Left helps screw it up
The left failed the test of the Miners Strike, argues Mark Fischer
The miners’ Great Strike of 1984-85 tested the political mettle of all trends in the workers’ movement, but in particular of those ostensibly on the revolutionary left. To have any sort of historical justification for their existence whatsoever, these groups and trends were meant to embody a challenge to the hegemonic political position of Labourism in working class politics. As we have repeatedly emphasised in this series of reprints from The Leninist - forerunner of the Weekly Worker - almost without exception, organisations such as the Socialist Workers Party, Militant (today’s Socialist Party in England and Wales) and the mainstream trends in the CPGB of the time all failed miserably.
This Alec Long article from the January 1985 edition of The Leninist chronicles the failure of the first Mineworkers Defence Committee conference in December 1984 and characterises the comrades who organised the screw-up not as class traitors, but as “petty bourgeois dilettantes”. The strategic battle of the miners was viewed by these camp followers of the workers’ movement as an opportunity to advance their own group’s particular political project - whether that was transforming the Labour Party, boosting the credentials of some left luminary or building this or that sect. In other words, they did precisely what Marx said communists should not do - ie, “set up … sectarian principles of their own, by which to shape and mould the proletarian movement”, instead of “always and everywhere [representing] the interests of the movement as a whole.”1 The consequences for the miners’ battle were to prove dire.
A missed opportunity
Many people who contributed to the debate at the December 2 Mineworkers Defence Committee conference in London (attended by well over 1,500 delegates) complained about the fact that it had taken nine months to organise such a gathering. This is a worthwhile criticism. The Leninist has agitated for some time for a national conference of miners support committees in order to develop a national movement capable of breaking the support groups’ rather narrow, parochial outlook and develop a movement truly able to give “total physical support” to the miners.
Paul Whetton, the Notts rank-and-file strike leader, expressed at the beginning of the day the hope of many militants in the audience, when he said that the conference should be a “working conference, not a talking shop ...”2Unfortunately, theorganisers of the conference had other ideas. The bulk of the time allocated to debate was taken up by platform speeches or heavily edited report-backs from the ‘workshops’. A resolution submitted to the conference beforehand from Keresley miners and the Coventry and Reading miners support committees was blocked by the conference organisers, and despite vociferous protests from the Coventry delegates on the conference floor, the resolution was effectively censored.
Readers may be interested in knowing some of the political shenanigans behind the scenes of the Mineworkers Defence Committee and the organising meetings which led up to the December 2 conference.
The Mineworkers Defence Committee was originally set up at the last Labour Party conference, the actual initiative coming from the Labour Briefing fringe meeting. Its nucleus consisted of John Bloxam (a supporter of Socialist Organiser3),Valerie Coultas (Socialist Action4),Jane Stockton (the Chartist tendency in the Labour Party), Chris Knight (Chartist) and its titular head, Ken Livingstone. As the December 2 conference approached, this group began to advertise its meetings to draw other forces into preparations for this conference and to draw up a statement on behalf of the committee. As the meetings progressed, the political positions of the various groups that had turned up began to emerge.
On the extreme right there was the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) blocking with Socialist Action,both of whom, despite their very different attitudes to the strike, essentially ended up with the same passive, do-nothing position. Both opposed the inclusion of any mention of anything as radical (or, in Valerie Coultas’s own words, “ultra-leftist”) as working towards a general strike or for any perspective of mobilising the working class as a whole to win the strike through a transformed miners support movement.
From Socialist Action’s point of view, the miners can win quite comfortably alone. One of their supporters, in moving an amendment to the draft resolution at the November 27 organisation meeting, blandly stated that the miners “did not need” a general strike. In other words, Socialist Actionis perfectly prepared to see the miners battle on alone through the winter with enormous suffering to the miners’ families and communities and the strong possibility that even more miners will be murdered on picket lines. Socialist Action’scomplacency is quite criminal. Valerie Coultas wrote an article in Socialist Action of November 30 on the Mineworkers Defence Committee conference that was so rightwing it could easily have been penned by one of a number of our very own Eurocommunists in the Communist Party. (It really is only the prejudice of their historical origins that keeps Trot groups like Socialist Actionand the Euros out of each other’s arms.) Coultas ended her profound thoughts on the “ultra-leftism” of the SWP (we kid you not) and the way forward for the miners support movement with three bleating little demands:
1. a “massive Xmas appeal”;
2. “increasing the campaign around power stations to ensure the IOU’s promised at the TUC ... are delivered” (Coultas does not go into sticky problems like ‘how?’ of course);
3. a “massive labour movement demonstration in the new year”.
