Awakened to the class struggle

Mark Fischer introduces another Leninist reprint; Rebecca Sachs on the political transformation of women involved in the miner's strike

This Rebecca Sachs article from issue 11 of The Leninist (August 1984) was our first extended commentary on one of most inspiring aspects of the miners’ Great Strike of 1984-85. Comrades Sachs writes here about the first stirrings of a movement that was to become Women Against Pit Closures at a national delegate conference in Chesterfield in December 1984. The role of the working class women of the coalfields was rapidly transformed by the scale and ferocity of the confrontation between the National Union of Mineworkers and the government of Margaret Thatcher.

The role of wives, girlfriends and female family members of striking miners may initially have been mostly confined to ‘traditional roles’ such as organising the ‘field kitchens’ that kept miners and their supporters fed, but quickly many women found themselves propelled onto the front line - be it face to face with the brutish police mobilised to attack the miners’ picket lines, or face to face with audiences up and down the country, making passionate and eloquent speeches explaining the miners’ fight.

Certainly, there are flaws in this early article in the newspaper that was the forerunner of the Weekly Worker. It clearly reflects an important weakness of our tendency in the CPGB of the time. However, as with other contributions in this series, the themes that we identified as key were to be borne out by the struggle over coming months.

First, the need for a working class women’s movement - definitely not a version of the feminist/pacifist Greenham Common camp, as recommended by the likes of the venomous Eurocommunist trend in the party in those days. Second, that the militantly organised forces of the women should have the right to representation at every level of the movement - something that, while it started in some areas, “has not gone nearly far enough”, we noted. Third - and again in stark contrast to the soppy pacifism urged on them by the feminist fans of Greenham - that the class-struggle institutions women had to be organised into were workers’ defence corps: military bodies to counter the violence of the police.

Lastly, that the key to making the social and political gains these heroic women had won for themselves both permanent and a springboard to further advances was to promote “the self-activity of women, dispelling the doubts they have about their own abilities, and drawing them into practical work around struggle on a general basis … to fight for the day-to-day interests” of women.

While the defeat of the strike made that perspective unrealisable, the role of Women Against Pit Closures showed a tantalising glimpse of what was possible and what needs to be fought for.

Mark Fischer


Women strike back

In Barnsley on May 12, at a demonstration by 10,000 miners’ wives against pit closures, Arthur Scargill triumphantly declared: “Our women are not just helping the men in the kitchen - they’re with the men on the picket lines.” Now women’s participation in the strike has reached such a widespread level that a national demonstration of women’s committees is being organised. This transition in women’s role from passively serving out soup to participating in militant picket lines is no trifling matter. It is an important development which must be applauded as an advance not only for the miners’ fight, but also the class struggle in general.

When large numbers of flying pickets were arrested in Nottinghamshire and were forced to sign a declaration to the effect that they would not return, many of their wives took the unprecedented decision to go in their place, and angrily confronted scabs and pro-scab wives. Spontaneously, incensed women have organised demonstrations outside social security offices and electricity boards that are aiding Thatcher in her attempts to starve striking families into submission. In one particular instance women formed a picket around houses where electricity was due to be cut off and convinced the workers that had come to cut off the electricity not to cross the picket line. These women have also shown strength and resourcefulness in providing food for striking families, in distributing food parcels and negotiating credit in local shops.

In this way, women have been drawn into activity and have become far more politically aware than would have been possible if they had remained atomised at home, waiting for their husbands to return from picket duty. In the event, women have come to see their role in the strike as more than supportive; they see the strike as just as much their fight as the miners’. As a result, the women have asserted their rights to be involved on strike committees and have met with some success, although this process has not gone nearly far enough - it is, after all, vital that women participate fully in all class organisations.

The importance of such women’s involvement cannot be overemphasised. The support of women for the class struggle is a key to its success, and an enormous danger is presented to the struggle by women who are isolated from it. Because of women’s role in capitalist society they are either isolated in the home or, as workers and mothers, often do not become active in unions. Cut off from others in similar circumstances, women are alienated from working class struggle and therefore from working class consciousness.

