Violence and the miners
Another Leninist reprint - with salutary lessons for some in Left Unity today, says Mark Fischer
Left Unity’s Salman Shaheen - one of four principal speakers - was challenged by Andrew Neil on the March 28 edition of the Daily politics show to say where he stood on the Communist Platform’s motion for LU’s policy conference the next day. What was his take on the call for “disbanding of the standing army” and the “right of the people to bear arms”? Would he be raising his hand for this “loony” nonsense? No, reassuringly replied the comrade: “I disagree ... I will be voting against.”
Well, comrade Shaheen will have a chance to make political amends at the next LU conference in mid-November, when the motion will again be on the agenda and - to help him do the right thing - the comrade could usefully read over our coverage of the miners’ Great Strike of 1984-85, featured in the forerunner of this publication, The Leninist. In particular, there are important lessons in one of the most important organisational innovations from that titanic confrontation - the miners’ hit squads. As Alec Long makes clear in the October 1984 article below, the miners fought back bravely against the police. But often it was police, equipped with riot helmets, batons and shields, attacking miners armed with nothing more than fists and bricks. The hit squads began to change that.
We should be clear that this is not a call for a generalised bloodbath. Comrade Long’s article cites an instructive incident from the 1926 General Strike. After police attacks on a picket line in Methil, Scotland, a disciplined military display by 400 strikers was enough to bring out the softer side of the filth. As the CPGB’s paper of the time sardonically noted, “The police did not interfere again”1
By any means necessary
“The trade unions know that public support is alienated by violence. They know that’s what being British means” - Neil Kinnock.2
Kinnock’s statements on the miners’ use of violence have been a source of acute embarrassment to many honest Labour Party members, not to mention the hoards of Trotskyite entryist organisations, which are currently calling on workers to join them in the Labourite swamp. Violence, according to Kinnock, is contrary to “all the traditions of the British trade union movement” and in August he even despicably lectured 60 children of south Wales miners on how their dads were playing “Maggie’s game”. The other half of the ‘dream ticket’, Roy Hattersley,3 has been, if anything, even more vociferous in denouncing “picket line violence”.
The “violence” that the dirty duo find so distasteful is, of course, the retaliatory violence of the miners against the police - the fact that this strike so far has seen two miners killed, over 7,000 arrested and 2,000 injured, some seriously, really does not seem to bother the leaders of the Labour Party unduly. Similarly, Kinnock’s quaintly eccentric definition of ‘Britishness’ seems rather selective. After all, every section of the Labour Party, from the so-called ‘revolutionary’ MilitantTendency to that “inveterate peace-monger”, Foot, as Andrew Murray laughably calls him, in effect supported the bloody imperialist adventure in the Falklands/Malvinas.
More generally, the Labour Party has shown itself throughout its history to be the most enthusiastic of supporters of the violence of the British capitalist state. It was the Labour Party that sent the troops into Ireland, which brought in the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act in order to hound Irish workers and freedom fighters and which on behalf of British imperialism has waged bloody and barbarous wars against the peoples of Cyprus and Kenya, to name just two. So evidently it is not violence per se which worries either the Labour Party or, obviously, the Tories. What they are really terrified of and hypocritically condemn as ‘unBritish’ is the violence of the working class against their system - capitalism.
At the core of any state - whether it is a workers’ state, as in eastern Europe, or a capitalist state - are armed bodies organised to protect certain property forms. Obviously, in the socialist countries these armed organisations, such as the police and army, protect the working class ownership of society’s productive forces from the threat of capitalist counterrevolution. In capitalist society, therefore, institutions such as the police and army do not exist to protect ‘people’. They were constituted and are organised today in order to protect the property and system of the ruling class. The tired old lie peddled by Labour Party hacks, and even by many in our own Communist Party, that the police’s role should be one to ‘protect the community’ has been graphically exposed by the miners’ strike to be a ludicrous and extremely dangerous idea. Do the police ‘protect’ the working class mining communities? Or do they ‘protect’ the black and Asian communities in, say, east London? Obviously not. The police are the sharp end of the capitalist onslaught on the democratic rights, living standards and jobs of the workers. They serve the bosses’ state, of which they are an integral part.
