issue 18 of the commune

The October issue of The Commune is now available. Click the image below to see PDF or use the list of individual articles as they are posted online.

Contact us at if you would like to buy a printed copy (£1 + 50p postage) or set up a subscription. (£12 a year UK/£16 EU/£20 international.


lib dems to slash council services – David Huckerby reports on Sheffield council, which has announced 8,000 lay-offs

french workers fight for their future – A Rebetiko article on the 3-million strong days of action against a two-year rise in the pension age

progress for UCL cleaners – Greg Brown reports on a partial victory for the Living Wage campaign

‘not one train left the depot’ – Millie Wild speaks to a worker involved in the Madrid Metro strike

ed miliband is no ed militant – David Broder is unimpressed with the left’s reactions to the Labour leadership contest

deadlock in venezuela vote – Claudio Testa explains the weaknesses and remaining power base of the Chávez government

Workplace and local reports

fire brigade: will london burn? – job losses set to hit fire cover, ‘frontline’ staff and support workers alike in London Fire Brigade

cuts to hit hard in peckham – Sharon Borthwick reports on the impact of the crisis in Peckham and the changing social composition of the area

on the picket line at sandwell waste depot – report from a recent strike action by refuse workers near Birmingham


reports from september 11th conference ‘from meltdown to upheaval’:

– working group on organising ongoing struggles

– working group on community and voluntary organising

– working group on ‘is the university a factory?’ – by Sebastian Wright

are the cuts necessary, and does it matter? – Oisín Mac Giollamóir responds to a debate on whether UK capitalism ‘needs’ to make the cuts

unison stirred by government cuts onslaught – Matt Mansfield reports on an anti-cuts conference in Glasgow staged by Unison

where does resistance come from? – Sheila Cohen reviews Workplace Conflict: Mobilization and Solidarity in Argentina by Maurizio Atzeni

big flame: doing things a different way – Sophie Walker and Joe Thorne revisit the experience of 1970s revolutionary socialist feminist group Big Flame

Our network and events

the commune: a view from the periphery – a letter from Martin Bashforth, from York, on the potential and role of The Commune

political platform of our network

the commune around britain

women at the cutting edge…

31 thoughts on “issue 18 of the commune

  1. On Big Flame doing things differently

    Sophie and Joe’s description of Big Flame’s “base group” in Ford Halewood is an exact description of what we were doing in the IS/SWP at the same time in all branches and before 1971. In Coventry we had “factory cells” as we called them in most of the main factories. The student members gave out the leaflets and sold the papers weekly outside the factory gate on all shifts. They then had to meet in the factory cells to decide what was to go in the fortnightly bulletin and the had to duplicate the thousands of bulletins. It wasdedicated work. In 1971 the Coventry IS/SWP branch had over 100 members, mainly shop stewards from these factory cells. How did Big Flame do it differently — it would be nice to know. I believe they copied us. And we copied the method from Lutte Ouvriere which still uses it as far as I know — and they are a Trotskyist group.

    There was a lot wrong with IS/SWP at the time but the use of “base groups” was not one of them.

    Sophie and Joe tell us that the internal regime was comradely until they fell out over whether to join the Labour Party in 1984. In 1984!!!??? I was a Labour councillor by then as were many others in Left groups. I put a resolution to Workers Fight/AWL in 1972 to join the Labour Party — which got defeated. Nobody fell out over it though I was roundly denounced as a reformist by sean Matgamna and Martin Thomas. . The following year we all joined the Labour Party. A few years later Workers Fight fused with Workers Power who had been expelled from the SWP. WP were opposed to joining the LP, WF were in favour, WP had a state capitalist view of the USSR, WF had a defencist, degenerated workers’ stae view of the USSR. We decided to have a dual tactic on the question of the LP and to have extensive discussions on the question of the USSR to be decided at a special conference. We did not fall out over either issue but over other matters concerning bureaucratic methods etc.So how was Big Flame any different?

    1984 was a big year – the year of the Miners’ Strike. The WRP imploded in 1985. Matgamna expelled the Thornett faction from the ICL in a bureaucratic centralist manner and formed the AWL. And what were the lessons of the miners’ strike and of the militancy of the 1970s? In my opinion the main lesson Big Flame disbanded and so cannot tell us, hardly surprising really. Because the main lesson in my view is that militancy is not enough. You have to be political and you have to build communism from below. The IS/SWP bulletins were not political enough. They patronised the workers, said leave the politics to the elite SWP leadership. I have cpies of some of these leaflets I can show comrades. When the Workers Opposition were expelled from SWP some of them flirted with Big Flame. In Coventry Workers Fight we produced a leaflet which I will try to find with the title “Militancy IsNot enough” We forget this at our peril during the present fight against the cuts. The enemy is making conscious political decisions as did Thatcher — we have to do the same. The workers in the 1970s failed to do that as did the miners and they lost.

    That was the reason Bg Flame broke up in 1984. The working class suffered a massive defeat and they could not explain it. It is all very well to get excited when there is a strike or a sit-in but if you’ve been on the picket line at Grunwick’s or with the miners and seen all the factories in your area closed down it’s not so exciting. The workers will fight back but political consciousness is key. And what did Big Flame say about that?


