Arthur Scargill: a reformist when all said and done

Lessons of the Great Strike

Recognising the nature of the defeat at the end of the Miners' Strike was hard for the left, argues Mark Fischer

This final reprint in the series of articles from ourcoverage in The Leninist of the miners’ Great Strike of 1984-85 is a transcript of an opening at a late March 1985 day school on the lessons of this titanic, year-long battle. The strike had ended earlier that month - catching the March issue of our monthly paper out a little. This contribution from Jack Conrad appeared in the May issue of the paper and, in hindsight, clearly has strengths and weaknesses.

Readers can judge its strengths for themselves, but obviously its key failing lay in its assessment of the nature of the defeat that had just been handed out to the miners. At least it had the merit of understanding that this was a defeat. There were those in the movement who, years after, when the once proud National Union of Mineworkers had been broken and the industry lay decimated, still insisted that the strike had not been lost - indeed, that it had won, according to some. We were not that myopic.

However, as the Tories subsequently pressed home their advantage against the workers’ movement in general, it became clear that the defeat of the miners’ strike had been a strategic defeat for our class. We still live in the shadow of that huge reversal today.

Mark Fischer


A defeat, but not a strategic one

The first thing that we would say about the miners’ Great Strike is that, while it had many features of past industrial struggles, it gave us a glimpse of what is in prospect for Britain in the future. There has not really been a strike like it in British history. Obviously we have got 1926 to compare it with; we have got strikes in the earlier 20s; we have got the great strike wave between 1910 and 1914. But this strike lasted a year; this strike saw well over 10,000 people arrested; this strike saw the British police force come out in a way that we had never seen before.

We have seen police clobbering miners over their heads, not just with a normal truncheon, not just your ‘Dixon of Dock Green’ type toughed up, but we have seen the police adopt many European tactics. And, of course, those familiar with events in the Six Counties of Northern Ireland can see many parallels between the policing methods that have been employed in this strike and the lessons learnt by the British army in their struggle against the forces of the republican movement.

Now, in the same way that Lenin looked at the councils of action in Britain just after World War I and called them embryonic soviets, we too can now look back at this strike and see embryonic forms of future working class state power. In the formation of hit squads we see embryonic organs of working class state power in the form of workers’ militias. In the Women Against Pit Closures movement we see in embryonic form a mass working class women’s movement. And, of course, in miners support groups we see embryonic soviets.

The fact that this strike has thrown up these features, the fact that it lasted a year, the fact that there have been 10,000 arrests and the fact that the bourgeoisie itself threw into the fray not just a newly organised national police force fully equipped with all the paraphernalia of Northern Ireland, but also that it was prepared to spend at least three billion pounds, was prepared to sacrifice the tax concessions to the British middle class in the budget for the sake of beating the miners shows the importance of this strike - not just for revolutionaries, not just for the miners, but for all classes, all strata in British society. So we are not just dealing with statistics here. We are not just trying to say that this strike lasted a year, we are not just trying to say there were 10,000 arrests, and that x amount of money was spent.

What we are trying to indicate by calling it a Great Strike is that British politics has changed. This strike definitely marks a watershed in the development towards a British revolution, towards the situation where we can start to challenge for state power ....

In the initial period of the Thatcher government living standards rose; and in fact they are still rising in real terms for those in work. A number of sections of the working class, as sections, have been defeated. I think the most notable sectional struggle in the early period of the Thatcher government was that of the steelworkers. They took on the Thatcher government and put up a magnificent fight. Unfortunately they had an awful leadership: it not only caved in at the end of the day, but accepted a deal in which half the jobs in the steelworks disappeared.

Thatcher and the bourgeoisie could not be content with picking off the working class section by section: that was not the way forward and they were quite well aware of that fact. They had to confront the working class as a class; they had to force down the wages of the class as a whole. And to do that they obviously prepared very, very well to confront the miners. The miners for good reason have been described as the guards’ regiment of the working class. Their idea was, if they could smash the NUM then no other section could stand in their way. This is what lay behind the miners’ strike.

The strike

We can now have a look at the strike itself. I think what we can conclude in the aftermath of the strike is that, while it was defeated, it has not produced the results that Thatcher and the Tories wanted. What they wanted was a strategic, decimating defeat. While they have no doubt inflicted a very, very serious defeat, the truth is that the National Union of Mineworkers is intact, many militants are itching to reorganise and fight back and, what is more, the leadership of the NUM has not done a Bill Sirs1, but has stood on a principled, intransigent position.

