influence). BF should focus of activities which created bridges and healed divisions across the working class. LP activity was one of a number of forums where this might be attempted.

The decision to join the LP or not was a tactical question at any particular time. The first document talked about how a left reformist government might open up political space outside it. The second criticises it for placing too much emphasis on something that might not happen. Its focus is on the immediate future in Constituency parties and Labour Councils. Whether or not LP membership would be of value would depend on the local situation. The authors stressed the dangers of LP membership – making adaptions, too much time devoted to internal struggles, etc. They expected that only a minority of BF might join the LP but, similar to the “Group of Nine”, it was important that a “substantial majority” of BF believed that those who did were making “a valid contribution to the class struggle”.

Facing the Challenge

There was an article by the initiator of “Facing the Challenge of the ‘80s” tendency in the May 1981 Discussion Bulletin. He started from the position that the 1980s were very different from the late 1960s (when a lot of the ideas which influence BF originated). What was needed was a “radical rethink of the working class autonomy tendency”. This would create a “more politically decisive BF” which would be “a rich meeting place for mass organisers”.

The final, and clearest, statement of the perspective of this tendency was in Facing the Challenge of the 80s (October 1981 Discussion Bulletin). The authors argued that BF needed to rebuild “in a modest fashion” mass work both theoretically and in practice. It should get closer to “our tendency” (as with Plan X in 1976, groups were listed as containing people who shared BF’s politics. This time the Conference of Socialist Economists, community and trade union resource centres). The fault for the lack of influence of this politics can be “laid at the door of BF”. Thus, mass politics has been “virtually chucked away”, the organisation’s distinctiveness has been lost by “neglecting our theoretical heritage”, “we haven’t sufficiently aided the building of a mass independent working class organisation” by having “having an unclear idea of what the role of BF is”.

None of the “Facing the Challenge” documents had much to say about what rethinking the “politics of working class autonomy” for the 1980s actually meant. The Conference motion from the tendency called for a six month period of “major debate” after which BF would decide on “a clear strategy” which would then be publicised in a series of events and conferences. There is room to work with LP members on particular issues but the position of “having any members in the Labour Party” was rejected.

Emerald Street

The two documents produced by this tendency were: Discussion Document on Big Flame’s Perspectives and Notes about Reformism (both in the November 1981 Discussion Bulletin).

The authors argue that over the previous 2½ years the Tories had decisively affected the dynamics of class struggle, whilst the LP had moved away from non-class modernising highly technocratic politics to an earlier traditional rhetoric of socialism. In turn much of the left had adapted to left reformism. Criticism was directed not at reforms in themselves, but reformism which always disorientated and demoralises the working class. Because of this understanding of reformism, the relationship of the LP to the state and the weakness of revolutionaries relative to left reformism, LP membership as a strategy for BF was rejected.

At the same time “Emerald Street” believed that the wishes of “Facing the Challenge” to launch a new project was “wildly over-optimistic”. The alternative strategy can be summed up (and these are my words, not theirs) as consolidation for long term survival. It was “vital to strengthen BF” by such measures as more rigorous application of membership norms, more attention to political education, and a better expression of BF politics in the paper and other publications.

The Conference

Immediately prior to the Conference the “Group of Nine” and the “North London four” dropped their separate motions and produced a combined motion: Motion 3 – Big Flame’s Strategy (defeated). The composite owes more to the latter’s position than the former, with LP membership occupying only one page of six (with objectives spelt out and problems acknowledged). Nevertheless, the “North London four” were aware that the new motion disguised significant differences. They agreed to a composite through their feelings of isolation because of the lack of support for their position in BF.

A transferable vote system was used to ensure a clear outcome. The initial result of the vote was: Emerald Street 42%, Combined LP position 29% and Facing the Challenge 27%. With votes transferred, this became: Emerald Street 53% and Combined LP position 29%. Finally on a straight yes/no vote for the Emerald Street position the figures were 65% yes and 19% no.

After the Conference

Following the conference some (but not all) of those who voted for the combined position on the Labour Party left Big Flame. My estimate is that no more than about 20% of the organisation’s 125 members left. The Conference alliance between the two pro-Labour Party membership groupings came to end, as those who left BF decided not to form a new grouping and went their separate ways.

The original “North London four” position can be seen as an attempt to keep BF together. As were a set of amendments from another BF member to their withdrawn motion – after the compositing these were themselves withdrawn. Their net result of the amendments would have been to allow some members to go off and do their thing in relation to the Labour Party, whilst distancing the organisation from it.

However, the differences were too great for this sort of compromise. As an Emerald Street supporter argued a “half in half out” position would probably have structurally reinforced the divisions in the organisation and created serious problems for the paper and other public pronouncements (Discussion Bulletin May 1981). The “Group of Nine” and “Facing the Challenge” were in complete agreement that BF was drifting and lacked a sense of direction. That it could no longer be “all things to all people” or “muddle on and hope for the best”. Both were extremely hostile to each others position (This refers to what was said in the written documents. The debate at the conference was conducted in a comradely manner). Probably the only solution was to go off along separate paths.

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.

Posted in Big Flame History | Tagged: , , , , | 2 Comments »

OPINIONS ABOUT BIG FLAME no 3 part 2: JOHN WALLER

Posted by archivearchie on December 14, 2009

This is a follow up to an earlier post: Opinions about Big Flame no 3: John Waller.

John Waller was an active member of Big Flame in Nottingham and nationally from 1977 to 1981. When Big Flame started to disintegrate in 1982 he drifted away from the organization to be involved in community politics and then solidarity with the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. Since the early 90s his political practice has been dominated by solidarity work with the Cuban revolution. For many years this was as a part of the national leadership of the British Cuba Solidarity Campaign. This politically led him to the heartland of the empire and he now pursues the same ends from his US home.

John writes:

What does Big Flame’s theory and practice have to offer the future?

Three months ago I wrote a short opinion piece for this website to stimulate debate about what of Big Flame’s theory and practice was still relevant and important today. The response was unfortunately minimal. SO I’ve tried to take the issue one step further by enlarging on what I wrote and drawing my own conclusions. The expanded piece appears below. One person cannot possibly do justice to this topic. What I offer below is I hope the beginning of a conversation with more ex-members of Big Flame.

Introduction

Big Flame (BF) completely failed to achieve its goal of socialist revolution in England/Britain. The entire revolutionary left in the advanced capitalist world failed (and is failing) equally. Nowhere has there been anything approaching a rerun of Russia’s October 1917 revolution to validate the wider applicability of the Leninist model of revolution. Revolutions that were a mix of socialism and national liberation did occur in a number of economically poor countries but their primary route was via prolonged (more or less) guerrilla struggle. Of these successful overthrows of capitalist state power only Cuba continues to espouse a socialist project. Meanwhile advances in military technology and communication, and in the power of the modern state, combined with the loss of the military and financial support that once the Soviet Union, or sometimes China, provided, make the guerrilla road to revolution increasingly unlikely.   

Soviet style communism, or state collectivism as Big Flame had started to call it, has gone – replaced in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe by outright and often brutal capitalism, and in Asia by Chinese style capitalism under Communist Party leadership.  Meanwhile the goal of socialism via gradual reform has, in the last 30 years, virtually disappeared from the discourse of the main social democratic parties in most of the world. At best they aim for a kinder caring capitalism, at worst they have become barely indistinguishable from the right in competing to manage the capitalist economy and the, usually declining, public services.

Yet ‘history has not ended’ in a bright shining capitalist future.  We see the economic turmoil of the last year, global warming and rampant environmental degradation, the Middle East turned into a zone of war and occupation, while the gap between rich and poor grows inexorably wider both between and within countries.  We are living under a world order that is economically and environmentally unsustainable.

“A better world is possible” says a new generation of activists, but so is a worse one, and the Bush regime was the harbinger of what that world would look like. For the peoples of Iraq and Afghanistan they already know what the new world order could mean, and a year into the Obama administration, the language is softer than Bush, the politics smarter, but the policies have barely changed.  For now, in the advanced centres of capitalism, life is still pretty comfortable for many, but the slow dismantling of the post second world war welfare state is underway and in Britain and some other countries the developing space for working class revolt is being occupied by fascist or neo-fascist parties.

The only continent that has partially bucked the trend is Latin America.  Back in 1981 the continent was dominated by military dictatorships. They were replaced by right wing civilian governments implementing neo-liberal economic policies devised in Washington. The repression and impoverishment lead to the growth of powerful urban and rural social movements, based largely in the community rather than the workplace. These movements were/are inspired by socialist ideas in the broadest sense, and also by the continuing example of the Cuban revolution. Across much of Latin America the neo-liberal regimes have been brought down by mass struggle and/or voted out. Their replacement has been by what some commentators call a ‘pink tide’ – governments that domestically are socially reforming, and externally espouse a mix of progressive nationalism and Latin American unity against the empire to the north. The nature of the tide varies from country to country, but at its most radical end we have Venezuela and Hugo Chavez’ Bolivarian Revolution committed to trying to build a vaguely defined but definitely highly participatory ‘socialism for the 21st century’. 

Thirty years ago I contributed to an internal BF document called ‘Facing the Challenge of the Eighties’. Thirty years on, does BF politics (theory and practice) have anything to offer to the revolutionaries who are facing the challenges that the next decade will bring, wherever they are in the world. I believe it does, and this is my attempt at summarising what was, and is, worth taking from our past. It focuses therefore on the most positive elements of our history, though in the context of some assessment of the failings.