  2. As a former BF member who was at the Commune Forum I’d like to respond to a couple of Dave Spencer’s points.

    (1) Base Groups. I tend not to get too excited about debates about who did what first. Certainly an orientation towards industrial struggles and forming some sort of group (whatever you called it) around a particular plant was by no means new for the British left. However, Big Flame’s model was definitely not British troskyist groups or Lutte Ouvriere, but Lotta Continua’s practice in the Italian Hot Autumn of 1969. What was different about this? For one thing, the approach of many (perhaps not all) trotskyist groups is to descend on a struggle with supreme confidence that they bring with them the correct line. BF’s perspective was to believe that there was much to be learnt from militant workers in struggle, and their experiences and knowledge. The leaflets and bulletins at Halewood were one way of helping spread and extend these.

    (2) Labour Party. Sophie and Joe’s generally very good report on the Forum and about Big Flame was misleading in one respect. The debate in BF about the Labour Party took place not in 1984, but three years earlier in 1981. I should know as I was of the 15 or so people who left BF after our perspective was defeated at a conference. Admittedly 1981 was later than when a number of trotskyist groups, and even more ex-members of such groups, took up Labour Party membership.

    Only about 12% of BF left that year over this issue. Those who stayed remained very strongly opposed to Labour Party membership. They were fairly evenly divided in 1983 over the issue of whether or not to call for a Labour vote (with all the usual caveats) at the General Election. So it was not the Labour Party which was the key issue in BF’s demise in 1984. Instead the debate was about whether it should remain a national political organisation or become a loose network – and a tiny handful of supporters of the former position did carry on for a few more years to around 1987.

    The reason the issue came to the fore was a decline in membership numbers and difficulties in sustaining national structures and intiatives. Much of the reason for this, and here I am agreeing with Dave, was the major defeats the working class suffered in the period. No-one on the left including BF had any real perspectives about how these could be reversed. Nearly all those who left Big Flame in the 80s didn’t abandon left politics, but put all their energies into local struggles rather than combining this with keeping a national organisation going.

    For those of us who were then in the Labour Party, many of whom were interested in the opportunities opened up by the left in local goverment, a lot of the substantial defeats came a bit later (ratecapping campaign, GLC abolition). These, combined with changes in the Labour Party, mean that only a smallish minority of those who took this route in 1981 are members today.


  3. Dave makes many valid points. I also don’t consider Big Flame doing things so fundamentally differently. The early SLP engaged not simply with workers struggles but also organising and educating such as at Singers in Glasgow which laid the basis for Red Clydeside. The Comintern period has many such experiences.

    It is debatable whether you can describe the old International Socialists as Trotskyisyts, they certainly did not consider themselves as such. There were many positive aspects to IS practices such as workplace organisation and the rank and file groups, it would be wrong to consider the practice as not seeing anything to learn from struggles or workplaces or there would, indeed should be a two influence. That this was the case explains why such conflicts arose when efforts were made to close down the rank and file groups such as the Building Worker Group which continued.

    From discussion with a number of BF ex-members I know the organisation had a far more tumultuous existence than is presented above, going through various phases of politics. This is not fully apparent from the above, such as the conflicts with the Radical Feminists.

    One aspect of Big Flame which is not explored as much is the anti-imperialist stance which was far superior to the libertarians such as Solidarity who could not tell the difference between oppressed and opressor even on their door step in Ireland.


  4. My intention was not really to offer an analysis of the IS approach to workplace organising, but to respond to Dave’s discussion of who influenced the Big Flame. No doubt there were lots of good aspects to it. Coincidently, I have just returned home tonight from a discussion of BF’s industrial politics with former members active in this area. Those present included someone who was in IS first, followed by BF. He felt he had learnt a lot from both traditions. Two differences he did mention were the extent to which the politics derived from the bottom up (with IS automatically assuming that if there was a powerful shop stewards committee things were fine), and the priority on introducing equality issues into the workplace. Others present saw a distinctiveness of the BF approach (some by way of a IS/SWP comarison, some not) as about an emphasis on linking workers and users, going beyond issues of pay, and the priority given to recruiting people to the organisation. By the way, I wouldn’t want to give the impression that those present didn’t have their own criticisms of some aspects of BF.

    Chris is right to suggest that there were always different perspectives within BF, often passionately discussed by members. I set these out in detail (probably too much detail for most people) in posts on the BF website (, particular those in the series “Episodes in Big Flame History” series such as the ones on the 1975, 1976-78, 1979-80 and 1981 debates. I am not sure, though, what he means by “conflicts with the Radical Feminists”. As far as I am aware all women in BF, at all stages in its history, identified with the Socialist Feminist current in the women’s movement as opposed to the Radical or Revolutionary Feminist one.


  5. “As far as I am aware all women in BF, at all stages in its history, identified with the Socialist Feminist current in the women’s movement as opposed to the Radical or Revolutionary Feminist one.”