And that’sit!Socialist Actionwanted to use the December conference as a ‘rah! rah!’ rally both to put pressure on the Parliamentary Labour Party by parasitising the strike to divert some of its miners’ militancy and dynamism into the dull labyrinth of County Hall Labour committee rooms, and to launch a call for a national demonstration under the glare of the television lights.
But why would the SWP, with its worship of rank-and-filism and workers’ self-activity end up with the same narrow, bureaucratic outlook? Well, paradoxically, it is because the SWP has a diametrically opposed view of the prospects for the strike to Socialist Action.Because (apparently) we are now in a “downturn” in the class struggle (according to the SWP) the miners are not going to win. Although the SWP does not state this openly, it is implied in its pessimistic view of the character of the present period and also by its actions. Tony Cliff, the theoretical guru of the SWP, has written grotesquely that “the miners’ strike is an extreme example of what we in the Socialist Workers Party have called the ‘downturn’ in the movement”.5 The task at present, Cliff has assured his party’s activists, is not to recruit hundreds, but to pick up “ones and twos”.
Thus, in the lead-up to the December 2 conference, the SWP opposed any inclusion in the conference statement of the call for a general strike or to develop a genuine and elected delegate-based national committee. Its conservatism was an inevitable product of its cynicism and treacherous defeatism. In its heart of hearts, the SWP does not believe that the miners can win - so its only real perspective for the strike seems to be to get as much out of it as it can for the SWP.If miners support committees became properly constituted, delegate-based organisations, this would limit the SWP’s access to them. Under these circumstances it would have less freedom to pursue what has practically become the SWP’s major preoccupation during the course of the strike: twinning.
The SWP has been very busy twinning pits with local factories and workplaces in a very haphazard and thus very divisive and negative way. This has not really been done to build links between militants, as it has claimed, butto establish links between the SWP and militants. Tony Cliff’s sect evidently feels that if the end of the strike cannot see a miners’ victory, at least it can see the SWP with lists and lists of NUM militants’ names and addresses.
Consequently, the SWP, for all its economistic rank-and-filism, actually opposed an amendment at the November 27 organisation meeting to constitute the Mineworkers Defence Committee as an organisation based on recallable delegates from area and regional conferences of miners support groups. Instead, its representatives proposed and managed to win an amendment that stuck the NUM and the South East Region TUC atop the movement of solidarity with the NUM! Why? In the hope, of course, that a committee composed of such forces would do nothing, would establish no real form of control over or unitary national organisation of local miners support committees and would thus allow the SWP freedom to continue its divisive little game of feeding off the miners’ struggle.
The Mineworkers Defence Committee produced a series of different draft statements in the run-up to the conference, as the balance at the organisation’s meetings swung back and forth between different groups and as the original committee members plotted behind the heavy, wood-panelled doors of County Hall. The factional battles on the committee culminated in London Labour Briefing(ie, the Chartists) walking out of the November 30 meeting, which had been stacked with the rightist bloc of Socialist Action and Socialist Worker. Eventually, however, everybody kissed and made up, and a final ‘Frankenstein’ statement, which attempted to compromise between the left and right positions, was presented to delegates on the day of the conference.
Of course, it was all rather academic anyway, as the conference was not allowed to debate the resolution. The majority of the organisers, for their different sectarian reasons, wanted a rally, not a working conference,and were determined to have a rally come what may. Thus:
- The Keresley miners/Coventry miners support committee resolution was blocked from being discussed, despite promises all day from the chair.
