National Sections of the L5I:

The 1984 Miners strike, the Left and the general strike

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Throughout the 1984 miners' strike, Workers Power has fought for the TUC to call a general strike. We have argued that it is necessary in order to secure a victory for the miners and to smash the entire Tory offensive that the MacGregor closure plan is merely one part of. We have been justified by events.

At the time of writing, the miners have been for three months a focus of solidarity action from militants throughout the labour move­ment and an encouragement for other sections of workers to go into struggle. If mass solidarity action or a general strike has not yet occurred, it is because of the treachery of the official leaders of our movement, and the cowardice, muddle headedness and confusion of the left reformist and centrist "opposition" to them. To put it bluntly, the TUC has been given a free ride!

Thatcher came to power set on drastically restructuring Brit­ish capitalism at the expense of the jobs and living standards of the working class. The strikes of 1979 had shown the bosses that Labourite class-collaborationism was not going to be able to bale them out of their acute crisis. The Labour government was unable to carry through the decimation and privatisation of whole sections of the nationalised industries, such as steel ­"yesterday's industry" in Thatcher's words. It was unable to dis­mantle the welfare state to a sufficient degree (although under Healey and Callaghan it tried hard to oblige). Most important, its close links with the union bureaucracy meant that it was unable to execute the legal attacks on the unions that the bosses were crying out for.

The Tories' strategy was to play on the sectional divisions within the working class by taking on the weaker sections first. The steelworkers and civil servants were number one targets. Only after this could the car workers be taken on. The miners were to be fought only after all others had been defeated.

Alongside this, the Tories implemented laws aimed specific­ally at undermining, and making unlawful, effective trade union­ism, picketing, the closed shop and solidarity action such as blacking. Section after section' - steel, civil servants, car workers, health workers, rail workers - were attacked by the Tories and kept isolated by the union leaders. At the same time, the anti­union laws were put in place and made effective in the 1983 NGA and POEU disputes.

Although the Tories chose to fight the working class section by section, their goal was to decisively weaken the entire trade union movement. The legal attacks were evidence enough of this. It is precisely because we have understood the nature of the enemy's strategy as class-wide that we have argued since 1979 for a class-wide response. In September 1979 we argued: "The legal attacks are the political spearhead for all the rest. As such they must be met with the generalised resistance of the combined forces of the labour movement...The political general strike is the only tactic which can either put the Tories into headlong retreat, forcing them to abandon their legal shackles, or further mobilise the forces necessary to drive them and the class they represent from power altogether".1

This was no verbal radicalism. It was an objectively necessary response to the Tories' wholesale offensive. The anti-union laws are an essential component of the state attack on effective trade unionism, they affect all workers struggling against closures, cuts, and wages or in defence of democratic rights or social gains. Therefore we have argued that a general strike is necessary - first to prevent them getting onto the statute book, and then to drive them off it. The Tories would certainly be unlikely to survive a defeat of such a central plank of their strategy.

We recognise that the transition from the recognition that a general strike is necessary to the achievement of one is difficult. The trade union leaders always fight desperately to prevent generalisation. In the steelworkers' struggle the TUC were able to prevent the development of a general strike in February 1980. The Welsh TUC had called for a general strike in support of the steelworkers. With the help of Bill Sirs, Len Murray was able to get this called off in favour of a "day of action" in Wales and a national "day of action" in May. Despite this betrayal the events showed how our call for a general strike against the anti-union laws could be linked to a sectional struggle.

We used the examples of the police action and the Denning court ruling against the steelworkers to link the strike to the question of anti-union laws. We combined the demands of other public sector workers aroused by the steel strike (a one-day gen­eral strike against the cuts in social services was called in South Yorkshire during the strike) with the demands of the steel­workers. We called on other workers - in particular BL workers, water workers and power workers - to strike for their own impending pay claims. At the same time we urged militants to demand and, with action from below, force their leaders to call a general strike.

