The beginning of this month marks the thirtieth anniversary of the great miners’ strike. This article, by Sean Matgamna, written in 1992, at a time when the Tories were pushing through many pit closures, discusses the lessons of the heroic miners’ fight, and the effects of their defeat.
It is a famous picture, the one of Arthur Scargill being arrested at the “Battle of Orgreave”, on 30 May 1984, where miners fought a long battle with troops of police and with police cavalry at a coke depot outside Sheffield. It was one of the turning points of the 1984-85 miners’ strike.
What happened in 1984-85? Mrs Thatcher’s police thugs beat down the miners with physical violence and they were able to do it because the labour movement left the miners to fight alone.
For the Tories and the police it was no holds barred. They had been planning and organising to beat down the miners since the early 1970s. They had a centralised semi-military police operation all prepared. Margaret Thatcher said, during the strike, that if the police needed any laws changed to enable them to beat the miners, then changed they would be.
As the police smashed into picket lines and became an army of occupation in many pit villages, it was, once again, the situation depicted back in 1848 in the famous Punch cartoon in which a government “Special Constable” tells a labour movement Chartist: “If you kill me, it’s murder. If I kill you, it’s nothing.”
In 1984, the miners had either to fight in the unfavourable conditions they found themselves in, or let the Tories win a crushing victory over them peacefully. The Tory class warriors, controlled the British state, and used it with grim resolve to make war on the labour movement.
All the patronising “sympathy” now — some of it, the Sun’s for example, half-gleeful — cannot undo the effects for the last eight years of the Tory victory over the miners — communities devastated and ruined; jobs lost; and the labour movement, which had played an immense role for many decades in “civilising” British capitalism, marginalised.
There is no substitute for victory! There are no replays in the class struggle! Those who lose suffer the consequences.
Could we have beaten the Tories in 1984?
Yes we could! Despite all the police preparations and all the Tories’ determination they could have been beaten and overwhelmed in 1984 as they had been in 1972 and 1974. It could have been more difficult but it could have been done.
What, in 1984-85, would have made the difference between defeat and victory? Solidarity! General labour movement action! The leaders of the TUC and the Labour Party could, had they backed the miners instead of openly and covertly undercutting them, have rallied the industrial and other support necessary. But they are what they are — tame trade union officials and second-string Westminster politicians. That being so, only an organised network of revolutionary militants in the trade unions, trades councils and Labour Parties, pursing a common strategy, could have rallied the labour movement to a common battle together with the miners.
That was what was missing in 1984. That was what the miners needed in 1984 and no trade union alone, however heroic, could provide it.
Serious working-class politics demands, centrally, the integration and co-ordination of the different fronts of the class struggle — trade unions, politics, and the fight against the ideas and propaganda of the ruling class — into a coherent strategy against the common capitalist enemy, with an organised force to push through that strategy. Given the character of the entrenched leaders of the labour movement, trade unions and Labour Party alike, only an organised network of socialists can achieve this, and such a network has to be built up over years, in advance of such big confrontations as the miners’ strike.
Such a network did not exist. Just as the organisations of the broad labour movement were split up into unions acting at cross purposes, refusing to synchronise their efforts, and sometimes acting against each other, and a Labour Party whose official leaders served as auxilaries of the Tories, denouncing the “violence” of the miners in chorus with the Sun and Mrs Thatcher — so too is the left divided. The reason are different, but the effect is the same.
The left is broken up into a plethora of groups, factions and coteries, with nothing like a common strategy. It took the SWP, the biggest revolutionary group — immobilised by a deep pessimism and defeatism about a downturn in the class struggle — some six months to even being to engage in miners’ support work. Never in 13 months — not until eight years later in fact did they get round to advocating general labour movement strike action to stop the miners being ground down.
And in the conditions of 1992 it was a joke demand, called to “catch a mood” and win recruits.
They abstained on principle from activity in the trade unions’ political wing, the Labour Party though the rank and file of the Labour Party were usually active supporters of the miners, despising their own leaders.
Militant which in 1984 controlled the local Labour Party and the council in Liverpool, and might have brought the city of Liverpool into a common struggle with the means to defeat the Tories, chose instead to do a stupid short-term deal with the Tories. The miners beaten, the Tories came back and carved up Liverpool a year later. Then Kinnock inside the Labour Party finished the job on Militant.
Many other examples could be cited. The revival of the labour movement, which has been semi-dormant since the miners’ strike shows how urgent now is the creation of an adequate network of revolutionary socialists, active in both the trade unions and the Labour Party.
The class struggle does not end. It goes one. If the working class is quelled it rises again The class struggle is the pulse of social life under capitalism. The job of socialists is to learn from the class struggle and from history and to prepare and organise the workers side so that we can win the major class struggle confrontations like the miners’ strike.
The Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, an independent revolutionary socialist organisation, exists to do this work. It groups together and coordinates trade union and Labour Party activists to fight the class struggle and works to win support for socialist politics by combatting bourgeois ideas in the labour movement. It works to overcome the chaos and disorder on the would-be revolutionary left.
That chaos is rooted in the long chain of defeats suffered by revolutionary socialism at the hands of the Stalinists and the bourgeoisie. The conditions which have reduced the would-be revolutionary movement to an archipelago of often irrational sects are only now beginning to lift.
Against the sectarians with their airtight undemocratic organisations, the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty counterposes open, rational discussion, combined with proposals for practical cooperation and coordination in the class struggle — unity in action, dialogue about our differences, and recognition of the fact that revolutionary socialism in the tradition of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky and Luxemburg must be recomposed, re-elaborated and redefined for the conditions in which we live now.