The working class has finally recovered from the defeat

Printer-friendly version

This year marks 40 years since the miners’ strike began in the UK. On 6 March 1984 exactly, the miners of 20 collieries in the Yorkshire coalfield spontaneously started a strike after the announcement of the planned pit closures. They were followed by tens of thousands of other miners elsewhere in the country. Among them were many who were not immediately affected, but joined the strike in solidarity with the 20,000 miners who were threatened by lay-offs. More than 100,000 workers in a key sector of the working class braved the measures of the Thatcher government and the National Coal Board.

The strike was not an isolated event. It was part of a wave of struggles that had begun with the strike of the public sector workers in Belgium in the late summer of 1983, in response to the lowering of wages. A few weeks later, the same scenario unfolded in the Netherlands, where the government had also decided to cut incomes by 3.5 per cent.

These attacks on the conditions of the working class were an expression of the conditions of the 1980s, the ‘years of truth’, when the bourgeoisie could no longer delay its economic attacks, since the effects of the Keynesian economic policy were as good as exhausted. This time the attack was “not improvised, but has been prepared over several years now by the ruling class at the international level” [1].

In the central countries of capitalism the bourgeoisie had developed “a clear political strategy for confronting the class with the ‘left in opposition', whereby the left fractions were removed from the government teams so that they could pose as opponents of the austerity measures. This was complemented with the deployment of rank and file unionism, using radical rhetoric against the union leaderships’ ‘betrayals’”[2].

Since the beginning of 1984, the French bourgeoisie had launched an attack on the working class in France’s major industrial centres. The policy of “restructurings” and “modernisations” targeted mainly shipbuilding, mines, metal, steel, and even the chemical and telephone sectors. When 12,000 to 17,000 redundancies were announced in Lorraine's steel industry, the lid flew off the social kettle. But the unions managed to keep Lorraine’s steel workers carefully isolated from the rest of the working class, who were also hit by massive layoffs. The unions were able to give the demonstration in Paris a regional flavour, with a large Lorraine cross and majorettes in traditional costume at the front.

Along the lines of the policy of the bourgeoisie in other countries, the British ruling class was determined to inflict a defeat on the working class to prevent it from thwarting the measures of the government. The miners were a very suitable object, since a defeat of the miners, as a key sector of the working class, would certainly have a demoralising impact on the whole class and significantly affect its combativity.

The purpose was not just to close a number of pits, but to inflict if a major defeat on the miners in order to put an  end to  any further class resistance in the UK. Therefore the British bourgeoisie had devised a highly developed strategy, which had been worked out long before (the Ridley Plan of 1977). Its key components were:

  • to close the country's unprofitable coal mines, but not all of them at the same time, in order to provoke a possible situation in which parts of the miners went on strike and others continued to work;
  • the appointment of a radical union member - belonging to Labour’s left wing - as leader of the NUM.
  • to stockpile enough coal in case the extraction of coal could no longer be guaranteed due to a complete shut down in the coal industry;
  • the introduction of three new laws to make every strike, organised by the union, subject to stricter rules. For instance the Employment Act 1982 effectively outlawed secondary, or “sympathy” strike action;
  • deals with unions in other sectors (transport, steel, energy, etc.) to prevent the outbreak of strikes in these sectors, even if that meant meeting the demands of the workers.    

The situation unfolded more or less as the bourgeoisie had expected. On the basis of the division between the miners who were on strike and those who kept on working, the bourgeoisie, with the help of the NUM and other unions, were able to imprison the workers in the corporatism of the coal industry and to exhaust them in a year long strike. After a year's struggle the miners had to admit that they were defeated, with tens of thousands of miners being effectively laid off, doomed to years of unemployment.

The fact that it remained isolated does not mean that the strike did not have  the strength and the potential to break with the corporatist confines, imposed by the union, and to extend to other sectors of the class. In particular, the opportunity presented itself on two occasions: during the two strikes of the dock workers in the summer and during the strike of the car workers in November. But all the unions, in close consultation with the government and with each other, succeeded in keeping the strikes separated from each other - for example, thorugh the dockers’ union insisting that they were engaged in an “industrial, not a political dispute” so that it had no direct connection to the miners’ strike.. Despite their huge reserves of combativity, the miners allowed themselves to be manipulated by the unions, including the NUM

The working class had lost a battle, but this was not the end of the class war or even of the strike wave. Several more strikes took place around the world and even in the UK, although they no longer had the same dynamic as at the beginning of the wave in 1983, when it was characterised by:

  • a tendency towards a broad simultaneity of struggles nationally and internationally;
  • a tendency towards spontaneous struggles, with the capacity for initially bypassing the unions;
  • a growth in confidence in the proletariat's capacity to defend itself against the attacks [3].