    If you really want to get to the bottom of the differences that ripped apart Big Flame in the early ’80 you might have to dig out the issues of their paper/journal for that period. You will find, for example, London radical feminists, who prioritised sexual oppression over class oppression, arguing for separate branch meetings for male and female members, with ‘aggregate’ meetings for both sexes (which of course would have meant a tripling of the numbers of meetings members were expected to attend). And you will find socialist feminists from ‘up north’ cheekily forming a “working class caucus” in reaction to the radfem position.
    Unfortunately I recycled all of my back copies of BF a few years back, believing as I did that the issues were dead and forgotten.
    Shoulda remembered what Bruce Springsteen sang:
    “Everything dies baby that’s a fact
    But maybe everything that dies someday comes back”
    (Which reminds me, there was a particularly vexed debate in the pages of Big Flame about whether or not Bruce Springsteen’s songs about working class life were sexist.)

    Liked by 1 person

  6. “One aspect of Big Flame which is not explored as much is the anti-imperialist stance which was far superior to the libertarians such as Solidarity who could not tell the difference between oppressed and opressor even on their door step in Ireland.”

    Hmm, I think Big Flame are renowned for their anti-imperialism but not in a good way. They said some pretty crazy stuff supporting Maoism. General formulations like “tell the difference between oppressed and opressor” are no good because they blur the lines rather than clarifying differences: a Trotskyist or a Maoist or a Stalinist would claim to “tell the difference”… but this could lead to all sorts of different positions.

    The point of the article is surely not to insist that Big Flame were the first left group to do any organising around workplaces (leading to a boring debate/contest over historical legitimacy) but that their practice was different from the modern left and Trotskyists… Archivearchie’s distinction seems to make sense.

    As for the IS being Trotskyist – Chris writes they “certainly did not consider themselves as such” which seems rather dubious, given that even today it is a commonplace to call the SWP Trots and reading e.g. Cliff’s historical works or International Socialism in the late 60s/early 70s a lot of the debate is framed in terms of the Trotskyist left/historical canon.


  7. Some people may well d term the SWP ‘trots’ however the SWP I was a member of did not consider itself Trotskyist or the term used is – ‘orthodox Trotskyism’ but a significant departure from that tradition. A positive one I would contend.

    The idea that the formulation of not knowing the difference between the oppressor and oppressed is unhelpful is a road to hell and back again for any revolutionary in an imperialist state. If you cannot get beyond knowing the difference between those mowing down Civil Rights demonstrators in Derry and the British Army whatever your next steps may be they will be in the wrong direction. Now that is crazy.


  8. But my point was that knowing the difference between the oppressor and oppressed is necessary but not necessarily enough.

    Someone could have a correct understanding of a particular question – e.g. steadfast opposition to British rule in Ireland – but also wrong on something else, e.g. on China.


  9. (1) Radical Feminism. I don’t think it helps to apply the adjective “radical” before anything other than the mildest forms of feminsim. In the 1970s there was a current which adopted that name (you can read about it in Lynne Segal’s book “Is the Future Female?” or more directly in comtempoary anthologies like the Women’s Press 1981 collection “No Turning Back”). They explicitly rejected being in mixed organisations, and Women’s Movement conferences of the 1970s were dominated by debates between them and Socialist Feminists. i think the term is best applied to those who chose to use it.

    Sure, there were plenty of debates about feminism in BF (right from the beginnings in the early 1970s, not just in the early 80s). No doubt the organisation’s attempts to come to grips with feminism were a factor in many people never joining it. I am much more doubtful that it was a significant factor in many people leaving. Men definitely sometimes felt uncomfortably when challenged. Women did see women-only meetings as a way of developing their confidence and impact on BF (and men agreed). I don’t recall anyone in BF saying sexual oppression was important than class oppression (the whole point of Socialist Feminism was/is to bring the two together). A couple of articles about Bruce Sprigsteen in the newspaper are mentioned as an example of how bad things were in BF. Not sure I’m familiar enough with his lyrics to have much of a view, but some people accusing a rock star of sexim isn’t that much of a shock/horror story. I do know that the person who wrote the pro-Bruce article in the debate (later ironically a very minor rock star himself) didn’t leave BF because his views on this topic were attacked, but over the Labour party membership issue.

    (2) Maoism. Yes, a few BF members had a Maoist background and for a few years the organisation adopted a position on China which whole not uincritical is still impossible (for me or anyone else) to defend. However, the influence of China on BF is frequently exaggerated and it is not at all helpful to label it as a “soft Maoist” organisation as some do. I discuss this issue in more depth on the BF website:

    One aspect of BF which I am critical about today is a tendency to be too unctitical of national liberation struggles. It adopted a position which I still think is a good one. See another post: But this was rarely applied in practice. For example, I can recall a few mild criticisms of the way things were starting to go in Zimbabwe in the early 80s, but barely any public criticism of the IRA/Sinn Fein for their politics or strategy.


  10. I followed the links and spent a couple of nostalgic hours flicking through the documents on the Big Flame memorial blog. Some of spectres unearthed definitely have a nightmarish quality, such as the infamous “gushing” Mao obituary, and the despotism of the “Red Therapy” and “Mens Groups” confessionals (which David Lamb of ‘Solidarity’ compared to the brainwashing sessions of American POWs organised by Maoist commandants in North Korean prison camps).
    However I have to say that archivearchie is correct about my (mis)use of the term “radical feminist” – since no one concerned called themselves that. Nonetheless it seems to me that the general acceptance within BF (and not just BF) of the dualisms of patriarchy/capitalism marxism/feminism (the theories of Heidi Hartmann and Anne Phillips) was fatally divisive and meant that “socialist feminism” became little more than ideological gloss as part of the inevitable shift of the New Left towards New Labour.