Historical Truth .v. Current Analysis

Perhaps the starting point is that unlike most of the left we didn’t seek to locate ourselves in a historical tradition – Leninist, Trotskyist, anarchist, Maoist etc. Rather we said that Marxism had to be updated to the world as it is now, and that any lessons about revolutionary strategy handed down from past ‘masters’ had to be resituated in the new context to see whether they still made sense.

Specifically we said that since Lenin’s day capital, the working class, and the relationship between them had changed dramatically. The working class was no longer dominated by skilled white heterosexual males in blue collar jobs. The new working class was skilled and unskilled, blue collar and white collar, male and female, white and black, gay and straight. And increasingly it was/is an international working class, spawned by capitalist production processes that span the globe. Capital also had moved on, not just in its global reach but in the way it structured society. Workers were now also consumers and their behaviour in both roles needed to be as compliant as possible, which meant that capital had to invade our lives not just in the factory or office, but in our schools, communities, homes and families.  Capital had also learnt the value of the State to both prepare the workforce, through healthcare and education, and to control it through laws and if necessary repression. Workers had also learnt the value of the welfare state as a way of getting their needs met, and public services and personal life had become a terrain of material and ideological struggle.

Drawing from the theoretical work of groups in Italy, we asserted that class struggle was the motor force of history and that within everyday struggles, in the workplace, community and personal life, could be found the ‘seeds of communism’ which it was the responsibility of an interventionist revolutionary organisation to draw out and generalize. This ran counter to the classic Leninist notion that particular struggles were solely economic or sectional and that revolutionary/communist demands had to be brought in from the outside. From this basis we followed the then new Italian Marxist thinking into asserting that what was needed was for the working class to struggle for demands that asserted its needs autonomous from capital – Workers Autonomy.

In applying this analysis in practice we made mistakes. We took what was happening in one sector of capitalism that we understood well, the mass production assembly line, and sought to apply that understanding universally. The more general concept of Workers Autonomy became partially conflated with a much narrower notion of the rejection of work, which was how production line workers were expressing their autonomy. We also drastically overestimated the potential for drawing out these seeds of communism, because daily life contains many seeds: reactionary, reformist etc. that except in time of struggle are far more likely to bloom than revolutionary ideas.

The point here is not to regurgitate our analysis of 30-40 years ago, but rather to reaffirm a Marxist tradition that sees the need for continually updating its understanding of capital and class, and that reaffirms the centrality of class struggle in societal change. When Thatcher took the decision in the mid-80s to decimate the coal mining industry it was a decision that from a narrow economic perspective made no short or long term sense for British capitalism. But from a political perspective she saw clearly that destroying the most combative section of the working class would clear a key road block in her plans to restructure the British economy and society.

Class .v. Movement

We also used the word Autonomy in a different context. We fully supported the development of autonomous movements of oppressed groups – women, black people, gays and lesbians. We asserted that the divisions in the working class between men/women, white/black, gay/straight were not just ideological and based on false consciousness. They were/are also rooted in real material and power differences between the groups – differences generated and used by capital to divide and rule. To understand and to overcome these differences requires that the oppressed groups organise autonomously and will inevitably generate some conflict with their immediate oppressor. We were unequivocally on the side of the oppressed, but not to see the oppressor as the enemy. Rather our goal was to help develop the power of the oppressed group and change the behaviour of the oppressing group so that both could reunite against the capitalist class on a basis of true equality. Whether in the Tower Hill rent strike or working with miner’s wives, our intervention was to build women’s power and the overall struggle. We sought demands that strengthened both the position of the oppressed group and that of the class as a whole, and we believed that this required some level of autonomous organisation by those groups, without rejecting the need for a higher level of unified organisation.

The complex interplay between capitalism, imperialism, racism and patriarchy and how to move forward can only be worked through in concrete situations in time and place, but such issues were and are increasingly central to the struggle for socialism. In Latin America the Cuban revolution has continually grappled with these dynamics, with great advances and major mistakes, while in Bolivia and Ecuador now the race question is central to the mass struggles in those societies for social advance. In reassessing BF’s legacy on this question, we undoubtedly struggled to apply theory to concrete reality. We also tended to act as unconditional cheerleaders for autonomous group organising without engaging in a critical debate from which both sides might have learnt lessons.  But we were way ahead of the revolutionary left pack in understanding and supporting the political/organisational need for autonomy.

Our thinking on autonomy and about party and class caused us to develop the notion of parallel organisations – that the party was necessary, but so were the mass organisations and the autonomous groups. The different organisations had different roles to play, which brings me to the role of the revolutionary party.

Party .v. Class

BF as a national grouping affirmed the key need for an organisation of activists with centralized perspectives that would intervene in the class struggle. That we took from Lenin, but overall our aim was not to be for or against Lenin’s legacy but rather to interpret it critically and resituate what we felt was good into the modern world. Most crucially we disagreed with the theory of consciousness that underlay Lenin’s views on the role of the revolutionary party.

For Lenin revolutionary socialist consciousness had to be brought to workers from outside, by party cadre. BF reinterpreted this to argue that revolutionary consciousness could not be developed from within one particular sectional struggle but rather the role of BF members should be inside all these sectional struggles, whether they be autonomous organisations, workplaces, or single issue campaigns, and whether they be domestic or international. We believed we had to earn respect, listen and learn, and from that learning seek to develop a broader overview and general strategies and demands. From this generalized view BF members could feed back into the sectional struggles. BF members aimed to give a lead politically, rather than the common left practice of taking administrative/bureaucratic control of such organisations, or of building their own front organisations. This also differed from the common Trotskyist understanding of the role of the party, which tended to see all the crucial questions of revolutionary strategy as already answered by Marx, Lenin and Trotsky and the party needed to serve as the transmission belt for these lessons from history.

Our practice fell well short of our desires. Part of the membership never really acted as if they were in a national organisation with centralized perspectives, and we paid too little attention to developing theory and got too wrapped up in day to day activism. Getting the balance right between building the struggle and building the organisation often eluded us (usually at the expense of building the organisation) but we rejected any notion that building the party was more important and potentially counter posed to building the struggle.

Further we said that we were not The Revolutionary Party. We argued that a true revolutionary party could not be announced or bureaucratically brought into being. Rather that it had to be built within the processes of class struggle and we were just a stepping stone towards that party. Nor did we ever think that we would linearly grow into that party, arguing instead that it could only fully come about at a higher level of struggle and through a long process of fusions and realignments as well as splits from within the dominant reformist party i.e. the Labour Party. Indeed we did not necessarily assume that at the point of taking state power there would be just one revolutionary party.

Democracy .v. Centralism

Our view of the party underlay BF’s non-sectarian unity in action practice. We never believed that we had all the answers, just some of them. We were open to debating with and learning from other groups and traditions, and most crucially we were open to learning from the class and its current struggles. It also underlay our internal practices. We tried, although often far from successfully, to have coordinated action throughout the organisation based on centralised agreement, but we fiercely valued our ability to debate and disagree internally in a comradely way and to share our differences in public. We were for a democratic and effective interventionist organisation but not for Democratic Centralism as it had come to be defined.  We experimented with differing national structures, none of which seemed to work satisfactorily, but perhaps the greatest guarantee of our internal democracy was the relatively high level of comradeship, mutual respect and awareness of gender, race and sexuality issues within the organisation. In the end we were better at being democratic than being effective.

Personal .v. Political

We asserted that the personal is political and that our relations within the organisation had to prefigure the kind of society we were trying to build – anti-racist/sexist/heterosexist etc. That the political was personal flowed from our broader analysis of how modern capitalism penetrated every aspect of our lives, how it created divisions within the class, and how daily life was a terrain of struggle. But turning the phrase round to say that the personal is political, while correct, had a danger. In practice it tended to drift into the dead end of lifestyle politics – namely that the way we, a bunch of largely white educated people in a rich imperial country, lived was the correct way to live.

Workplace .v. Community

Our analysis of Capital made us understand that we had to struggle in both the workplace and the community, and that we needed to link the two, recognizing for instance that struggles by workers in the public services needed the support of the users of those services if they were to succeed. This linking of workplace and community was perhaps best exemplified by our work around the Hounslow Hospital occupation and in the subsequent creation of a national health organisation called Fightback. We further emphasized that campaigns to defend services against cuts also had to have a perspective of improving those services and giving workers and users greater control over them.

Conditional .v. Unconditional Solidarity

From the beginning we were very concerned about the international dimensions of the class struggle and bringing those issues into our domestic practice, and nowhere more so than over Ireland where BF formed much of the long term backbone of the Troops Out Movement. In practicing solidarity with a struggle directly against British imperialism, and later in the Zimbabwean liberation struggle, BF had to confront the issue of solidarity with struggles whose full goals, strategy and tactics we didn’t always agree with. The position that emerged was one of unconditional solidarity with their struggle against imperialism, regardless of the tactics. But, as revolutionaries committed to challenging imperialism at home and throughout the world, we reserved the right to express criticisms of the liberation movement. We however made clear that the right to criticise had to be earned through our solidarity and had to be exercised with discretion to avoid giving succour to the class enemy. We also emphasised giving particular support where possible to any explicitly socialist, feminist and/or anti-imperialist sections of the liberation movement.

