Big Flame

1970-1984

Posts Tagged ‘Workplace Organising’

FISHER BENDIX (Miscellaneous Big Flame Documents no 11)

Posted by archivearchie on February 28, 2011

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

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

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 This survived on government subsidies until they were withdrawn.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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Archive Archie

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EARLY DISCUSSIONS OF ORGANISATION (Miscellaneous Big Flame Documents no 9)

Posted by archivearchie on December 21, 2010

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

A post in Episodes in BF history series on Party and Class discussed Big Flame’s position on the need for a vanguard organisation (albeit a different notion to that the various Leninist groups around at the same time). It focused on a 1977 pamphlet Towards a New Revolutionary Socialist Organisation and the later discussions stimulated by the book Beyond the Fragments. Several of the original members of BF came from the libertarian movement where there was a deep suspicion of claims by an organisation to provide leadership for the working class. How did the perspectives of BF evolve to reach the positions set out in the documents written in the mid to late 1970s?

1971

The path of Big Flame can be traced in two documents. The first was written in November 1971 when BF was a purely Merseyside organisation. A few months after it had arisen out of ashes of broad revolutionary left alternative newspaper (see another post in the BF History series on The Beginning ). Three base groups had been established to work around particular factories – Ford in Halewood, Standard-Triumph in Speke and Plessey on Edge Lane, Liverpool.

Six members of the newly formed group wrote a document for a meeting of the organisation: Discussion Paper on Organisation. It reviewed BF’s history. How a desire to provide information to and link up sectors of the working class had led to a project to produce a newspaper. How the experience of the Pilkington strike (in St Helens in summer 1970) and other disputes convinced people that something more than a newspaper was required.

The document sets out a concept of a vanguard which is different from a Leninist one. One based on activity in struggle. Revolutionary theory is militants’ generalised understanding through struggle. This needs to be systematised and generalised, not brought to the masses from outside. The task of non-worker members of BF was to assist in the task of linking different vanguards. BF’s base group model was an extension of this approach. They were each autonomous and subject to the decisions of the militant workers contacted at the particular factories.

Finally the “Discussion Paper on Organisation” sets out proposals for the future. The suggest ways of bringing base groups together, establishing project groups (on things like fund raising and producing a bulletin) and study groups (on topics like Italy, Shop Stewards and Ireland), and the election of rotating functionaries. The idea of moving towards a national organisation is floated, with the first step the circulation of materials produced on Merseyside.

1974

The second document I want to look at was written in September 1974. By then Merseyside Big Flame (as it now called itself) was part of the Libertarian Newsletter Network, which brought together groups who identified with libertarian politics from around England. It also included East London Big Flame, which was totally autonomous but had been inspired by the example of the Merseyside group, and adopted the name. There were some other groups around the country (who do not seem to have been active in the Network) with whom these two groups had formed a loose federation.

At the suggestion of Merseyside BF one of the regular Network conferences took the theme “Organisation”. The document Merseyside BF members wrote for the event was called From Organising to Organisation.

It starts from a position shared by others in the network, the importance of organising locally to sink rooks in local communities. It then challenges some of the assumptions of many libertarians of the period. Namely:

–          Interventions should take place out people’s own specific areas of experience;

–          Interventions presuppose a leadership and a political line. Those who ignore the issue of leadership often only create informal elites.

–          Political organisation means more than bringing people together to share experiences.

This is not seen as meaning passive delegation to leaders, which is counter to the whole idea of developing the autonomy of the masses in struggle. However “our experience has shown us that a general political group is the only successful form for combining the planning, development and learning from different struggles” The aim of Big Flame is to act as a “general communist vanguard” – pushing the struggle and systematising the developments of consciousness. Organisational perspectives need to be flexible as any organisation needs to be the product of new situations, new struggles. The idea of a party is a long term perspective, something only to be considered when there is a growth of mass working class mobilisation. At that time the party will be a political reference point for the masses, not a substitute for them. For the moment the task was to build and unify the mass vanguard out of which the party would develop. The task for BF was to establish a national presence and a unified political line to assist this process. Not to claim to be the national leadership.

