Pit Sense Versus the State – a history of militant miners in the Doncaster area by David John Douglass. (Phoenix Press. £4.50.)
Next time you find yourself on the receiving end of some empty-headed carping about “vanguards” and “leadership” from the Tiny Trots enclosure, you could do worse than to point them in the direction of Pit Sense Versus the State; also essential reading for anyone into first hand accounts from the sharp end of the class struggle.
Focusing primarily on the Miners’ Strike of 1984-85 the book begins with a summary of industrial action taken by the miners from 1926 to the late 1960s. and an account of the political and economic background to the State’s assault on the coal industry in the mid- 1980s.
The author, himself a miner (now unemployed and blacklisted), was formerly delegate of the NUM’s Hatfield Main Branch. During the 1984- 85 Strike he served on picket lines and strike committees, in support groups and food kitchens and is thus able to give us an insider’s view of the day-to-day conduct of the strike, capturing the spirit and mood of those engaged in it — something which academic “histories” never do. Nevertheless this is more than a series of personal reminiscences and anecdotes. Douglass draws heavily from the picket log and the minutes of the various strike committee meetings, allowing the strike to speak for itself, again something that opinionated academics and political “scientists” never do.
The strength of the book lies in showing the ability of working people to organise themselves in defence of their own material interests and kills off the myth that strikes are the result of machinations by evil demagogues or infiltration by subversive lefty rabble-rousers. On the contrary, Douglass shows us that the initiative for the strike came from the grassroots and that the failures and setbacks were often the result of interference from above or from outside.
Take the bloody encounter at Orgreave, for example. The miners themselves had organised picketing strategy along “guerrilla” lines, regularly changing targets and maintaining the element of surprise thereby avoiding clashes, making fools out of the police and gaining support along the way. The decision to concentrate on Orgreave changed all this. Intended by the NUM leadership as a rallying point for militant trade unionists and showpiece victory along the lines of Saltley Gate in 1972, the picketing of Orgreave merely resulted in the police being “highly delighted to have the troublesome miners all in one place at one time. They knew where we would be, they set out their troops like Sitting Bull prepared for Custer, then they brayed us all to hell“. But needless to say: “the SWP, Workers Power, et al, made Orgreave the test of a true socialist If you didn’t think Orgreave was right you were an agent, a spy, a traitor . . . The paper sellers never fought there themselves, of course, they only talked about it“.
This is a further strength of the book, the insight it gives into the capers pulled by “the left”. These included everything from drawing up hare-brained picketing “strategies” leading to confusion and mass arrests, to what appears to be bald-faced fraud: “The Socialist Workers Party had set up a fighting fund but none of this money was coming back to the NUM. . . . It was suggested that a public statement concerning the Socialist Workers Party and what it was trying to do should be distributed. A circular should go out to all Branches telling them that money is not coming into the NUM. (Strike Co-ordinating Committee, 22 May 1984).”
As well as their opportunism, “the left” are characterised by their inability to grasp the nature of industrial action and the role of a trade union. To them every strike is potentially “revolutionary”, what stops them from being so is the lack of “leadership” from the unions. Douglass makes clear in the final chapter, “The Left and the Miners”, that the left have it wrong. The unions are defensive organisations to resist exploitation by capital. True, they may on occasion be conservative and bureaucratic, they are also constrained by anti-union laws, but they are necessary nonetheless, if only for routine negotiations, welfare benefits, compensation claims, etc. In the last analysis, however, the union is the workers united in the workplace, not the bureaucracy, and it is these workers who know best how to manage their own affairs. Thus we see strike committees, flying picket squads etc., set up in extension of the formal union structure and from which for legal reasons the formal structure must necessarily distance itself. The left don’t understand this, but, as Douglass says, why should they?
So what does Douglass say should be the role of revolutionaries in the defensive actions of the class struggle? Simply that: ” . . . we should intervene in the struggles the workers themselves engaged in, we should assist them in the way they wish to be assisted. We should put our determination, skill, constructive and destructive abilities at their disposal, and ask, how can we assist you? How are we better placed to do some of the things you want doing but can’t do yourselves? We must fundamentally recognise that the working class was engaged in struggle before any of us organisationally or individually came along. They are engaged in struggle now, with us or without us, they are not waiting for us . . . We will be of relevance as long as we intervene, without preconditions, without delusions of vanguardism, into the actual struggles of the working class, not standing outside the class mocking the crude attempts at combat organisation the workers have built, but alongside them, as part of them.”
This said, the limitation of the book is its failure to point to a way out of all these defensive struggles and to a new way of organising society so that classes, and hence the struggle between them over the social product, would no longer exist. This will be achieved not by workers organised in trade unions to fight for crumbs and better conditions of exploitation, but by the same workers organised in a revolutionary party whose aim is the democratic capture and then the dissolution of political power so as to allow the means of production to be taken peacefully into common ownership. Such a party exists — you are reading its journal.