After 20 years: Lessons of the miners' strike are still relevant

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There have been a number of TV programmes and newspaper articles over the last month commemorating the British miners' strike of 1984/85 that began precisely 20 years ago in March. They all, either directly or indirectly, pay lip-service to the great courage and endurance of the miners in their battle to defend their jobs and living standards. Nonetheless, they in effect write the strike off as politically nave faced with a ruthless right wing government, economically pointless once the coal industry had been exposed to the laws of the capitalist market, and undemocratic, insofar as it is perceived to have rejected the ballot box and resorted to physical violence in trying to stop the movements of coal. The logical conclusion they draw from this is that the defeat of the miners' strike effectively signalled the death knell for the class struggle in Britain and by implication, beyond Britain too. 'Anti-globalisation' guru George Monbiot made this explicit recently in one of his big Guardian articles, saying that the last 20 years have seen the "collapse of the proletariat as a political force". The historical context

At the start of 1984 we noted the development of a third international wave of workers' struggles following those of 1968-74 and 1978-81: "Since mid-1983, the tendency towards the recovery in proletarian struggles, whose perspectives we had already announced after two years of confusion and paralysis following the partial defeat of the world proletariat in Poland, has come to the surface: in Belgium, Holland, Germany, Great Britain, France, the US, in Sweden, Spain, Italy, etc strikes have broken out against draconian austerity measures imposed by the bourgeoisie and affect all the countries at the heart of the industrial world where humanity's historic destiny will be decided." ('Resurgence of the class struggle', International Review 37).

The 5th Congress of the ICC at the end of 1983 had adopted a document entitled 'Theses on the Present Upsurge in the Class Struggle'. It identified:

  • 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.

Against this the bourgeoisie was entering into this battle fully prepared: "In the 1980s, the 'years of truth', the bourgeoisie can no longer delay its economic attacks on the working class. This attack is not improvised, but has been prepared over several years now by the ruling class at the international level" (International Review 38, 3rd qtr, 1984). The iron fist of capitalist repression was made ready and willing. But more important than this was the deployment of the democratic machinery of the state. There was 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' in order to keep the struggle contained within the union framework. The initial phase of the miners' strike and the state's response.

The British miners' strike was a powerful expression and confirmation of this analysis of the third wave of struggles. The initial rapid dynamic started with the walk-outs in the Yorkshire coalfields challenging the union framework: "Yorkshire miners picketed out, not by force of violence, but by force of argument and discussion, the South Wales miners who had earlier voted against a strike. The miners also sent delegations to other workers in the rail, power and steel industries. In the first weeks of the strike there was a clear tendency towards workers' self-organisation and extension. This initial movement of the workers, building on the lessons of the wildcats of the previous years, acting on their own account, massively directed outwards and against union directives, this movement, even with its own confusions and weaknesses as well as the divisions imposed by the unions, was nevertheless one of the most important lessons of the whole strike" ('1984/85: The NUM led the miners to defeat', WR 173).

The British state had however made extensive plans to be able to cope with the situation: "a special committee was set up by the Tory government; a national police force, drawn up on the basis of anti-strike plans made up by the previous Labour government, was formed to co-ordinate the repression; new, blanket laws were enacted and, much more important for containing the strike, government deals were struck with the steel, power and dock and railway unions, in order to keep 'their' workers under control (and) Arthur Scargill, who two years earlier had needed a police escort to protect him from angry miners, was polished up and presented as the radical head of the NUM.

The strike was made official (by the NUM) in order to control it better at the local level within the union grip of corporatism. This put forward the ideology of fighting in a single industry, of presenting the miners as a 'special case', of 'defending the NUM' or the 'Plan for Coal'. This was the struggle of 'Coal Not Dole'. This corporatism became the ideological cosh that opened up the workers' heads to the police truncheons." (ibid).

The unions had utilised a split that had opened up between the Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire coalfields to fixate the miners on closing down the Notts coalfields. It sent miners to black coal at the ports and it mobilised them into the blockade of the Orgreave Coal Depot where pitched battles with police became a daily ritual. This was all to the detriment of trying to spread the struggles to other sectors of the working class.

The attempt to extend the struggle

The best opportunity to spread the strike beyond the corporatist framework came right at the beginning, before the union imposed its stranglehold on events: "Early on in the strike, pickets went to the power stations, train drivers refused to cross picket lines and seamen blacked coal shipments. Many of the workers' initiatives went beyond or against union instructions. With all workers confronting the threat of the dole, there is already the potential steadily developing for a generalised struggle, and this is what the unions have been so anxious to avoid all along." ('Miners' strike: workers take the initiative', WR 70).

The union did subsequently recover control, "But even so, as the strike went through the summer, miners were still fighting and their example was attracting support from other workers, the unemployed and (this was what caused the bourgeoisie to eliminate the possibility of sending in the troops against the miners) a small but significant number of soldiers on leave. In July and August the potential for extension was again shown by strikes of 25,000 dock workers responding to the same attacks suffered by the miners. This was a clear expression of what active solidarity means: not 'defend the NUM' or 'defend British Coal Ltd', but defend ourselves, defend our class interests" (ibid, WR 173).

