Facing up to reality
The left found it hard to accept defeat in 1985
Sellers of The Leninist, the forerunner of the Weekly Worker, recall with some pride (and sadness) the heckles and jeers that the title of this Jack Conrad supplement in the January 1985 issue attracted from other sections of the left. It was clear by that stage in the struggle that the miners were, obviously, staring defeat in the face. Yet we were almost alone in stating this. The bulk of the left were incapable of recognising this blindingly obvious fact - myopia symptomatic of its general uselessness in the miners’ Great Strike. Most simply treated 1984-85 as a rerun of the 1970s industrial battles between the miners and Conservative governments. In contrast, the Thatcher-led Tories were consciously fighting a class war on all fronts … and they were winning.
From the jaws of defeat
As these lines are written, the miners’ strike could be said to be facing the jaws of defeat. It is already in its ninth month and yet analysts say power cuts will not be necessary until late 1985 or early 1986.
Although the Tories are set on a course to destroy the National Union of Mineworkers, the Trades Union Congress has refused to deliver “total support” or even any meaningful action. Indeed, Judas Willis and the TUC tops have been doing their damnedest to get the National Coal Board and the NUM around the negotiating table on the basis of some rotten compromise over jobs and pit closures. The Labour Party statesmen have proved, if anything, worse. The leader of her majesty’s loyal opposition, the leader of a party directly financed by miners through the political levy, has repeatedly kicked the strikers in the teeth, even telling reporters in Moscow how miners and their families were not starving and that a defeat for the miners would not affect the prospects of the labour movement in Britain. Scab Kinnock has richly deserved the ‘Ramsay MacKinnock’ handle given to him by militant miners - as Judas Willis deserved the hangman’s noose waved in front of him at Aberavon.1
In the light of this treachery and the defensive stage of the strike, Arthur Scargill retreated from his principled refusal to condemn miners’ violence. Much to the glee of Kinnock, Scargill “disassociated the NUM”from the attack on a Yorks scab in his house and the dropping of a three-foot concrete post onto a taxi carrying a scab to work in South Wales.2
Pressing home their advantage, the Tories adopted a crude ‘carrot and stick’ approach in their bid to decimate the NUM. On the one hand, police violence reached new levels: over 8,000 arrested, pit villages in Yorkshire virtually occupied, and strikers and their supporters subjected to savage beatings. The courts handed the NUM’s funds to a Tory party official. And, having robbed strikers and their families of social security payments through deducting £15 supposed to be given by the penniless union in strike pay, the government hoped to increase the suffering in the mining communities by docking a further £1 by arbitrarily assuming that the mythical strike pay had been increased to £16.
As to the carrot, during the autumn the prospect that the strike would go on well into the winter months of 1985, lack of courage and sheer poverty led some strikers to vacillate and return to work. In order to make this trickle a flood the NCB offered a fat Christmas bonus and a £175 special payment - a veritable king’s ransom after nine months on strike, surviving on slashed SS payments and food parcels from the welfare.
Thousands took the bribe, but the vast majority remained defiant and determined as ever to preserve their dignity and see the strike to victory. Their resistance to state terror has seen them organise workers’ violence. Barricades have been erected, Molotov cocktails hurled, hit squads formed. Whole communities have risen to take on the hated police in scenes instantly recognisable to the nationalist people of Derry and Belfast.3 (…)
This strike is rightly feared by the ruling class. Already the social peace which has characterised Britain since World War II has been well and truly shattered by the miners’ determination to save their jobs and communities. Thus the strike is a historic turning point on a par with 1926 in its significance. But there is one crucial difference: 1926 marked the desperate end to a period of working class militancy in Britain, which stretches back to 1910; 1984 is, whatever the outcome of the miners’ strike, the explosive beginning of a new wave of sharp class battles, which will not only transform the face of British politics, but pose point-blank the question of ‘Which class rules?’ Because of this, the miners’ strike ruthlessly exposes all that is weak, all that is rotten, in the theories and programmes of all shades in the workers’ movement.