  11. Well, I’m feeling nostalgic (again) for my formative and wonderful days in Big Flame. Quite a few of us in the Leeds Libertarian Group (LLG) formed the Leeds BF group in 1975 at least partly because we regarded the anarchists and the Solidarity supporters in the LLG as sexist. (We’d read about BF in the national Libertarian Newsletter.) The gays and the one transexual in the LLG left at about the same time. We had all supported the nascent feminist movement in Leeds from the early 1970s – which itself was formed by women who had lived with male anarchists whose sexism was legendary.

    Of course, us BF men had lots to learn (and I was a very slow learner) and that’s why several of us joined Men’s Groups and took publications like Achilles Heel and a pamphlet with a bizarre title like The Production of Sexuality Under Capitalism very seriously. For a while some of us paid attention to the Australian Revolutionary Effeminists. And I too took an interest in Red Therapy.

    This move towards what got called sexual and personal politics was nothing like a move into some kind of Brainwashing Gulag. Dave Black is obviously talking metaphorically here, and it’s true that any serious social group with intense debate and (often) hot relationships will contain the seeds of ‘group think’. But that never was my experience in BF. We never did any real ‘recruitment’ – people came, and went, entirely at will. If people liked what they read and saw, the came to us, and stayed as long as we seemed relevant. A friend who once showed a passing interest in the Socialist Labour League/Workers Revolutionary Party (now they really were shameless Trots) had to hide in his cupboard when they came round to collect him to attend meetings. In BF it was polite to give notice when you were too distracted, busy, or disgruntled to turn up – but even that wasn’t insisted upon.

    The great majority of the men in BF took the messages coming from the women’s, gay, lesbian and bisexual movements very seriously for two reasons. One was the the women in BF would dump us very quickly if we didn’t, and since most of us were young and heterosexual that would make life unbearable. (These were the brightest and most beautiful women I’d ever met.) The other was that our politics was founded on the view that there was parity of oppression across class, gender, race and sexuality. To underestimate the importance of women’s, black or sexual struggle was as serious as to underestimate the importance of class struggle.

    Although there was a high proportion of women in BF (because they agreed with the politics of the organisation and they recognised that men were attempting to change) there was a sense that (white) men were dominant. That’s why BF women insisted on the right to hold meetings on their own – and BF supported that position (it was a corollary or our autonomy theory). That’s why they insisted that men change their personal style (though very few adopted the whispering Willie voices that was favoured in the Men’s Movement). And most of us did change – to some extent, at least. And some of us recognised that therapy might well help us change.

    All those BF women were socialist feminists and they fought tooth and nail with both the Radical and their (even fiercer) sisters the Revolutionary Feminists. Most BF women attended Greenham mass events, but some refused, so deep was their opposition the the ‘anti-men’ voices that were associated with some of the gates at Greenham. I never recall these debates tearing BF apart – for me, the best thing about those days was that, inside BF, you could argue about anything and everything in a respectful, listening atmosphere. People like me were much too aggressive when it came to arguing with the rest of the left, but most were exemplars of good practice there, too. Inside BF, to raise your voice or speak too long would cause immediate challenge from all over the room.

    As for Bruce Springsteen, he was cock rock, wasn’t he? As for Mao, we were just plain wrong.


  12. Hi everyone, thanks for the comments.

    It is of course correct that the above article does not present the internal debates and tensions within Big Flame. But it is a 2,000 word article, and mostly a personal report on the meeting we organised; so this is not a misunderstanding or misrepresentation on our part. Readers wanting a more full picture of Big Flame are referred to the blog, where these things are discussed in more detail.

    There was also no time to explore BF’s anti-imperialism or internationalism. Chris confusingly says it was “far superior to the libertarians”, but BF would generally be identified as libertarian themselves, and certainly this was the background of many members. I think that BF’s relatively uncritical attitude to certain concrete national liberation movements looks very problematic in hindsight – which I think many accept. I wonder how BF members committed to support for these movements and to socialist feminism would have responded to the sharp empirical critique of such movements in Maria Mies’s Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale (chapter 6). I think there are two valuable things we could take from BF, in terms of having a concrete internationalist practice:
    – the project of the international Ford workers’ combine
    – the activity of persuading workers to take internationalist action, e.g. dock workers refusing to unload Namibian uranium

    It’d be interesting to hear more about these sorts of things.

    However, even if you think BF’s “critical support” position was correct (I don’t, I’m not sure it really means anything):

    it is difficult to find any examples of the right to criticism being applied. One exception is an article “What Future for Zimbabwe Now” in Revolutionary Socialism no 6 Winter 1980-81 (now available at This made what now seem fairly mild criticisms of the Mugabe Government. This was apparently strongly criticised by some BF members at the time as verging on being racist or imperialist because it included criticisms.

    So just asserting, flatly and uncritically, that BF’s approach was “far superior” is not helpful. What does it mean to “critically support” Mugabe? That you would render practical assistance whilst warning people (or possibly not) that he was going to shaft them? If you really believed that, then why support his movement/government at all? (And even pre-independence Mugabe’s gang was involved in more or less exterminating the other anti-colonial militia groups; it was a totalitarian project from the beginning.) Of course, not supporting Mugabe doesn’t imply supporting the British Empire. We don’t have to pick a side we’re positively for in any given conflict.