Of course the unions did eventually succeed in isolating the miners; drawing out the strike far beyond the time when it could have extended to other workers was a key aspect of this. This, however, shouldn't lead to the conclusion that this was the inevitable outcome. The capitalist market andthe decline of coal

One of the distinguishing marks of the 1980s was the way in which a lot of previous state subsidies were withdrawn and 'market forces' allowed to come more into play. This enabled the state to drastically improve productivity by increasing the rates of exploitation and throwing thousands of workers on the dole. This has had dire consequences for those individuals cast into long-term unemployment and for the working class communities to which they belong. A number of the TV programmes and press articles about the strike have graphically illustrated the sense of hopelessness and despair which pervades some of these communities. The end of the miners' strike was not the end of the class struggle

The material 'result' of the miners' strike was the decimation of the coal industry and the virtual disappearance of a sector of the working class which had always been a key figure in the major class battles of 20th century Britain (1911, 1921, 1926, 1972, 1974, 1984-5....). This was without doubt a defeat for the working class, and ever since the bourgeoisie has seized on this defeat to argue that workers' struggles are a waste of time, or indeed that the class struggle itself is a quaint relic of the past.

But there can be no such thing as a capitalism which doesn't have a working class to exploit, and even if the contours of the working class may change, it will always be forced to defend itself from this exploitation. The proof of this is that the end of the miners' strike did not mean the end of the class struggle. To begin with, this whole argument is based on a ridiculously narrow and nationalist vision: the class struggle is by its nature an international struggle and despite the defeat of the miners in Britain there were a number of highly significant class movements in the rest of Europe in the next few years (general strike in Denmark in the summer of 1985, French railway workers in 1986, Italian education workers in 1987, French healthworkers in 1988, etc). Furthermore, the defeat of the miners did not paralyse the struggle in Britain itself: the printers and BT workers both waged important struggles in 1986, and, while the printers got trapped in the dead end of the long drawn-out strike, the BT workers showed clear signs of wanting to avoid this trap. In 1989 there was a new push towards simultaneous struggles, with strikes among transport, health and council workers and new expressions of active solidarity.

What really paralysed the whole international wave of struggles was an event of international, indeed historical importance: the collapse of the eastern imperialist bloc and the massive ideological offensive against class consciousness embodied in the campaigns around the 'death of communism'. This was indeed the beginning a very profound reflux in the class struggle whose effects have still not been fully overcome.

But a reflux in class struggle is not the same as a final defeat, and in the past year we have noted definite signs of a revival in struggles internationally (the massive movement in France last Spring against the attack on pensions, the resurgence of spontaneous movements such as those of airport workers and postal workers in Britain, transport workers in Italy, and so on).

These strikes may seem to be a modest and indeed inadequate response to a system which is threatening to drag the whole of humanity to its doom. But they are part of a historical chain which connects backwards not only to the miners' strike of 1984-5, not only to the international waves of struggles launched by the general strike in France in 1968, but also to those heroic moments in history when the working class emerged as the candidate for taking human society in a radically new direction - France 1848 and 1871, Russia 1917, Germany 1918...

This chain connects forward as well, to the massive struggles which the deepening crisis of capitalism will certainly engender all over the planet; and like all the defeats suffered by the working class, the 1984-5 miners' strike still provides a wealth of lessons for the struggles ahead. In the international leaflet we produced in March 1985, we outlined the most important of these lessons, and in particular, the necessity for active solidarity throughout the working class:

"Faced with this Holy Alliance of exploiters and starvation-mongers, workers' solidarity is more indispensable than ever. But today real solidarity does not mean collecting money to help strikers 'hold out'. The length of a struggle is not its real strength. Faced with long strikes, the bourgeoisie knows how to organise itself. It has just proved this.

Real solidarity, the real strength of the workers, is the extension of the struggle. This alone can push back the bourgeoisie. This alone can threaten the stability of its political and economic power. Only the extension of the struggle can prevent the bourgeoisie defeating the workers in pockets, one sector after another. Only the extension of the struggle can prevent the bourgeoisie from unleashing its repression, as we saw in Poland in August 1980. Faced with the capitalist state, physical courage is not enough. The combat has to be as broad and as extensive as possible. This is why the bourgeoisie was so scared when the dockers entered the struggle in the summer of 1984, in solidarity with their comrade miners.

Each time the workers enter into struggle there is no alternative but to extend the movement, to seek the active solidarity of workers in other factories, towns and regions. And to do this they will have to confront not only their declared enemies - bosses, cops, governments. They will also have to expose the traps laid by those who claim to be their friends: the unions and the parties of the left...

In the hands of the unions, behind union slogans, the struggle can only be led to defeat.

Only by organising themselves into general assemblies, into strike committees, elected and recallable by these assemblies, can the workers extend their struggles and win...

It is by drawing all the lessons of the miners' strike and going forward in this direction that the workers of the whole world will transform the defeat of today into the promise of the victory of tomorrow."

The defeat of the miners does not prove the pointlessness of the class struggle. It is true that faced with a system in terminal decay, even the most powerful class movement can only win a temporary respite from capital's relentless attack on living standards. In the end, the working class will have no alternative but to mount a political offensive for the revolutionary overthrow of world capitalism. This is what we mean by the "victory of tomorrow". But the revolution does not fall from the sky: it can only be prepared by the struggles of today, with all their inevitable defeats and bitter disappointments.

Duffy, 27/03/04.


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