The Labour Party: While its ‘lower orders’ have staffed the miners support committees and done the donkey work of collecting much needed food and money for the miners, the grandees have proved - if proof were needed - that they are open class traitors. Apart from all the expected claptrap from the Labour leader denouncing the government’s “betrayal of the national interest”, we also found him calling on them to intervene in the dispute. But this misleader of the working class showed his palest pink underbelly when the miners showed their determination to win by fighting back against police violence. Equating the violence of the oppressors with the violence of the oppressed, Kinnock condemned “the use of violence by either side”.
It was at the TUC that he delivered his outright condemnation of workers’ violence. “Violence,” he whined, “disgusts union opinion and divides union attitudes. It creates a climate of brutality. It is alien to the temperament and intelligence of the British trade union movement.”4 Of course, violence only disgusts Kinnock and co when it is violence against scabs, scab-herders and other friends of the establishment. For, in contrast to his denunciation of miners’ violence, this hypocrite supported Britain’s Falklands war, which cost the lives of 1,000 servicemen. And, of course, when the Labour Party has been in office, it has pursued fully and consistently the bloody interests of British imperialism - from breaking strikes at home to world war, Korea, Malaya and Aden. It was the Labour Party which sent troops into the Six Counties in August 1969, the Labour Party which introduced the notorious Prevention of Terrorism Act in 1974, and it is the Labour Party which today supports Britain’s continued occupation and war against the forces of national liberation - a war which has now come home with a vengeance, as the methods learnt in Belfast have been used in the mining areas against pickets and whole communities.
The Labour Party’s attitude towards the police has always been classically reformist and was illustrated par excellence by shadow home secretary Gerald Kaufman, who at the beginning of the strike moronically stated that: “The police force is not an arm of the state, but the servant of the community, whose confidence they must secure.”5
As well as churning out such typically reformist trash, the Labour Party has exerted might and main to get talks going. This is, of course, precisely the role of the Labourites - to dampen down the class struggle and conciliate workers to capitalist rule - a role they have played to the full during the miners’ strike.
There is, however, little doubt that the likes of Dennis Skinner and Tony Benn back the miners. Benn has even called for a general strike, also declaring: “No-one need wait for permission to begin. Trade unionists in a whole range of industries and services should plan to take industrial action where they work”.6Such calls contrast strongly with TUC and Labour Party anodyne platitudes, but, because the left reformists are bound hand and foot to the Kinnocks, Hattersleys, Healeys7 and the ‘next Labour government’, their calls for militant action are rendered impotent.
The Communist Party: If the miners’ strike has proved one thing and one thing alone, it is that the CPGB remains at the heart of the working class movement. It is still a party which includes in its ranks a major - in fact a strategic - section of the vanguard of the working class. Since the beginning of the strike well over 100 miners have joined the party, as well as large numbers of others in the mining communities. Party members have played a leading role in the NUM: Mick McGahey, George Bolton, Malcolm Pitt and Jack Collins, to name a few. What is more, CPGB members have taken a lead at grassroots level, organising picket lines, running the welfare and serving as lodge chairmen and secretaries. As well as this, party members have been in the forefront when it comes to winning solidarity from workplaces and collecting money on the streets. They have also been responsible for a tremendous amount of work in the miners support committees; in short, the Communist Party is involved with every aspect of the strike.
But the CPGB is no longer one party: it is riven with differences and divided by tendencies. Thus, when we look at the CPGB and the miners’ strike, we have to deal with not a single view, but numerous ones.