We thus avoided the twin dangers of either exclusively relying on the leaders, or, in a syndicalist fashion, ignoring them and hoping that they would not interfere. At the high point of the struggle we were able to agitate for a general strike around dem­ands relating to cuts, closures, claims and the anti-union laws.

Our experience of the steel strike and our use of the general strike slogan has proved immensely valuable in the 1984 miners' strike. Although the MacGregor plan is an attack on one union, it is an attack on one of the best organised and strategically placed unions. As such a defeat for the NUM will bolster the confidence of the Tories and undermine that of the workers in traditionally weaker unions. Although the dispute started over pit closures, the massive use of the police and the interference of the courts demonstrate its wider significance. A victory over the miners will further embolden the police and courts to assert their prerogative to attack striking workers. Finally, though the anti-union laws themselves have been held in abeyance, there is no doubt that at a critical stage the ruling class will use them. Their very existence is an important factor in intimidating other workers - in transport for example - against taking solidarity action. To ignore these laws would be folly. '

It might be objected that because the anti-union laws were not used to the full in the early weeks of the miners' strike, this shows that they are less important than we estimated them to be, or that they should not now be linked to the general strike slogan. This would be extremely short-sighted. The Tory judges attempted to use the anti-union laws in the first weeks. They were met with such a militant mass mobilisation outside the Barnsley headquarters of the Yorkshire NUM that to have sent in the police to seize it and enforce a sequestration order would have provoked first a fearsome resistance and secondly the pros­pect of a general strike. The fear of mass solidarity strike action and the desire to give no pretext for spreading the struggle made the Tories give the signal to the NCB and the judges to back off. Yet the laws are there and if the miners were to seem incapable of mounting effective resistance, or the rest of the workers move­ment was unwilling to back them, then the sequestrators would move in once again.

For these reasons we have raised the call for a general strike within the context of a sectional struggle. This sectional struggle, as did the steel strike, gives us a golden opportunity to unmask the nature of the Tories' offensive, and build generalised resis­tance to it. We have specifically linked the call for a general strike to the immediate objectives of smashing the whole appa­ratus of anti-union laws and of forcing the complete abandon­ment of MacGregor's closure plans.

The need for a definite objective
We have made this demand on the TUC leaders and fought for it from below through calling for, and attempting to, bring forward all other sections' claims and struggles into a mass strike wave alongside the miners. In both our agitation and our propa­ganda we have made the call for a general strike as concrete as possible. We have always been on our guard to give it a clear, adequate and definite objective. If the objective is not definite then the TUC leaders can and will slip out of it. For example, to merely call on them to "support the miners" would, as in 1926, enable the TUC rapidly to turn their "support" into nego­tiations, mediation or a sell-out. Should the miners refuse to give in it would lead to a desertion. On the other hand it would be inadequate to pose the general strike around the release if an imprisoned trade union leader or over sequestered union funds. A concession on this point alone by the Tories would leave them free to attack on another front having demobilised the strike movement.

In short, a general strike is necessary in the present situation to guarantee the total victory of the miners, and to stop the Tories' attacks on other workers. It serves the interests of the section currently in struggle. Far from being abstractly counter­posed to the existing miners' struggle, it is a burning need in that struggle. Linked to demands around the anti-union laws, cuts in the public sector, pay and closures, it will serve the needs of other workers as well. The twofold result of this will be to weaken the ability of the trade union leaders to sell the miners (and others) short and prevent Thatcher from putting the labour movement into retreat as she did after her victory over the steelworkers. A crushing defeat for the miners would immensely strengthen the right wing in the unions who would move forward in their plans to turn the unions into departments of the state for disciplining workers.