An international strategy of the ruling class

It was the British bourgeoisie (the most intelligent in the world), with the policies of the ‘Iron Lady’ Margaret Thatcher, which sounded the key-note for the strategy of the ruling class in other central countries, aimed at stopping the dynamic of the class struggle (…) notably in France, the country in Europe where the proletariat had traditionally been very combative” [4].

For instance, after the miners’ strike had ended on 3 March 1985 “the French bourgeoisie (…) set out to lock up the workers in corporatism, taking full advantage of the tendency towards ‘each for themselves’ (which was one of the first phenomena of the decomposition of capitalism)” [5]. This first expression of decomposition, working in a more underhand manner, slowly gained more impact in the second half of the 1980s, giving the anti-proletarian policy of the ruling class a powerful boost in breaking the momentum of the workers’ struggle on all fronts.

The final blow to the strike movement in the 1980s was inflicted by the collapse of the Eastern Bloc and the countries of “really existing socialism” (ie the Stalinist variety of capitalism) which ushered in a deafening campaign about the death of communism and the disappearance of the working class. This campaign had a very negative impact on the consciousness and the combativity in the class. The ensuing reflux in struggle was accompanied by a loss of self-confidence and a deep confusion in the proletariat about its identity as a class, which was reinforced by the break-up of many traditionally combative industrial sectors (mines, shipyards, steel, etc) and the policy of “relocations” to countries where labour power was much cheaper. . But despite this historic setback in its struggle, the working class had not been decisively defeated, and contrary to the campaign of the bourgeoisie, it had not disappeared.

Expressions of proletarian unrest continued (for example the students’ movement in France in 2006, and the Indignados movement in Spain in 2011), but nowhere did the working class manage to set the tone and to put forward a clear proletarian perspective. Strikes remained strongly controlled by the official unions, by rank and file bodies or “coordinations”, and generally isolated from each other. Or, in the case of the Indignados, the participants had a great difficulty in seeing themselves as part of the working class – a testimony to the serious loss of class identity that developed during the 90s and 2000s . Above all, pointing to the defeat of the miners, the bourgeoisie succeeded in pushing the message that “struggle doesn’t pay”.

Despite the huge obstacles, the ICC never lost faith in the ability of the working class to take up the struggle again at a later date against the effects of the economic crisis, which continued to fester and deepen. At the same time we were aware that any revival of the struggle would not take place quickly and without a great effort. The fundamental change in the overall conditions facing the class, the opening of the phase of decomposition, required a considerable reorientation in the class about the objectives of the struggle. The reality of a system descending into barbarism through war, ecological destruction and social dislocation made it more necessary than ever for workers to integrate the political dimension into their defensive struggles.

In 2022, more than 30 years later, the confidence in the working class finally materialised in a break with the years of passivity and resignation. It was the working class in the United Kingdom that first declared that  "enough is enough" and, for more than a year, numerous sectors took up the struggle against the effects of the "cost of living crisis". And it did not stop there: the struggle of British workers was followed by workers in France and then by those in various other countries.

In recent years, a new generation of workers has emerged, not weighed down by the defeat of the 1980s and subsequent campaign on the death of communism. Carried forward by a new generation of workers, the breadth and simultaneity of these movements testify to a real change of spirit in the class and represents a break with the passivity and disorientation which has prevailed from the end of the 1980s up till now” [6].

Since the summer of 2022, through these massive and simultaneous mobilisations, the working class has picked up where the struggle had ended in the late 1980s. The proletariat is again beginning to recognise itself again as a social force and to rediscover its identity as a class. In this sense, today’s struggles are in continuity with those of 35 years ago. Like in the 1980s, the workers are again responding to and fighting against the attacks of the bourgeoisie, no longer as a more or less amorphous mass with no clear class identity, but as a part of the class whose interests are fundamentally opposed to those of the bourgeoisie and its state.




40 years since the UK miners' strike