All useful, radical, analysis of the history of class struggle comes down to recognising how we, the masses of individuals, failed to make that leap in the past so as to " learn the lessons " of this failure in order to help make that leap in some possible future (whether it be next week or in ten years time). However, the miners strike was unique and such an opportunity will not arise in anything like such historical circumstances ever again: history does not repeat itself at this level, but clarifying the past is a necessary moment in helping us see and confront the present afresh. It's certainly not essential in itself but such reflection is one of the essentials. Sure, we have some misgivings about writing about the history of the miners, and in particular, the Great Strike, when there are very few miners left. It's a bit like fighting ghosts - even though the '84-'85 strike haunts us in the present, it's clearly also dead.
For some, recounting these past details of a semi-revolutionary movement might seem like pornography for the celibate - a vicarious pleasure in past passions to console for the lack of real excitement between people in the present. So if it doesn't incite something really good between people, then much of this is not much better than an erotic memory. For this reason, we hope that this is not just treated as a curiosity, informative and interesting to read: we hope it will have some use - sometimes in its general insights, sometimes in its details, for people in the world (if not in the UK for the moment) who might yet find - or put - themselves in a situation of mass struggle, even though obviously no struggle is ever the same. We trust that there will be some things in this text, and not just banalities (e.g. a critique of trade unions), which are still applicable for other places in another epoch.
What is the relation of the past to the present? Marx famously said "the traditions of the past weigh like a nightmare on the brains of the living".
Clearly, analysis of the past and of your relation to it is part of breaking through to a more experimental and subversive life in the present. But, contrary to what radical historians say, you only begin to understand the past, to uncover and use it, when you attack the present. Psychologists claim an individual must first of all understand their past in order to supercede it. But this is a task without end and if one is always looking for the cause one remains stuck in an introspective retreat from action. Moreover, one only discovers which aspects of the past need to be focussed on in finding out how to use this knowledge in the present, in confronting the obstacles to one's desires. What's true of individuals' pasts is also true for the pasts of the masses of individuals, the pasts of social movements. So, even on the level of preparing for an attack to come, the extent to which a thorough critical knowledge of struggles from 20 years ago plays a part is fairly tenuous. Though some general and even very specific lessons can certainly be applied to possible present and future struggles, such knowledge doesn't play the essential part - the essential theories relate to events which can be influenced by the theories - anyone can be 'right' 20 years too late. Theory in the present is always made on the hoof: sadly, so many of those that claim to be revolutionary think they can wait till a struggle is over before they can provide some analysis, because they are fearful of making mistakes. Maybe better late than never, but like those involved directly in the practical risks of the moment, far better to make new mistakes with all the risks of imperfection they entail, than to wait till it all becomes a largely abstract question. For this reason, amongst others, this text should have been written in the few years after the strike, when such a reflection could have influenced miners when there still were some (although it was very difficult to see clearly the enormous extent of the coming devastation until it was too late). In fact, one of the main reasons for writing this is to feed a subjective need: to help exorcise the obsession of the miners strike that has churned through my head - and other people's - for the last 20 years, to off-load the traditions of the past weighing like a nightmare on my brain. Of course, as I have just said, the limitations of psychoanalysis show that obsessions can only seriously be exorcised by some practical supercession. And most of the essential aspects of practice depend on not so much just individual will (say, by writing this bit of critical history, for example) but on the will of the masses of individuals, on a social will, which advances and - at this moment in history - enormously retreats. For this reason this writing will have achieved some real exorcism only by influencing the mass action of individuals a little. Ambitious maybe, but this would be the only satisfactory overcoming of the constant niggles that the miners failure still causes people, because the results of this failure are still in the world about us and still desperately need to be corrected. There is no 'moving on', to use the psychological buzz word beloved by our beloved Prime Minister, until the practical situation is changed.
The effects of the miners' defeat were global. Just as it severely weakened and demoralised the working class, particularly in Britain, so it boosted the confidence of the ruling class immeasurably, and was one of the major factors ushering in privatization, the roll-back of the welfare state and all the horrors of a world apparently without exit. To show the truth of this it's sufficient to point out that in the budget immediately following the strike, Nigel Lawson, the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, reduced the threshold of top income tax to 40%, an unprecedented rise in income for the rich paid for by cutbacks to those at the other end of the hierarchy.
The present evaporation of community and intensified isolation and reification would have been very unlikely if the miners had won. You only have to look at the brutality of everyday life in the former mining communities themselves to see that. Nowadays these areas suffer from a big increase in:
– burglary and muggings by the young of the old in areas which, up till 1985, had no experience of mugging, areas where people regularly left their front doors unlocked even as late as the 80s
- alcoholism and drug addiction rife
- general suicidal tendencies and nervous breakdowns amongst the old and young
- intensified domestication – everyone indoors.
- intensified madness of all varieties.
And all this taking place in a booming economy:
- property prices soaring
- a building boom for middle income housing
- the transformation of pit villages into functional dormitory towns for the larger close-by cities
- pretty good wages amongst the skilled working class compared with the past
- scary poverty for the rest, though with relatively low unemployment levels, compared with the 80s.