    By the way, if you forget the enthusiasm for ongoing events in China and slightly sectarian tone toward Solidarity at times, this is an excellent critique of Trotskyism, which I would recommend with those caveats to anyone:

    Archie has commented on the inspiration for Big Flame’s base group approach, and how it may have differed from other similar models. It is of course true that IS and the early communist parties had practices of a similar form, which is an important point, but doesn’t minimise the difference between the BF approach and contemporary Trotskyism, which is the point of the article – I for one would be very interested to hear more from Dave about the practice of the early IS in this respect. Certainly, my impression is that BF members thought of what they were doing in a different way. As to whether it was the same as Lutte Ouvriere. . . as important as their practice may be as a reference point now, I don’t think so. For example, Workers’ Fight (LO’s British section), from what I understand, certainly don’t work in the same way: there are conditions on joining the group and going through an ideological training programme lasting a year before you can write articles. Very different from BF at Halewood where workers not in BF were positively encouraged to write.

    Finally, Bruce Springsteen is definitely more than just cock rock: a voice of (ok, male) proletarian America. The Ghost of Tom Joad in particular: a concept album about working class immigration to California – who else would do that? ;-)


  13. Hi

    i was a member of the IS in the Manchester Branch in 168/69. There were no base groups or any concept of base groups in the branch at the time.

    The Manchester branch of IS followed the national groups focus on the shop stewards movement. Colin Barker the local leader and Tony Cliff produced propaganda and advice for the official shop stewards movement. This was compared favourably with what was considered to be the Toy Town Bolshevism of the SLL and other Trotskyists.

    As a Branch our orientation was towards the local stewards network. We sold Labour Worker and later in 1968 socialist worker. We also sold Cliffs book on the employers offensive or productivity deals and how to fight them. The politics of the manchester IS and the IS in general was about generalising the struggle of the shop stewards which was seen as socialist.

    There was rank and filism but this was very much about transforming the trade unions into revolutionary organisations.

    When Mmatgamna joined the Manchester Branch in 1968 he did not bring the politics of industrial Bulletins but a verson of the Trotskyist politics of Mandel and cannon.

    in solidarity



  14. One lesson I’ve learned over the past 40 or more years identifying with various positions to the left of Labour is the error I made in fetishising differences between the various left groups that circulate to the left of Labour. The fascination I had as a student trying to figure out the differences between them all has entirely evaporated. I saw quite early that Big Flame (which I joined in 1975) had much in common with the early International Socialists. Had the discussions beween CLR James and Tony Cliff in the early 1960s born fruit I would probably have joined IS, IS would not have become the SWP, and BF would not have been necessary.

    Our differences with the harder Trostskyists (apologies to those in IS if they don’t like being called soft Trots) was more personal than political, I now think. They were (or tried to persuade us that they were) hard men. I’m still shocked by the memory in 1974 of a member of the International Marxist Group telling me with pride, and with the agreement of his comrade, that the way to deal with a 50 year fascist/racist woman was to knee her in the crutch. (We were forming an anti-racist, anti-fascist alliance in Leeds at the time.) But the content of their politics wasn’t far from ours. Their self-aggrandisement, their prancing, their machismo, their collective self-delusion . . . all that was experienced personally, and was pretty repugnant. And that’s as much why they split all the time as was the bizarre disagreements on the nature of the USSR etc. (Look at the back page of BF’s ‘Trotsky’ pamphlet to see the bizarre family tree of British Trostskyism. Within a month of its publication, it needed three more branches.) Their resistance to feminism and personal politics was a result of that hard shell they had constructed; hence they were unable to change.

    (Interestingly, Communist Party members were often much kinder and easier people to be with, often making excellent contributions. Stupidly, I thought that their devotion to the Soviet Union made them impossible to take seriously. Significantly, most of them were much older than me, and I had read Jerry Rubin’s ‘Never Trust a Man over 30’ (or was it Abbie Hoffman?). Stupidly, I thought he was right.)

    I totally agree with the point that ‘militancy is not enough’, that the content of our politics is crucial, and I now have a clearer understanding of why so many good people over the years have joined the Labour Party. But unless we can change the whole style of politics there’s no hope of mobilising significant numbers of people against capitalism.


  15. This is all very interesting. I think Max is right about the fetishising of differences. It was a different time. IS/SWP didnot see itself as Trotskyist to start with. they were proud of being federalist and Luxemburgist. Then Cliff made changes to his book on Luxemburg
    as he bureaucratised the party. By the mid 70s it became what it is now.

    i think there is a danger of extrapolating from now to then. I read into the article a tendency to idealise Big Flame as well as Solidarity. They were libertarian therefore they were right and must have done things differently from the Trosts. I reacted because I was involved in base groups as an IS/SWP member and as a Workers Fight member later and we conducted ourselves in exactly the same way the article described. The clamp down cin IS/SWP came with the expulsion of Workers Fight which was a witchhunt of a very unpleasant kind.