However, with male and female workers struggling courageously side by side, victory can be ours. The strength of such unity was felt by one miner’s wife when she said: “If this government thinks this fight is just against the miners, then they’d better think again … I’ll say to the government … men, women and families are together now and you’ve got one hell of a fight on your hands.” The valiant roles women have played in revolutionary struggles in the past bears witness to this. In 1917 the spark that actually fired the Russian Revolution was a strike by women textile workers. This revolution planted the most powerful blow against women’s oppression ever struck.

In order to ensure this type of success the Third Congress of Comintern made clear the necessity of strengthening “the will of working women by drawing them into all forms and types of civil conflict”: the experience of conflict has indeed strengthened the resolve of miners’ wives, in many cases groups of supporting women have stated that their motivation to take militant action came from seeing at first hand the way the police acted. For example, a group of women from Thurscoe in south Yorkshire were travelling down to Ollerton in Nottinghamshire when they were stopped, harassed and held by police in their bus for two hours:

“After a couple of hours of this, we decided that if we were going to be treated by the police like flying pickets then we might as well be flying pickets. We had only been trying to set up a soup kitchen! So we walked to Harworth pit, three miles away.”1

Such acts of militancy by the miners’ wives present a real threat to the ruling class. The typical media images of the passive wife at home - pleading with her husband to be ‘reasonable’, to put his family before loyalty to his union, his workmates and his class - are undermined by the action of the miners’ wives. The beginning of the miners’ strike saw a standard piece of stage-management by the media in the ‘gunning for Scargill’ scene, where one pro-scab wife was pictured brandishing a toy pistol against Scargill. But these tactics misfired, in that much of the activity by miners’ wives was fuelled by anger at such media stage-management. They wanted to make it clear that they would only save the future of their families by backing the strike.

Of course, the ruling class have ignored the role of women in backing the miners’ strike, reducing the Barnsley demonstration, for example, to a picture of Arthur Scargill being kissed by a woman. The fact that the media belittle the actions of women is an indication of the fact that the capitalist class is threatened by their active support for the strike.

Not surprisingly, the miners’ wives have no illusions about the police - and indeed the police have made it clear they recognise the added strength that the women give to the strike and consequently they have doled out the same treatment to the women as to the miners: “No lady-like treatment for us. We are even being accused of head-butting those great, seven-foot-tall coppers.”2 How would these women relate to that outspoken Eurocommunist, Bea Campbell, who, after the National Graphical Association dispute,3 declared that the violence was in reality little more than a reflection of a macho attitude? Janie Glen, defending comrade Campbell’s view, added insult to injury by stating that she could not imagine “two groups of men with opposing views and objectives coming together without such violence erupting”. So far, the Euros have kept quiet about the violence during the miners’ strike, but when it ends they will be throwing similar accusations at the miners.

Will the working class women who have taken part in the struggle agree with their attack on working class violence? Is it such bourgeois feminist nonsense which has motivated them? Something that the miners’ wives understand, but that the Euros with their petty bourgeois sensitivities patently reject, is that these conflicts are not between groups of males, but between the ruling class and the working class. Comrade Campbell can afford to advocate non-violence, but the working class, male or female, do not have the luxury of abstaining from conflict - they are forced to take sides. For this reason we would argue that, not only should women support the violence of their male comrades against the bourgeois state, but women should be actively involved in forming and working within workers’ defence corps. Comrade Campbell, by attacking the violence of the unarmed working class against the armed state, objectively takes the side of the bourgeoisie.

The Euros in the CPGB are constantly trying to draw parallels between the miners’ wives and the Greenham women, and how the miners’ wives and the miners themselves can learn tactics from Greenham. Such connections are dangerous diversions; if the miners were to go all ‘floppy’ on the police they would get their heads kicked in. Unlike Greenham, the miners and their wives present a real threat to the bourgeoisie: when Vicky Seddon asked a miners’ wife about the possibility of using Greenham tactics on the picket line, the answer was that this was impossible: “The police just come like swarms of bees.”4 The Greenham women represent little more than a nuisance to the ruling class and, if they were anything more, have no doubt the fact that they are women would not stop the state’s thugs from using violence against them.