- Amendments to the final resolution were not allowed.
- At the very end of conference, as delegates were scrambling around for their coats, Livingstone from the chair sang out: “Do we all agree with the statement?” There was a rumble of ‘yeses’ plus a few very annoyed ‘noes’.
- The few people called to speak in the extremely limited time for debate were chosen to simply speak about their personal experiences, not to raise wider political issues.
- The workshops were used to bury dissenting voices by editing the ‘report-backs’. For example, in the workshop on ‘Mass picketing’, around half the audience came out for workers defence corps. The organisers, to extricate themselves from this rather tricky situation, simply permitted no report-back from that workshop!This is crass political dishonesty.
The pressing task of establishing a nationally elected, delegate-based Miners Support Committee still remains. The fact that this December 2 conference was so massively oversubscribed that an overflow meeting had to be hastily arranged (and which turned out to be actually larger than the main conference) confirms our view that there was both an objective need for such a conference and an overwhelming demand. As it turned out, the ‘conference’ was a rally and a talking shop - and a disorganised rally and a disorganised talking shop at that. Formally the Mineworkers Defence Committee is committed through the resolution adopted at the conference to convening in January “a delegate-based committee”, although exactly how this is to be arranged is not made clear. For us, it would have to be through a national delegate conference of miners support committees, which willelect the national committee. The December 2 statement, as it stands, is an inadequate document. In essence it should be amended along three lines:
- First- the question of the general strike. The conference resolution talks about “the winning of industrial action in support of the miners”, but does not specify the scale of these solidarity actions. A vital component of the fight to extend strike action is the need to link it to smashing the Tory anti-trade union laws.
- Second - the composition of the national committee. It must be based on elected, recallable delegates from area and regional conferences of miners support committees. This demand is intimately linked to what exactly the support movement should expend its energies doing - fighting for miners’ victory, or wasting its time pressuring the Parliamentary Labour Party.
- Third - on workers’ self-defence. The conference statement pledges to “participate in, help coordinate and strengthen such defence”. Yet why not say “organise”? That is the key task, as far as miners’ violence is concerned. Simply bewailing police violence is worse than useless, especially when the resolution is encouraging people to build picket lines. The question is - how do we protect picket lines? And how do we make them effective?This can only be achieved by creating workers’ defence corps and organising our defence of picket lines and miners’ communities.
The organisers of the December 2 1984 Mineworkers Defence Committee conference had a historic opportunity to render a huge service to the working class movement and they screwed it up - not because of class treachery, but because they are petty bourgeois dilettantes. The task they began, however, still desperately needs to be completed. We call on comrades to press for a national delegate conference in January, where amendments and resolutions can be discussed and which will elect a national recallable committee. This is the way to give the miners “total physical support”; this is the way to victory.
1.K Marx, F Engels Communist manifesto chapter 2: www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1848/communist-manifesto/ch02.htm.
2. Paul Whetton died on March 3 2006. For our obituary of the comrade and a selection of quotes from interviews he did with The Leninist, see Weekly Worker March 5 2006 (weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/619/intransigently-brave).
3. Now the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, of course.
4. Socialist Action is one of the fragments of the International Marxist Group, as is the Left Unity-orientated Socialist Resistance. Mike Macnair notes in the Weekly Worker February 28 2013: “The IMG [was] all at the end of the day ‘children of 68’ … for organisation independent of the class-collaborators, they defined themselves as ‘revolutionary’ by commitment to events like May 68.” This was a flawed political strategy, however, as “By the end of the 1970s, this concept of ‘revolution’ was plainly useless to concrete political perspectives. What it left behind was ‘initiatives to draw masses into action’. But such initiatives, if to be taken by small groups, logically implied political capitulation to the class-collaborators.” Comrade Macnair’s conclusion was that “The IMG collapsed because the capitulators won.” The differences that fractured the IMG were essentially over which non-revolutionary political force or individual to capitulate to. Scargill (as in this example from 1984), Ken Livingstone, Tony Benn and George Galloway have, amongst others, all filled the role at various points.
5. T CliffSocialist Review April 1984.