Big Flame was a revolutionary socialist feminist organisation active in Britain between 1970 and 1984. Sophie Walker and Joe Thorne examine the group’s legacy.
Why revisit the experience of Big Flame?
Earlier this year, we read Beyond the Fragments: a 1979 collection of essays by three women active in feminist and socialist groups in the 1970s. It is three decades since the authors argued for the left to reappraise how we organise in light of insights from the women’s movement. Whilst necessarily a product of their experiences in that particular historical moment, there is much in their critical consideration of political organisation which matters today.
For us, active in (between us), The Commune, Feminist Fightback (a London-based collective of anti-capitalist feminists) a union branch at an educational institution, a local anti-cuts committee, and a reading group of radical teachers, the question referenced in the book’s title of how to move ‘beyond the fragments’ – that is, beyond the smaller issue-based, propaganda, or localised organisations – is an important one. The issue of how we go about “gathering together all the different sources of strength, uniting the social power of those in production, and pitching this popular power against the existing state”  raises important questions about the form and function of revolutionary organisation.
Despite the 40 year domination of Trotskyist politics on the revolutionary left in Britain, many are dissatisfied — often without precisely being able to articulate why — with the politics and practice of Trotskyist organisations.
But this domination has been so strong and so exclusive that it has been hard for other, alternative, ideas to get a look in, to even be heard. Non-Trotskyists can look back on a diverse and often rich, but also fragmented and discontinuous tradition. Of groups neither Stalinist nor Trotskyist, and comprising more than a score or so activists, only the Anarchist Federation can claim a continuous existence since the 1970s. In consequence we are shut off, in organisational terms, from previous generations of militants, to an extent as individuals: but more importantly from an organisational memory, and continuous practice, of a different way of going about things.
So, while those of us who feel the need for a different communist practice (how we organise ourselves, how we relate to others) do need to make a theoretical and practical critique of Trotskyism, we also need to reach back to our own pre-history, to learn what positive lessons we can from those who have gone before. We were keen to find out more about a group about which we knew little, but which took feminism seriously and whose revolutionary politics meant revolution, as one former member at our meeting put it, “in all the parts of our lives”.
In this article, we will look at the beginnings of Big Flame in its distinctive practice around the Ford plant at Halewood, Merseyside, a few other aspects of the group’s practice, why it disappeared, and ask what lessons we can draw from the experience today.
Big Flame and Halewood
Ford Halewood was the workplace of 14,000 men and women. However, the division of labour was highly gendered: for example women made seat covers and worked in catering. Workers at Halewood were predominantly represented by the T&G union.
Big Flame was first involved at Halewood during the strike of 1971. During the strike, the leaflets put out by Big Flame carried the same line as that of the shop stewards. As the role of Big Flame within Halewood changed, becoming more interventionist, so did their perspective on and relationship with the shop stewards. They came to develop a critical view, seeing part of the shop steward role as mediation with the boss – although in other workplaces Big Flame members would sometimes take shop steward positions.
Influenced by the Italian group Lotta Continua, Big Flame formed a ‘base group’, made at first of external militants, but increasingly involving Halewood workers. For more than five years, their basic activity was to give out leaflets, and sell bulletins and papers at the factory gates week in, week out. They would hold meetings for workers to discuss developments and determine the content of bulletins. A major function, as well as providing a perspective on events, was simply to spread information. As in many workplaces today, there was a shortage of information, particularly reliable information, not mediated by the boss, the union, or the rumour mill – Big Flame leaflets were an alternative.
In 1974, following the three-day week under Ted Heath, the workers decided that they did not want to work on Friday nights. On the first night, a meeting was called for the workers to discuss their position and strategy. The union declared that this meeting had been organised by Big Flame, and urged people not to attend it. During the ten-month period when workers did not work on Fridays, Big Flame continued to issue leaflets and a bulletin.
Having started out with 5 external militants – students or ex-students of Liverpool University – by 1976 the group was based on 2 full time external militants and a handful of workers who were either members, sympathisers, or for practical purposes involved in the group, by writing articles and so on. Although the high point had passed, a dozen or more workers could be expected at the base group’s meetings, and scores more to actively support the Big Flame line, regularly buy the paper, and so on. Big Flame arguments were consistently raised in mass meetings, and workers continually expressed sympathy and appreciation for the militants and their literature.
Why did Big Flame disband?
Why did Big Flame’s base groups collapse in the mid 1970s, and why did the organisation itself follow in 1984? The answers are linked; we can establish the immediate causes, before looking for their deeper roots. Some base groups were never particularly successful, including one in Nottingham. Many others were short-lived. But the decline of all, including the long-standing one – at Ford Halewood – is often attributed to burnout of those involved. It was hard work, being at the gates for almost every shift, talking to workers, preparing leaflets, organising meetings – as well as trying to be involved in Big Flame as an organisation, and the wider left, not to mention having a personal life. Evidently, the number of activists was insufficient to be sustainable, and the results of activity were not enough to draw in others – either within or without the workplace.