Crucial to the debate about solidarity with the Irish struggle for unification was the tension between our whole hearted support for the aims, and our unhappiness with one of the methods – the IRA’s bombing campaigns. We were not pacifists, we supported the necessity in some situations of armed struggle, but within that were some methods unacceptable? We were active at a time when national liberation and anti-imperialist struggles were, if not socialist, at least broadly politically progressive in their policies and views. 30 years on some of the main opponents of US and British imperialism are inspired by a reactionary version of Islam, and the debate about terrorism has sharpened. Imperialism seeks to brand all violent resistance as terrorist. In defending the ‘violence of the oppressed’ would a modern BF state that some forms of struggle are never legitimate, and truly terrorist?

We tried to analyse the behaviour of third world liberation movements, or the governments they sometimes lead to, from within the real context and limitations they faced – an approach very different from that of say the British SWP which tended to glorify their struggle up to the point of seizing power and then denounce them afterwards for selling out. Within the international revolutionary left there was some dichotomy between those who took a view that socialism could only be achieved by the actions of the working class of advanced capitalist countries, and others who saw third world liberation movements as the vanguard of revolutionary struggle. BF avoided any one sided analysis or global theoretical conclusions. We struggled for socialism at home, we supported liberation movements and workers’ struggles abroad, and we tried to find real material links between the two, via for instance the Ford Workers Combine making links with Ford plants around the world.

Reform .v. Revolution

BF never developed a coherent theory and practice of how to bring about revolution in an advanced capitalist country, nor how to overcome the hold that reformist institutions and ideas had over the working class. Initially we emphasized how reformist institutions like the trade unions and the then Labour Party fostered passivity within the class and sought to incorporate radical struggle into channels that might modify but not fundamentally threaten the capitalist structure. For us even shop stewards were not necessarily a radical force and could well act as the lowest level face of incorporation. This lead us to emphasise mass practice and the mass line – attempting to work with the whole class rather than focusing on winning over a representative layer,  though later we came to recognise the need for also working through structures, most especially perhaps during a long term period of limited struggle.

The early BF made its most significant interventions through Base Groups of external militants working around selected factories and communities such as Ford car plants, and the Tower Hill estate in Kirby. Such base groups proved to be unsustainable in the long term, and not to be a model that could generate a revolutionary movement from the bottom up, but the insights into the nature of struggle they developed and the successes they achieved in the short term showed their potential value as part of what a revolutionary organisation can do.

We always argued that to counter pose revolution to reforms was wrong. What mattered about struggles for particular reforms was how they were conducted. Through the process of struggle were they building class power, organisation and self confidence to keep going forward? Or were they undermining and co-opting the movement for the price (at best) of a minor and probably temporary victory.

But how does one combine building a movement from the base with developing a national strategy for the seizure of state power? We turned to Chile for ideas. While the rest of the left argued over the reasons for the disastrous overthrow of Salvador Allende’s Popular Unity government in Chile in 1973, we attempted a wider analysis because we felt that government marked a highpoint of socialist struggle in a (relatively) advanced bourgeois democracy. We argued then that the election of a radical reformist government had created space for a grass roots mass movement with a revolutionary wing to develop.

It was a theme we returned to in the early 1980s as the Labour Party was seemingly moving leftwards. Could the election of a left Labour government and local councils similarly open up space for more radical struggle and demands in Britain, and if so what relationship should we and other revolutionaries have to the Labour Party. It was an issue which eventually split the organisation, with no effective way forward emerging on either side of the debate.

But it is a theme that has reemerged through the developments in Latin America over the last decade. Hugo Chavez has most definitely learnt lessons from the Chilean defeat. He has cut through the sterile Communist Party versus Trotskyist debates about whether Allende’s government went too far too fast or didn’t go far enough – pursuing a political process that in its policies initially proceeded more cautiously than Allende, but in its development of popular mobilisation and penetration of the armed forces has been more radical. The reformist government – mass movement dialectic is at work throughout the continent. In Bolivia, Ecuador and Argentina reformist governments rode to power on the back of waves of mass mobilisations by social and indigenous movements, and there is intense debate about whether those governments are co-opting and demobilising the struggle, or opening up space for a deeper radicalisation, whether by conscious intent or not.

John Waller

Posted in Opinions about Big Flame | Tagged: , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

OPINIONS ABOUT BIG FLAME no 4: MIKE JONES

Posted by archivearchie on September 11, 2009

This post is a behalf of Mike Jones. It is the fourth in the series of “Opinions about Big Flame”, providing a variety of different assessments of the organisation by ex-members.

Mike was a member of Big Flame in Liverpool from 1976 to 1981. He left that year to join the Labour Party. He was later the lyricist for the band Latin Quarter, and is now Lecturer in Music at the University of Liverpool. Back in 1985 he was working on a thesis, which took Big Flame as one of the case studies. It is this chapter which is included here. It does not discuss the latter years of Big Flame from 1981 onwards.

The article is published as written in 1985, and has not been updated. If he were to revise it today, Mike would want to expand on Big Flame’s relationship to the women’s movement.

This is the second article in the series written by someone who left Big Flame over the issue of Labour Party membership. Those who were supportive of Labour Party membership were by a significant margin a minority in the organization. However, I am limited in what I can post to those who volunteer articles and those unpublished documents of which I am aware. I would be very keen to include in the series articles by ex-members who took a different position.

Mike comments:

Dear Reader, please forgive the following:

1. These observations are turgidly written – this is a result of

[a]. my being more turgid then

[b]. immersing myself in turgid [CP and Trotskysist] documents for several years.

They are also part of a much longer, and equally turgid, work so that some points only make full sense in the context of the missing parts.

2. These observations do not convey any of the good, positive aspects of being in BF – notably great Summer Schools, great Dayschools, great comrades and great laughs.

3. These observations convey none of the sacrifices of being in BF and none of the loss of the great friends who have died since these events took place [Steve, Kate, Ian and Nina that I know of].

4. These observations can never convey watching the SPG charge towards us on the morning of the last mass Grunwick picket.

5. These observations cannot represent what it felt like to have to allow fellow Liverpool BF members to help themselves to your last pint after having failed to buy their own when ‘last orders’ were called.

6. These observations will not be televised

In the thesis, I trace the history of Big Flame from its origins in Liverpool, and its links to the radicalisation of students and of the trade union rank and file. It begins with the base groups around factories and on the Tower Hill estate, then on to Big Flame becoming a national organisation. It traces the group’s involvement in a project to form a new revolutionary organisation, the Socialist Unity Campaign, and the movement which arose out of the book Beyond the Fragments. A particular theme is how, from a group which thought that the working class could bypass the institutions of reformism, some members were arguing by 1981 for joining the Labour Party.

 

BIG FLAME: 1971 TO 1981

INTRODUCTION

Big Flame, (BF) was founded 1971.  In the next ten years, it grew from a single group in one city (Liverpool) to an organisation twenty times its original size with branches spread throughout England.(1)  At the same time, especially through its pamphlets,(2) BF exerted and influence throughout the rest of the Far Left that ended to further outstrip its (relatively) large growth.  The principal reasons for this were two-fold: firstly, in its attempt to fashion the insights of the new movements and new concerns thrown up in the course of the late-1960’s into a distinct, Marxist project, BF developed relationships with, and derived members from, a wider constituency than the CP, the Trotskyist groups and the ‘Marxist-Leninists’ previously; secondly, (and as a concomitant of this) BF represented the British variant of a process which was international in its scope.  Although not identical with any other organisation, in, (particularly), its use of some of the ideas thrown up by the new Italian Marxist groups (especially ‘Lotta Continua’(3)) BF became the ‘voice’ of this international current inside the British Far Left.  However, the period of its greatest impact (the late-70’s) was one very different from that which had given it birth.  The various revolts that BF grew out of and responded to (the student movement: trade union rank and file opposition to the Labour Government; the new concern with personal politics and with women’s liberation etc.) were very much ones associated with, and stimulated by, the expansion of capitalism and the attempts made to continue this expansion.

Under these conditions, it was the organisation’s belief that the experience and institutions of Reformism would, eventually be ‘by-passed’ by the working class.  As the recession began to gather momentum and the Conservatives regained the ascendancy, the need for the organisation to develop some new and changed understanding of the relationship between the working class sand the Labour Party was posed.  Yet, such was its understanding of working class struggle (and, with it, the form of organisation that this struggle required) that BF could neither make the necessary theoretical adjustments nor contain the effects of the debate.  The split in the organisation which the debate provoked had the effect of destabilising it and precipitating its later collapse.

PART ONE

THE ORIGINS OF BIG FLAME

In its original form, BF was not a Marxist organisation, nor even an organisation as such, but a newspaper.  The newspaper, which ran to seven issues, was launched in February 1970. In the composition and (partly) in the concerns of the newspaper some of the later BF was already present.  Thus, as the previous case-study and also the remarks made in the first chapter have indicated, the Labour Government elected in 1964 had been greeted by the Party’s own left; the Trade Union movement and by much of the Far Left as a positive step forward – both for the working class and for socialism.  However, in its elaboration and its execution, Harold Wilson’s commitment to state planning soon came to dash those hopes; to frustrate many of his supporters and to provoke different kinds of opposition.  All of this tended to merge then into the wider oppositional currents of the period out of which Marxism as a body of critical theory and the far Left as a collection of groups that identified with this theory were both revived.  Nevertheless, so extensive were the concerns and forms of expression of this general ‘opposition’ that the newspaper ‘Big Flame’ (because of its motivation and the still limited perspectives of its loose editorial group) could not hope (and did not wish) to respond to them all.  As the political questions thrown up by the general movement of events came to demand some more consistent response in the pages of the newspaper, so the producing group fell apart.  In the wake of this collapse a residue of the production team then set about creating a more cohesive and politically-focussed BF.  However, before we can examine this, we need to know what, in general, were the wider issues and currents of the period in question.