On the extreme right of the CPGB are the Eurocommunists. Now, while these petty bourgeois dilettantes assailed the summer riots of 1981 for having ruined their ‘experiments in community policing’, they have by and large kept a diplomatic silence as to the violence of the miners. This is dictated by their alliance with the right-opportunist machine, which includes not only general secretary Gordon McLennan, but comrades McGahey and Bolton.8 True, a few have broken ranks: Bea Campbell, doyen feminist, has warned about the danger to the ‘left’ the miners are causing through some of their tactics, and Janie Glen has insisted that, if the National Graphical Association v police picket line violence should be denounced due to “maleness”, then so should the miners v police today.9 Of course, most Euros would agree with comrades Campbell and Glen 100%, but the inner-party struggle dictates silence. (…)
This strike allows no clowning, no stunt, no frivolity. It is deadly in its seriousness. Having discovered this to their cost, the Euros have turned away from the great questions of the strike in embarrassment; they now sit on the sidelines raising money for “presents, turkeys, Xmas puddings, and other seasonal trimmings for miners’ families” in the manner of Sunday virgins, and congratulating the NUM for involving the bishops. Indeed such is the recognition of their own irrelevancy that the Euro Marxism Today has only carried two articles on the strike, preferring instead to deal with more ‘important’ matters like “fashion in the 80s” and “liberation theology”. (…)
In a sense the McLennan leadership has constituted itself as an adjunct of the NUM. Comrades McLennan and McGahey have toured the country putting the NUM case, and 16 St John Street10 has frenetically produced CP leaflets which can only be distinguished from those of the NUM by the London address.
The Morning Star and its new breed of centrist followers,11 the positive interpreters of the British road12, have also considered it their ‘communist duty’ to tail the NUM, following every twist and turn of the NUM executive like a shadow. Thus in the wake of Arthur Scargill’s declaration that “the NUM disassociated itself” from the attack in which taxi driver David Wilkie was killed, the Morning Star editor came out with the following statement: “Throughout nine months of warfare against the pit community the Tory media has focused on violence no trade unionist would condone.”13This is, of course, a foul attack on the justified, heroic and audacious resistance of rank-and-file miners, who have been forced to organise their violence against police terror. But, more than that, it is utter hypocrisy, for this was the first time the Star has come out with any condemnation of miners’ violence.
The Straight Leftists have been of no more use when it comes to communist leadership. They have denounced police violence in the pages of Straight Left, but nowhere have they called for the establishment of workers’ defence corps. And, as to the treachery of the Labour Party tops, Straight Leftist comrade Andrew Murray moronically wrote in the Morning Star that “the Parliamentary Labour Party did its duty to those who sent them to parliament”.14 Such is the Labourphilia of the Straight Leftists that they insist on lionising scabs like Kinnock, ascribing the treachery of the Labour Party not to its loyalty to the capitalist system, not to the fact that it is a bourgeois workers’ party, but to mere “mistakes”. Where the Straight Leftists have had some influence, they have blocked all attempts to go beyond the official structure, blockheadedly denouncing all such moves as “Trotskyite”. Such knee-jerking, myopic conservatism marks out all aspiring bureaucrats, or at least those aspiring to the giddy heights of sitting in the council chamber in Camden or Wandsworth as Labour Party councillors.
And if the Straight Leftists’ love of the Labour Party leads them into excusing treachery, these tailists have excelled themselves when it comes to the scabbing of the Polish government. In Straight Left they got Elsie Watson, the national organiser of the National Assembly of Women, to justify Poland’s actions in the following sanctimonious way: “Poland has already received credit for this contract and hence feel they must supply this year’s quota ... The Polish people and government have every sympathy with the British miners.”15 And in Communist,their internal factional bulletin, they assure their supporters that “coal described as being from Poland was, in fact, South African”.16 They now even blame the British working class for scabbing - ie, allowing coal into Britain - in a desperate attempt to excuse Poland’s export of coal to Britain. (…)
The Labour Party’s entrists: Militant, Socialist Organiser, and Socialist Action17have sought to channel the power of the miners’ strike into their futile battle to transform the Labour Party into an instrument of socialist revolution. These ‘revolutionaries’ have proved a dynamic force in the miners support committees and have, what is more, succeeded in winning relatively large numbers of recruits to the Labour Party, but, because of their loyalty to Kinnock and co, they have acted as an objectively conservative force.
Militantviews the question of tactics in a mechanical fashion. In putting forward the demand for a 24-hour general strike, they considered they were demanding what was realistic. But for communists what must be demanded is what is realistic and what is necessary. A 24-hour general strike is a protest gesture, suitable in the case of, say, a racist murder or to celebrate May Day, but useless when it comes to winning the miners’ strike, which requires the mobilisation of the class not for one day, but until victory.