This said, it is important to criticise the leadership. While it was intransigent, while it has not caved in and agreed to massive closures, massive job losses, the fact is that it fought the strike in ways inherited from the days of consensus or at least from the early 1970s. In other words, what Scargill was after was a repetition of the sort of victory that was secured in 1972 and 1974.

Because of this the whole strategy of the NUM suffered. In essence I think it suffered from the idea that, as a section, the NUM could do it by itself. OK, Arthur Scargill said on numerous occasions, ‘Come and join us’, ‘Fight alongside us’, ‘Fulfil your pledges’, but the fact was that it remained on the level of rhetoric. While calling for workers to join the miners, he was not prepared to break from the TUC in order to achieve that. He was not prepared to challenge directly the leadership of other unions to achieve that. He was not prepared to send out miners en masse - not just as pickets, but as political agitators. He was not really prepared, when it came down to it, to compromise his links not only with the TUC, but with left-talking union leaders, such as Buckton, Knapp, Todd and Slater.2 He was prepared to accept their token solidarity, but was not prepared to condemn it as only token solidarity, to demand more and fight for it.

Now, the reasons for this are relatively simple. While the bourgeoisie has fulminated against Arthur Scargill for being a ‘revolutionary’, have branded him as being the greatest subversive in Britain, the truth is that, while Scargill is significantly different from people like Sirs, nonetheless he still is only a reformist - a left reformist no doubt, a reformist with syndicalistic inclinations, syndicalistic coloration, but nonetheless Arthur Scargill is a reformist. And to suggest anything else would be to fool ourselves. He was willing to use militant trade union tactics, but he was not prepared to use revolutionary tactics. And even here there were weaknesses. I think an indication of this is the question of picketing and violence.

Scargill did not once condemn picket line violence; in fact, he made it a principle that if you cross a picket line you get what you deserve. But, away from the picket line, on several occasions - for example, with the Wilkie incident - he actually came out and condemned violence.3 I think that gives you an idea of both the different nature of Scargill on the one hand, and the similar nature of Scargill on the other hand, compared with other trade union leaders. His allies in the trade union movement, such as in the Transport and General Workers Union, while they were ever ready to preach about ‘big bangs’ and all the rest of it, when it came down to it were not even prepared to link in the miners’ strike with their own members who were in struggle.

The most notable examples of that were the dockers. Those strikes by the dockers, certainly the first one, really did get the bourgeoisie worried. The idea of a strike wave starting to embrace more than the NUM really started to give them the heebie-jeebies. Not only that, but we also saw the situation at British Leyland, where the same laws were being deployed against the car workers as were being employed against the NUM. No attempt whatsoever was made to link the two. In fact the opposite was the case. Certainly, when the T&G pulled out its dockers, it made a very pointed declaration that ‘This strike has got nothing to do with the current coal dispute; this strike is simply about the dock labour scheme’. And as a result of that it ended in a most disgraceful situation of where, in order to preserve the dock labour scheme, T&G members were moving scab coal into Britain.

In the same way, when it came to the NUR and Aslef, many fine words came from Jimmy Knapp and Ray Buckton, but that was about all they did deliver … When the railway unions called a day of action the members in London did not know about it, and when they found out about it they were protesting to their national executives and taking unofficial action on that day in order to stop the rails. Examples like that give you an idea of the sort of solidarity that was delivered, but the real point about it is that it also shows the limitations of Scargill, because Scargill was not protesting about it, he was not organising agitation teams of NUR militants, Aslef militants alongside NUM militants.

But, more important than that, the fact was that Scargill …, while he in no way, shape, or form is a sell-out merchant, lacked what was needed - and that was a political strategy for victory. As far as Scargill was concerned, really all the NUM needed to do when it came down to it was go on strike, stop the production of coal, send out flying pickets, and then sit there intransigently until the coal stocks got down to the proverbial molehills (we were constantly told that was all the coal stocks were), and eventually the country would come to a halt, the government would give in and, as he said in the early part of the strike, then the years of Thatcherism would be rolled back. The truth was that the government obviously was not, as we have shown, playing that sort of game ….


We can draw a useful lesson about the nature of Scargill and I do not think we want to be totally negative about him. It would be foolish to say simply, ‘Ah, Scargill: he’s just another trade union bureaucrat, he’s no different from the rest’. Because the fact is, he is different. And I think we can learn lessons about his strengths and weaknesses by perhaps looking at his hero from the 1920s, AJ Cook of the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain, who in many senses has great similarities with Scargill. Cook was an ex-member of the Communist Party; he was elected as a result of the wave of militancy that we have already referred to; he was supported by and a supporter of the National Minority Movement; he was still sympathetic to the young Communist Party; he looked upon the Soviet Union as his own. In other words, Cook was not just a normal, common-or-garden trade union leader in Britain in the 1920s.