The original editorial team for the newspaper ‘Big Flame’ was a rough amalgam of two, very different, groups: radicalised rank and file workers, principally lay-officials from some of Liverpool’s major manufacturing concerns (Fords, Standard-Triumph and Dunlop Tyres); and radicalised students from the City’s university and colleges.  What needs first to be explained is what had radicalised both groups and what had made for their convergence (a phenomenon whose only near-parallel was the CP recruitment of Cambridge students in the 1930’s when the threat of Fascism had been the spur).

(a)        Student Radicalisation in the 1960’s

In Britain, the material context for the radicalisation of students in the late-1960’s developed through the expansion of higher education: initiated under the 1944 Education Act and supplemented by, for example, the recommendations of the Robbins Report.  The creation of a large, new pool of young people drawn from a wider social class basis than had previously been the case then added an important dimension to the development of a distinct ‘Youth Culture’ can only be touched upon in a study like this, what needs to be recorded about its general social impact is the diffuse oppositional quality of its successive expressions.  Captured in the phrase ‘The Generation Gap;, the arrival of the ‘Teddy Boys’ who would be followed by the ‘Mods’ and ‘Rockers’ of the early-60’s, signalled a growing awareness and a largely unwilling acceptance that young people could expected to be critical of existing social relationships.   Of course this was never more than a very wide generalisation and certainly university students were unlikely to be involved with styles that were almost wholly limited to the young working class. Nevertheless, firstly in the guise of support for CND and the equally pacifist (if less wide-spread) overlapping with the ‘Beat Generation’; and later in a more general identification with the anti-war (then anti-materialist and hedonistic) preoccupations of the emergent folk and rock stars of the period, the atmosphere of opposition settled over large sections of the university and college population. From the outset, the transatlantic and near-global impact of pop music on young people made possible by, and coupled with, the increasing importance of electronic media and especially television, gave an international dimension to this experience.  This, in turn, would become of increasing importance as youth and notably student radicalisation began to make a public and political impression.

In Britain (as Widgery notes (4)), it was at the London School of Economics that the militant politics of what became the ‘student movement’ made their first appearance.  In both the object of the LSE students protest (the appointment, as Director, of Walter Adams; previously Director of UC Salisbury in Rhodesia) and in their eventual tactics (the occupation of the LSE; where ‘sit-ins’ had become an important part of the practice of the Black Civil Rights movement in the USA), the protest was internationalist in its expression.  This concern with the phenomenon of racism (expressed in opposition to the Rhodesian regime) was given an anti-government (and anti-Labour) quality through criticism of Harold Wilson’s failure to achieve any reversal in the Rhodesian government’s ‘illegal’ declaration of independence.  What transformed this, for many more students, into an anti-imperialist position was the escalation of the Vietnam War and the anti-conscription and anti-war activities of the US student movement (SDS (5)).   In the way that this became a positive identification with the aims and methods of the Vietnamese NLF (6), the route to revolutionary, Marxist politics was completed.

The active support of at least a portion of the student population for the Vietnamese cause necessarily introduced them to the existing organisations of the Far Left of which, in 1967 (when the first major demonstration of the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign – VSC, took place), the CPGB (7) and the Trotskyist SLL (8) were the principal representatives.  However, a variety of events during 1968 encouraged revolutionary students to look beyond these particular organisations for their Marxism.  These were (very briefly):

            (i)         The ‘May Events’ in Paris  A protest at the new French University at Nanterre; firstly over a lack of basic facilities and then as a wider critique of the content of courses and the role of the university itself, led to clashes with the police.  Sympathy action by Sorbonne students in the heart of Paris (9) led to much more violent student-police clashes.  Barricades were erected and, in the ensuing crisis, further sympathetic and then parallel protest action by workers culminated in a General Strike. Although the situation was eventually defused, several diverse growing points for evolutionary politics had been initiated: most notably (for these purposes) that,

(a)        The self-confidence of student throughout the West was immeasurably increased.

(b)        The potential for revolution at the centre of capitalism had seemed to be restored; this after years of ‘affluence’ and the announcement, in ‘end of Ideology’ theories, that radical politics and the need for them had been obviated.

(c)        The ‘objective’ identity of the position of students (as ‘intellectual workers’) with the traditional one of manual workers could also now be argued.

(d)        The actions of the French CP in helping to contain the militancy of workers had discredited it as an organisation in the eyes of many young people (not just students) and it has also posed the need for a critique of the type of politics that it represented.  This critique would then be one that grew to encompass the form of revolutionary organisation; the nature of the socialist society that such an organisation was designed to bring about; and the strategy and methods through which it hoped to make possible the transition to such a society.

            (ii)        The Invasion of Czechoslovakia the Soviet decision to enter Prague and to replace the reforming government of Dubcek with one of a more recognisably sympathetic and quiescent kind, added further impetus to the critique of ‘traditional’ Marxist conceptions.

            (iii)       The Responses of the CPGB and the SLL to the VSC In short, at a time when many students were attracted to the late Che Guevara’s dictum, ‘Create Two, Three, Many Vietnams’, the CP’s slogan, ‘Peace in Vietnam’ was long way from their preferred, ‘Victory to the NLF’.  That Ho Chi Minh’s NLF were themselves very much of the old Communist Movement mainstream could be overlooked in the mounting frustration of the USA and the forward advance of the revolutionary opposition (on the campus as well as in Vietnam).  Equally, the decision of the main Marxist opposition to the CP, the Trotskyists led by Gerry Healy, to spurn the BSC as an ‘irrelevant protest activity which separates (students) from the working class’(10) led to the marginalisation of Healy’s SLL.  This did not, however, marginalise the whole of Trotskyism with it.  Rather, it opened the way for the growth of the heterodox Trotskyists, the International Socialist (IS) and it encouraged the revival of the other currents that Healy had worked so hard to stifle in the early 1950’s who would now renew their claim to represent the ‘correct’ interpretation of Trotsky against Healy’s distortions.(11)

Finally, it added yet more reasons for those who had been stimulated by the critical aspects of the French experience (over and above the straightforward oppositional quality of it) to develop their critique of the CP tradition and of Trotskyism.  It was this very, heterogeneous grouping (dubbed ‘Libertarians’ to identify transformation rather than the imposition of a new orthodoxy) that came first to help establish ‘Big Flame’ as a newspaper and then, later, BF as an organisation.  These then found some important (if restricted) common ground with trade union militants for the following reasons:

(b)       The Radicalisation of the Trade Union Rank and File

            The radicalisation of rank and file trade unionists in Britain was again something that had specific domestic origins within the context of developments, internationally.  Thus, in terms of the broader perspective of the development of capitalism as an international system, then the following can be said to have applied in the performance of the British economy during the 1960’s.

            (i)         Although the period from the re-stabilisation of the Western economies after the Second World War to, roughly, the OPEC oil price rises of the early 1970’s, can be regarded as one of considerable expansion, capitalism in Britain began to experience relative contraction (or, at least, a progressively reduced rate of expansion) from the early 1960’s, onwards.  For example, Glynn and Sutcliffe (12) noted that the share of profits (the ratio of total profits to total incomes) was virtually halved between 1964 and 1970.(13) They considered that the overall explanation for the crisis of profitability in British industry was the result of a combination of two factors:

       ‘..the squeezing of profit margins between money wage increases on the one hand and progressively more severe international competition on the other’. (14)

             (ii)        In very broad terms, the connection between the two factors identified by Glyn and Sutcliffe as the root of British capitalist’s problems was the conduct of British management in their relations with the general work-force in the period of post-war economic recovery.  Essentially, employers had not used the ‘boom’ to re-organise or ‘rationalise’ production in a way that would have rendered it more cost-effective (and therefore better able to withstand increasing competition in international markets) when the major areas of domestic consumption had been largely satisfied.  What the rationalisation of production would have meant in real terms was a concerted attempt to introduce new machinery and new work processes which would have stepped up the rate of exploitation.  In the USA, there were few unions strong enough to resist such measures, while in Japan and West Germany the pre-war unions had been all but wiped-out.  In Britain the position was very different.  The long-standing union organisation in manufacturing and in transport proved resistant to change.  Employers preferred to increase the size of dividend to investors rather than use their profits to introduce the kind of technological change that would have provoked strikes and, therefore, interrupted the flow of profits in the short term.  However, as the rise in manufactured imports from Japan (cf. the rapid collapse of the British motorcycle industry), the USA, Germany, and elsewhere began to make their impact, it became increasingly obvious that rationalisation would have to be embarked upon.  This, then, was the brief of the Labour Government under Harold Wilson where Labour was in the unique position of being able to offer its working class supporters the chance that the aspect of Britain’s increasing difficulties which most affected them (price rises and unemployment) would be alleviated and persuade, simultaneously, Britain’s employers that they could use the relationship with the unions to prevent resistance to rationalisation measures.

            (iii)       As the observations on Labour’s approach to planning made in the previous case study sought to show, the appeal to trade unionists and many socialists was the express commitment to improve working class living standards (by at least curbing price rises) and the less definite (but more grand-sounding) desire to harness private industry in the pursuit of a far more equitable society (which for reformists was equivalent with socialism and for some revolutionaries represented at least a step in the right direction).  The first 18 months of the Labour administration was something of a ‘honeymoon’ period.  However, after the March, 1966 election victory (which left the new Labour Government with a vastly increased majority) the reality of Wilson-led planning proved far removed from its promise; at least where his supporters on the left and, more pertinently, workers were concerned.  At base, the 1966 Labour Government attempted the rationalisation of British industry in two main ways:

(a)        By promoting mergers between companies.  The greater concentration of capital that this produced then left those new concerns (e.g. the creation of British Motor Holdings, later British Leyland (15)) better able and, crucially, more willing both to introduce new plant and machinery (and, with them, new work processes and new challenges to trade union organisation) and to integrate ‘vertically’ (i.e. exert a greater control over the manufacture of related components).

