1980s >> 1984 >> no-959-july-1984

An Open Letter to the Miners

Fellow workers, you are now involved in a great industrial conflict with your exploiters, the state. Like the teachers, nurses and railway workers, your union is confronted with a government which bows to the god of profit as it tramples on the needs and aspirations of those who produce all of society‘s goods and services. But you don’t have be a miner to appreciate our message since all those who depend on a wage salary or dole cheque in order to survive suffer, in varying degrees, the effects of the same callous social system.

This letter is not addressed to your leaders, although we hope that Arthur Scargill and his fellow elected officials will take the time to read it and respond. The socialist message is directed primarily at you, the workers who are not interviewed on television or driven from one picket line to the next in chauffeur-driven cars. You are the men who dig the coal and run the mines in from top to bottom; who belong to class which produces wealth but does not posses it. We address you for two reasons: firstly, because it is only by spreading ideas to the majority that we will ever achieve real social change –leaders can’t do it for us; and secondly, because socialists know that only when workers raise their political sights will they achieve a society capable of satisfying human needs.

We start from the assumption that your struggle against the state exploiters is part of the class war endemic to capitalism. As socialists, we recognise that the task before all workers is not to win this or that skirmish or gain a few concessions which the capitalist class can well afford; our objective in the class war is to win it. Back in 1905 this was the advice given by the Socialist Party of Great Britain to the railway workers –and it is bit as applicable today as it then:

“What the workers on the railways and in every other branch of industry have to recognise is that the utility of combination, economic and political, lies in the strength it gives to fight. What they have to understand is that they can only fight to the betterment of their own position at the expense and to the disadvantage of the class that employs them. What they have to appreciate if they object to being robbed of any part of the wealth they produce, is that they will not only have to place the capitalist class in the category of irreconcilable enemies, not only will they have to fight them as such always but they will have to beat them out of existence absolutely, before they can enter into the enjoyment of the full fruit of their labour

. . . The workers on railways and elsewhere will have to understand that it is the possession of the land and tools of production and distribution that gives the capitalist his power. They will have to understand that the only way to break that power is to force him to relinquish his hold upon the means by which all the people live. And then they will … be prepared to work with us for the capture of the political machinery of the country as the necessary preliminary to the capture of all the machinery of wealth production.”. (Socialist Standard, May 1905)

In other words, no answer short of social revolution will do if the problems of the working class are to be abolished from the face of the earth.

Media prostitutes

Unfortunately, what the majority of workers know about the miners’ strike they have received from the media. In this strike, as ever, the whores of Fleet Street have used their limited imaginative talents to defend the position of their bosses: attacks on individuals are the familiar substitute for analysis of the issues involved. On television we are bombarded with images of picket-line violence. But why did the violence start? And why need workers picket in the first place? In answer to these questions there is hardly a whisper. Of course, insofar as the reports of workers persecuting those who disagree with them are not false or exaggerated, socialists condemn unreservedly the anti-working class intimidation of fellow miners. No useful purpose will be achieved by imposing the will of one group on another; persuasion is the key to united strength. One thing is for sure: the media will not be made widely available to you to state your case and call for support from fellow workers. The so-called free press is no more than a propaganda tool of the exploiting class.

The issues at stake

The strike was called because of NCB plans to close down a number of pits and make thousands of miners unemployed. The extent of the proposed cuts has been a matter of contention between the NCB and the NUM but, even in the unlikely event that MacGregor is telling the truth, the result will be longer dole queues and the devastation of a number of old mining communities. It is in response to these facts that miners have gone on strike. The NUM, in accordance with its conference policy, is demanding that no pits be closed. In examining that demand, we need to know why the NCB had made its proposals.

