Britain: before and after the election
On March 12 1984 - 25 years ago - the miners' Great Strike officially began. For the next 12 months, miners and the women of the pit communities fought a desperate battle for jobs, for their communities and for their class. This epic struggle mobilised the support of millions, in this country and across the globe.
During this key class battle, the scenes in some pit communities came to resemble Northern Ireland, with a militarised police force confronted by miners using some of the semi-insurrectionary methods of Belfast and Derry. The National Union of Mineworkers fought a strategically important war on behalf of all workers - yet they were abandoned by the Labour and trade union bureaucracies to fight alone. Defeat followed, with dire consequences. The outcome of the Great Strike of 84-85 is a determining factor in the shape of class relations today.
Yet, for sections of our movement, the strike has become the equivalent of a commemorative mug. It is something to be put on a mantelpiece, ignored until an anniversary rolls around and it is time to mouth some platitudes. The rich lessons taught by that momentous 12 months are forgotten - to the huge detriment of our class’s combativity.
Our faction within the ‘official’ Communist Party threw itself into the strike with enthusiasm and no small degree of elán. In the course of it, we went from an isolated handful of young comrades organised around a quarterly theoretical journal - The Leninist - to a monthly newspaper that had won influence amongst a thin, but important layer of advanced miners and their supporters. Over the coming year, we will feature TL reprints from that time. We begin with extracts from a major article by James Marshall in The Leninist of August 1983, when it was still a theoretical journal. The full text is available on our website. This assessed the battle plans of the newly re-elected Thatcher government and - crucially - the state of readiness of our side as a “strategic struggle” loomed.
1. The election
Future historians might well look back upon the June 83 election as a milestone on Britain’s path to social revolution. For, while the Tories secured a massive post-1945 record majority of 144 seats, this has revealed and exacerbated the deepening crisis of reformism.
This crisis and the consequent dangers for social stability were referred to, if in oblique fashion, even as the election campaign was in progress. Former foreign minister Francis Pym expressed his fears for parliamentary democracy if the Tory victory were to turn into a landside.1 While he concentrated on the possibility that a landslide might create divisions on the Tory backbenches, it was clear that he was referring to the ramifications which would flow from a collapse of the Labour Party as the alternative party of government ….
And Arthur Scargill and Ken Livingstone, eager to secure leadership of any future extra-parliamentary mass movement, quickly threw their hats into the ring and called for opposition to Tory attacks using mass actions rather than parliamentary rhetoric. Scargill vehemently argued that “we should undoubtedly need to take extra-parliamentary action, and that includes the possibility of political strikes” ….
1.1. The crisis of Labourism
The Falklands factor, the formation of the Social Democratic Party and the inept bunglings of Michael Foot did, of course, contribute to the parliamentary debacle suffered by the Labour Party, resulting in its lowest share of popular support since 1918.2 But if we were to concentrate on these questions alone, we would be failing to see both the deep-seated nature and fundamental cause of Labour’s crisis.
In a period of deepening economic crisis of capitalism the Labour Party goes from being a man attempting to ride two horses at once to being a man attempting to ride two horses which are determined to go in opposite directions. This analogy rests on the role played by Labour’s right and left. In ‘normal’ times the right must present to the capitalist class the acceptable face of alternative government; while the left rallies the support of the militant working class for ‘their’ government, which, despite carrying out rightist measures, is still ‘theirs’ and therefore must be supported.
Now during a period of crisis the complementary roles of these two wings of reformism become increasingly difficult to harness ….
1.3. Dangers and possibilities
The re-election of the Tory government, because it comes at a time of deepening capitalist crisis, represents the greatest post-World War II threat to the working class. The only things the Tories could offer the working class were a continuation of mass unemployment, draconian anti-trade union laws, a massive increase in arms spending and the equipping of the forces of coercion - the police and army - to deal with popular upsurges.
The Tories, being committed to the success of British capitalism, must attack the working class. This, combined with the erosion of the Labour Party’s position as the alternative party of government not only means that leading Tories, including Thatcher, confidently talk of their being in government into the 90s, but - what is more important - the period unfolding before us promises to be one of greatly heightened class struggle. While this prospect poses great dangers for the working class, it also offers great possibilities ….
Whether the Labour Party goes to the right or to the left is, for revolutionaries, only a secondary question. What is fundamental is the inevitable effect the crisis will have of weakening the hold of reformism on the working class. It will throw millions into political action for the first time and shatter previously held reformist prejudices, opening up the possibility of mass revolutionary politics. Undoubtedly this will affect the Labour Party, pushing it one way or another, but, whichever way it jumps, its hold over the working class is jeopardised - a maintenance of respectable rightism can only mean the masses will look for new organisations, new answers; and paradoxically a shift to the left likewise inevitably opens the masses up to these very same new organisations and new answers.
2. The first term
…. Because of the militant record of the late 60s and the 70s, and the ability of the working class to resist successfully measures designed to force down wages and attempts to chain the unions, whether from Barbara Castle or Robert Carr, there were many who were brimming with confidence at the prospect of a showdown with the newly elected Thatcher government.3
But such a view was soon shown to be based on a foolish misreading of the last decade, the fallacy that the miners had in 1974 swept the Heath government out of office in semi-revolutionary fashion and above all the failure to take into account the changing economic conditions. For, whereas the 60s battles took place at the end of the boom, and those of the 70s in a time of stagnation and transition, the 80s saw the emergence of the early but unmistakeable signs of a looming general crisis of capitalism. In the 60s the capitalist class could afford to placate the working class with not inconsiderable increases in living standards. This course had become impossible by the 80s, and, far from a general increase in prosperity, the needs of the day led to attacks on working class living standards, pitiless speed-ups and a staggering growth in the number unemployed ….
