Some thoughts as I read the pamphlet "Autonomous Class Struggle in Britain" (Dave Douglass)

Dave Douglass' comments on "Autonomous Class Struggle in Britain".

Submitted by libcom on September 20, 2005

It will be hard not to be 'partisan' as a miner looking at this work since much of it deals with events in which the miners were central. This leads me to my first confusion with the pamphlet. Brendel is never quite clear whether he is talking about the miners' union, the TUC or trade unions in general. "The so-called union leaders wanted to put an end to the strike as soon as possible" (Page 1). This is true of the TUC leadership who sold out the strike within 8 days. It is NOT true of the miners' union leadership who along with their heroic membership stayed out 7 and in some cases 8 months in extreme poverty and suffering.

The assertion that in 1926 there were "no initiatives from the base" (page 1) is of course an absolute misreading (or non-reading) of history; the councils of action, the action teams (like '84 hit squads), the workers' take-overs of coal tips and outcrops, food co-ops and the derailment of the Flying Scotsman, to name just a few of the obvious ones which prove the lie to "no initiatives from the base". A very bad insult to our mining veterans (like my Dad) who in '26 faced down tanks and armed marines on the city streets and in pit villages.


We could demonstrate in a thousand ways - mostly through health & safety, hours of work regulation, control of work places, that nationalised mines were not "just the same" as the private coal owners. The death and injury rate alone testify to this. However, we could at the same time point to two thousand reasons why nationalisation wasn't "the dream come true" of the miners, not workers' management, workers' control, not even full and vigorous nationalisation actually, let alone socialism, but these are not contradictory statements; i.e.

A) it wasn't the same as before, things were better, it was worth doing and defending from the right;

B) it wasn't what we wanted, nothing like; no control, no direct authority passed to the union apparatus, never mind the men at large. We had to fight from the left.

I'm afraid the author does not understand the sheer hatred of the coal owners (even in the form it was in) to nationalisation, and the joy, though this was also born of unfulfilled expectations by the miners for nationalisation; how will he understand our respective class hatreds and hostility and the universal dread which privatisation of the mines has for us now, despite 84/85. He surely does not think we still misunderstand 'nationalisation'? It is not that we don't understand 'nationalisation', only that we know and understand private direct capitalist coal ownership even better, and it is worse. We choose, if we must, the weakest enemy; the least oppressive, the one on which we can direct more pressure and obstruction. You will not find a miner in Britain to disagree with this.

So nationalisation was not a sham, although it was nothing near what we wanted. It was certainly not "the same" as the coal owners, though 'capitalism' as such, in general, gained as much as the miners in the form of cheap fuel and easy profit from the supply of equipment and sale of the mineral (the NCB couldn't sell home coal until 1983). But our specific enemy, the coal owner, lost out in general and we won something in general. Understanding THIS point is rather like the understanding of the question of the border in Ireland. Created in 1921 by the British, if you don't understand the question and politics of the border you'll never understand what's going on, has gone on, and is going to go on in Ireland. You must get the nationalisation question right, as you demonstrate an ignorance of the miners themselves, and if you don't understand the miners throughout this process the whole work becomes a pure abstraction, with certain historic factors thrown in which lack class continuity and understanding.


The caricature of the British TUC as a cart-horse and slow plodding beast of burden was not a 'symbol' 'we' had chosen at all. It was a caricature made up by the establishment press to create anti-union hostility after the war. To actually use this caricature in a so-called progressive pamphlet is to use the bullets of the capitalist class against the workers' organisations; these organisations do require shooting, but the workers will use their own bullets, and not use ones given them by the main enemy, the capitalists themselves. But this is small fry - the unions are and always were organs of bourgeois control???

The miners' strike of '26, organised by who? The "Dockers' Tanner strike" of 1890, who? The 1913 Irish Transport strike which led to the 1916 Irish Rebellion, who? The miners' union from 1800 to 1870 led and founded by chartists - "from the beginning instruments of capitalist order"!!! The struggle for the 8 hour day led by the engineers in the 1890's and the watchword of the First International faced down with guns and jails "instruments of capitalist order" - you would actually need to take this man through our history from 1800 to the present day and MAKE HIM EAT EACH PAGE before you could suitably reply to such a crassly stupid comment.