Despite the claims of miserable defeatists like the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), the militancy does exist in the working class to make a general strike a realistic possibility. The miners' strike itself is a symbol of this renewed militancy. In its own turn it has served to encourage militancy. The basis for this rec­overy after the bleak years of retreat and defeat (1980-83) is the mild economic upturn. This was expressed in a rise in industrial production of 4.1 % in the last quarter of 1983 (3.2% for gross national product, and a 10.1 % hike in retail sales). Whilst this recovery was weak compared with the 18.2% rise in industrial production in the USA, it marked a distinct upturn which Britain's bosses wanted to take advantage of. The latest Tory anti­-union offensive launched in November of last year (NGA) which continued into January (GCHQ) and culminated in MacGregor's provocative closure list, was meant to divide, cow and crush the unions so that the bosses could reap the full fruits of their "boom".

The miners' resistance proved stronger and longer than Thatcher imagined. A rash of disputes has followed. Trade union officialdom - left as well as right - has done everything possible to stop other workers coming into struggle over their own claims while the miners have been on strike. The "lefts" Knapp and Buckton settled their claims to get out of the firing line. Yet workers have sensed the distinct advantage of taking on the Tories and the bosses while their hands are full. At British Ley­land's Longbridge plant, workers gave the management a bloody nose - the first victory for several years. From the Barking Hos­pital strike to the Bathgate occupation, workers have shown a renewed willingness to take on the bosses.

The Tories don't like this a bit. They are failing to hold their target of 3% wage increases. They rightly fear the danger of. other disputes linking up with the miners and escalating into a massive confrontation in which they would be forced to make humiliating and damaging concessions. Only the major union leaders and the TUC, led by arch-scab Murray have kept the Tories afloat. A general strike, emerging out of the miners' struggles, could sink Thatcher. However a mobilisation of the whole working class poses an even more important question than humiliating Thatcher and driving her from office.

As revolutionary Marxists we recognise that, by its very nat­ure, a general strike raises issues beyond the immediate demands which occasion the strike. These demands are necessary as a starting point for struggle. As united front demands they bring into struggle millions of non-revolutionary workers. The more precise and concrete the demands, the more workers are clear about what they want. If millions know this, it leaves the bureau­cracy with far less room to manoeuvre. The chances of a sell-out are strengthened by vague demands. Thus a strike to get rid of the anti-union laws and force the withdrawal of the NCB's clo­sure programme is more difficult to sell-out or sell short.

General strike challenges the state
However, while we use limited demands to tie down the bur­eaucrats and rouse the masses, we recognise that a general strike can go further than its initial demands. Concrete and lim­ited demands are a base-line for initiating struggle and avoiding outright betrayal. They must not become a limit on the forward movement of a general strike. A general strike is necessarily a clash between the whole working class and the bosses, as a class, represented by their state. A general strike challenges the state power over an issue on which the bourgeoisie has decided to impose its will on the working class. Though the origins of many general strikes have been over "economic" issues - the British strike of 1926 in defence of the miners, for example­ they have all, inevitably, raised questions about the role of the state, parliament and so on. In paralysing the entire economy and the normal administrative functions of the state, a general strike will be met with attempted repression from the police and the army. The strikers will be confronted with tasks on a society wide level, that the miners' strike faces on a community and sectional level - the organisation of food supplies and services and the defence of picket lines.

In that situation, revolutionaries do everything in their power to bring down the crippling divisions between "economic" and "political" goals that exist. They do so in a fight to counter re­formism's attempts to limit and contain a general strike. The great Polish Marxist Rosa Luxemburg explained this aspect of the general strike: "In any great mass movement of the prolet­ariat, a great number of political and economic factors coincide. To attempt to peel these away from each other in an artificial manner, to attempt to keep them separate from one another in a pedantic fashion, would be a vain and detrimental start".2

It is not merely abstract "politics" or even particular political slogans that are inevitably raised in the general strike. The revol­utionary potential of the general strike lies in the fact that by pitting the classes against each other, it raises the question­ who rules? Marxists have long been aware of this aspect of the general strike slogan. It explains the importance we attach to it as a potential corridor through which the working class can pass towards revolution - the actual overthrow of the bosses' state power. Of course, whether or not this happens depends on a whole series of circumstances. It is by no means the only pos­sible outcome of a general strike. If the influence of revolution­aries remains weak, if the rank and file do not establish demo­cratic control over the strike, it is entirely possible that a strike could be demobilised in a blatant betrayal (e.g. Britain 1926), a bourgeois election (France 1968) or through some concessions from the ruling class, mediated by the reformist bureaucracy (as in France, 1936).