(b)        By attempting to impose an incomes policy. This took the form of the Prices and Incomes Board whose deliberations and decisions were meant to check price increases and ensure that wage increases were not only kept low but were tied to improvements in ‘productivity’; where the latter became  a by-word for the ‘modernisation’ of the economy.  However, what this came quickly to mean, especially in the context of mergers and new investment, was an attack on work organisation.

        (iv)       It was the restriction on wage increases especially those that were granted under the terms of the 1968 Incomes Policy, which meant onerous ‘productivity’ commitments that led to a rapid disenchantment with Wilson and to extreme tensions both within the Trade Union Movement and between the unions and Government.  While the implications for reformism will need to be considered at a later point, what needs to be examined here is the root of the tensions within trade unionism.  This, particularly in the manufacturing industries (and the car industry most of all), was a function of management-workforce relations at the level of individual work-places during the years of economic boom.

Briefly, individual plant managers came to negotiate with shop stewards (lay officials whose function was very often not even recognised in the rule books of the unions involved) over payment for piece-work output.  This local bargaining had a variety of effects; most of them to the advantage of the work-force (for example, once a new rate for a job was agreed, individual groups of workers could still determine how much, and therefore how quickly, they would produce).  As mergers grew apace and multi-national (usually US-owned) companies came rapidly to replace the more traditionalist British employers, various remedies were attempted to restore the initiative to management.  The Ford Motor Company were in the van of this movement.  ‘Ford UK’ was operated directly from the USA after 1960 and the first confrontation with the work-force, and the stewards in particular, came as early as 1963 when, at the Dagenham plant, 17 stewards were sacked (see Beynon (16)).  Ford’s example (their attempt, through the ‘Measured Day Work’ system, of setting agreed daily output targets, for instance) was emulated, with Labour Government approval and encouragement, in spheres as different as the Dock industry and Passenger Bus services.  When met with resistance, the more co-operative aspects of ‘planning’ were then dropped in favour of directly coercive measures which where heralded in Harold Wilson’s direct intervention in the Seamen’s dispute in 1966 and which he sought to culminate in the proposals for new industrial legislation (wherein the emphasis was one strongly on control over, and penalties for, industrial action) that took the form of the 1968 White Paper, ‘In Place of Strife’.(17)

It is far beyond the scope of these remarks to recount the nature and extent of the opposition to ‘In Place of Strife’, here.   What does need to be indicated, however, is the way in which the shop stewards, for a time at least, were forced to confront their own full-time union officials over the latter’s co-operation with the employers and with government in the imposition of productivity agreements.  This is not to say that, at all times and in all ways, the leaderships of the various trade unions agreed with every point of Wilson’s plan for industrial re-organisation on or with the employers’ attempts to enforce their version of it. Even so, there was a disjuncture between what the work-force (and the stewards) desired and had been used to and what the union leadership preferred them to accept. Again there were several notable confrontations over the issue of productivity-linked and restricted wage increases. 

One of the most important of these occurred within the Ford Motor Company and central to it was the Company’s plant at Halewood, Liverpool.  It was, then, workers, and particularly the semi-official representatives from the immediate work-force (the shop stewards and the convenors of stewards) of this plant that came together with similarly placed militant workers from other, similar firms, that provided the original organising point for Big Flame.  In reality this was a (temporary) ‘marriage of convenience’ between students (and ex-students) hostile to traditional Marxist conceptions of working class advance and a practice based around ‘correct’ leadership; and workers who had been forced into opposition with their own leadership and with their traditional conceptions of trade union advance.  That the ‘marriage’ didn’t last was a function, principally, of the very different desires of the two groups; the students wanted revolution and the workers wanted more money and not new forms of work-discipline that would tie them even more closely to their machines.  However, the experience of some mutuality between the groups was sufficient to encourage the first of these to set up an organisation in mid-1971 that might recreate and extend that mutuality into something approaching a revolutionary politics for the new experience of the British working class.   Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Opinions about Big Flame | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

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

Posted in Opinions about Big Flame | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

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

Posted by archivearchie on June 30, 2009

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

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

The Project

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

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

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

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

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

Towards a New Revolutionary Socialist Organisation: front-pviii

Towards a New Revolutionary Socialist Organisation: p1-p10

Towards a New Revolutionary Socialist Organisation: p11-back

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

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

SULogoSocialist Unity

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

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

Big Flame and Socialist Unity (Internal Bulletin October 1977)

The Debate on Socialist Unity (Internal Bulletin October 1977)

Socialist Unity (Internal Bulletin December 1977)

Socialist Unity: A Critical Assessment (newspaper June 1979)

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

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

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

Archive Archie

Posted in Big Flame History | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

OPINIONS ABOUT BIG FLAME no 1: MAX FARRAR

Posted by archivearchie on June 7, 2009

This post is a behalf of Max Farrar. It is the first 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.

Max Farrar, born 1949, was by 1969 (at Leeds University) calling himself an anarchist, and by 1979 he was deeply committed to Big Flame.  By 1989, when this article was published, he was starting a part-time job at Leeds Polytechnic.  Over the next 20 years he taught community studies, sociology and cultural studies at what became Leeds Metropolitan University.  He remained involved in local political organising, was a co-editor of the independent journal Emergency, and is a founder of the Taking Soundings, the political-cultural discussion group in Leeds.  In 2008 he was made Professor for Community Engagement and in 2009 he thinks he’s going to be asked to retire.

 

Max comments:

This article was commissioned by the editor of Edinburgh Review on the recommendation of one of his friends, who was BF’s National Secretary in the early 1980s.  The personal context in which it was written was the bruised emotions of someone whose hyper-political youth seemed somewhat irrelevant.  The wider context was the belief that the political ideals of left libertarianism in general, and Big Flame in particular, remained valuable, even if there seemed to be no political formations at the time in which they might come to life. 

The article itself attempts to trace the strengths of those ideals – the commitment to personal politics; to the feminist, gay and anti-racists movements; to the theory and practice of autonomy – and explain how their weaknesses – inadequate understanding of personal psychology; excessive confidence in the local state; overemphasis on organisational autonomy and lack of understanding of political autonomy – contributed to the political malaise of the left in the late 1980s.

 

The Libertarian Movements of the 1970s

WHAT CAN WE LEARN

Max Farrar 

ITS UNCOMFORTABLE TURNING over your own past. For about ten years, from 1972, I immersed myself in the left political milieu which styled itself libertarian with the enthusiasm of a missionary. Today I am defrocked. I find it hard to believe that I was so impressed by the tall, red-haired man in a pink beret who came to the Leeds University Union Angry Brigade Defence Committee meeting from a commune in Oxford which had a banner on the wall facing the street saying ‘Hey, hey, straight or gay, try it once the other way’. I was never reassured by the ‘once’. He told me that he would never have children of his own because he believed in collective childcare and the abolition of biological parenting. His commune established itself in Leeds and within months they had chivvied our motley crew of anarchists, women’s and gay movement members and community activists into forming the Leeds Libertarian Group. They slaved over typewriters and duplicators; in a selfless effort to recruit for the group and destroy the nuclear family, they took their politics into as many bedrooms as they could.

It’s easy to slide like this from description into mockery but it’s a mistake to do so. I want to argue here that many of the ideas which were briefly established in the libertarian movements during the 1970s are to be revered and refined, but that we held other ideas that were fatal to our cause. A major problem for left libertarianism is that one of its most important insights — about the politics of sexuality under capitalism — became almost completely subversive of the movement. Its other theoretical contributions to modem sodalist and revolutionary politics — the theory of autonomy and the linking of community and workplace struggles — were equally badly applied, leading to the debacle of radical reform in the GLC and other big city councils

What were the libertarian movements of the 1970s? In the late l980s a clear distinction has to be made between libertarians of the left and the right. Today, the expression has been hijacked by people around Margaret Thatcher, and has been thrust into the headlines by young conservatives who champion a form of complete ‘freedom of the market’ which would include the legalisation of heroin. In the seventies, these of us on the far left used the term to distinguish ourselves from Leninists and Trotskyists. It ran alongside the word ‘Liberation’ in the Women’s Liberation Movement and the Gay Liberation Front; it identified us with the historical critique of authoritarianism in the conventional marxist parties but it consciously distinguished us from the antiquated and male-dominated practices of English anarchism.

We had groupings in most of the major cities in Britain, and came together between 1973 and 1975 at ‘National Libertarian Newsletter Conferences’. In common with the rest of the far left, we engaged in struggles around workplace and international issues (particularly supporting republicanism in the north of Ireland), but our distinctiveness lay in our effort to extend the horizons of politics into what were called community issues — Free Schools, playgroups/nurseries, housing, Claimants Unions, local newspapers and so on.