A few months after “From Organising to Organisation” was written a national conference in Easter 1975 launched Big Flame as a national organisation, albeit at the cost of East London BF members deciding they didn’t want to be part of this process (see another post in the BF History series on the 1975 Debate – National Organisation and Autonomy). By then Big Flame had withdrawn from the Libertarian Newsletter Network. Around the same time the Network collapsed (the “Organisation” Newsletter is the last once I’ve been able to trace). I must confess that I’m uncertain about the exact order of these two events, or the degree to which the two were connected

Archive Archie

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COMMUNE FORUM ON BIG FLAME

Posted by archivearchie on September 25, 2010

In August the political organisation the Commune (which describes its politics as “for workers’ self-management and communism from below”) held three meetings in London looking back at previous groups. The first two looked at Kamunist Kranti (India) and Potere Operaio (Italy). The final forum on the 30th August discussed Big Flame.

The person who introduced the discussion was never a member of BF (instead he was in the International Socialists until 1974). He gave an outsiders view of the organisation for the perspective of a line worker at Ford Halewood on Merseyside for seven years in the 1970s. It was at this plant that BF had its longest running base group. These previous posts discuss this intervention: Industry and Workplace and Ford Halewood Leaflets and Bulletin.

The speaker gave a vivid account of life in the Halewood plant, a massive place with 14,000 workers in the 1970s. He mentioned Beverly Silver’s book Forces of Labor: Workers’ Movements and Globalization since 1870 (Cambridge University Press.2003) to suggest that the nature of the automobile production process led to worker militancy. The book argues that wherever production was relocated (first to Detroit, then to northwestern and southern Europe, then to ex-colonial countries), there followed a relocation of workers’ struggles. The speaker discussed several struggles at Halewood, including one where workers fixing window glass to Capri doors were denied overalls to avoid their ripped jeans. As a result the number of shattered glass panes increased massively, with Fords calling in experts to investigate problems with the glass.

The Big Flame intervention was initiated by people from outside the plant (none of whom the speaker thought came originally from Liverpool). The leaflets they handed out at the gates were a vital source of information about what was happening across the plant. The plant was so large, that people only heard vague rumours of disputes in other sections. Later, he thought, up to five workers joined the BF (at least for a spell). The important role of BF in a long running dispute to end Friday night working (which it called “Friday Night is Music Night”) was described. In the end the Big Flame intervention at Halewood burnt out (with members moving on to other struggles). Getting up to leaflet the plant gates early most morning was “bloody hard work”.

He was highly critical of the role of the senior stewards (called the “Huyton Mafia” because they were also active in Huyton Labour Party), who thought nothing to trying to get those more militant than themselves sacked (the deputy convenor once reported the speaker to management when he let a representative of the Tower Hill rent strike into the plant to see the senior stewards to ask for support). They blamed Big Flame as the “scapegoat” when things happened with which threatened them.

The discussion ranged broadly across a variety of issues. The audience included four ex-Big Flame members (three of them involved with the planned book about Big Flame). None were involved with BF on Merseyside or were members in the early days when the Ford Halewood intervention was at its peak. However, they did there best to answer other questions about BF.

Issues raised by those present included:

  • How did the Base Groups strike a balance between providing outside support and not substituting themselves for workers or imposing lines on those in struggles?
  • What was BF’s position on its members becoming shop stewards?
  • How did BF see the relationship between workplace and community struggles?
  • What did BF understand by autonomy – of the working class and oppressed groups?
  • Why was BF much more successful in Liverpool than elsewhere in the country?
  • Why did BF grow after the downturn in class struggle after 1974?
  • Why did some former BF members join the Labour Party in the early 1980s when its politics was so different from those of BF?
  • Why did BF collapse in the 1980s?
  • Where did other BF people go after BF?
  • What are the lessons for today from the BF experience?
  • In the 1970s it was easier to identify the working class (Fords, Dockers, etc), but who are the working class today?
  • Where do ex-BF members see as potential areas of struggle today where we can win?