As virtually everybody reading this will know, these tendencies are by no means confined to the former mining areas, though they seem to be more intensified there. Whilst the defeat of 1926 was brutal, the difference between now and then is that in the aftermath of 1926, an aftermath which lasted generations, there was at least a community of class hatred towards the ruling class and its middle class minions. Nowadays, particularly amongst most of the young, there's just an individual consciousness perplexed by the meaninglessness of life and at a loss to comprehend the reason and history of this meaninglessness. This society tries to wipe out all memory of what was radical in these former communities – either by aestheticisation (former pithead winding wheels turned into sculptures; pits made invisible by being covered over and turned into parks; pits turned into museums for tourists; the Battle of Orgreave re-enacted by historic societies; movies showing the tragedy of it all; etc.) or by more direct lies, lies by omission and ideologies.
If 'lessons' are to be learnt from past and present movements we must look not just at the ruling classes' strategy – but, more importantly, at the weaknesses and contradictions in the opposition, as well as its strengths. In relation to the miners strike this involves looking not just at the Thatcher government, the National Coal Board, the cops, the media and the Trade Unions but also the failures of the more independent miners, of revolutionaries and of the rest of the working class, as well as their strengths – their audacity, initiative and solidarity.
Amongst the failures on our side we could list:
- the inordinate respect for leaders big and small
- Trade Unionism as an ideological and practical Trojan Horse amongst the working class
- the failure to involve the more passive striking miners
the failure to make connections between miners and other workers in their workplace
– the increasing indifference towards the strike amongst many who initially identified with it
- the failure of many of those who identified with it to push for their own demands and desires, treating the miners as heroes who could save them
the demoralising weight of the confusions of the pseudo-revolutionaries in the political groups and parties
- the failure of theoretically sussed revolutionaries to initiate practical activity that would advance their project in a historical situation that made everything so more vital.
All these aspects interacted and it's only those who don't want to look to themselves as well as external factors, and the relationship between themselves and the objective forces encouraging defeat, who become experts in reducing the defeat to one or two things.
The good side of the strike was that it got the ruling class very rattled because we almost won, and almost won a very violent confrontation which developed significant radical changes to the daily lives of those who were involved in it. It could only have won if it had developed its most radical autonomous aspects.
The following is a chronological critical look, almost a half of which is a history of some aspects of the miners, and other, struggles and lives prior to the strike. A lot of it is common knowledge to those who lived through this period of time, but we have decided to include a lot of banalities for those who are not so familiar with this history. It has no pretensions to being a definitive history: inevitably, loads of facts and lots of areas of analysis are missed out, and undoubtedly many people could add to both our analysis and the facts.
We have not given references because references are a way of seeming correctly researched and objective in a University sense, and passes the buck of responsibility for the facts onto the references: if the facts are wrong you can blame the references. In any case, very few people check references – for academics it's enough to give the appearance of a factual basis for what one writes and most people, out of blind deference, respect the 'objective' nature of what is written. Suffice to say, we have done our best to ensure that the facts we put in here are accurate, but sometimes the information we have kept is sketchy and at times contradictory: so, occasionally dates, numbers and places might not be entirely correct. We have been here neither "economical" with the truth nor the other way - excessively 'lavish' with the 'truth'. Invention would distract from our aim.
Up until 1984, and even up till the savage destruction of the pits in the early 90s, coalmining ''communities" were very closely-knit places. The social clubs were always very well-attended. Almost everyone knew everyone else. Tens of thousands of families had men working in the pits for three or four generations. The fact that it was one of the more filthy, dangerous and undesirable jobs as compared with the jobs done by most of their fellow wage-labourers, and that it was essential for the running of the economy, meant that the struggles of pit 'communities' were more central than most other struggles. The miners were not a 'vanguard' of the proletariat, but often their struggles were the fiercest and most inspiring. They remembered the history of their "section" of the proletariat more than did any other "section", even if this was often (though certainly not always) from an uncritical contemplative perspective. For the moment we won't go into what was undoubtedly partly repressive in some aspects of the history of these 'communities'. Their most publicly significant moments are what concerns us here. It is a rich but (inevitably) contradictory history.
In the struggle to make sense of the past for some future use, there is a fundamental difference between the perspective which defends a particular organisation and a perspective which looks at the strengths and weaknesses in the organisation of the struggle itself. A reflection on the the contradictions in the struggles of each individual proletarian is fundamentally different from a partisan 'reflection' used to evasively defend an organisation of which one is a member. Leftist specialists in trade union history tend to only look at the miners from a distorted NUM angle that wants to crudely represent this history by mythologising everything, simplifying everything - a way of looking at history that's usually been nurtured by a union-subsidised stint at Ruskin College. Its aim is to present and justify a trade unionist role as compatible with a subversion of this society, as genuinely 'socialist'. For ourselves, we shall try to look at some of the things they don't even mention.
"I was offered a place at Ruskin by the NUM and a future Union position but I refused it – it would have taken me away from reality."
- John Dennis, Yorkshire miner who died in May 2002.