1970s ACTIVISM & AUTONOMY: stories from East London Big Flame



Bedtime story cartoonWhy we did it

In the 1970s the British Empire, on its last legs, was losing grip on the structures it had used for centuries directly to oppress and exploit people in other countries. The struggle against British imperialism in Northern Ireland was intensifying. At home, racism divided the work force. East London was traditionally an area lived in by new immigrants, as well as where the white working-class was losing its resources. There was a history of fascism and opposition to fascism, most famously when Oswald Mosley and his British Union of Fascists tried to march through an area of Jewish immigrants in 1936, provoking the ‘Battle of Cable Street’. In the 70s, only a few years after Enoch Powell’s notorious ‘Rivers of blood’ speech blamed Britain’s social problems on black people, the Whitechapel/Aldgate areas were mostly lived in by immigrants from the Indian sub-continent and these tensions were still very live.

What were the issues?

At a personal level, many of us had got to know students from a wider range of backgrounds and ethnicities while we were at university, and discovered the work of Frantz Fanon and Malcolm X. Racist ideas had started to look untenable and outdated, along with sexism and rigid class distinctions. In the 1970s, Rock against Racism was a massive cultural influence, bringing young people together against racism and politicising the music scene.

At a theoretical level, we saw fascism as working in two ways. Institutional racism served the state and the employers through the way it created a cheaper pool of labour and divided the population, making them easier to control. But we also had the understanding that at the level of individual humans, fascist ideas served a different function. We were influenced by the early work of Wilhelm Reich, who wrote that ‘[the little man] covers up his smallness and narrowness with illusions of strength and greatness, of others’ strength and greatness.  He is proud of his great generals but not of himself. He admires the thought which he did not have and not the thought he did have.’  

Humiliation, sexual repression, poverty and low self esteem feed such fascist fantasies of superiority, and we believed that such issues ultimately needed to be addressed not only through struggles for decent wages and dignity in the workplace, but also in the community, in the family, in relationships  and within the arena of self-awareness. Wilhelm Reich in his book The Mass Psychology of Fascism and through social projects like Sex-Pol in Germany in the 1930s put forward the idea that through social involvement, psychotherapy and the lifting of sexual repression, individuals could find greater self-esteem and a more authentic self-identity such that phony notions of racial superiority would not serve any function.

Because of these ideas, we did not see the issue as simply a question of labelling people as fascists to be denigrated and fought on the street, but also confronting and understanding the roots of racist impulses in ‘ordinary’ people we met in the course of work and community activism.

What we did

Big Flame nationally was concerned about the growing influence of the National Front feeding off and feeding into hostility to immigrants, especially in east London. We discussed the issues in our meetings (e.g. Minutes of ELBF meeting 18/8/74 p 5). We went to local anti-fascist demos in support of the local immigrant population as well as national events like the big anti-fascist demo in Leicester in August 1974. We met, and worked to counter, racism in the workplace situations we were involved in at Lesneys, and at Fords where Afro-Caribbean workers played a crucial role in the struggles (see Black People’s Struggle from a draft of What is Big Flame?). There were struggles in the community like when The Railway Tavern in Mile End nearby refused to serve black people and provoked a picket in October 1974 (see leaflet Fight Racism at Mile End). Personal confrontations, like when the National Front came with sticks to remove an anti-fascist flyer we’d put on our garden wall, could be scary. A couple of us had windows smashed.

Imperialism could be seen as racism overseas, and the issue of the British occupation of Northern Ireland was a hot issue as the latest wave of the ‘Troubles’ started in the 1970s. In the group we discussed Ireland and imperialism generally, and some of us got involved in the Troops Out movement which was very active (see Troops Out Movement flyer). Troops Out called for withdrawal of British troops from Northern Ireland and self-determination for the Irish people; the movement saw military oppression in Northern  Ireland as part of the increased use of the law, army and police against the working class movement on the mainland. In July 1974 there was a national conference and rally to oppose a National Front/Orange rally; in October 1974, 5,000 people supported a demo co-organised with the British Peace Committee; February 1975 saw another Troops Out national demo and a Bloody Sunday rally in Hyde Park. (See also Troops Out Movement East London Conference leaflet.)

There were other international issues. Like many others at the time, we took part in demonstrations and protests against the US war in Vietnam (discussed in Transforming Capitalism and the Politics of Everyday Life). After the right-wing coup in Chile some of us were involved in a local east London Chile Solidarity group, providing support to extra-parliamentary groups in Chile and practical help for Chileans who had fled to the UK. After the 1974 revolution against fascism in Portugal, some of us went over there, and the Newsreel Collective made a documentary film On the Side of the People?  

Looking back…

The situation in N. Ireland has moved on through the ‘peace process’, although the basic issues remain unresolved. While we saw the army’s activities in Northern Ireland as ‘practising’ techniques to control dissent on the mainland, more recent adventures  in the Falklands, Iraq and Afghanistan orchestrated a widespread feeling of ‘Britishness’, accompanied with frenzied outbursts of flag waving. Repression and surveillance at home has been transformed with the coming of the internet, mobile phones, and extensive use of close-circuit TV cameras.

The National Front (NF) that we fought has been replaced by the English Defence League (EDL) as the most prominent fascist organization in the country, but the issue of British nationalism and racism against immigrants is still a burning one, fostered (as in the 1930s) by tabloids like the Daily Mail and exploited by right-wing politicians. There has been a growth in ‘flying’ groups prepared to engage in street confrontations with fascists wherever they are meeting.  

Meanwhile an ‘acceptable’ face of nationalism is now offered by the UK Independence Party (UKIP). We still think Reich has something to say in a situation where UKIP flourishes and the other political parties can manipulate people’s feelings of powerlessness into hostility against immigrants and Europe.