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

Organising non-hierarchically

Organising non-hierarchically

Why we did it

Bob Dylan sang about not following leaders and watching the parking metres, and we agreed.  In this we defined ourselves as having key differences from the mainstream Left/Labour activity. Lots of activists on the Left were influenced by the ideas of Marx, Trotsky, Lenin and Mao; we were more influenced by Italian initiatives and by Gramsci. The trades union movement prized the highly paid sectors of the workforce as a vanguard or labour ‘aristocracy’. There were many divisions and lots of divisiveness. In contrast, we did not subscribe to elites or ‘aristocracies’ of any sort: we were interested not only in skilled but also unskilled workers, non-employed people and women at work and at home, thinking about bridging divisions between the struggles of all these groups. And validating all kinds of ‘labour’ including in the home or cultural work.

What we did

In our activism within Big Flame and beyond we followed certain paths:

Organising outside parliamentary politics

We didn’t look to a different government to solve things, nor focus on making ‘demands’ on government like some other left groups. Emma Goldman wrote that if voting made any difference it would be illegal. We thought it important to organise autonomously rather than within the terms of the capitalist agenda. We didn’t look for solutions through the ballot box: we saw parliamentary politics as largely irrelevant, and grass-roots organising as our focus. However we did think it important to analyse the policies of the government from the perspective of a critique of the role of social democracy in capitalism.

Not looking to the state for answers

We were critical of the ‘state’, not only its overtly repressive arm (police, military) but also the welfare state – we targeted its inadequacies, its patriarchal attitudes and the way it was used as a form of social control (e.g. NHS control over women’s reproduction, social workers used as ‘soft cops’, education as a form of indoctrination). The USSR was not a positive example showing what happens with top-heavy state control.

Not ‘recruiting’ for a political ‘party’     

We never saw ourselves as belonging to a party such as the International Socialists (IS), Workers Revolutionary Party (WRP) or International Marxist Group (IMG). In our activism it was often a problem when left groups tried to ‘take over’ or capitalise on local struggles. And from past experience local people were very wary of attempts to ‘recruit’ them. Our practice was to support local struggles rather than try to ‘recruit’ people to our group.  This issue is discussed in some of the documents on this site, e.g. What is Big Flame, What is a Big Flame Group? and In the Beginning. We worked in action groups that always included a mix of Big Flame people and others who weren’t in Big Flame. Some of these we initiated, or we linked to already-existing groups and activities, participating in and contributing to activities generated by others, as Big Flame members but not with any other agenda to convert or recruit people.

Whoever you vote for

Building links not leadership

We took part in national Big Flame commissions and conferences, not to get direction from ‘leaders’ but to share experience and knowledge, and to build networks and support between different groups and areas of activity.

Bridging divisions in the class

We aimed to overcome divisions on the grounds of labour hierarchy or gender with an inclusive approach working towards unifying people in struggle. Far from the image of the white labour vanguard, many of the Ford workers were black; and the unemployed shared interests with employed. We thought it was important to try to knit together different parts of the workforce and the non-employed.

Seeing women’s issues as key

Far from women’s issues being secondary concerns to be sorted out ‘after’ the more important struggles, we saw women as crucial to drawing together the various aspects of the politics of everyday life, being key workers in the ‘social factory’, bridging work and home. We also valued women’s ways of organising. Traditional patterns of male left organisation (committees, roles, procedures, then down the boozer) could be stultifying, and intimidating for women – their ways of organising were usually more personal, informal, lively and responsive to immediate situations. These responses were often more radical and challenging to authorities used to ‘managing’ conflicts through a trade union bureaucracy: for example, managers hated ‘wildcat’ strikes. We ourselves organized specifically as women within ELBF, across Big Flame nationally, and with women in the Newsletter network (see Report from the women’s meeting of the Newsletter groups; London, 10th March (1974)).

Making changes in every area of life    

We thought the whole of life was political including gender roles, sexuality, childcare (we ran a playgroup), food, etc. So we were active not only around pay but also prices; not only workplace but also domestic issues. We thought personal change was important too which is why we set up a leaderless self-help therapy group (see Red Therapy) and set up alternative living arrangements with collective houses, cooking and childcare.

Using enthusiasm not guilt

We had shared agreements about taking turns at things, but no ‘rules’. It was self-defining which aspects of ELBF activity people engaged with, i.e. different members decided to get involved in different groups or projects according to what they thought was interesting, important or enjoyable, or where they felt they could make a contribution. We hoped the whole process would be one of liberation, not enslavement to new tyrannies about what we should be doing. Making this web site we found out that some people didn’t even know exactly what some others were doing – we trusted in our shared values and supported when necessary, e.g. the women leafleting at Fords so men working there didn’t get into trouble; the men driving sometimes for the Food Co-op.

No leaders, equal voices inside the group

We were committed to working without leaders in a non-hierarchical way. In confronting racism and sexism, we wanted to give an equal voice to everyone within our group and in the activities we were involved in. We had our own regular meetings where we tried to make it easy for everyone to speak (you can get a flavour from Diary – June/July East London or Minutes of ELBF general meeting 18/8/74 especially page 4). Within our activities, we tried to find ways of balancing out real differences in confidence and skill. For example, in the Red Therapy group people took turns to get a fair share of the group’s attention; and in producing the pamphlet about The Lincoln Estate Food Co-op we knew that some people found it harder to write, so we interviewed each other and based the whole thing on the spoken word. In the Newsreel group it was harder because film-making involves complex technical skills, but people tried to share knowledge and rotate tasks.

Looking back…

Sadly, some of our arguments against the state have been co-opted by the Right – not in order to improve provisions, or make them more egalitarian and responsive to the needs of non-white, non-male groups, but rather to cut them back drastically, and open the way for the private sector to step in, often under the guise of offering more ‘choice’ and cloaked in spin like talk of ‘The Big Society’.

The irrelevancy of the ballot-box is even more apparent to us now, when multinational corporations are so much more clearly calling the shots that national governments follow hand in glove. We didn’t have the awareness about the destruction of the environment which is widespread now.

As for our internal organization and activism being non-hierarchical, it’s from this place that we felt we had something to say that was relevant to young activists now – because many of the same values are held by groups involved in recent activism, and they have faced some of the same difficulties as us. In our group some people were still intimidated about speaking, some people ‘knew best’, and we found that silencing the most powerful voices in the name of equality can leave a vacuum that others aren’t ready to fill. Some people at different times felt ‘pressured’ by the group’s ethic. While we didn’t succeed at our ideal of a non-hierarchical organisation, we put a lot of courage and goodwill into trying. Meeting separately as women and as men did help. Looking back we are even more aware how hard it is to have an group without hierarchy, even if you do away with conventional structures  – as pointed out in a seminal pamphlet of the time The Tyranny of Structurelessness. Habits of privilege and acquiescence based on gender, race and class are not easy to undo but it’s crucial to try if activism is to embody within itself the values it’s fighting for.