The unions ARE NOT instruments of capitalist order, they are defence organs of the working class, and attack organs of the working class, which have become bureaucratic in many cases, and are often used by the bureaucracy to hold back the struggle, but they don't always succeed; and unions are catalysts in movements which go above, below and beyond them. This is why enemies of the working class HATE unions, not because the union per se is an instrument of revolution, but because it is essentially an organ of working class action which can at times transform itself through direct rank and file use and pressure into a revolutionary centre. The MFGB in 1926 was just such an example though our author comrade doesn't see it. Likewise the movement of '84/85 led by the NUM. Needless to say the events of '72 and '74 had the stamp of the NUM upon them, a TRADE UNION hardly instrument of bourgeois control. Let us take a subjective example, suppose Mr. Brendel had turned up during, say, the Chapwell Lodge derailment of the Flying Scotrsman in 1926, or the blocking of the M1 by the Doncaster NUM panel in 1984 and argued that "the miners' union is an organ of capitalist control". How would the rank and file miners, in serious conflict with the state at all levels, loyal to his/her miners' union, respond to such a suggestion? I'll tell you - "You are against my union, you are against my strike, you are against the working class. THUMP! You are the enemy!" The left in Britain suffered many such lessons from the class it had come to 'educate'.


"Union leaders are always on the other side of the fence" - NOT Jim Larkin, James Connolly, Martin Jude, Arthur Scargill, Joe Hill, Bill Heywood, Tom Mann, Jack Dash, Frank Little, A.J. Cook, Peter Heathfield, and a million more. All union leaders are not always on the other side of the fence.


He can't even get the union he is slagging off right - it was the GMWU, not TGWU at Pilkington's. Perhaps he thinks 1 million members of the TGWU will simply excuse such an ignorant 'mistake'? Rather like being arrested for murder because the real murderer had three letters in his name which match your own - quite understandable really. Really? Remember this is not some person thinking aloud, but a published book in at least two languages among people who by and large have no means of knowing the man is talking nonsense! Incidently the idea of forming a 'new union' at Pilks came from the bloody SWP who after cranking up the strike, taking the men out of the (admittedly crap) union, helping them set up a new union, pissed off when the thunder went out of the strike and left the men not only blacklisted by the company - barred by the GMWU as well, 'thanks comrade'. Our author suggests 'the new union' was a spontaneous rank and file idea. It wasn't.


There it is apocalypse one! The workers do not believe that the unions are the embodiment of the bible, the Wizard of Oz, or the path to the sugar candy mountain. Who told Mr. Brendel they did? WE see the unions as a means of defending ourselves against the employers, getting relief for injury and death, pushing forward improvements in our conditions and, yes, if push comes to shove using the union in action as a means of changing society politically because: WHEN THE WORKING CLASS GET BEHIND THE WHEEL, IT DOESN'T MATTER WHAT IT SAYS ON THE FRONT OF THE BUS - WE WILL DRIVE IT, IF NOT AS FAR AND WHERE WE WANT TO GO, THEN AT LEAST AS FAR AS IT WILL TAKE US!

This is the main difference between an outside commentator like Mr. Brendel and we, the people of whom he deems to write, because, yes, he has assumed to write on our behalf. His footnotes bear no description of discussion with mineworkers of this generation, nor the last, let alone asking the old folk of the ancient pit communities on the role, drawbacks and assistance the mineworkers' union has given these last 172 years.

One should ponder long and hard on the following (last paragraph page 5): "Workers have never had clearly defined concepts guiding them." It is true, but is this descriptive or prescriptive? Is this a failing then of the workers? If it is - who should define 'the concepts'? Certainly not Mr. Brendel, because he does not understand the perspective of, for example, the miners over at least 100 years of their history.


This statement alone cuts aside all theoretical differences, for in practice it says, 'the struggle at plant, on farm or down the pit is not important to workers'. It must mean that, for it is the union who takes, for example, the unfair dismissal case, questions the lack of adequate breaks, attends the inquest of the dead miner or the compensation case for the builder with a split skull or the factory worker with an amputated leg, or the canteen worker with the scalded arm, who sorts out the problems left for the kids or partner where the breadwinner is killed or seriously injured? Who challenges the diseases and injurious substances introduced by the capitalist process? In all of this Brendel says the unions are important to capitalism but not the workers!

I think we have the right to ask if this person has ever met or spoken to an industrial worker? Maybe he has, but it is quite clear he himself has never been one, for if he had it is for certain he would have joined the union BECAUSE IT WOULD BE IN HIS INTEREST TO DO SO, just like the other workers. This is why unions were formed, and why despite massive anti-union legislation they still exist. If Mr. Brendel went to work in a sweat shop because he needed the money, with unguarded machinery, and he lost a finger or a hand, the union would seek compensation and a change of working practices to ensure the safety of other workers. In such circumstances would he need the union more than the boss? I deem the answer to be so obvious that only a situationist would get it wrong.