    i think the question of feminism and the importance of the personal being political and vice versa is important. Many women left the Left groups because they were sexist politically and the behaviour of .the male members was sexist. My partner at the time joined Women’s Voice which was set up by the SWP to recruit women members. The women in Women’s Vouce got out of control and the SWP closed it down. I remember arguing long into the nights with my partner who became a “radical feminist”Eventually i read the French radical feminist Christine Delphy who was replying to a review of her work by the British “Marxist” feminists Michele Barrett and Mary MacIntosh. She criticises the elitist and religious Marxism of Barrett and McIntosh and prroves conclusively to me that Barrett and McIntosh and the whole left groups are neither Marxists nor feminists, She concludes “We feminists.have many friends on the Left. we avoid them like the plague!” Quite right. The left groups were a blockage on the road for the feminist movement and also for the shop stewards movement and also for the fight in the Labour Party. We have to learn how to build from below not from bureaucracise above. The feminist movement had some good ideas. May be Big Flame did as well. But what were they? And how do we implement them today in face of the Con-Dem onslaught?


  16. Delphy is a radical feminist speaking the language of “materialism.” While it’s certainly true that the feminist movement had (and still has) some good ideas, the dual-systems theories of Delphy, Hartmann and others were/are divisive and wrong. To see patriarchy as representing a mode of production (the “domestic sphere”) separate from capitalism validates the separation of the struggle for womens liberation from class struggle, and feminism from the left.


  17. Interesting discussion about how communists relate to other workers and the practice of the early IS, BF, early SLP etc. I’m sure we can learn lessons from all of them and the lessons from other groups both postive and negative. I would find it useful if comrades could draw out positive practices for our own organisation not forgetting the historical situation. So for example, base groups sound really interesting but is this really something that we could adopt now – does it not depend on an existing high level of class conflict? Note, I’m not suggesting that positive practices lead to success with regard to influence amongst other workers as I think our influence has little to do with the way we organise ourselves.

    With regard to feminism and patriarchy which is the main reason why I wanted to respond. I don’t think we, as an organisation, have a very developed understanding of patriarchy and how that relates to capitalism. I would agree with Dave B. that patriarchy as a mode of production is incorrect but how then does patriarchy relate to capitalism? Patriarchy is obviously a lot older form of oppression than capitalism and it arguably predates class society. As communists it is behoven on us to have well grounded understanding of this most ancient of oppressions. It is really positive that we have good relations with Feminist Fightback but feminism is not a core principle within our organisation such that drives our practical engagement. We need to bring this into the centre of our politics.


  18. I don’t remember much about Big Flame. I’m pretty sure there was a group in Birmingham but I don’t know what they did.
    I think that if the commune is sincere in allowing its structures to be a place where revolutionaries can come together, discuss and act together through a broader spectrum politically then this could be a good thing.
    I have a political viewpoint, but that doesn’t mean that I cannot collaborate with others who have a more libertarian angle to the class struggle.
    If comrades can genuinely respond and act within the struggles of the class then that is the function of that organisation.
    Can the Commune become this ?



  19. yes, there was a BF group in Birmingham – in fact it had three incarnations – and there are at least two ex-members (one of whom went on the join the SWP) in that fair city. I’ll try and get them to pitch into this interesting debate!


  20. Big Flame was always defined more by its practice than its theory. Among its members you found different interpretations of even the most frequently used terms like “autonomy” and “mass politics” and different views on the significance of one of its main influences – Italian Marxism (operaismo of the 60s and 70s – not quite the same thing as the autonomism which followed). The same applies to what was mean by socialist femimism, patriarchy, etc.

    My own starting point is that there a number of different forms of oppression in our society. They cannot be reduced to each other (e.g. women’s oppression to class). However, the forms they take in our society are totally intertwined. You need to understand both to analyse it. Rather than promoting claims that one is “more important” than the others, I prefer to think they are both important. I think this (admittedly very general) perspective was shared by most in BF.

    There are some feminists who take little interest in class, but to imply that this the case with all of them (which is presumably what lies behind the Socialist Feminism = New Labour claim) doesn’t hold up – both intellectually and looking at what many feminists have said and done.

    Archie (a former BF member in London rather than Birmingham)


  21. Archie,
    I didn’t make any such “Socialist Feminism = New Labour claim”.
    I said that “the general acceptance within BF (and not just BF) of the dualisms of patriarchy/capitalism marxism/feminism (the theories of Heidi Hartmann and Anne Phillips) was fatally divisive” and that this meant that for some people in Big Flame (and other groups) “’socialist feminism’ [it’s in quotes – get it?) became little more than ideological gloss as part of the inevitable shift of the New Left towards New Labour.”
    In fact most of the vanguardist left were more than happy to abandon ANY kind of feminism to the camp of what they designated “bourgeois feminism” in order to avoid any serious self-examination of their own crap male-dominated politics. This doesn’t mean however that socialist feminism and dual-systems theories are compatible, as you seem to think.


  22. Dave,

    Apologies if I have misunderstood your position, or not fully appreciated the significance of your use of quotation marks.

    On Socialist Feminism-New Labour. I doubt that Blair, Brown, Mandelson and company gave much weight in developing New Labour that it was a more feminist perspective than those than preceded it. Nor that many of those once of the “New Left” (Big Flame or otherwise) who may have adopted some sort of relationship to it. I’ve heard plenty of other reasons for supporting New Labour positions (not something I’ve done myself) – e.g. it was about having a more “realistic” strategy for achieving socilaism, reacting against “vanguardism” and so on. This is not to deny that some self proclaimed Socialist Feminists may at some time have supported New Labour. While plenty more did not.