Socialist Actionhas been little better. On the Mineworkers Defence Committee they have opposed the call for a general strike along with the Socialist Workers Party. They also stridently stood against proposals from supporters of The Leninist that miners support committees be transformed along the lines of councils of action and that they be coordinated by a national leadership of elected and recallable delegates. (…)
The most important revolutionary group outside the Labour Party is the SWP. But, although priding themselves on their militancy and rank-and-filism, the SWP have passively tailed the NUM leadership even more loyally than the Trotskyite entrists and the CPGB opportunist trends. They have opposed calls for a general strike (putting themselves far behind Tony Benn), opposed calls for workers defence corps, opposed the transformation of the miners support committees and attacked miners’ guerrilla actions as “individual acts”.18 This craven position is dictated by the SWP’s economism and its belief that the miners’ strike will never win. The SWP’s leading member, Tony Cliff, even dismisses the strike as “an extreme form of the downturn”! Thus the job of the SWP is to expose the bureaucracy by not challenging it. SWP members must get miners to buy Socialist Worker, but never fight to go beyond the NUM leadership. Thus, while police soundly defeated mass flying pickets at Orgreave, the SWP keeps chanting for more mass picketing - without the protection of workers defence corps. And, after denouncing miners support committees for eight solid months, they decided to join them, only to be the most vociferous advocates of tin-rattling and baked bean-collecting - certainly they had no perspective of moving towards council of action-type organisations, let alone a strike wave of general strike proportions. (…)
We will now outline in some detail the position of The Leninist ...
For many in the workers’ movement the miners’ strike must be painted in patriotic red, white and blue if it is to win. Many of these elements believe that “public opinion”, not class solidarity, is the key question. Thus Eurocommunist Peter Carter demands that the strike must be “aimed at ... the defence of miners’ jobs and the coal industry as a valuable national asset”. CPGB general secretary Gordon McLennan declares that “A victory for the miners will be a victory of the British people. To help the miners is to help Britain.”19 (…)
But this road of saving ‘our’ industry is the shortest road to the abyss. By maintaining that the coal industry (or, for that matter, any industry) is a national asset in the sense that it belongs to the British people, that it is somehow the property of those who work in it, equates the interests of British capitalism with those who are exploited by it and sows the dragon’s teeth of sectionalism and social chauvinism. By championing the defence of ‘our’ industry, British workers are not only set against each other - steelworkers against miners - but against workers in other countries.
A major cause of the lack of solidarityfrom other sections of workers with the miners’ strike must be put down to loyalty to ‘our’ industry, and surely the magnificent assistance that has been given to British miners by workers across the world - in particular those in France and the Soviet Union - shows the healthy results from workers being loyal to their class, not their capitalist country. (…)
Fighting to win
Tragically, the tactics of achieving a national strike against pit closures through rolling, area-by-area strikes and rule 41 not only failed to win over the majority of Notts miners, but intensified sectionalism. The unwillingness to use a national ballot over national strike action after such attempts had been ingloriously rejected in 1979, January and October 1982, and 1983 was understandable. But clearly the lack of a ballot to call the overtime ban, the lack of a ballot over strike action (even when the vote required for national action was reduced from 55% to a simple majority, even when opinion poll after opinion poll showed that well over 60% of miners favoured the strike), the area-by-area approach showed that the leadership of the NUM trusted bureaucratic manoeuvre more than their arguments for solidarity, and this had its costs.
Of course, to have caved in to demands for a ballot from the NCB, the right hon Peter Walker20 and rightwing elements in the NUM could have proved fatal. But undoubtedly a majority could have been gained on the basis of a concerted, imaginative, Fiery Cross campaign, which stressed what miners need, not what the NCB or the ‘country’ (ie, the capitalist system) can afford. Those who suddenly discovered the ‘unproletarian’ nature of ballots, those who used the fatuous argument about ‘no man having the right to vote another out of a job’ threw out a potentially powerful tactical weapon because of lack of trust in the rank and file, intuitive recognition that Notts sectionalism could not be fought with sectionalism, and lack of tactical flexibility.
