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


Powerful internal dynamics

My background was upper middle class white British  but full of contradictions, confusions and splits – my mother came from a  wealthy family, she was a communist in the 1930s, both my parents had close friends in the leadership of the Labour Party post-war, so there was always much talk about politics. My father was from a northern Jewish small business family, and they were both academics at Oxford. I was mainly brought up by a working-class woman from a very poor background, who became nanny to our whole family and to whom I was very attached. I always had a profoundly agonized and divided sense of class difference, class deference and class contempt as these were enacted daily in the family, as well as the utter unfairness of inequality. This disparity between professed and lived politics was acute. My family were culturally very bohemian,  very liberal about sexuality, which, whilst creating a kind of freedom and anti-authorianism, was also very confusing.  What was empowering for me was my mother’s feminism (even though she much preferred her boy children – another contradiction).

At Cambridge in the early 60s I got involved in student politics and the Labour Party – and with the advent of ’68 and the Women’s Movement moved rapidly leftwards, and towards more ideological critiques of  received ‘knowledge’. I helped pioneer one of the first Women’s Studies courses, and I became active in the British Society for Social Responsibility in Science, writing a critique of IQ and its racist proponents in psychology. Through my research in language development and learning disability I was evolving a radical critique of the narrow empiricism and the asocial conformist nature of psychology, as well as being confronted by the appalling treatment of people in mental handicap hospitals. My personal reason for doing this research was that I was very affected by the birth of my younger brother with learning disabilities – and none of this could be spoken about within the family at the time. It was also way outside the scope of the narrow experimental psychology that I was educated in – it was seen as too clinical, too social, not scientific etc. – and this made we question the whole  academic  discipline and subsequently leave  it (via Big Flame).

The Women’s Movement changed my life – as much in terms of the flowering of relationships between women, as in its analyses and actions. Like many others though I was bothered by its then lack of class analysis. It was, I think, fortuitous that I then joined Big Flame and not the growing groups of socialist feminists around Red Rag and the Conference of Socialist Economists – it was down to my closest friends in London having already joined BF. I went on a 4-week study tour of China in 1972 in the last years of the Cultural Revolution (when of course we were only shown what they wanted us to see though I didn’t realise this at the time). This opened my eyes as to a total societal change and a Marxist analysis of every aspect of life, and this also made Big Flame seem more relevant..

Big Flame was very challenging for me, because I never felt a very convincing activist, I was embarrassed by my privileged background and education, and I didn’t seem to share the conviction of revolutionary change as realistically possible, though I never dared say so. But it was also entirely energizing and stimulating and educative – its overall analysis of capitalism, the way every aspect of social and economic life was seen as political, the understanding of people’s struggles and  the critique of vanguardist left parties. I got a phenomenal education in contemporary forms of Marxism, and in linking everyday struggles to an overall analysis of capitalism. I was active in the Food Coop  (as well as other groups) and whilst I felt it was a very worthwhile intervention – not only cheaper food, but also productive discussions and relationships – I also felt paralysed by my own class position and by the massive differences between our lives and those of the women on the estate. It revived all my old conflicts about class and my sense of dividedness, and Red Therapy was quite helpful in working through this and moving me out of this paralysis – as well in many other ways – and starting me off on a real interest in how therapy works, and its potential in non-normative contexts.

I used to wonder if we in BF were really so different in how we were seen from the old middle/upper class charity missions to the East End – Oxford House still existed locally, and was a presence and a resource in the community ( as it still is, long after we have gone). There was a sense we just parachuted in. I remember one woman on the estate saying how long were we going to be around, we could come and go, they were stuck there.

The process of coming together to write up our experiences and activities then has made me realize how much of myself I hid from the group, including the fact I was writing a book at the time. I felt the tyranny of activism very acutely, but I don’t necessarily resent this – it is objectively so difficult to sustain political organizing, it often comes down to a few overburdened people’s activities, and we all need each other so badly in this. I think we didn’t quite appreciate the strains of being such a way-out group – we cut ourselves off from our connections to other parts of society, in the interests of creating and implementing something very radical, and so the internal dynamics were very powerful, both positively and negatively. As always the narcissism of small differences (Freud) was rife in BF, and this had the potential to make me very anxious, that I wasn’t getting it 'right'. On the other hand when I did feel part of a group of wonderful people with whom I shared so much in attitude and understanding of the world, it was like nothing else I had experienced. Looking back also, it was a period when I was changing everything in my life: job, status, sexuality, friends, location, and I think ELBF provided me with a framework for this, and allowed me to make these changes – even though sexuality, about which I was very uncertain, was not much spoken about personally.

The amount we did and produced as writing is staggering viewed from now – age obviously comes into it, but so too does the energizing and intense nature of what we were involved in.

What did I do next? I finished my book on The Politics of Mental Handicap, and drew heavily on BF ideas for an overall analysis of ideology (in this case psychology) for my framework and critique. My experience in Red Therapy and BF meant I got a job as a therapist in a Marxist community counselling centre, and from there – via also the Women’s Therapy Centre – I retrained as a psychotherapist in a left-field organisation  (the Philadelphia Association, started by R D Laing) and have sustained a critical and politicised approach to the profession, making various interventions, especially in the areas of sexuality/lesbianism, and class.

What could I pass on to present-day activists? Know your own history and learn from others’ mistakes and successes. Make links with as many other movements as possible – much easier now. Look after yourselves.