Leeds Libertarians

Within the Leeds Libertarians, the Oxford commune gave such priority to another Libertarian theme — sexual or personal politics — that we gained a certain notoriety even among our most adventurous peers. Their women members formed one of Leeds’ first Women’s Groups and their men established the first Men’s Group. One of them produced a pamphlet on New York’s Revolutionary Effeminists; they circulated information about Berlin’s Kommune 1; they organised a national conference on sexual politics and the family (in Leeds, May 1973) — in short, they pushed us into recognising that, under capitalism, our sexual and personal relationships were oppressive and in just as great a need of transformation as the boss-worker relationships in industry. But it wasn’t just rhetoric. They embodied the new way of living that they proposed in their communal household and collective child care arrangements, immortalised by Nell Dunn in Chapter Four of Living As We Do (Futura. 1977).

Reading the minutes of the Leeds Libertarian meetings fifteen years later, I’m shocked to recall that, as a Group, we were right about so many things, yet we split within two years into separate tendencies and made exactly the same organisational mistake that Beyond the Fragments made in 1980. We thought that people with similar, though not identical, politics would want to meet together to discuss their various points of view and engage in common action. If only political life was so simple. Just like BtF we failed to realise that, if you reject the Leninist fetish of party discipline, you rely upon goodwill, solidarity and political coherence in proportions rarely found in mere mortals – and even less often found among middle class radical intellectuals.

Of course, the humanistic psychology of people’s personal dispositions and methods of relating to each other in groups was not on the agenda. The Leeds Libertarians split on strictly ‘political’ grounds. We discussed in detail the 1973 Miners’ strike and the economic crisis – a discussion led by the people from the Organisation of Revolutionary Anarchists, who soon despaired of the Group’s refusal to organise; we discussed Women’s Liberation, the Gay Liberation Front and Men against Sexism – and the initiators of these discussions soon despaired of the Group’s wavering commitment to these issues; we discussed the position of children in capitalist society – and the most dedicated withdrew into the Free School arid communal childcare movements. Issues that were not so dose to home, like the north of Ireland arid Allende’s socialist victory in Chile, could be discussed and acted upon with less threat to the Group’s dynamic, but, as the numbers who were attracted to our meetings grew, the inclination to spilt grew proportionately.

It was the issue of personal politics which I found hardest to deal with. I turn up pages, handwritten on beaches in Corsica and Sardinia in the summer of 1974, in which I agonise over the problem of relating the massive evidence of Leninist activity in Italy to the failure of marxism to deal with social relationships; these remain crucial issues. The Italian marxists’ failure to deal with personal politics was one reason for the degeneration of that massive popular revolt into the adventures of the Red Brigades, and the parallel, if less dramatic, failure in Britain is part of the explanation of the collapse of movement politics into the soulless corridors of Labour Party bureaucracies.

Instead of indulging in ‘1968’ nostalgia we should examine the political rise and fall of the generation formed by the insurrections of the late sixties. We need to explain why so many have left their collectives, their consciousness-raising groups, their squats, the Black Power organisations, their community action groups, their rank and file workers’ groups. . . and why many of these activists have now buried themselves in labourism.

By July 1975 Leeds Libertarian Group had fallen apart, and another twenty of us were meeting to try to pick up the pieces. The open intention of these meetings was to clarify our theory and organise. The documents we circulated stressed the political limitations of our community-based politics in the Adventure Playground. the Nursery, the Advice Centre and the community newspaper. This new grouping was strongly influenced by the recently formed ‘revolutionary socialist’ organization Big Flame. Big Flame was started in Liverpool in 1971 around local industrial struggles. In 1972, inspired by the Italian marxist organisation Lotta Continua they formed additional ‘base groups’ on some of Liverpool’s housing estates to contribute to the emerging community struggles. BF’s contributions to the Libertarian Newsletter brought a sense of theory and organisation to an otherwise inchoate bundle of duplicated texts, and by late 1974 there were branches of the organisation in East and West London, Manchester and Birmingham.

Some of us former members of Leeds Libertarians joined Big Flame in 1975 because that organisation seemed to provide a theory which linked community, industrial and public sector activity, and which integrated the pro-feminist, anti-racist and internationalist concerns that we had developed. Above all, Big Flame could provide a national and international network with a clear public face, without falling prey to Leninist hierarchies and authoritarianism. The organisational and conceptual breakthrough was the concept of autonomy, which was borrowed from the new Italian marxists and bent into a shape which fitted the development in Britain of the women’s, the gay and the black movements.

Click here to read the full text of The Libertarian Movements of the 1970s.

Posted in Opinions about Big Flame | Tagged: , , , | 3 Comments »

LOTTA CONTINUA Part 1 (Related Political Organisations no 2)

Posted by archivearchie on May 30, 2009

 LC1Episode 6 in the Big Flame History series mentioned two Italian political organisations – Lotta Continua [the Struggle Continues) [LC] and Potere Operai  (Workers Power) [Potop]. This post gives more information on the former.

The Beginning

In the mid 1960s a number of activist groups influenced by the Operaismo writers were established in different cities. In 1968 they moved apart following a disagreements over organisation and the importance given to struggles over wages. The Venato and Emilia-Romagna group, which adopted a more Leninist perspective and included Toni Negri, became the basis of the new national Potop. The Pisa branch of the Tuscany group, mainly ex-Italian Communist Party and including future LC General Secretary Adriano Sofri, moved to Turin attracted by the struggles at FIAT. There it linked up with students from Milan, Trento and Turin to become Lotta Continua.

The links from Lotta Continua back to Operaismo are apparent in this quote from Adriano Sofri: “The class struggle is the mainspring of development of every social system. The interest of the ruling class is to make this spring work for the extension and reinforcement of its own power. And so workers’ autonomy occurs when the class struggle stops working as the motor of capitalist development” (quoted in Radical America March-April 1973 issue p5).

LC grew out of interventions at the FIAT Turin plant in April/May 1969. Students and activists got to know workers, started helping them write leaflets, which led on to joint assemblies. The leafleting was a large scale enterprise, with 15,000 to 20,000 handed out per shift.

The phrase “La Lotta Continua” started to appear on the leaflets (taken from “la lutte continue” from the events in France the previous year). In time it became the umbrella name for a loose network of activists. Groups in other cities started adopting the same phrase in their leaflets, and within 3 years LC was a national organisation. The newspaper “Lotta Continua” was launched in Nov 1969. By 1972 it was a daily.

LC2

The End

Lotta Continua crumbled away after its second congress in Oct/Nov 1976. A key event in the runup was when male members of LC used violence to force their way into an all-women abortion demonstration in Rome in December 1975. The congress was characterised by hostility between male workers and women, and between both and the leadership. LC later published the congress speeches as Il 2o Congresso di Lotta Continua, and a selection of these can be found in Red Notes Italy 1977-9: Living with an Earthquake pp81-96 (also available as libcom.org or Class against Class). Within months most of the organisation had dissolved into a looser movement – the area of autonomy.

China 

Some commentators have labelled Lotta Continua “Soft Maoist”. Certainly like much of the “new left” groups in Europe, formed after 1968, the Chinese cultural revolution was an influence. However, despite adopting some Maoist phrases, the influence was not as strong as that of Operaismo.

Examples of overlapping terminology include references to Red Bases – taking areas of control away from the enemy (Organising for Revolution pp10-11, Fighting in the Streets p12). LC also talked of a cultural revolution occurring in the factories in Italy (see Bobbio p48). The frequent references to the masses have parallels with the ideas of the “mass line” and “serving the people”.

Take Over the City

Lotta Continua had taken up housing struggles from the early days. However in 1971 it launched “Take over the City” as its political programme. It argued “the city is merely the network of those instruments of exploitation and domination invented by the bosses for keeping the workers under their thumb and for dividing them at every moment of their existence. …There is beginning to be, today [Nov 1970], something in the social sphere, something comparable to the explosion which rocked Italian factories two years ago” (Fighting in the Streets pp2,5).

Struggles around the programme covered housing (rent strikes, occupation of empty flats), food (pickets of supermarkets, establishing “red markets”), transport (refusing to pay fares, stopping buses running), schools and nurseries.

Within a few years LC abandoned “Take over the City” as a programme (without dropping the ideas behind it), as it found that involvement in community struggles did not lead to the development of political power bases from which it could generalise out of the struggle.

Elections

The early Lotta Continua had little truck with elections, taking up the slogan “Don’t vote – occupy!” during the June 1971 regional elections (Take over the City p22). From 1973 onwards LC began to shift its stance.

In 1975 PdUP (Proletarian Unity Party) and Avanguardia Operaio (Workers Vanguard) established a joint platform – Democrazia Prolerari (Democratic Proletariat) for the regional elections. LC did not support them, advocating a vote for the Italian Communist Party (apparently on the basis that putting them in power would create a better basis for struggles). By the June 1976 national election it had joined DP (although keeping its own separate programme). The result –  550,000 votes or 1.5% of the total, 6 deputies, 1 of them from LC) was a major disappointment. Despite this being the first success at a national level for revolutionary left candidates, LC had hoped for much more.

The Composition of LC

Red Notes claim that Lotta Continua has up to 50,000 militants (Italy 1977-9: Living with an Earthquake p110). Others have challenged this figure. The early LC found it difficult to determine its numbers because of difficulties defining what was a militant. The first census in Lotta Continua’s history, around the time of the 1975 congress produced a figure of 8,000 militants, less than expected (Bobbio p148). This is the only number I have found. What is undoubtedly true is that LC had an influence beyond its size.

Information on the delegates at the two LC conferences provides a breakdown of the leading members of the organisation. At the Jan 1975 congress, delegates were 32% labourers, 7% other proletarians, 11% employees and technicians, 17% teachers, 21% students, and 11% full time militants. 20% were aged 20 or younger, 60% aged 21 to 29, and 205 30 and over. 10% of the delegates were women. These figures can be compared with a sample survey of the general membership which revealed 26% women, 27% labourers and 31% students (all data from Bobbio pp148-49).