However, these possibilities cannot be predicted in advance­ struggle decides. The very fact of a general strike provides the possibility of strengthening the working class by bringing mill­ions into base organisations - councils of action, picket defence organisations, supplies committees and strike committees. Such organisations can check and defeat the traitors in the labour movement. They provide the best possible forums for revol­utionary ideas. They bring to the masses an awareness of their own power. Revolutionaries seek to make this organised and conscious. In this way we can openly and honestly fight within the general strike for a revolutionary conclusion and hope to win. This is not foolish optimism. It is lodged within the dyna­mic of the general strike, so brilliantly described by Trotsky in the 1930s: "The fundamental importance of the general strike, independent of the partial successes which it may and then again may not provide, lies in the fact that it poses the question of power in a revolutionary manner. By shutting down the fac­tories, transport, generally all the means of communication, power stations etc., and the proletariat by this very act paralyses not only production but also the government. The state power remains suspended in mid-air. It must either subjugate the pro­letariat by famine and force and constrain it to set the apparatus of the bourgeois state once again in motion, or retreat before the proletariat.

Whatever may be the slogans and motive for which the gene­ral strike is initiated, if it includes the genuine masses, and if these masses are quite resolved to struggle, the general strike inevitably poses before all the classes in the nation: Who will be the master of the house?" 3

We base our call for the general strike on the needs of the objective situation and the tremendous possibilities lodged within it. A victory merely for its immediate demands would signal a dramatic shift in the balance of class forces in Britain. A partial victory would enhance the confidence and consciousness of the miners and other sections by leaps and bounds. Even a defeat would come after a struggle in which many militants would be won to a clearer understanding of the role of the union and Labour Party leaders. It would provide fresh recruits to an opposition movement against the time-servers, traitors and cowards in the workers' movement. Most important, though, is that a general strike - even with today's leaders, and even begin­ning around limited demands - offers the possibility of clearing out Thatcher and her class, not merely from office, but from power. It offers the possibility of installing not a pathetic re­run of the last Labour government, but a government based on and answerable to mobilised fighting organisations of the work­ing class - the councils of action and defence organisations ­pledged to make the transition to full working class power.

From an outright rejection of the general strike, through to the general strike as an ultimatum, the bulk of the British left have adopted slogans during the current miners' dispute that reveal a profound confusion over the nature and use of the gen­eral strike.

The SWP has found it difficult to even mention the general strike. They seem to hate the slogan like the bubonic plague. At meetings up and down the country they counterposed collections to calls for strike action by other workers. Their pub­lications simply add the call for ever-bigger pickets as their sum strategy for the strike. Indeed, any call for spreading or gen­eralising the miners' struggle seems impossible for them.

It was only the week after Arthur Scargill himself called on rail workers to strike that Socialist Worker finally dared call for these workers to bring forward their claims and strike!

Underlying the SWP's hesitancy in calling for strikes by other workers and their rejection of the general strike is their habitual spontaneism. This always leaves them tailing behind the militants and often behind the left union leaders. They will not, despite their claims to be mounting a distinctive political intervention, raise any slogans that are not already being raised by workers themselves.