I am not sure how successfully the ex-BF members present answered these questions on the night. They are all certainly things to address in the book.

Some of those present said complimentary things about Big Flame – that ex-members must pass on their experiences to those involved in today’s struggles; that left politics today is weaker for the lack of an organisation with its politics leading some of them to join organisations with much more orthodox politics. Hopefully this website and the book will contribute to these tasks.

Archive Archie

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FORD HALEWOOD LEAFLETS AND BULLETIN (Miscellaneous Big Flame Documents no 3)

Posted by archivearchie on May 31, 2010

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

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

A wide variety of different sorts of documents have been published on this site. However up to now, there has been little in the way of Big Flame’s more agitational publications. This most aims to provide a few examples of leaflets and a Bulletin.

Over the years Merseyside Big Flame attempted to intervene at a considerable number of different industrial workplaces. However, the one which was the most long lasting and involved the most effort on the part of members was the Ford Halewood Assembly Plant. The documents in this post were handed out or sold outside the gates to Ford workers.

First, three examples of leaflets.

Halewood carries on the Fight  April 1971.

The nine week “parity strike” at Fords took place in January-March 1971. The objective was to bring the wages of Fords workers operating under a Measured Day Work system in line with Midlands car workers on piece rates. The eventual settlement was Initially oppose by workers at Halewood, whilst other plants accepted the offer. This leaflet was produced on the 7th April, the day mass meetings at Halewood decided to go back to work. It argues that the problem is not individual trade unions leader like Jack Jones and Hugh Scanlon who had called for an end to the strike. Rather the differences between rank and file power and trade union officials.

The Fifth Column at Fords November 1971.

The starting point of this leaflet was a dispute in the PTA (Paint, Trim and Assembly), one the two main parts of the Halewood site. It looks at the role of foremen in pushing through speed ups, and argues for collective mass action as the only way to oppose them.

An Open Letter by a Group of Ford Halewood Workers to their Sisters and Brothers September 1972.

The “parity strike” settlement was a two year deal which expired in March 1973. This leaflet reminds workers of developments in the plant since 1971, and sets out a list of demands for the new contract.

As well as the leaflets there was a Bulletin. Consisting of around 12 to 20 duplicate pages, it sold for 2p. There were 14 issues between 1974 and 1976.

Halewood Bulletin no 2 1974.

This is one of the earlier issues. It reflects the typical mix of articles about what is happening in Fords with events in the wider world (in this case the new Labour Government’s “Social Contract”).

For some context on how the perspective in the leaflet and bulletins fitted into Big Flame’s developing positions, see the post on Industry and Workplace.

Archive Archie

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

Posted by archivearchie on March 24, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–                An emphasis on workers’ self organisation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Archive Archie

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

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OPINIONS ABOUT BIG FLAME no 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

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EPISODES IN BIG FLAME HISTORY: No 23. Health

Posted by archivearchie on November 23, 2009

Previous episodes in this series examined Big Flame’s overall approach to workplace interventions and the specific sectors of the motor industry (see Episode Episode 3) and education (see Episode 13). This one focuses on the Health sector.

The period of Big Flame’s life (1970-84) saw many dramatic developments in the health sector in Britain.

1973-74: Waves of militancy around pay, first by ancillary workers, then nurses.

1974: Reorganisation of the health service to promote centralisation and the philosophy of corporate management.

1977 onwards: New system of resource allocation used to produce cuts. Hospital closures; bed closures; increased workloads for NHS staff.

1982-83: Another reorganisation, this time to decentralise responsibility. Rise of general management. Domestic, catering and laundry service in hospitals put out to tender. There was an expansion of private practice within NHS hospitals.

In the early to middle 1980s a substantial number of Big Flame members were active in health care struggles. By the late 1970s this had reduced to only a few. Some of these had a major impact within the sector. One BF member was involved in the occupation of Hounslow hospital in west London when it was scheduled for closure in 1977, and the launch of Fightback, a national campaign against health cuts in 1978.