The miners exemplified above all others the crisis of the working class. During the 70s they had justly earned the reputation of being the most powerful, most determined and best organised section of the working class. So, with the retirement of the dearly beloved (by the bourgeoisie) Joe Gormley, and the election of Arthur Scargill with a massive 70% first-preference vote, the stage seemed set for decisive confrontation.4 But this was not to be, for the divisive productivity deal, which set pit against pit and area against area, plus the government’s refusal to be drawn into an early, and for them premature, battle, meant that not only did one strike ballot after another show that the miners had no inclination to fight, but even when the NCB closed pits in Scotland and South Wales attempts to launch solidarity actions collapsed in disarray and despondency ….
But we must note that, despite the near universally bleak last four years, the working class has only been forced to retreat - it has not suffered a defeat of a strategic nature along the lines inflicted by the Tories in 1926, when trade union organisation was decimated and thousands of militants were blacklisted ….
6.1. The class war
… A fierce clash is therefore well on the cards, and it is to meet such an eventuality that the Tories have not only passed through parliament anti-trade union measures, under both the ‘wet’ Prior and the ‘dry’ Tebbit, but have also assiduously prepared the forces of coercion to ensure that the law can be imposed.
For, while the Tories have exploited many of the undemocratic procedures in the trade union movement, using them as a cover to introduce anti-trade union legislation, the key question at the end of the day is the ability of the state to enforce its will. The Tories have not forgotten the fiasco of Heath’s Industrial Relations Act, and the humiliating reversal they suffered at the hands of the working class, organised in defence of the Pentonville Five. The fact that they were forced to release the imprisoned dockers from jail, using the shadowy figure of the official solicitor in the face of a growing general strike threat, made a deep impression on the ruling class.
This and the miners’ strikes of 1972 and 1974, especially the failure to keep the Saltley Gates power station open despite a massive police presence, not only led to near hysterical editorials in the bourgeois press about Britain becoming ungovernable, but years later, under the Thatcher government, to the measures which would, they hoped, ensure that there could be no repetition ….
The fact that during Thatcher’s first term the mailed fist was reserved for the nationalist population of the Six Counties, rioting youth and Argentineans should in no way make us complacent, for this was unquestionably not the result of Tory concern for the sensibilities of British workers, but a reflection of the fact that at no point did British workers raise the struggle to a stage which required either extensive or significant use of the new-style forces of coercion against them ….
6.2. Organising the offensive
…. It is because many old organisations of the working class are incapable of meeting the offensive against working class living standards and rights, let alone the tasks of revolution, that we must seek changes in them, and create new ones.
The first term of Thatcher’s government, and even the last Labour government, showed all too clearly that the trade union movement had great difficulty in even maintaining the living standards of their members in work, but what about fighting unemployment, women’s oppression and racism? Thatcher’s second term will undoubtedly expose the weaknesses of the existing trade union structure, its inability to defend wages, and most certainly democratic rights ….
Paradoxically, in order to have a vision of the future, we must look at the past. In the light of this communists today should not only learn the lessons of the Russian Revolution, but study the history of our own party, with particular emphasis on the struggle to build the National Minority Movement, the National Unemployed Workers’ Union, councils of action and factory councils. It is not a question of re-inventing the past, imposing alien forms, for new organisations will emerge out of the class struggle itself. As this struggle grows more widespread and intense, the new will be ushered in at the call of necessity - the mother of invention.
Surely to expect the TUC and the Labour Party to put up a serious fight against Thatcher would be, on past performance, naive. Most leaders of the official labour movement are content with petitions, protests that are securely confined within ‘moderate’ shackles; for these ‘leaders’, cosy chats with government ministers and schoolboy catcalls and hoots on the floor of the House of Commons are to be preferred to mass political strikes, occupations and other forms of direct militant action which might lead to a challenge to ‘parliament and the rule of law’. It is because such leaders are in the overwhelming majority in the official labour movement - and even most of the left Labourites show great determination not to go beyond rhetoric - that we must seek to construct forms that circumvent the deadly bureaucratic grip ….
We have already referred to the undeniable truth that a strategic struggle is on the cards. The ability of the working class to resist the onslaught, to turn the defence of their interests into an offensive against capitalism, rests ultimately on the state of their revolutionary party - the Communist Party. While it is dominated by Eurocommunist revisionism, there is no chance of the working class acting independently, charting its course to socialism.
Opportunism disarms the workers, delivers us bound and gagged to the altar of capitalist profit. The period ahead demands a relentless struggle against all forms of opportunism, for unless the Communist Party ends its tailism to the official trade union movement, ends its servile attitude to the Labour Party and its infatuation with the reformist, myopic Alternative Economic Strategy, the working class will be like an army with no general staff.5
Resistance can be heroic, but any offensive will prove to be nothing more than a desperate gesture.
1. Francis Pym was a leading ‘wet’ Tory who held several cabinet positions.
2. The Falklands war was launched in April 1982 by prime minister Margaret Thatcher after Argentina had invaded the British south Atlantic territory. The SDP was a substantial rightwing split from the Labour Party in 1981, later to merge with the Liberal Party to form today’s Liberal Democrats. Michael Foot was leader of the Labour Party from 1980 to 1983.
3. Barbara Castle was secretary of state for employment when the unions rebelled against her proposals to reduce their powers in her 1969 white paper, ‘In place of strife’. Robert Carr was the Tory secretary of state for employment in Edward Heath’s government responsible for the 1971 Industrial Relations Act. This severely curbed the right to strike and banned closed shop agreements.
4. Gormley was the rightwing NUM president from 1971 to 1982.
5. The AES was a nationalist reformist programme of demands championed by the reformist trends in the CPGB and sections of the Labour left.