In this strike the SWP are taking their cue from the militants and pin everything on the need for bigger and bigger pickets. When the miners are calling for mass pickets, the SWP calls for even bigger mass pickets. They call for Saltley Gate-style pickets. Yet they fail to recognise that it was precisely strike action by Birmingham engineers in 1972 that enabled the Saltley mass picket to win. The fact that it is proving more and more diffi­cult to sustain mass picketing leads the SWP to wring their hands, explain that it is because of the "downturn" and pose as their answer to militants a bald plea to join the SWP to make ready for future struggles. They sometimes appear to have written off the miners' strike: "We can build the reputation of our party, we can build up the networks of militants around us, so that if there is a docks strike in November or a civil ser­vice strike next year, or whatever the next struggle is, we will be that much stronger".4 This demonstrates that the obverse side of a strategy which worships spontaneity and trade union mili­tancy is sectarianism. The party is built out of strikes rather than contributing a strategy to win them!

The other refrain of the SWP is that because the masses are not spontaneously ready for a general strike, it is wrong to demand that the TUC should call one. Here they express a syn­dicalist fear of the trade union leaders. They believe that by not demanding action from the TUC they can prevent the bureau­crats (outside the NUM) getting control over the strike. They follow Scargill's line of calling only on particular unions to act, hoping to steer round the TUC. This does nothing to prevent any bureaucrat from selling out. Jimmy Knapp was able to wriggle out of action over the NUR's pay claim and thereby deliver a major blow to the chances of generalising the miners' conflict.

Any leader can settle a sectional dispute on its own terms and the members will have little to complain about and organise against unless the dispute was explicitly linked with the miners. Whilst the miners remain on their own, with only the blacking and collections of the militant minority to support them, it is small consolation that they cannot be "sold out" by the other union leaders and the TUC. They are being sold out by the lead­ers of the labour movement who are leaving them to fight alone against the whole, united boss class and its state forces. This is an unequal fight that we must do everything possible to equalise by getting the TUC's dead hand off our fighting organisations and off our purse strings.

In fact the SWP's "realism" ('the miners' can win but with a bit more picketing plus factory collections') is a tailor-made alibi for the TUC. It is this alibi that Scargill has given the TUC. Thus

Ray Buckton can emerge from the General Council and say "of course we support the NUM - but they haven't called on us to do anything". The SWP's syndicalist passivity when faced with bosses’ men and Judases like Murray is criminal. By demanding action and money from these gentlemen we do not sow illusions in them, we put dynamite under them! We can and should combine these demands with the sharpest warnings as to their likely betrayals. Arthur Scargill may hesitate to do this to his fellow bureaucrats but Tony Cliff of the SWP should have no (material) restrictions upon him in this regard. Yet in fact he is crippled once again by his worship of spontaneism.

None of this is new. Back in 1972 the International Socialists (forerunners of the SWP) did not dare mention a general strike until after the TUC had issued its threat of one, faced with the imprisonment of the Pentonville Five dockers. Even then, the IS slogan "General strike can free the Five" was about as caut­ious as it was possible to be. In fact, the SWP offer the working class no alternative political leadership in its present struggles ­just constant nagging to picket harder. Such a party the miners can do without - and they will.

There is another contender for the role of revolutionary party who are not at all reticent about raising the call for the general strike or offering political leadership: the Workers' Revolution­ary Party (WRP) and its daily paper Newsline. The WRP has pre­viously been a proponent of the slogan "General strike to kick out the Tories". This slogan obviously gains a sympathetic res­ponse from workers already in struggle against the hated Tories. The problem is that it is a negative slogan about the question of government. Whilst it embodies militant hatred of Thatcher, it also contains a vacuum - who or what should replace her? Politics like nature abhors a vacuum. Whilst the "Trotskyist" framer of the slogan may have in mind the proletarian dictatorship, the masses of still-reformist workers have in mind "forcing a general election". Scargill himself raises this perspective for the miners' strike. As a disguised revolutionary slogan it is totally inade­quate. To gain power for the working class needs more than the mightiest negative act (the general strike). It needs a positive act: the armed overthrow of the bourgeois state. Thus as a "revolu­tionary slogan" it is misleading and inadequate.