Page 14 - THE MINERS' STRIKE OF 1972

I myself was an activist in the unofficial miners' movement of the middle and late 1960's. I edited the revolutionary miners' paper The Mineworker, and assisted with numerous other unofficial journals. By the time of 1972 the unofficial movement had gained its head, it had won a number of constitutional victories without which the strike could not have got started, let alone been won. Everywhere it was the militant 'unofficial' leaders and activists who were now taking branch positions. The union was coming over en masse to the perspective of strike action. It is true the national leadership was against the strike, but the rank and file were running the union and the strike. At no time did we feel 'the union' was something other than ourselves, we were the union and we had wrested control back from the right wing bureaucrats, but the union was ours, not theirs. The impression given in the pamphlet is that the strike and the picketing was at odds with 'the union'. How could this be so? We had held a successful national ballot and voted to strike. Each area and district appointed its own picket targets and picket plans, no-one could or did obstruct this process. The union organised the picketing so praised by Brendel. Which "orders of the bureaucrats" did we refuse to follow? It would be interesting for comrade Brendel to actually tell us what he is talking about.

I don't understand the bit that says "out of 289 pits only 60 were kept up". I presume this is a bad translation. I suppose he is saying 289 pits were on strike in 1972, but only 60 survived. If so, it's true, but not because of the 1972 strike! We had a 1974 strike, and 1984/85 strike after that, before we got down to 60 pits and that happened after 1985 as a result of loosing our strike against pit closures. To stick this figure in here , in reference to the 1972 strike, is absurd and historically quite meaningless.

Picketing of coal stocks and power stations was organised by the area and district levels of the union. It is simply a lie to say this was done against the union's wishes. "Their dynamism and ambitions were astonishing, inspiring as much fear in the union leaders as in the bourgeoisie itself." - Who is he talking about? Arthur Scargill, a union official, led the miners at Saltley Gate, Jack Dun, a union official, picketed the Thames in a Navy picket, blockading coal and ports. Union officials were present in each and every conflict; some were arrested, many were injured. Again Mr. Brendel's assertions are simply untrue. The union organised the picket convoys (and paid the petrol, by the way). If Brendel's whole thesis rests upon the myth that 'the miners' against the NUM organised and ran the whole strike, then the whole thing collapses as this is patently untrue; yes, the rank and file activists gained ground and captured control of the direction of the union, but it was the union they utilised to run the strike and win the strike. The miners are inseparable from the miners' union, of which they are most proud. Why didn't he ask any of us?


It is hard to disagree with any of this because basically it's just a straw man Brendel sets up to knock down again. I mean did he really think Jim Callaghan was spokesperson for 'the left'? "These 'democratic limits' were the hallmarks of the left"? Really? If Jim Callaghan is seen as the 'left', well it's not difficult to dispense with it really. The ILP? Socialist Leader? These are the authorities he cites as instrumental of the left in 1971??? Sorry, can't really say I noticed much of those formations, the IMG maybe, the RSSF yes, the IS - but the ILP? I think not.

The miners' demonstration in London February 16, 1972 was a public warning to the government that we would carry the battle onto the capital city, and away from the confines of the industrial north where it had been acted out hitherto. In particular this demonstration was called following the death of the first miners' picket (my fellow branch member Freddy Mathiews). It was a mass public warning that now "the gloves were off". It was not in contradistinction to, or any alternative to, mass picketing. Both demonstration and picketing were organised by the miners, through the branches and districts of the union apparatus and not in defiance of that apparatus. The author simply ignores reality and historical fact in order to make events match his pre-ordained theory. He would make a good stalinist historian - in particular he wants to make the miners fit his scheme which says "the unions are organs of bourgeois society" and to contrast 'the miners' in abstract as being against their own union. But he can't make a square form a circle and the history of the miners' union since 1830 to 1985 defies him at every turn. It is only his wanton ignorance of our history which permits him to plod on page after page peddling a myth.


Of course some of it he writes is true vis-a-vis the union leadership of the TGWU, and the TUC, and the shop stewards and union branches, but he just does not understand the relationship, never mind the structures. The imprisoned men were all union officials and proud to be so. They went to jail saying they were defending the union and the right to strike. They were not on strike against the union and you can't make history say they were. As soon as those dockers were imprisoned an immediate meeting of the Doncaster NUM panel was called. The panel was an unofficial body bringing together 9 official NUM branches in Doncaster. They met and recommended to those branches that on the following Monday all nine pits would take strike action until the dockers were released. No sanction was asked for, or given by the official Yorkshire area of the NUM. None of the nine NUM branches who all voted to strike would consider they were somehow in struggle with the NUM or any other union. They were taking solidarity action for the dockers through the sructure of self-defence they had built and belonged to, i.e. the miners' union. Comrade Brendel is too self-righteous to even make a stab at understanding such seemingly contradictory relationships.