But, as we know, he had his weaknesses. And his weaknesses were shown up in the aftermath of the 1926 General Strike, and above all they were shown up by his crumbling at the end of the miners’ lockout and his desperate attempts to secure a compromise deal, even though the rank and file were not prepared to accept it. And ironically he found himself - I will not say outflanked on the left, but certainly outdone in intransigence by the more traditional MFGB president, Herbert Smith: I think his famous phrase was ‘Nowt for nowt’: that was his intransigent negotiating stance. Not only that, but at the end of the General Strike and the lockout Cook, despite his earlier fraternal relations with the Communist Party, despite being a sympathetic ex-member, eventually turned against the Communist Party and the National Minority Movement.

Now, I am not saying that that is what Arthur Scargill is going to do or anything like it, because the fact has been that after a year strike Arthur Scargill has not done that, Arthur Scargill has not done an AJ Cook. But the fact is that Scargill and militant syndicalism, however intransigent and left, however militant, cannot deliver the goods at the end of the day, because in essence what is behind the capitalist offensive is the crisis of capitalism itself.

Ultimately the only way you are going to prevent an attack on the working class is to deal with the system that feeds that class-war fighter in the Tory party: that is, Margaret Thatcher. It is that system that forces them to attack, and it is only by fighting that system as a system and starting to build the organisation to kill that system can you ultimately win. Even if Scargill had secured a victory it could only have been, in the best of all possible worlds, a temporary victory, a holding operation. It could not have been a strategic victory for the working class.

Now, that view of Scargill, that view of the strike should still be weighed against the fact that the NUM has not been smashed, that Scargill has not sold out the jobs of his members. So, although the Tory government has spent £3 billion, the NUM is still capable of fighting. And therefore for us what is important in this period is correctly conducting a retreat, reorientating the NUM, winning the ideological battle, cementing unity: in essence equipping the NUM to fight another day. The fact has to be recognised that the NUM had been beaten, the NUM had been split down the middle, the bourgeoisie are in an immensely strong position ....

The future

The second lesson which we can point to (which I have already indicated, I hope quite convincingly) is that this strike is not, as Ron Todd said, “the likes of which we will never see for a hundred years”. He is trying to make it into a folk myth already. A ‘mantelpiece’ strike to tell your children about: ‘Eh, that was a strike’ - that sort of idea.

The truth is that 1926, yes, was the end of a period of militancy; 1984-1985 is a new period of militancy, a new period of militancy in which we will not just see strikes as bitter, but more bitter, more fierce, more dangerous to both sides. And that is a truth that needs to be rammed home time and time again. Not just amongst our own ranks, but amongst the class as a whole. Because, given the idea that the bourgeoisie is trying to force down workers’ wages, we also have to bear in mind why, after 1926, it did not force home that offensive, why it was not forced to do a Germany.

The fact was that during the pre-World War II period, Britain still possessed a massive empire. OK, some of it had become a Commonwealth, but nonethe­less it had a huge trade area that encompassed a very large section of the world’s population; what’s more, alongside that empire it had dependent empires. For example, the Portuguese empire was very much under the wing of the great British empire. The same could be said to an extent of the Dutch empire. British investments in places like South America were still massive and Germany lay defeated.

Today, while Britain is still a major imperialist power, it is now one of the weaker major imperialist powers. The fact is that it no longer has that cushion of an empire to fall back on. And therefore I think if you want to learn lessons about the past (without getting too carried away, drawing exact parallels), but if you want to look at a country that we really ought to open our eyes to, and really say, ‘It can happen here’, it is Nazi Germany.

Germany has got many important lessons for us - not only the idea that the working class will be forced to engage in very militant struggle, but that revolution can be placed on the agenda. And I am not talking about next year or in six months’ time, but in the general period that lies ahead. And if we fail in that revolutionary project then, of course, the bourgeoisie in Britain would be forced to employ the same sort of methods as the bourgeoisie in Germany were forced to employ, with the rise of Adolf Hitler and the triumph of Nazism. That is not scaremongering: that is a lesson of history that we need to take to heart.