By the last congress in Oct/Nov 1976 the percentage of women delegates had risen to 27.5%. 31% were workers, 32.3% were at university or school, and 9.6% employees of various kinds (Il 2o Congresso di Lotta Continua p306).

LC3

Criticisms of Lotta Continua

LC has been criticised for amongst other things:

–  its narrow focus on a certain type of worker

–  a lack of democracy in its internal organisation

–  its response to feminism

–  its attitude to violence

–  Its neglect of theory

A lot of LC’s problems can be part explained (which isn’t the same as justified) by its relatively large size and speed of recruitment. It is significantly easier to deal with some of these issues if your group is small and homogenous, although practice shows this is certainly no guarantee! I will say something about each of the issues listed.

Narrow Focus

Lotta Continua went through many shifts in its campaigns, the social sphere, the unemployed, prisoners, etc. However, it was forever marked by its initial inspiration – workers at Northern factories like FIAT. Places where unions were weak and workers struggles strong. It struggled to generalise this experience- to deal with the lack of an imminent revolutionary upheaval, the continuing role of the Italian Communist party, etc. It did make some changes, participating in Councils of factory delegates from 1972, but never enough.

Internal Organisation

Pre LC Adriano Sofri wrote: “For us, the correctness of revolutionary leadership, strategy, and organization derives neither from past revolutionary experience nor from the consciousness that the party is necessary. Their correctness derives, in the final analysis, from their relationship to the masses, and their capacity to be the conscious and general expression of the revolutionary needs of the oppressed masses. …The problem for revolutionaries is not to “‘place yourself” at the head of the masses, but to be the head of the masses” (Sofri Organising for Workers Power). This position is often repeated e.g. “We choose to be inside the struggles which the masses are waging. …We have tied to organise our forces, rather than to discuss organisation” (Organising for Revolution pp6-7).

Lotta Continua’s organisation prior to 1973 was rudimentary. Apart from decision making at national conventions, it was run by a group of old friends (Sofri in his 1976 congress speech confessed to a “private patrimony”). Then things changed: “The theoretical and political formation of cadres, the election of leaders, the individual responsibilities of the militant in the framework of collective discipline, the division of tasks and specialisation …It is nothing else than the discovery of democratic centralism and the third-internationalist concept of the party” (Bobbio p130, translation Della Porta p88). As a result from 1973 onwards “the possibility of comrades contributing to the formation of the political line was reduced; the responsibility for the major decisions was ever more concentrated at the top of the pyramid” (Bobbio p130, translation Ginsborg p360).

In part this was response to more difficult times, but it is also a product of the way LC began. A need to find a more coherent line from the different positions of those who found themselves in the organisation. From this distance it is hard for me to condemn all the organisational changes introduced. Some must have produced a needed efficiency. However, there was clearly problem with the amount of democracy.

Response to Feminism

LC leaders admitted that they very slowly came to see the struggle against sexism as an important part of the class struggle (e.g. Guido Viale in his introduction to the 2nd congress book). Verbal violence against office workers during factory protests often had a strong sexual content. In fact Lotta Continua probably responded faster than many groups on the Italian left, which led to higher expectations, and the eventual breakup. The divisions between the workers and the women in LC were exascerated by the lack of women workers (which itself stemmed from the nature of the workforce).

Attitude to Violence

The newspaper “Lotta Continua” was known for the violent tone of its language. The death of the Police Commissioner Calabresi in 1972 (see below) was described as “a deed in which the exploited recognise their own yearnings for justice”. This stemmed from a feeling that a civil war was underway, but served to provoke further the police and fascists. The Red Brigades, and similar groups, were criticised by Lotta Continua for the opportunities they gave to the right wing and carrying out the sort of actions which could not be taken up by the masses. After 1974 LC tried to reign in the violent acts of some members e.g. by closing down the Prisons Commission. This simply escalated the departure of some members, many from the “servizio d’ordine” (defence squads initially established for protection at demonstrations) to the armed groups. NAP (Nucleus of the Armed Proletariat) was a split from Naples LC. Prima Linea (Front Line) was formed out of ex-LC members from Milan and elsewhere, plus former Potop members.

Neglect of Theory

It is certainly true that LC was practice orientated, and gave little time to explicit discussions of theory. There was still a theory underlying its actions. Whether more theoretical discussion would have made much difference to the rapid swings in approach, is difficult to judge. Certainly there are plenty of theory heavy groups who have also swung alarmingly in their positions.

After Lotta Continua

LC members went on join a variety of different groups – The Italian Socialist Party, the Radical Party and the current left coalition Rifondazione Communisti (Communist Refoundation). Several went on to work for newspapers and television.

The paper “Lotta Continua” carried on to June 1982. In 1977 it opened up its letters page and debate blossomed – mainly from the former women members and sympathetic men (the former leaders and workers were present to a much lesser extent). Personal politics came to the fore, with many confessing they were desperate and lonely. A selection of letters was published as Care Compagne, Cari Compagni. In 1980 a smaller selction was published in Britain as Dear Comrades. A Big Flame member wrote the introduction and part translated the book.

Within a decade the view of much of the Italian left was to see the former LC leaders as out of date and ridiculous (as reported in Lumley States of Emergency p278) In 1988 the former LC General Secretary Adriano Sofri was arrested on the testimony of a “pentito” (repentant) former LC member and charged with ordering the murder of a Police Commissioner Calabresi in 1972. The legal process dragged on to 2000. Then despite doubts about the testimony of the “pentito” and the lack of any other evidence, Sofri received a 22 year jail sentence. Two other former LC members were convicted at the same time. One has been released on medical grounds, another fled whilst out of jail for an appeal. Sofri is still in prison.

Archive Archie

 

Sources on Lotta Continua

Very little from Lotta Continua is available in English. In the early 1970s two pamphlets were published in a series Documents from the Italian Revolutionary Movement. No 1 was Organising for Revolution a reprint of a speech by Gianni Safri and Franco Caprotti of LC at a Telos conference in 1971. No2 was called Fighting in the Streets. The latter consisted of Lotta Continua documents about its “Take Over the City” programme.

This is complemented by a descriptive account of Take over the City which was published as a pamphlet in England by Rising Free and in the USA in a Radical America article. It is currently available in three places on the internet:

Radical America March-April 1973 issue (pp pp78-112 of the magazine, pp80-114 of the document)

Class Against Class

Libcom.org

The same issue of Radical America also contains an article ”Organizing for Workers  Power” by Adriano Sofri, written in 1968 pre Lotta Continua (pp pp33-45 of the magazine, pp35-47 of the document) and an interview with another LC leader Guido Viale (pp pp113-119 of the magazine, pp115-121 of the document). The former has been republished by Monkraft.

The 1979 Red Notes/CSE Books pamphlet Working Class Autonomy and the Crisis includes two articles by Lotta Continua members “25 Years at FIAT” and “The Worker-Student Assemblies in Turin: 1969”.

Discussions of LC in English, particularly those from left groups, demonstrate little understanding of it. Exceptions are Paul Ginsborg A History of Contemporary Italy: Society and Politics 1943-1988 (Penguin, 1990); Donatella Della Porta Social Movements, Political Violence and the State (CambridgeUniversity Press, 1995) and Sidney Tarrow Democracy and Disorder: Protest and Politics in Italy 1965-75 (Clarendon Press, 1989). All three draw heavily on Bobbio (see below), as indeed do I.

For those who can read Italian there is a considerable literature about LC e.g. Luigi Bobbio Lotta continua: storia di una organizzazione rivoluzionaria (Roma : Savelli, 1979) and Aldo Cazzullo I ragazzi che volevano fare la rivoluzione. 1968-1978: storia di Lotta continua (Milano: Mondadori, 1998).

A fairly complete run of the newspaper Lotta Continua (apart from the early years) can be found in the “Red Notes Italian Archive” at the London School of Economics.

In the early 70s there was a LC branch in London. Around 1971 it issued a leaflet come pamphlet in Italian, English and Spanish in support of a campaign for a guaranteed minimum wage of £35 a week. It was called That’s Enough! Now we want Everything.

Posted in Related Political Organisations | Tagged: , , , , | 5 Comments »

EPISODES IN BIG FLAME HISTORY: No 6. Italy

Posted by archivearchie on May 26, 2009

In the pamphlet Towards a New Revolutionary Socialist Organisation written in 1977, Big Flame said: “We emerged as a rank and file grouping in Liverpool in 1971, owing no allegiance to any particular current or historical tradition”. I have a problem with this statement. Big Flame never saw itself as part of a linear tradition, promoting the texts or programme of one or more great thinkers. However, it is not possible to have a proper understanding of the group without acknowledging the impact on its development of certain currents in Italian Marxism.

Hot Autumn

Italian Background

The Italian Marxist theoretical approach called Operaismo originated with two journals in the 1960s: Quaderni Rossi (Red Notebooks) and Classe Operaia (Working Class). There was never a single viewpoint, but a variety of different perspectives from such writers as Mario Tronti, Sergio Bologna, and Toni Negri. I will use the Italian phrase Operaismo as the literal translation – Workerism – has a different meaning. In recent years the phrase Autonomism has gained a lot of currency. However, it is more closely associated with the developments of the “autonomia” movement in Italy from the mid 1970s on and the later writings of Negri (which are a significant development from his earlier works), than the earlier phase I am interested in here.