He doens't even make a preamble that it was the miners' strike of 1974 which brought Heath to ask the question. The '74 strike was of course like the '72 strike organised by the miners through the miners' union. The real problems faced by the British Left and the Revolutionary Marxist Left in particular was one of a trade union taking political action, without political leadership (i.e. the kind offered by them) and bringing down a government. The far left parties failed to recruit from the victorious miners as they asked of the would-be vanguards "What do we need you for?" The miners in '74 and '84 announced the heretical theory "the union is my party". It rendered the revolutionary left redundant and at once to the right of the miners' own perception of things. This is clearly all incompatible with the Brendel notion that the union is an organ of the bourgeoisie. Such a theory just does not match the reality of the miners' struggle.

As to his general theory of all unions being organs of the bourgeoisie nowhere does he shoot himself in the foot more spectacularly than in the 1975 government. The unions went to war with 'their' government, did they not? A mass wave of strikes, official and unofficial, ALL organised through union branches and shop steward committees, or through whole union apparatuses. This proved the workers' offensive was through the unions, even if they had to kick start them, or march around the bureaucracies to get there. None of these disputes were against the unions. If they were they would have left the unions and formed something else, or just done any spontaneous thing which seemed like a good idea at the time. Sorry, the offensive of '75 to the defeat of the Callaghan government was organised and disciplined, and fun and serious, but always in and around and through the union structure, albeit kicking and punching to get through and rolling the bureaucrats before it. It was nonetheless trade union action, taken by workers in their trade unions. You can't make the facts say anything different, despite the preconceived theory that they should.

The 8-week strike by the toolmakers at British Leyland was indeed directed at the leadership of the AEUW which had eaten up the toolmakers' craft union somewhat earlier. The toolmakers kept their historic reference to each other and their own rank and file section of the union organised the 8-week stoppage. It was a rebellion of the toolmakers' section of the AEUW against British Leyland management and the AEUW bureaucracy tied cheek by jowl to the Labour government - but we see this as part of the trade union/working class struggle. Brendel wants to make this something outside of and apart from trade unions. He can't. Because the very dispute was over the craft toolmakers' desire to maintain a craft trade differential over other section of the workforce, which the union was committed to reduce. The policy of reducing craft differentials may or may not be progressive. The struggle of the toolmakers to maintain those differentials may or may not be progressive, though personally I doubt it. What cannot be said is that a craft section of the working class striking to preserve its historic pecking order over other sections of the workforce, through its amalgamated toolmakers' section, is an example of class conscious autonomous workers fighting the union as an organ of the bourgeoisie.

Either Brendel is ignorant of these facts or he hopes probably correctly his European readership will be. The pamphlet is a surrealistic blend of facts woven into a myth and on canvas of dogma. He does not understand the British working class's relationship to its organisation - the trade union. Yes, for certain there is a self-interested, well-paid, privileged and often (though not always) right wing bureaucracy. Often the bureaucracy and the structure of the union itself, often built in the image of the bureaucrat, is in conflict with the union membership and a continual war in many unions has continued for decades. True. But it is not true to say:

A) Unions are organs of the bourgeoisie.

B) Unions cannot/will not/are unable to fight for the working class. or

C) Unions cannot be used by the members to act the way they themselves perceive, despite their wage-slavery traditions.

Not to understand the way in which ordinary working class people use unions and take unions into conflict not simply with employers, but sometimes with the state itself, is to make the same principal error of the 'Leninists'. Brendel, presumably a situationist, and the Leninists make out a role for trade unions, a classic carved in stone role. The workers on the other hand, who belong to this union, whose lives, welfare and wages depend on this union, see no role carved in stone. They see an organisation supposedly theirs, and for this reason they will use it, and have make it go where no union has ever went before or they will take this structure and ram it so hard up against the state (as in the miners' strike of '84/85) it will stop being a simple 'trade union' of leninist design or situationist fable - this is the true lesson of class struggle in Britain '45-'77 and since. Brendel misses an essential revolutionary point, although he seems to make it. Namely that the intervention of people themselves into organisations will transform, amend, or destroy those organisations - not what formally is written in the rule book, not what Lenin said was the classic role of the trade union, but how can we transform and improve our lives. This is the watchword of the worker in the trade union, an organisation he sees both as an obstacle at times , and a means to his/her progress. What is also true, is that if you don't understand the relationship of the British working class to its trade unions, you don't understand the British working class.

Dave Douglass

National Union of Mineworkers