Under 100 years ago such an assertion would have been quite uncontroversial. In his book, Hooligan: a history of respectable fears,Geoffrey Pearson shows how the police were vehemently hated and in some cases banished from working class areas in the period around the turn of the century. He quotes remarkably healthy figures, which show that around one in four of London’s policemen were assaulted every year. Then, unlike now, there were few illusions about the ‘neutrality’ of the police and many working class neighbourhoods took active measures to ensure a united and cohesive front was presented to the police’s alien presence. From Connolly’s Irish Citizen’s Army, to the hunger marches of the 30s, to today’s miners’ strike, workers have consistently been forced to take on the state’s police. In contradiction to what Kinnock would like us to believe, working class violence directed against the representatives of the bourgeois state is most certainly part of the “traditions” of the working class movement and working class communities in general. So what should be our attitude today towards violence against the police?
Well, unlike Kinnock and his Labour traitors, communists obviously applaud working class resistance to the state’s scum in blue. Yet complacency would be criminal. The readiness of the miners to reply in kind to the police’s attacks has been a superb feature of this strike - but the healthy violence of the miners has remained for the most part unorganised, spontaneous and responsive. This unquestionably is a weakness - a weakness which has provoked heroic, but limited, actions from individual miners and, more significantly, the organisation of small hit squads, which have been responsible for such actions as the gutting by fire of the buses of scab bus companies in night-time guerrilla actions.
The phenomenon of these tight-knit hit squads appears to have sprung originally from the feelings of despair and frustration that have been produced in pickets by their inability to breach the highly trained police ranks. They seem to have been an organised and conscious development of the struggle onto a higher level. Because of this we do not dismiss the action of these groups as useless acts of ‘terrorism’, as some other political organisations have done. In many ways these squads have provided very valuable lessons for the mass of strikers in that:
- Firstly they advance and build on the already apparent willingness of militant miners not to be bound by the niceties of the ruling class’s laws. The law exists to serve and protect the capitalists and therefore workers should have no qualms about breaking it, just as one day they will have no compulsion about breaking the back of the bourgeoisie as a class.
- Secondly these hit squads evidently have a relatively high degree of organisation - precisely the missing ingredient we have pointed to in the miners’ confrontations with the police.
Ourmajor criticism of the actions of these squads is their smallness, their limited scope and effect, not the actions themselves. We have argued for the organisation of workers’ defence corps under the control of such organisations as the miners support committees, which themselves must be transformed into broad, fighting working class organisations. What we have pointed to as a burning necessity (no pun intended) is the organisation of these workers defence corps to protect picket lines from the police thuggery and above all to make them effective - to make sure that scabs do not have the luxury of a safe escort into work and that the police start to have some of the batterings that they have been dishing out to miners over the last six months or so paid back, with interest.
We, unlike Socialist Worker, for example - the paper that specialises in telling workers what they already know - do not counterpose the actions of the hit squads to mass struggle, as if the two were mutually exclusive. That is simply cretinous. The Socialist Workers Party has elevated the tactic of mass picketing à la Saltley Gates4 almost to the level of a sacred principle of the class struggle. This organisation is terminally stuck in the model of industrial dispute of the early 70s - times may change, but the SWP goes on forever peddling the same old politics of the ‘big push’.
In an article in Socialist Worker of August 18 attacking Kinnock’s vile scabbing on the miners, they correctly point out that “violence is scarcely unusual in British industrial disputes ...”They then go on significantly to list three examples from history where workers have been on the receiving end of the state’s violence - in Featherstone colliery in south Yorkshire in 1893, 1910 in Tonypandy in south Wales and even in the 1926 General Strike. Instead of pointing to the positive examples of workers organising their own defence, as we do, they simply bewail the ‘batoning’ of strikers, while failing to mention the fact that strikers in the 1926 General Strike did quite a lot of ‘batoning’ of their own.