I have already mentioned the militant rank and file - many of them have learnt very important lessons about the nature of the state. After all, if your pit village is invaded by riot police; if your son is dragged off, beaten up by those police; if your picket lines are declared illegal by the courts; if your union has its funds robbed by those courts; if the Labour Party, instead of providing solidarity with the miners in their struggle, starts to join the other side and denounces the resistance that you are putting up, you learn some important lessons about the Labour Party, you learn lessons about the leadership of the Labour Party, the difference between the working class rank and file of the Labour Party and its pro-capitalist leadership. You learn an awful lot of lessons about the state.

Very few people in pit villages, certainly in Yorkshire, Kent, south Wales, Scotland, have got many illusions left about the benignity of the police force. You ask some of the women who were involved, who previously would have declared themselves, and certainly were, ‘unpolitical’, what their politics are now. The interviews that we have carried in The Leninist are an indication of the self-consciousness, the political consciousness amongst women, who, after all, in pit villages in a traditional mining community were very unpolitical, did play a very traditional women’s role. That role was turned on its head.

Obviously there are questions of how long gains can be maintained, but nonetheless important lessons have been learnt by the women - and not just by a few militants, but by a whole stratum of women engaged in struggle. Of course, this is not to claim that you have got out there tens of thousands of revolutionaries - I would not claim that at all. You have certainly got tens of thousands of people who have become politicised, and that is an important difference.

Anyway, as to other political tendencies, groups and parties I am not going into a whole list. I could be here all day doing that. We can divide them up relatively simply. On the right we have Neil Kinnock, Roy Hattersley and the like. Their view can be summed as ‘Thank God it’s over, thank God that the opinion polls at last are starting to turn in our direction. What an embarrassment it was. The quicker we can bury it and forget it, the better’. This bourgeois fifth column has been joined by some we at this day school don’t find surprising but nonetheless some workers might think to be strange bedfellows. What I am referring to is the left of the Labour Party and the leadership of the Communist Party.

Now, I think the best way to prove this is the last edition of Focus4 - I am sure that most people in this room have read it and you know what I am referring to. The article was ‘Lessons of the miners’ strike’: on the one hand, it says you have got Militant, the Socialist Workers Party, the New Communist Party, and “ultra-leftists” like that, who are saying that Willis and Kinnock have “sold out” - that was the clear implication in the article (and I say ‘implication’ because the article was written in a deliberately vague way). What the leadership of the Communist Party was doing in this article in Focus was lining itself up with Tribune,with the Labour Coordinating Committee, and thereby with Kinnock. The idea that was for the CPGB leadership key in the strike, what was key to its failure, was, in their own words, “the inability of the NUM to project the strike as a national crusade over our industry”.

The description of the miners’ strike as ‘dropping a three-foot concrete post on the British road to socialism’ is, I think, is a very apt description of what has in fact happened during this strike. All their BRS dreams of feminism permeating working class women have been shown to be a myth. The truth has been that, when working class women have been asked ‘Are you feminists?’, the answer has been a blunt ‘no’. And I do not think that is a result of ignorance; I really do not think that is a result of a Fleet Street idea of what feminism is. I think they can get an idea of what feminism is from exactly what the Eurocommunists want to impose on them by their understanding of feminism; and that is quite simply summed up by Greenham Common5: the idea that women are somehow different from men on the basis that ‘men are violent and women are peaceful’, that men are the problem; that when you have got two groups of men together you are going to get a duff-up like you saw on the picket lines; that if you put women there they would simply sit down and the police would not know what to do.

Of course, the working class women learnt that the police did know what to do: they beat them over the head, dragged them away and put them in jail. So I think that they did know what feminism was and they knew that they were not feminists. It’s as simple as that. And, what is more, they also understood that part of the feminist ideology was the idea that men and women should be fighting each other, and that women in essence should organise against men.

What was very important in the strike was not only did these women fight alongside the men, but the men themselves learnt many important lessons about the women’s struggle, and about the importance of the politicisation of their women. Obviously there are going to be conflicts, obviously there are going to be antagonisms, obviously there is going to be a dragging back of many to the domestic role after this strike. But, nonetheless, important changes have taken place in the consciousness of the miners and the pit women themselves.

If you want to look at how the strike has changed individuals, I think it is amongst women that you see the biggest, the most substantial changes. I mean, if you go and talk to some of them now, you really are talking to very politicised, very conscious individuals ….

Genuine Communist Party

Indeed all talk of councils of action, all talk of the need for a new National Minority Movement, all slogans for a general strike are all very well; and I think they were correct - not in the sense that we still call for a general strike like the Workers Revolutionary Party (they would call for a general strike whatever the situation). But for us the difficulty in achieving these aims shows the need for a genuine, Leninist Communist Party. I think that lesson is something that is shown not just in the course of the strike, but above all in the aftermath.