In 1984, Big Flame ceased to exist. 15 members, including a number of those who had been central to the group’s functioning, dropped out after the defeat of a perspective they had advocated for entry into the Labour Party. Those left didn’t have sufficient will to continue the project, and turned their energies into local organising, or into Labour. A number of reasons were given. One is that the debate itself was unusually bad natured, tending to put people off. But perhaps the input of one of the ex members at our recent meeting explains why there wasn’t the will to carry on. “As an organisation we were destroyed by the failure to find grounds for winning in industrial struggle once Thatcher decided she wouldn’t compromise anymore. We stopped being able to win.”
In this sense, the end of the base groups and Big Flame itself were expressions of a torrent of historical changes which followed the end of the post war boom in the mid-1970s. Mass worker Fordism declined in the economically developed countries, was exported overseas and gradually replaced by the financial and service sectors. The unions were beaten down and incorporated; the welfare state began to be rolled back, and in many countries social democracy was in retreat. Capitalism, at least in the West, had entered a new period. As industrial struggle declined, albeit fitfully, from about 1972, militant workers were co-opted, beaten down, or chose to leave – in some cases to pursue further the interests they had developed through political activity.
Halewood itself is a case in point. As our speaker put it, “militants did walk away – I only know two that stayed… they decomposed us.” Once 14,000 strong, now the workforce numbers 2,000. Once a site of great militancy, now the workforce is relatively quiescent, in part due to the influence of the Senn Delaney consultancy, “the culture shaping firm”, in part due to anti-union legislation, and for many other reasons besides.
An image from the past: learning from Big Flame today?
Recently, the London group of The Commune held a discussion attended by a number of former Big Flame members. The recollections of those present gave substance to our thoughts that features of the group’s practice represented an alternative to the Trotskyist left. Firstly, the internal culture of the group seemed very different from that of the contemporary practice of the majority of the left.
It was commented on by one former member at the meeting that the 1984 debate within the group over entry into the Labour party was painful precisely because Big Flame wasn’t “an organisation that had big, unpleasant rows … discussion was quite comradely”. As their Basic Points state, Big Flame believed that it was essential for the creation of a mass movement that there was a concerted effort to begin to transform social relations in the present, rather than just seeing this as an inevitable outcome of the revolution. It seems that this was related to how people treated each other within the organisation, as well as the group’s commitment to a view of politics encompassing ‘your whole life, not just your working life.’ It was striking that the Nottingham Big Flame group had grown not out of a reading group, but a childcare collective. This struck a chord.
In relation to the base groups, perhaps – despite the overarching reasons for their collapse – there are still things we can learn. The base groups were a way for communists not to be drive-by leftists, turning up for the sensational struggle and departing soon afterwards. They involved long term, week in, week out, acquaintance with the reality of work (or life on an estate, or what have you), and making politics about that everyday reality. They tried to break down the boundaries between those areas of life, as when Big Flame members tried to get support for the Tower Hill rent strike from Ford workers . They involved a serious engagement with class reality, rather than the posture of leadership, and pre-fabricated answers; supporting a struggle, but doing so by finding their latent anti-capitalist content, not merely by providing logistical assistance. Without ignoring the real changes mentioned above, can we find a way to adopt something of this approach?
We understand why those who decided to let Big Flame die did so; we can hardly gainsay their choices. But we can record – and this is a matter of our experience – that ‘mass politics’, the politics of autonomy, the politics of our whole lives and our real experience, prefigurative politics, the politics of treating each other well, the politics of class struggle feminism; we can record that all these things and more have been diminished, and been made less visible, due to the collapse of organisations like Big Flame. These ideas lost their organised partisans; and ideas do not reproduce themselves. This is at least part of why the Trotskyists have won whole generations of young activists, barely challenged. Big Flame had its highest membership in 1978 (around 160 members), when activists disillusioned with Trotskyism joined the group. Perhaps libertarians – and others in our political milieu – need to reaffirm, from this, the importance of organising to keep these ideas, and practices, alive .
 Hilary Wainwright, introduction to Beyond the Fragments, 1979
 Our speaker had sneaked some Tower Hill rent-strikers into the factory to talk to union stewards – afterwards it turned out some stewards had reported him to management for this, in an effort to get him sacked for his efforts.
 The website http://www.bigflameuk.wordpress.com is a fascinating archive of the group’s publications, as well as a number of thematic and personal reflections on the group.