This said, the fact that around 80% of miners ‘voted with their feet’, that they faced a bourgeois state determined to crush them, meant that what was required was not only flexible tactics, but a clear-sighted revolutionary strategy. For all the Fleet Street assertions that Scargill is a Marxist - this was lacking. The NUM leadership has fought on the basis of a reformism enshrined for them in the Plan for coal21and have unsuccessfully sought solidarity from fellow reformist trade union leaders on the basis of reformism. Because of this the leadership have had to rely almost entirely on the sheer guts and determination of the militant rank and file, even though everything shows that, in order to win, massive solidarity is essential as well. Thus the NUM has been forced to fight trench warfare, a war of attrition, alone, against the awesome power of the capitalist state, when with allies the tables could be turned and a blitzkrieg employed. Indeed the fact that the bourgeoisie as a class stands against the NUM necessitates the mobilisation of the working class as a class - a general strike. This is vital, especially considering how well the state has prepared for this struggle and its strategic importance.
Ever since the working class victories of the late 1960s and early 1970s - above all, the miners’ strikes of 1972 and 1974 - the state has worked systematically to ensure that it never suffered such humiliations again. With Saltley Gates engraved on their minds, government officials carried out extensive logistical preparations. (…)
The NUM leadership’s reliance on the official structure has proved a central weakness. Yes, it has provided funds, but this has been in order to ensnare the NUM, control it and its rank-and-file militants. With the NUM reliant on the drip feed of TUC and big union cash, ‘misbehaviour’ can be curbed and those perpetrating it brought to heel; Arthur Scargill can even be persuaded to ‘disassociate’ the NUM from miners’ guerrilla actions and the ‘Red Army’ of pickets is turned into an army of tin rattlers.
So, while militants quite rightly admire Arthur Scargill for his single-minded determination to see victory, his refusal to bow before anti-communism over Poland, his near revolutionary politics, compared with the run-of-the-mill fat cats who sit at the top of most unions, we must not lose our critical faculties. Scargill, for all his fighting talk demanding that the TUC gets off its knees and that resolutions be turned into action, is still a reformist (albeit with a syndicalistic coloration), who is tied to scabs like Willis and Kinnock by a thousand strings of ideology, tradition and social position. (…)
It is because we recognise that the miners’ strike can only be won against the Kinnocks and Willises, through breaking their hold over the working class and building a new leadership committed to class war, not class peace, that we have called for the formation of a national miners support movement. Such an organisation should not only draw upon the existing Women Against Pit Closures groups and the miners support committees, but all working class organisations committed to “total physical support” for the miners. With such a body it would be possible to call, over the heads of treacherous leaders, directly to the militants of unions such as the EETPU, the AUEW, and the ISTC, to organise independently of their leaders.
With such a perspective, it would be possible to see a broader body like the National Minority Movement of the 1920s evolving with great speed.22 Such an organisation could break the isolation of the militants, unite them into a powerful national force and challenge the stranglehold the class traitors have over the TUC and the working class movement. So, while we make demands on the TUC, we must look to creating an alternative centre if it does not comply with demands for action.
Because we recognise the Tory-backed NCB plans to slash jobs in the coal industry are not just an attack on one section of the working class, but the whole, because this attack has the full backing of the state machine, because of its strategic importance, we have declared time and time again that the miners must not fight alone. If we content ourselves with pious resolutions, not only will the miners fall under the Tory boot, but all workers will come to feel its imprint, as they mercilessly grind us down.
Moral appeals to action, however inspiring, are no substitute for a determined, imaginative strategy. For us, the fact that all sections of the working class have suffered under the Tories represents a massive reservoir of pent-up energy, which must be unleashed for the miners. As part of this, we must seek to win those sections now prepared to fight against their own employers to fight alongside the miners. In this way a united workers’ offensive can be developed. Struggles must be coordinated and be given a common purpose. The key to this is, we believe, a fight against the feared and hated anti-trade union laws. A united strike wave against our own employers, against the savage attacks on the miners and against the anti-trade union laws could send the now-brimming-with-confidence establishment reeling onto the defensive.
