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


Direct action politics

Personally – I came from a large family, father Irish immigrant, a second-hand car dealer in Croydon, made lots of money, sent us to good schools and lived in a big house in leafy Surrey. Never felt we quite fitted in. Mother a housewife, never given enough housekeeping and eventually left to set up her own life and business.

Politically – older brothers (respectively 10 & 8 years older) active in the Young Communist League, International Socialists, Aldermaston, Committee of 100 etc. I was faintly aware of all this, as I was much younger, it was like a background culture.

Went to Essex university 1968, and leapt in to revolutionary left-wing politics, not understanding very much but it was incredibly exciting. Also there were people from all over the world – Paris May ’68, Latin American exiles, people who are now renowned academics, musicians, film-makers, writers – it was a very culturally rich and exciting period. And of course the black civil rights movement, the Vietnam war, the anti-apartheid struggle were all very present and formative.

Politically –  through people I met at Essex I became involved in the New Left – the development of socialist politics through a critique of authoritarianism and what was happening in the Soviet Union.

The major influence on me was the Women’s Liberation Movement – it gave me the confidence to relate my own personal experience to those wider political issues – and as an old friend from that time said recently ‘everything started pinging into place’. I remember a debate whilst we were occupying the Chancellor’s office where an American woman was explaining Women’s Liberation – I protested that it was no good because it would split up families and women would leave home – taking a while to realise that precisely this had already happened in my family for those very reasons.

Through Women’s Lib we developed a critique of male authoritarianism and patriarchy, realising that this was deeply embedded in the existing socialist organisations.

From this period at Essex, many of us became involved in ‘direct action’ politics – the understanding that we need to act now to take power and change our circumstances and the social and work relations surrounding us. We squatted, occupied, demonstrated, lived in communes and created long lasting alternative organisations and networks. In particular I was involved in a women’s support group which involved many working class single mothers. We squatted many houses and won permanent social housing; we occupied a house for a nursery and eventually set it up as a permanent nursery and play-centre. We experimented with different kinds of relationships and sexuality, set up a women’s health centre. All the time we were developing our understanding that women are in a position to make more profound change possible because exploitation affects us in all aspects of our lives – and that this enables us to understand how and why this happens. I read a lot of Marx at this time.

I had been aware of Big Flame for a long time, and always felt it was the closest political organisation to my politics.

What I did in and around Big Flame

I learnt how to break into a house and change locks, re-wire it and fiddle the electricity. I learnt how to run a printing press. I learnt how to maintain a car and motorbike engine. My languages developed through meeting so many international activists and immigrants. I was engaged in the deeply intellectual development of ideas by reading Solidarity, Potere Operaio, Marx,  Germaine Greer etc.  I was profoundly empowered by this experience of practical and intellectual development.

To me, East London Big Flame was a progression from being involved in the Libertarian Socialist network – a loose national federation which came out of mainly community organisations: claimants’ unions, printing presses and newspapers, socialist feminist women’s groups. My politics were developing and maturing and as I wrote in the Lesney’s piece, I wanted to work as a woman in industry. We started the Lesney’s women’s group, and two of us felt it made sense from this to join Big Flame

What was most meaningful

It was exciting and rewarding to be part of a political organisation – and particularly ELBF – which took feminism seriously and wanted to learn from it. Also to be in an organisation where people were working on so many different fronts: film making, publishing and media, personal and sexual politics, childcare (not so much!),  community and housing, industry and work, internationalist struggles such as Northern Ireland, Portugal, Chile.

What I learnt – both at the time and looking back

I feel I developed profoundly from all of this, in a way that I have always used in the rest of my life and activity.  Perhaps the most powerful experience was learning to theorise my practise –  the reading and discussions about an up-to-date understanding of the nature of international capitalism.  Developing the theory of the politics of autonomy.

Being able to be an autonomous ‘women’s faction’, define our own political direction and identity, yet be a part of a wider national and international socialist organisation.

Visits to other countries – the Portuguese revolution, meeting comrades in Italy, Germany and Spain – opened my eyes to other possibilities and ways of doing things.

The respect for the importance of ‘the personal is political’. I think I was slightly afraid of the ‘therapy stuff’ – all that screaming unnerved me! I thinly disguised my fear with a veil of disparagement.

What 5 thoughts or lessons I’d like to pass on to activists now

Feminism is still essential to the struggle.

Every revolutionary needs to be motivated by strong feelings of empathy, care and support for each other – it’s important to have good relationships and find ways to develop trust in each other.

Intellectual discussion, reading and theory can be exciting and satisfying – if you can make sense of it in relation to your everyday life and what you’re trying to achieve.

Embrace the natural world, support the environmental movements grounded in building people’s power, like Bolivia – we forgot about this.

 There is an alternative to capitalism, another world is possible – look at what is happening in other countries.