Clearly, the intention to destroy large areas of the coal industry is not a result of what is popularly called Thatcherism. Neither is it a whim of Ian MacGregor’s. The object of production under the present social system – capitalism – is not primarily to create wealth, but to make profits. The government has decided that there is not enough money to be made by exploiting miners in the old way and that they need to trim your jobs and communities to fit in with the demands of the market. Remember: the government does not run capitalism; it is the economic laws of the system which force the government to dance to the market’s tune. In demanding that pits be kept open, even though the government does not regard them as profitable enough, the NUM is effectively demanding that capitalism be run for the benefit of the workers. Of course, society should be run for the wealth producers, but under capitalism that can never happen.

The state capitalist non-alternative

It used to be believed by many workers –including plenty of miners –that the way to make capitalism run in the workers’ interest would be to take the means of wealth production and distribution from the private capitalists and place them in the hands of the state. It was argued that the government would run the mines for the miners and not the ruling class. As long ago as 1912, when nationalisation of the mines was being advocated by certain reformists, the South Wales miners’ Unofficial Reform Committee pointed out that

“Nationalisation of the mines . . . simply makes a National Trust, with all the force of the Government behind it, whose one concern will be to see that the industry is run in such a way as to pay the interest on the bonds with which the coal-owners are paid out, and to extract as much more profit as possible in order to relieve the taxation of other landlords and capitalists.” (The Miners’ Next Step)

On that point the Unofficial Committee was quite right. Nationalisation has amounted to nothing more than state-run exploitation of miners. If workers are to learn one lesson from the strike it must be that nationalisation is no answer. Of course, there are those smooth-tongued Labour opportunists who claim that if only the state was controlled by a Labour government it would all be different. Have they forgotten that Labour did run the state when the firemen, the NUPE workers and the dockers were out on strike? Have they forgotten that it was the Wilson government which initiated The Plan For Coal, which was based entirely on the assumption that the coal industry must make a profit? Fellow worker, as a member of the NUM, you are paying part of your wage into a political fund to send Labour administrators of capitalism to parliament. Is it not time that all union support for this anti-working class party was ended?

The international struggle

As all trade unionists learn through struggle, unity is strength. But unity is not just achieved on a national basis –capitalism is a worldwide social order and workers of all lands have a common interest in joining together against the common foe. One of the reasons the NCB can sit back and smile is that they are importing cheap Polish coal. In fact, coal imports from Poland over the last three months were five times higher than for the same period in 1983. The bosses are trying to break the strike by using workers from another part of the world, and in the bargain are buying cheaper coal because Polish miners receive lower wages.

Scargill has appealed to Jaruzelski, the unelected leader of the Polish police state, to stop coal imports to Britain. Jaruzelski, who needs the money to pay off Poland’s huge bank debts, has ignored Scargill’s plea. But why is Scargill appealing to the head of a state-capitalist dictatorship in the first place? Because the workers there have no independent unions to support the British miners’ struggle. When the Polish miners were organised in their own union, Solidarity, Scargill’s comment (published in the WRP’s newspaper, Newsline) was that they should stay in the government-controlled Unions. So, Solidarity has been smashed, the Polish workers are effectively non-unionised, the price of Polish miners’ labour-power is cheap and British coal importers are rubbing their greedy little hands.

The view that there is communism or socialism in Poland, Russia or any other nation must be rejected. Instead of workers in the so-called socialist countries fitting in with the needs of their state bosses, the struggle of workers must be international. Real unity means that if workers in Britain come out on strike we can bring with us the effective support of workers around the world. There can be no room for nationalist notions, including the policy of import controls, if we are to fight and win against the international ruling class.

