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


Remaking the world


I DREAM'D in a dream, I saw a city invincible to the attacks of the whole of the rest of the earth;
I dream'd that was the new City of Friends;
Nothing was greater there than the quality of robust love—it led the rest;
It was seen every hour in the actions of the men of that city,
And in all their looks and words.

That was it – I was 14, and I went out and joined the Labour Party, and CND, and got arrested at Greenham Common at a non-violent CND action in the early 1960s, all before I went to university. Then at Keele I began to find out about Marxism, I met other student lefties, and I was around in Liverpool when people from Big Flame were getting together up there, so in a way I was in it from the start. It was 1968, and we’d just occupied our university and it was a time of debate and ferment when anything seemed possible. After Keele I started a Ph D on the Levellers and Diggers. I was very attracted to the spontaneous outbursts of rebellion from 1642 to 1968 – the human spirit in pursuit of freedom – the sheer delight of people discovering that they could shape history themselves, and not just be its passive creatures. So I was already political and looking around for  something to pin my rather unfocussed idealism to by the time I came to ELBF.

It’s hard to disentangle being attracted to ideas from being attracted to people, and I’m sure now if I’m honest it was pure chance that I ended up in Big Flame rather than in any one of the myriad Leftie groups that were springing up all over the place. The ideas came later – we worked them out together – and one of the things that was particularly attractive about the people in ELBF is that although we were interested in and informed by the past (in fact I was more interested in the C17th than the Russian revolution, though I generally kept quiet about it) none of us was committed to a handed-down ideology. We really felt we were preparing new ground and building from scratch. What were we building? I’m not sure. I’m not sure I even knew at the time.

Last weekend, J and I had a long walk in the Peak District and turned over some ideas, and one of the things we remarked on was how little we knew about each others’ backgrounds – it was as though coming to this new place was like starting with a blank sheet, and what was in the past didn’t matter. But of course it did matter, and one of the things that I never said then was how over-awed I was by you all – how bright and clever and privileged you seemed compared with my poor cramped penny-pinching background, which didn’t even have the advantage of being genuinely proletarian, but just shabby, embarrassing and cheap. At the time, I guess my way of expressing it must have felt like guilt tripping. So, apologies if I was sometimes difficult and challenging, and thanks for putting up with me and helping me to grow up.


When I talk about those times now, I’m astonished by our incredible self-belief, our crazy confidence that we could remake the world, and I think it was to some extent the excitement of being part of something much bigger than ourselves that carried us along so boldly. Big Flame had an analysis of the family and the community as an essential part of the labour process, the space where labour power was created, nurtured and restored; so the challenge was to organise around these areas in the same way that industrial workers organised and resisted in the work place. ‘Can’t pay won’t pay’ campaign against food price rises, the food coop which we formed with women from the Lincoln Estate, the nursery in the squat in Tredegar Terrace, housing squats and Claimants Union activities, and the squat at Sumner House were things I can remember being involved with; though in retrospect I feel I learned much more than I contributed. I took part in some therapy activities, which opened up a whole new dimension of experience and practice, but they were never so central to my understanding of why we were there.

I remember most the theoretical discussions and just the struggle of living collectively, which I was never very good at.


What can we pass on to the new movements?

1) Issues of organisation
I think, like them, we grappled with the problem of organisation – of how to make change happen without actually forming a party and trying to seize power. We tried to organise ‘horizontally’, though we didn’t have the technology that they have now. For me, an important text in this regard was The Tyranny of Structurelessness. That’s something I’d like to pass on.

2) Issues of class
I think we realised by trying to organise with working class people, how very different we are – what a difference background and education make. That is also maybe something that has flattened out, and if so, it may be one of the ‘cultural’ achievements of our movement. I’m interested that their version of class is 1% v 99%, and that’s probably right, without all the subtle gradations we inherited from Marx, but then maybe they have to work much harder at building links across the 99%, not just asserting it.

3) Issues of power
Unlike the Trot groups, but like Occupy, and the Diggers before them, we had no strategy for taking power. I don’t know how we thought it would ever happen, but I guess we believed in spontaneity rather than leadership.
We never realised, and I think they don’t realise, how powerful, cynical and ruthless all ruling elites are. While we grew up thinking of ourselves as quite special and a privileged generation, rebellious, a bit loud-mouthed, and with something interesting to say, they really saw us as a threat. We thought it was just police and batons and horse-charges. Actually, seeing the police and the army in action against the miners made me realise that in any physical confrontation, they are going to win, and not only that, but that as the winners, they will get to write the history of what really happened.
It really pains me to see the whole police, military and judicial system now lined up against what are really just a bunch of lovely idealistic kids, as we once were, and the knowledge that they will stop at nothing to annihilate or co-opt them is something I think we can pass on with the benefit of hindsight. But that doesn’t mean they should stop. Just be careful.

4) Because it was worth it
Not the synthetically-fragranced ‘because I’m worth it’ of consumer culture, but something out there which is bigger than all of us – history, the people, human life – whatever it is – and to be a part of that and to connect with that is a privilege that costs so dear,  it really is something money can’t buy. Whoops – I can feel another pamphlet coming on. Better stick to novels from now on.

I can only think of four. Bye for now, and good luck.