    On “Dual Systems”. I am familiar with one perspective which explains women’s oppression (and that of black people and so on) as solely (or overwhelmingly) a product of class. There are other approaches which see several dynamics at work (probably not a single approach as there is a lot of differences about the nature of these dynamics, their relative significance and how they interact but all baring the label Socialist Feminism). As far as I am aware (and my familiarity with the literature is pretty thin), I wasn’t lining up behind the views of the authors you name. On the other hand, I’m not clear what it is that you are promoting, and whether you see it as fundamentally different to both of these perspectives.


  23. Dave B,

    By ‘dual systems’ theory do you mean the idea of seeing patriarchy and capitalism as separate modes of production? If so then I agree with you that this is not the case. But do you also mean that patriarchy is not a separate structure of oppression? That it can be reduced to a cultural expression of the prevailing mode of production (whether that be feudalism, capitalism etc.)? In other words, its akin to racism? A cultural expression without its own institutional dynamic? Which in the case of patriarchy I would argue should be seen as rooted in forms of the family. I must admit it’s a long while since I read these debates so my knowledge is rather patchy but it does seem to me that patriarchy has materialist structure and dynamic of its own which is separate from capitalism.

    Also, are you advocating that women’s struggle for emancipation from patriarchy is not valid outside of class struggle? And if so why? What ties them so tightly together? Isn’t capital neutral with regard to labour as capital? So in principle, it is possible women’s liberation from patriarchy to occur within capitalism. Whether it is practically achievable remains to be seen. But of course, both women and men are workers and thus have an interest in the emancipation of labour from capital. Which makes it possible for a combination of the two political struggles in the form of socialist feminism.

    Sorry, if I’ve misunderstood on you this point.


  24. Archie, What I’m ‘promoting’ as ‘fundamentally different’ to dual-systems theories is

    1) the idea that Marx’s marxism isn’t just about economic class struggles (see the writings in ‘1844 Philosophic Notebooks’ on alienation, women’s oppression etc).

    2) the need to take apart the view that Marx, in his mature writings, was ‘Euro-centric’ (see Kevin Anderson’s book ‘Marx at the Margins’).

    3) contesting Engels’ equation of the ‘world-historic defeat of the female sex’ with the advent of private property, and his belief that abolishing private property would liberate women (Marx in his ‘Ethnological Notebooks’ was under no illusions about forms of women’s oppression existing within ‘primitive’ communal societies).

    This isn’t to suggest that the above views can solve all the issues of contempory feminism; just that if your theoretical and historical grounding isn’t sound then its going to produce wrong theories and failed practices.


  25. I agree with Dave Black. The Left in the 1970s was sexist as we know it today and were only forced to change by the feminist movement outside of the Left Groups not from within. If only the shop stewards movement had behaved in the same way! Christine Delphy whose writings changed the views of my partner at the time and through her my views said this of the Left:
    1. They have a religious attitude towards the writings of Marx.
    2. They assert that Marxism constitutes a whole which one must either take or leave.
    3. They confuse the materialist method which Marx used for the first time and the analysis of capitalism which he made using it, or rather they reduce the first to the second.
    4. they confuse the above two things and the interpretation of contemporary society made by the varios “Marxist” sects.
    5. They present this triple confusion as the whole — to be taken or left — which in turn they present as a science or rather The Science which has all the characteristics of this pure essence in particular neutrality and universality.

    Delphy then goes on to suggest that a true Marxist feminist or feminist Maerxist would have two objectives:
    1. to extend the principles of dialectical materialism to the analysis of women’s oppression
    2. to review the analysis of capital from the standpoint of what has been acquired in feminist analysis.

    I think Delphy is correct. But as my partner said — to attempt to carry out her two objectives in any Left Group at the time would have been a recipe for expulsion — as the women in the SWP’s Women’s Voice found out. So why bother — go autonomous, go independent — which is what my partner did.

    One could apply the same approach as Delphy to the Green movement whose basic tenets the Left Groups dismissed with contempt at first.

    When I look back at the 1970s I think the shop stewards movement should have gone beyond the Left Groups like the feminists did. There were also contradictory elements. For example the Workers Opposition who were expelled from the SWP and flirted with Big Flame had all voted for the expulsion of other groups before they got theirs. Some like Jim Higgins were at the very heart of the SWP bureaucracy in spite of claiming to be libertarian.
    I was on the NC of Workers Fight at the time a Trotskyist organisation but we had differences and comradely discussions and did not kow tow to Sean Matgamna or Martin Thomas. The worker members in particular were very militant and independent, In Coventry we had two highly skilled machjne toolworkers shop stewards around whom we built a base group. One of them was a founder member of Solidarity in the late 50s and had anarchist positions on Kronstadt and the USSR as did the other steward who was from France and whose family had been taken to Auschwitz. To say they were militant and fearless is putting it mildly. We also worked quite closely at times with the Coventry Workers Association which was a semi-Maoist group based at Rolls Royce. As I say there were contradictions more so than you would see today.

    dave S


  26. Interesting comments by Dave, that convinces me that we need some sort of oral history project to record some of these experiences.