The power of democracy

How dare the unelected editors of Fleet Street preach to the miners about democracy. And as for the NCB: who elected MacGregor to receive his fat salary for doing the dirty work of the profit system? A fact which is undeniable is that the vast majority of miners have supported the strike. As was mentioned in the Socialist Standard two months ago, we do not notice the media or the government insisting that, in the interests of democracy, all union members be balloted before a strike ends. Nonetheless, a combination of workers is only as strong as the understanding and commitment of those involved. Leaving the decisions to leaders –even to apparently militant ones –is no substitute for the democratic involvement by all members in all important union decisions. As the Unofficial Committee realised in 1912, leadership results in organisational weakness:

“Sheep cannot be said to have solidarity. In obedience to a shepherd, they will go up or down, backwards or forwards as they are driven by him and his dog. But they have no solidarity, for that means unity and loyalty. Unity and loyalty, not to an individual, or the policy of an individual, but to an interest and a policy which is understood and worked for by all.” (The Miners’ Next Step)

Conscious unity — let the bosses try to defeat that!

Fair-deal capitalism

What are the miners asking for? Insofar as the trade union fight is for wage defence, better working conditions, higher redundancy payments and keeping as many jobs as possible, hard negotiation backed up by democratic, militant trade unionism can achieve results. But let’s not kid ourselves –even if the NUM achieves what it seeks, the result will only have held back the capitalist butchery, not defeated the butchers. According to the SWP leaflet, Why You Should Support The Miners, “The first reason why we should support the miners is that they are fighting for jobs”. And what is a job, fellow worker, but wage slavery? Fighting to be exploited –to be dependent on a wage at the end of the week –having to sell your labour-power to the highest parasitical bidder. Is that really the most that workers can ask for?

Karl Marx –who gets an even worse write-up in the Daily Express than Arthur Scargill and therefore must be talking some sense –recognised that trade union action was necessary, but that it would not make capitalism a fit system in which I live. As he put it:

“Trades Unions work well as centres of resistance against the encroachments of capital. They fail partially from an injudicious use of their power. They fail generally from limiting themselves to a guerrilla war against the effects of the existing system, instead of simultaneously trying to change it, instead of using their organized forces as a lever for the final emancipation of the working class that is to say the ultimate abolition of the wages system.” (Value, Price and Profit)

As Marxists, we fight not for jobs but for emancipation from a system which turns useful work into wage slavery.

There will never be fair-deal capitalism. Workers can fight strikes from now until Prince William gets a job and there will still be a class-divided society, with the wealth-producing majority living in an economically inferior condition. Kinnock , if elected, would be no better than Thatcher, and Scargill’s rhetoric will, in the end do no more to shake the system than did Gormley’s in 1974. The fact to face up to is that there is a bigger battle to be won.

Capitalism the enemy

Your real enemy is the present system, which produces commodities to sell on the market with a view to profit. Have you ever sat down and thought about what sort of a society it is in which thousands of old workers face the prospect of dying from hypothermia next winter because they cannot afford to buy fuel? Last winter and the winter before that tens of thousand of workers perished in the cold; the market could not see them because it is blind to those without the money to attract its attention. It is sickening, is it not, that economic experts are worrying about how to cut coal production while members our own class are too poor to switch heater?

Capitalism, with its hideous contradiction of mass poverty amid the potential for plenty, is your real enemy. It persecutes you at every level, advertising itself as a world of plenty and then rewarding the wealth producers with deprivation. For too long workers have suffered under this rotten set-up, when the means are at hand to create a society of production for need in which we can all give according to in abilities and take according to our self-determined needs.

What can you do?

Socialism is more than simply a great idea; it is an obtainable alternative to the chaos of the system which puts profit before use. So, what can you do about achieving it? Well, you’ve made a start by reading this letter. If you like what it says, why not pass it on to your friends, workmates and relatives? If you agree with the socialist outlook, so might they. If you want to know more, go along to your local branch and discuss the case for socialism. The Socialist Party is very active throughout the country and we can assure you of a warm reception. If you want more socialist literature, please contact our Head Office.

At the time of writing it is not certain how the miners’ strike will end. Of one thing you and all other workers can be sure: when capital and wage labour are in open conflict, the Socialist Party takes the side of the robbed against the robbers. For it is only through the conscious solidarity of workers, that the system of legalised robbery will be compelled to make way for the reign of united humanity.