In May 1969 there were strikes in FIAT. By later in the year (the Hot Autumn), these had spread, for example, to Chemical factories and Pirelli. Many new political groups came out of the events of 1969. Two of them were particularly influenced by Operaismo – Lotta Continua (The Struggle Continues), which I will discuss in more detail in my next post (see Lotta Continua, and also Lotta Continua Part 2), and Potere Operaio (Workers’ Power). These are only two groups out of a complex pattern of developments. For a fuller picture see the Red Notes pamphlets Working Class Autonomy and the Crisis and Italy 1977-9: Living with an Earthquake (now available at libcom.org as a pdf  and Class against Class as text).

I don’t have the space here to do more than take the briefest glimpse of some of the ideas of Operaismo (which anyway are often complex and difficult to understand), nor the differences between the writers. Similarly I will only briefly discuss the practice of groups like Lotta Continua. I will focus of two ideas which had an impact on Big Flame: the phrases – “autonomy” and “mass politics”. These have a history which goes back well before Operaismo. Autonomy was frequently discussed in moral and political philosophy. Sociologists have talked of mass politics as a political order in the era of mass political parties. There are also earlier uses on the Italian left. Gramsci in The Modern Prince talked of mass politics as “real political action of the subaltern classes” as distinct from “merely an adventure by groups claiming to represent the masses”.

However, in the 1960s and 70s these phrases were given a new twist and prominence. The starting point for Operaismo was that the working class determines the nature of capital and the state, through its struggles it exerts its autonomy. Spontaneous struggles manifest a political content which foreshadows a powerful organisation. The working class exerting its autonomy forces capital to restructure the way it rules. Since the Second World War this has involved a massification of production with new machinery, the destruction of hierarchies, deskilling and (in the case of Italy in particular) the recruitment of a new workforce of young, inexperienced migrant workers. The new mass workers particularly characterise industries like automobiles, steel, rubber and radios. After an initial quiescence, these workers demonstrate a stubborn denial of all but the most minimal collaboration with the labour process (sometimes referred to as a refusal of work). Also over the post war period exploitation in the factory links up with social life beyond its walls. Workers live in a social factory where no moment of their life escapes capitalist domination.

The working class’s political refusal to resolve the contradictions of capitalism takes the form of mass struggles. The highest level of such struggles, and the model for Italy, was seen as taking place in the USA in the 1930s and 1940s. Operaismo reinterpreted Leninism. To realise the revolutionary destiny of the masses a form of mass practice is required. If a political organisation is to construct the unification of the working class, it can not do so from a position external to the masses, but only from the internal standpoint of the masses. The role of a party is to transform mass struggles into the mass political re-appropriation of power.

Italy paper

Big Flame and Italy

Sometimes the influence of Italy on Big Flame is implicit rather than spelt out. Two headlines in the newspaper come to mind. Both are talking about Britain. In August 1972 the paper predicted a Long Hot Autumn. In October 1977 it claimed sections of the Army were pursuing a Strategy of Tension.

Two of Big Flame’s earliest publications contained material on Italy: the pamphlet Italy 1969-70, published in 1971, and “The Struggle in Italy” in Fact Folder no2 published in 1972.

Italy 1969-70 details how the Hot Autumn developed in 1969, including articles about the struggles in FIAT, the different tactics in the factories, the attempt to introduce line delegates (similar to shop stewards), a demonstration in Turin which developed into a battle with the police, and a discussion with migrant workers from the south). “The Struggle in Italy” consists of a discussion with two people with recent experience of events in Italy, and of notes written by a member of Potere Operaio.

The bulk of Italy 1969-70 was republished in the US magazine Radical America. Click here to view Radical America September-October 1971 issue at the magazine’s archive on the web. (The article can be found at pp10-38 of the magazine, pp12-40 of the document). Two of the six sections of the pamphlet are omitted, along with the Preface, the Appendix, and some other supplementary material.

Big Flame was an organisation which emphasised practice rather theory. After the two documents mentioned above discussion of Italy in Big Flame publications was mostly confined to news articles in the paper. Even in internal documents, it is very rare to see explicit references to Operaismo writers. The influence of Italy is probably best seen in Big Flame’s practice. Here the influence of Lotta Continua is most apparent. From early 1969, through the Hot Autumn, and for many years thereafter Lotta Continua members regularly went down to the factory gates. Initial help with leaflets led to student worker assemblies. It was this which Big Flame was attempting to copy, on a much smaller scale, in its base group model. Lotta Continua didn’t support the introduction of line delegates into the factories, seeing this as leading to union control over struggles. This influenced Big Flame’s early positions on shop stewards.

Big Flame’s links with Lotta Continua are mentioned in the pamphlet Big Flame: Our Perspectives and Work discussed in Episode 2  of this series. There was continuous contact between the two groups in the early to mid 1970s with mutual visits. In 1975 Lotta Continua organised a “cadre school” for Big Flame members. Big Flame also had less regular links with another Italian group Avanguardia Operaio (Workers Vanguard) during the same period.

Too much can be made of the Big Flame’s Italian connection. Not everyone in Big Flame was influenced by Italian Marxism. The few early internal documents which mention Operaismo writers were extremely critical of both Tronti and Negri. Not everyone took Lotta Continua as a model. Big Flame never tried to set itself up as the English franchise of Lotta Continua as some have suggested. Before the latter’s implosion, some Big Flame members raised criticisms (e.g. its response to feminism, lack of internal democracy) in internal documents (as mentioned above there was barely a reference, favourable or unfavourable, in its open publications). Most Big Flame members had even stronger criticisms of Potere Operaio. As time went on newer members joining Big Flame were much less likely to see the Hot Autumn as the source of their inspiration, or even be aware of the currents in Italian Marxism discussed here.

1981-82 Debate

The 1974-75 debate in Big Flame about the meaning of autonomy was mentioned in Episode 5 of this series. In 1981-82, there was another debate covering both autonomy and mass politics. Starting in the run up to the 1981 Conference, which lead on a Day School on Autonomy in July 1982.

Here are some of the articles from the debate. They are listed in order of my assessment of the extent to which they departed from Big Flame’s traditional positions. The defenders come first, and the critics later.

(1) Mass Work and Big Flame (Discussion Bulletin Sept 1981)

(2) Does the Struggle Continue? (Information Bulletin June 1982 – Day School document)

(3) A Critical Look at Big Flame Theory (Discussion Bulletin April 1981)

(4) Autonomy and Mass Practice (Discussion Bulletin Nov 1981)

(5) Autonomy: A Case of Too Many Meanings (Information Bulletin June 1982 – Day School document)

(6) The Struggle for Mass Politics  (Discussion Bulletin Sept 1981)

[These documents come from the days of stencil duplicators/mimeograph machines and therefore aren’t the easiest to read]

Article (1) sees the problem as Big Flame’s abandonment of ideas like mass politics. It particularly supports the base group model, and wants to see this readopted. Article (2) sets out to defend the idea of Working Class Autonomy from its critics. Its sees as its strength seeing the working class as an active force (the only tendency to “put the horse before the cart”), It concludes the acknowledging that the approach was developed 10 years before, and needs to be updated for the 1980s.

Article (3) is mostly devoted to a lengthy exegesis of Big Flame’s traditional theory. It sees these as a significant improvement on other ideas current amongst the left at the time. It ends with some critical comments e.g. questioning the notion that communism is inherent in the working class, and believing that Big Flame does not take reformism seriously enough. Article (4) wants to retain but modify the terms autonomy and mass politics. With autonomy, the author wants to retain the idea of independence of the working class, but questions the assumption that there is inherently a progressive tendency to focus on class objectives. With mass politics, he recognises the need to work directly with the mass of the work class and oppressed, but finds the idea of mass politics vague, often with little more meaning than mass leafleting.

Article (5) argues that from the beginning the idea of autonomy made no sense in the Britain of the 1970s. The writer suggests that it is impossible to set up permanent working class institutions without some labour movement support. Article (6) wants to reinterpret the notion of mass politics. It criticises the base group model for operating independently of the institutions of the labour movement. To create socialist politics in a conservative culture new alliances are required.

The authors of both articles (3) and (6) raise the question of working within the Labour Party. By the end of 1981 at the conclusion of a debate about the Labour Party (on which see a future Episode in this series – see Episode 27), they had both left Big Flame. The organisation never resolved the differences between the positions of those who remained in the rest of its life up to 1984.

Archive Archie

 

Sources on Operaismo

Back in the 1970s and 80s, it was hard to get hold of translations into English of relevant documents. Publications released in England consisted of a few Red Notes pamphlets (such as Italy 1977-8: Living with an Earthquake and Italy 1980-81: After Marx,Jail!); a CSE pamphlet on The Labour Process and Class Strategies; plus a joint publication between the two: Working Class Autonomy and the Crisis which came out in 1979. If you were lucky enough to live near an alternative bookshop like Compendium in Camden Town, you could also get hold of US journals like Radical America, Telos and semiotext(e).

Everything has changed with the internet. The following sites are worth checking out:

Class against Class

Translations @ generation-online

Aut-op-sy

A useful overall introduction is also provided by Steve Wright Storming Heaven (Pluto, 2002).

For those who can read Italian, I would draw attention to Classe Operaia: Reprint Completo 1964-67 (Milano: Machina Libri, no date). This republishes with the original design the complete run of Classe Operaia, as well as related publications from the same period Gatto Salvaggio, Cronache Operaie, Classe e Partito and Il Potere Operaio.

Posted in Big Flame History | Tagged: , , , , , , | 10 Comments »