This essentially defeatist outlook is carried over into their analysis of today’s struggle. “We are in favour,”they assure their readers, “of strikers fighting back ...” Of course, the point to note hereis that in order to “fight back” itis first necessary to wait to be attacked. The Leninist, on the other hand, is not in favour of setting workers up as punch bags - the surest way on earth to be attacked time and time again is to wait, unorganised, for the police offensive, then simply respond. The way to avoid violence is to prepare for it. In The Leninist No8, we pointed to the experience of communists who led the workers’ struggles in Methil, Fife during the 1926 strike:
“After police charges on mass pickets the defence corps, which 150 workers had joined at the outset, was reorganised. Its numbers rose to 700, of whom 400, commanded by workers who had been NCOs during the war, marched in military formation through the town to protect the picket. The police did not interfere again” (Workers’ Weekly June 11 1926).
We carry this attack on the Socialist Worker’s view of workers’ violence not because of any particular importance we attach to the organisation itself, but because their arguments are common amongst some striking miners and in the workers’ movement in general. We believe that this essentially passive attitude to the violence of the working class - that is, supporting it where it occurs as a spontaneous response to police attacks, but being content to leave it unorganised - is deadly. For what underlies it is this same old idea that the police are ‘neutral’ - that we go along to picket lines expecting to be ‘protected’ by the police and when they fail to carry out this ‘duty’, only then do we respond. Many miners have learned that the police are not neutral (it seems to have even seeped through to Straight Left5).
Organisations like the SWP claim to know already that the police are not ‘neutral’. Therefore it is simply criminal negligence not to fight for workers defence corps, to leave picket lines undefended and miners only capable of responding in a spontaneous and ill-disciplined way when the inevitable police assault comes. Socialist Worker simply assures miners that it is question of numbers. If we can only get enough people on the picket lines, they tell us, we can “intimidate” scabs and swamp the police. To prove their case they point (ad nauseum) to the example Saltley Gates and their only operative conclusion to take the struggle forward seems to be: “The miners have only one answer. To step up the picketing” (Socialist Worker August 18).
But in reality Saltley Gates proves our point, not the SWP’s. Again what was decisive then was precisely the question of organisation - in this case the lack of organisation of the police. It was not simply a question of the numbers involved. Since then the state has learned its lesson. The police’s organisation has been centralised and sharpened up in preparation for just such a strategic battle as today’s.
A disciplined, organised and purposive body of people can stand against and defeat a far larger mass, if that mass is lacking in discipline, in technique and is without effective leadership. We would have thought that this is a fairly obvious point to make, and the conclusions which spring from it for the miners’ strike are also self-evident. Significantly, however, we have been one of the very few groups on the British left who have actually made it.
Our conclusions on violence and the miners therefore are somewhat different to the dismal defeatism of the SWP and many in our own party:
- Organise workers defence corps under the control of transformed miners support committees.
- The miners’ strike is a key battle for all workers. They must be prepared to win using any means necessary.
- Learn from Saltley Gates and Orgreave. It is time to organise our violence.
1. Workers’ Weekly June 11 1926.
2. Neil Kinnock led the Labour Party from 1983 to 1992, making him the longest-serving leader of the opposition to date. He started on the left of the party, but is remembered now for his treacherous role in the miners’ strike, his purge of Militant Tendency from the party and his campaign to move Labour policy significantly to the right. When Labour was defeated for the fourth consecutive time in the 1992 general election, Kinnock fell on his sword.
3. Roy Hattersley was deputy leader of the Labour Party from 1983 to 1992. His combination with Kinnock was promoted at the time as being a “dream ticket” - Kinnock from the left of the party and Hattersley from the right.
4. In February 1972 striking miners, aided by the mass picket of thousands of members of the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers, succeeded in closing down the Saltley Gates coking works, owned by the West Midlands Gas Board, despite police attempts to protect it.
5. The paper run by the pro-Moscow CPGB faction of the same name.