A good way of seeing the need for a Leninist Communist Party is to com­pare what happened in 1926 with what happened in 1984-85. During 1925 the Communist Party, like every other section of the labour movement, was well aware that a General Strike was in the offing. Instead of just waiting for it to happen like the TUC and Labour Party leadership did, the Communist Party was agitating and campaigning throughout that period - not only warning the working class that a general strike is coming, but demanding that the TUC and the labour movement prepare and that, where the leadership was not prepared to take necessary measures, then the rank and file must start taking matters into their own hands. Therefore councils of action were constantly being put forward in the Workers’ Weekly. Thus, whatever limitations there were with the Communist Party in 1926, it was able to give the struggle a common strategic direction.

The fact that a General Strike was called was not as a result of the leadership of the TUC: it had everything to do with the Communist Party itself. Tribute to the role of the Communist Party was paid by the bourgeois state itself: during the nine days of the General Strike half the original membership of the Communist Party suffered arrest. The Communist Party leadership were incarcerated throughout that entire period, along with the leadership of the National Minority Movement and the Young Communist League.

The differences with today are quite startling. Not just because of the role that the Communist Party of Great Britain played, acting as a cheerleader and often as a conservative brake, but also, and importantly, the extreme unevenness in solidarity, organisation and approach in both the support movement and the NUM itself. And I am not just talking about the differences, say, between Notts and Scotland - in other words, between an area characterised by the vast mass of people not going on strike, and areas that remained intransigent, that remained solid - but also within the militant areas themselves: the difference even inside Communist Party-influenced areas.

Take Scotland, Kent and south Wales. The politics that were being put forward by the Communist Party in those areas varied … there was no difference in party, but the actual practice was significantly different. In Scotland the Communist Party - not only in the NUM, but in the broader trade union movement - played a very conservative role: demonstra­tions outside courts when miners had been arrested were banned by the NUM leadership; the mobilisation of non­-NUM pickets was frowned upon. In contrast Kent went out of its way to mobilise people from London. We all know of the days of action, however unsuccessful they were. Nonetheless it saw that a key question was the mobilising of other forces alongside it around power stations.

So you saw a great deal of unevenness, not just between one area and another area, but between one militant area and another militant area.This was exacerbated at the end of the strike. The fact that Kent comrades went up to picket out Yorkshire and south Wales, that militant miners went through Kent picket lines.

All that sort of confusion, all that raggedness and the problems that that caused, I think can be located, when it comes down to it, in the lack of a Leninist Communist Party. In the same way that confusion now exists amongst the supporters of the miners - shall we keep our miners support group going? If so, what role should it play? None of that has national direction and no single group that exists today, whatever grand claims they may make, has got the authority that the Communist Party had within the class in 1926. It was not just a question that the Communist Party had a few thousand members. After all, if we are dealing in numbers the SWP of today has got as many (or thereabouts as makes little difference) members as the Communist Party in 1925-26.

The fact was that the Communist Party in 1925-26 was a genuine Communist Party. It had firm links with the working class, it was a genuine vanguard of the class. So, when we talk about reforging a Communist Party, we do not just mean building a party of a few thousand that has got a correct programme. What we are talking about is a party that is the vanguard of the working class. We are well aware that to build this party requires ripe conditions.

Comrades the fact is today, slowly but surely, and most heroically with the miners’ strike, with that year’s struggle, we do not just see the beginning of a new period of militancy, but the raw material for that vanguard Communist Party being thrown up. This party must become a mighty weapon in the hands of our working class. Without it the fate of Nazi Germany awaits; with it we have the possibility of realising our October.

On to the Leninist Communist Party and the British revolution!

Jack Conrad


1. Bill Sirs led the largest trade union in the steel industry during this period, the Iron and Steel Trades Confederation. Despite the occasional verbiage about supporting the miners, he refused to offer any practical solidarity and - in a pristine example of the treacherous logic of sectionalist nationalism that dominated the movement - told Scargill, “I am not here to see the steel industry crucified on someone else’s altar” (F Beckett, D Hencke Marching to the fault line London 2009, p66).

2. Ray Buckton, Jimmy Knapp, Ron Todd and Jim Slater were respectively leaders of the train drivers, rail workers, transport and seafarers unions.

3. See Weekly Worker January 15 2015.

4. The ‘official’ CPGB monthly in the early 80s.

5. The Greenham Common women’s peace camp was a protest, lasting from 1981 to 2000, against the siting of nuclear weapons at this RAF base.