The Greenham women also do not even present a threat to the conventional image of women, but, on the contrary, emphasise stereotypical roles as ‘life-givers’ and glorify the myth of female congenital non-violence. By contrast, the Tories recognise the challenge that the militancy of the miners’ wives present because of the strength given by their support. Thatcher is living proof that there are no universal ‘women’s interests’, but only class interests. She talks of a return to Victorian values, of the importance of women in the home, of women’s traditional ‘peaceful’ role; this is selective. The women of Thatcher’s class can afford to buy their freedom in the form of nannies, expensive laundries and ‘dailies’, while they pursue interesting jobs or go shopping in Harrods. She has no qualms about unleashing her thugs on the miners or the women who support them.

The fact that violence erupts on picket lines is a class question and is not a result of ‘maleness’; but this does not mean that chauvinism does not exist within the workers’ movement. We fight the prejudices against women held by more male workers and increase the awareness that they have common interests. The role of women in the miners’ strike is a very positive development in this direction. Unlike the petty bourgeois Revolutionary Communist Party,5 who choose to emphasise the negative attitudes these women are encountering, we view the militant intervention of miners’ wives as a positive challenge to these attitudes and as the stirrings of a proletarian women’s movement. The very fact that women are taking a militant role in the struggle, that they are organising themselves, that they are often defying reluctant husbands and trade union officials, and those husbands are minding children, while their wives attend support committee meetings - these are positive developments.

One strike does not a movement make, but it gives us a glimpse of what the future could bring. Communists need to be working to consolidate these positive developments, to give a lead to this spontaneous militancy of working class women to ensure that it is not dissipated. We need to adopt the slogan used by the Third Congress of Comintern - “Agitation and propaganda through action”. This means encouraging the self-activity of women, dispelling the doubts they have about their own abilities and drawing them into practical work around struggle on a general basis. We must show working class women through experience that every step in reforging the Communist Party, every action directed against the exploitation of capital, is a blow against women’s oppression.

The demonstration of women’s support committees is a step in this direction, but we cannot just be self-congratulatory: we must struggle for a qualitative step forward. Scabs’ wives may be gunning for Scargill, but the mass of miners’ wives are gunning for victory - they have to be armed with a clear strategy for that victory. We should fight to ensure the active participation of women in spreading the strike to other industries; the working class is facing a concerted, well-orchestrated class offensive from the bourgeoisie - we cannot fight with one hand tied behind our backs. We say, strike back with the miners. Fight back with the united workers’ offensive.

The August 11 demonstration represents women that have been awakened to the class struggle and they must not be allowed to go back to sleep after the miners’ fight, whatever the outcome. The aim from this demonstration must be the formation of a working class women’s movement. This struggle should exist to support all struggles of the working class and to organise an offensive against the capitalist attempts to tie women to the home.

To strengthen the fight for the day-to-day interests of the working class women and to achieve communism - under which women can at last find true liberation - a powerful vanguard party is needed. That is why we call upon all class-conscious women to join the Communist Party - join it and struggle to reforge it l


1. Quoted in Socialist Organiser May 3 1984.

2. Miners’ wife quoted in The Guardian May 28 1984.

3. The reference is to the dispute between the print union, the National Graphical Association, and the noxious reactionary, Eddie Shah, who utilised Thatcher’s anti-trade union laws and selective sacking of union activists in a dispute in 1983. The NGA responded with mass picketing of the outlets concerned - the Warrington Messenger - and on November 30, 4,000 trade unionists confronted riot-trained police from five surrounding areas. The NGA speaker van was attacked and overturned by police, while squads in full riot gear repeatedly charged the pickets.

4. Marxism Today July 1984.

5. The RCP originated in a split from the forerunner of the Socialist Workers Party, the International Socialists, in the early 1970s. It had a brief, if quite effervescent, career on the revolutionary left before its formal dissolution in 1997. Its distinguished itself during the miners’ strike by its insistence that “The only way to win the passive majority for the strike was to launch an aggressive campaign around a national ballot” (M Freeman Our day will come: the miners’ fight for jobs London 1985, p36).