For such a rolling strike wave to be really effective, if it is not simply to exhaust itself, it must rise to the level of a general strike. It would, of course, be equally as foolish to think that we must not demand such a call from the TUC as to think that unless it does there can be no such action. That is why we have raised the slogan for a general strike with or without the TUC. If the TUC refuses demands for general strike action, we must look to alternative organs like a national miners support movement to play the role of initiator and coordinator.
As an essential building block to this strategy we have looked to the miners support committees. Already they have organised under their umbrella the best activists and militants from all political shades in the workers’ movement. Transformed into council of action-type organisations, they could become the most important organs of struggle for the working class. That is why we have argued that the miners support committees should consist of recallable delegates from trade union branches, unemployed workers’ groups, trades councils, shop stewards organisations and all working class political organisations.
In order to give this strategy a cutting edge, we have also made the call for workers’ defence corps. Already in the most militant mining areas, especially those which have had to cope with substantial but not mass scabbing and virtual police occupation, fighting formations have come into being. First, small groups organised hit squads for guerrilla attacks, then larger bodies were established which could take on the police in set-piece engagements, such as in Yorkshire, when miners placed an earth-mover across a bridge in order to prevent a scab going to work. When the police, who were escorting the scab in five police cars, got out to remove the obstruction, 60 miners appeared from cover, pelting the scab-herders with iron bolts - the police were forced to retreat and the scab failed to arrive at work.
But workers defence corps should not be confined to miners or mining communities: all miners support committees should consider it their duty to establish them. With them, not only can vital physical aid be given to the miners, but our own meetings, collections and demonstrations can be protected from the thugs in blue. What is more, a general strike that proceeds without the protection afforded by fighting squads is vulnerable to intimidation and would be forced to stop halfway in its struggle to halt the Tories in their tracks and bring the arrogant Iron Lady to her knees.
In the course of a general strike the demand will be rightly made to finish not only the Tory government, but the system which gives it sustenance. It is to this end that the building of a mass revolutionary vanguard Communist Party is essential. For us, Leninists of the CPGB, this strike is throwing up the raw materials for such a party. From the miners support committees, the hit squads, the women’s support groups and, of course, the militant miners, we look to forging this party.
Marxists do not indulge in futurology, but look to the class struggle itself to provide us with answers as to what the future will look like. Marx was vague or even silent about what form socialism would take until the Paris Commune concretely provided the answer; likewise for Lenin the short-lived soviets of 1905 indicated the shape of things to come. The miners’ strike has, we believe, given us a glimpse of the future of the British revolution (…) l
1. Weekly Worker December 11 2014.
2. Weekly Worker January 15 2015.
3. See the interview with Gerry Maclochlainn, Sinn Féin press officer, in The Leninist December 1984.
4. The Guardian September 5 1984.
5. The Times April 11 1984.
6. Financial Times June 26 1984.
7. Roy Hattersley and Dennis Healey were prominent figures on the right of the Labour Party.
8. For an analysis of the factions in the CPGB of the time, see The Leninist August 1983 - specifically, the editorial and the section headed ‘The historical origins of the party’s main opportunist trends’.
9. 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 resorted to 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.
10. The CPGB headquarters in central London.
11. A trend that evolved into today’s Communist Party of Britain.
12. The party’s reformist programme, first adopted in 1951.
13. Morning Star December 1 1984.
14. Morning Star June11 1984.
15. Straight Left October 1984.
16. Communist May 3 1984.
17. Militant split in early 1992 and its largest surviving fragment is today’s Socialist Party in England and Wales; Socialist Organiser morphed into the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, while Socialist Action - one of the many successor sects of the International Marxist Group - survives to this day, albeit virtually underground.
18. Socialist Worker December 7 1984.
19. Morning Star May 19 1984.
20. Peter Walker (1932-2010) was a leading Tory, serving a number of times in different cabinet posts from 1970 to 1990. He was a founding member in 1975 of the ‘one nation’ Tory Reform Group.
21. Plan for coal (1974) was the collaborationist agreement that linked miners’ livelihoods to the profitability of ‘their’ industry. See ‘Three cardinal sins of opportunism’, reprinted in Weekly Worker March 14 2014.