As a reformist slogan it is a complete disaster, even if it were capable of jumping over the objections of workers imbued with illusions in parliamentary democracy. The general strike is indeed the highest form of struggle short of the direct armed struggle for power (the armed insurrection). To suggest in advance that it should be tied to the objective of a general election is to fore­close on its further development. Instead of clarifying the "question of who rules" in a revolutionary manner, it assists the reformists in translating this into a purely parliamentary question - one which will only resolve which bourgeois party will hold office, not which class shall hold state power.

In this sense an election would be a massive step backwards away from mass direct action and back onto the terrain of bour­geois democracy. It allows the atomised electorate – bombarded by the media - to decide the issue of a class battle. It exchanges the massive capital of class-wide action - holding as it does the potential for revolution - for the small change of electoral pol­itics. It risks leaving the reformist traitors at the top of the labour movement firmly in the saddle.

The reformist interpretation
This then is an ambiguous slogan. The inadequate "revolution­ary" interpretation has been kept and "improved" by the WRP ­as we shall see. The reformist interpretation has been unblush­ingly embraced by the Socialist League. Only they have trimmed the rather-too-revolutionary all out general strike to... a day of action! Indeed, they seem to have had a bad attack of calling on the TUC to "Name the Day!" Like partners to an over long engagement, their paper Socialist Action has been tiresomely pleading with the TUC for three months. On 23rd March they asked the TUC to "Name the day for solidarity action with the NUM". They did the same on April 30th and several times there­after. By May 18th they threw caution to the wind and asked the TUC to "name the day for a general strike - with the pro­mise of further action". Let us hope the miners can hang on! Socialist Action may get there in the end! Yet even if it does, the goals it sets for this struggle are utterly reformist: "The labour movement must force a general election! No pact and no coalition with the SDP/Liberal alliance! For a Labour govern­ment pledged to socialist policies!"5

This is the reality behind the radicalism of the "General Strike to kick out the Tories" slogan. It poses the election of a Labour government as the objective of the strike. We reject this entirely. A Labour government is not a higher good than the immediate goals and demands of the working class. Labour governments ­even those pledged to vacuous "socialist policies" - that are not accountable to councils of action and workers' defence organ­isations remain bourgeois governments. There is no guarantee that the election of such a bourgeois government will lead to the fulfillment of the demands of the working class. The 1974-9 Labour government was a classic example. With the help of the

­it outside the TUC General Council, on the mass demonstrations, might help! On the other hand, to call on bureaucrats to "pre­pare" a strike lets them off the hook. Every left faker on the TUC will tell you he's "organising for" a general strike or that he has a "perspective" for a strike. Indeed, many will say that it is impossible to do anything (like call out their own members) until sufficient "preparation" for a general strike has been carried out. The demand is totally unspecific. It ties the bureau­crats, and particularly the lefts, to no concrete actions what­soever. The call to "prepare for a general strike" is a hollow one, a sign of cowardice, a refusal to fight now for what is desperately needed. It is a slogan that reflects the outlook of the union and Labour bureaucracy, not that of revolutionary communists.

Let us repeat: the call for a general strike does not contradict the everyday and immediate tasks of militant support for the miners on the picket lines, or solidarity action such as blacking and shop floor collections. It does not replace the attempt to stimulate a mass strike wave by bringing forward each and every claim and struggle. But given the Tory laws and the greatly strengthened police picket-buster, we need the weapon of the general strike.

That weapon lies locked up and rusting, in an armoury whose key is in the keeping of the TUC. Therefore we have a duty to mobilise the mass forces of those struggling now in this dispute, in all disputes, to force the do-nothing "new realists" to let us use our unions and funds, to decisively help the miners to victory and to smash the Tory laws. The general strike - as an intrinsically political class-wide weapon - will enormously raise and accelerate the political consciousness of the working class. Even if it gets no further than a widespread call, this itself will have a spin-off effect in terms of solidarity and the prosecution of other sectional struggles. If it does take place it will work a sea-change on the reformist consciousness of the British working class. And when that happens, to paraphrase Engels: "There will be communism again in Britain".