  27. I am posting this comment on behalf of Judy Hunt who for some unknown reason has made several unsuccessful attempts to get it to appear herself:

    I can’t help noticing the apparent absence of female voices in the above debate so here are a few of my thoughts from reading it.

    I particularly agree with Mark E (16/10) who raises questions around the relationship between patriarchy and capitalism as structures of oppression, for this, as I recall, was very central to early debates women were having in the 1970s and 80s. We were asking questions such as: Is patriarchy synonymous with capitalism or just useful to it as a way of subjugating and maintaining certain class divisions and lower pay? Have “socialist” societies abolished patriarchy?- the answer was no. Does capitalism require patriarchy to sustain class hierarchy and wage differentials and could women liberate themselves from patriarchy within capitalist societies? Answer- we didn’t know. And – what is patriarchy founded upon, how did it arise and what perpetuates it?

    We were joining women’s consciousness raising groups and attending all women conferences and discovering that a fundamental factor in our struggle to overthrow male authority was to have control of our fertility. Having this possibility opened doors to our choices within the family and employment. We could have careers and sexual freedoms. We engaged in campaigns for Abortion Rights, for safety on the streets – Reclaim the Night, for rape and domestic violence to be taken seriously, and for support with childcare and housework also to be taken seriously. These were important issues that we had to take into the class struggle (which was so riddled with overt patriarchal attitudes).

    On the issue of radical versus socialist feminism. As I recall – during
    the early phase of the women’s movement, women felt the need to meet autonomously from men precisely because of patriarchal attitudes. We needed the space to uncover our own oppression, tackle our own false consciousness or confusions about our place/roles in society and find the confidence to speak our hesitant thoughts without being surrounded by super confident male orators. (Not all were of course)

    But those of us who were socialists also recognised men had to be part of the solution and of the struggle against patriarchy. They too had to tackle the way they had been socialised into a set of assumptions and they too had to become part a new culture of equality. The struggles against capitalist exploitation had to be jointly tackled but it was clear we would be much more united if women were not treated as inferiors by their male comrades or expected to take on the sole responsibility for childcare and housework (whilst their men folk attended political meetings etc).

    Dave Spencer (above) refers to the work of Christine Delphy and her point that Marxist feminists had two objectives; to apply dialectical materialism to analyse women’s oppression and to review our analysis of capital from what has been acquired in feminist analysis. I think this is what at least some socialist feminists were aiming at – not necessarily so clearly expressed or as worked out for understanding the powerful structures of patriarchy, as distinct from class, took time.

    Radical feminism represented a tendency that emerged from within the WLM – here women saw the answer to patriarchy in terms of “separatism” i.e. living, organising and/or working separately. (Similar trends appeared in the social movements of black people and disabled people, also arising from the frustration of years of humiliation and lack of belief it could ever be different). Within this tendency some believed they had to become dominant – turn the tables to end their own oppression – i.e. not coming from a liberation philosophy but from a battle for supremacy. I believe this was a small but vociferous minority trend.

    Radical feminism could never be the position of socialist feminists and could not by definition be the position taken by women like me who joined Big Flame. This was an organisation that brought people together from a wide range of different political routes on the basis of their socialist principles and their desire to freely explore the issues in non oppressive ways.

    Big Flame did not subscribe to party lines on most things but it did create an environment for vibrant debate and fresh thinking about more or less everything. This was its strength but at times also its weakness organizationally for deciding policy. However, it did mean that women were taken seriously and men became drawn into the discussions around women’s oppression and it was why “the personal is political” became an important theme for the organisation.

    I would conclude therefore that the women’s movement as a whole was a complex array of opinions and beliefs within which tendencies emerged reflecting a much wider political spectrum, much as one would expect.

    Judy Hunt


  28. My main point is that feminism has had an effect upon public consciousness — because they organised autonomously — against the Left groups which were in general sexist and against organising autonomously. The shop stewards’ movement of the 1970s — which commune comrades seem to idealise — should have done the same , organised autonomously and worked out ways of organising workers management from below. The only example I know of an attempt was Mike Cooley’s Lucas Plan. I can remember as the car plants closed down in Coventry there were no plans for alternative forms of production or workers control. The old militancy seemed the only response and then accepting redundancies. During the miners’ strike many former car workers said “We needed an Arthur Scargill.” The problem was of course that the miners had no other plan for the mines than militancy and they were defeated. Now we have a direct attack on the public sector and again militancy will not be enough. The coalition’s attack is an ideological one as was Thatcher’s. The response of the working class has to be ideological. For us that means communism from below, developing alternative plans for the public sector and ways of implementing these plans.

    Dave S


  29. I agree with Dave about this. An addition: Arthur Scargill was a sexist of the worst sort. He was given clear advice by his research team about alternative plans (MIke Cooley style) for coal, mainly the notions of clean coal technology and combined heat and power. He ignored the advice completely. I’m not suggestion that his ignorance of gender issues were related to his ignorance of alternative economic strategies. But I am suggesting he was an ignorant pillock (who once, at a meeting I attended, talked about “Going down to the Paki shop”). I’m starting to rant, and sound like an old-time sectarian, so I’d better stop.


Comments are closed.