Big Flame saw health and not just a workplace issue. It believed that as every aspect of our lives is distorted by capitalism, we need all need to take an interest in issues of health care and the prevention of illness.

These are few examples of BF discussions of health issues:

The first is an article from Big Flame Journal no2 Winter 1975-76: Hospitals: our health is not for sale.

This sets out to examine the reasons why hospital workers had become more militant, with many quotes from such workers. Events of the spring 1973 are mentioned in detail. The article sees the crisis in the NHS as part of a general crisis, and maintains the workers and patients should not have to pay for it.

The second is a document form the 1976 conference: London Hospitals Report.

The work of a BF base group at a London hospital is described. Events at the hospital are placed in the context of the restructuring of capital and developments at the level of the Area Health Authority. There is a discussion of why the base group was formed. The process of how it changed from a group of external militants to one person working inside the hospital is mentioned, but not explained. The report concludes with proposals of actions Big Flame could undertake in relation to hospital struggles.

Finally, some linked articles form Revolutionary Socialism no4 Winter 1979-80: Health.

The overall theme is alternative forms of health care. The “Introduction” highlights themes from the two articles, and argued for the need to combine fighting against the cuts with the struggle for a different kind of health service. “Popular Health” consists of an interview with a doctor and a community health worker from a health group in South East London. They talk about the things they have been able to achieve, and the potential impact of threatened cuts. “Health Care in China” is an assessment based on a visit to China in 1978. It describes what was in many ways a different approach from that adopted in the west, and concludes that whilst things were far from perfect, there had been a lot of progress.

Archive Archie

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

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OPINIONS ABOUT BIG FLAME no 2: PAUL THOMPSON

Posted by archivearchie on July 17, 2009

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

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

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

Socialist Register draft article

BIG FLAME: HISTORY AND POLITICS

1. THE EMERGENCE OF A NEW POLITICS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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EPISODES IN BIG FLAME HISTORY: No 13. Education

Posted by archivearchie on July 13, 2009

Crisis-p1Teachers in Big Flame came together at various times in the 1970s as part of an Education (or Teachers) Commission or a more general Public Sector Commission.

As with other Commissions experiences and strategic perspective were brought together in a pamphlet. Published in 1977 it was called The Crisis in Education. A draft version had been circulated the previous year, and the final version took on board comments from a broad collection of people involved in education.

Looking back from 2009 in the light of thirty years of Labour and Conservative Government policy on education can influence our perspective. Schools and further education in the 1970s can easily appear in a better light than the way socialists saw them at the time. However, in the mid 1970s schools experienced rounds of severe cuts as part of a general process of the state reducing public expenditure. Right wing traditionalists had launched attacks on progressive methods of education. Steps were underway towards a core curriculum and to increase the links between schools and industry.

The pamphlet saw the cuts as not simply about reducing expenditure, but as a process to restructure education to make it more controllable by the state and big business. The task for socialists, it argued, as not just to defend the status quo but to raise questions about the kind of education and learning we wanted. The pamphlet starts to raise these questions. Whilst those involved in producing the pamphlet would later acknowledge that it lacked practical direction and that its feminist content was inadequate, it stands up fairly well to the test of time. Click here to view the pamphlet – split into two parts:

The Crisis in Education: front-p12

The Crisis in Education: p13-back

An article in the Discussion Bulletin May 1980 took up the issue of how socialist teachers might apply their ideas in a classroom. The author writes: “what I have developed is practical and largely an extension of liberal/radical education ideas with a dash of socialism added.” Click here to view Notes on Being a Red Teacher. This article was later reprinted in a pamphlet Children and Socialism.

Archive Archie

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

Posted by archivearchie on May 6, 2009

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

 Base Groups

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

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

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

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

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

 Shop Stewards

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

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

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

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

Workplace Organising

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

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

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

Organising to Win: Intro and Ch 1-2

Organising to Win: Ch 3-5

Organising to Win: Ch 6-9 

 

 Archive Archie

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