Pit sense or no sense?

Subversion review Pit Sense Versus the State - a history of militant miners in the Doncaster area, by David John Douglass, published by Phoenix Press.

Submitted by Steven. on June 17, 2011

This thin volume unfortunately does not live up to its title. Most of the book is a recital of union resolutions and a commentary on the activities of Doncaster miners in the N.U.M. [National Union of Mineworkers] during the 1984/85 national strike. For those not familiar with the mining industry or the structure and functioning of the N.U.M. it is also quite difficult to follow, lacking as it does a preliminary chronology of the strike or annotated diagram of the N.U.M.’s organisational structure.

Indeed the purpose behind the writing of this book is difficult to fathom until you reach the last 3 short chapters which largely a duplication of material previously published in the pamphlet ‘Refracted Perspective’. It then becomes apparent that it is an attempt to provide some documentary evidence in support of Douglass’s defence of trade unionism and the N.U.M. in particular against criticism by revolutionaries. Basically he believes that "unofficial" action is parallel to and supportive of "official union action, rather than the beginning of a move outside and against the unions, as we believe. Partly this is done by falsely amalgamating the views of the "left" (particularly the trotskyists with those of genuine revolutionaries. Douglass makes a reasonable job of exposing the left’s contradictory and arrogant attitude towards workers in struggle but his position in the N.U.M prevents him from dealing adequately with revolutionary criticism.

A reasonable demolition job on Douglass’s arguments has already been done in the Wildcat pamphlet "outside and against the unions" (60p from us, or direct from Wildcat, BM Cat, London, WC1N 3XX). Other useful material on this debate can also be found in "Echanges" (from BP241, 75866 PARIS CEDEX 18, FRANCE in English and French). We don’t intend to repeat all these arguments here but a few points are worth making.

In saying that trade unions and trade unionism are a barrier to the successful extension and development of the class struggle we are not saying that unions will never support or even organise industrial action.

Firstly, the trade union officials if they are to maintain their role as the workers’ ‘representatives’ and junior partners in the management of capitalism must be able to demonstrate their control of their ‘constituency’. This means that in the face of militancy amongst their members ‘action’ of some kind has to be proposed - but the purpose of the action is to maintain their control not promote the workers’ interests.

Secondly, capitalism is made up of numerous sectional interests. The ruling class is only united when faced with a potentially revolutionary opposition. In normal circumstances different sections of the ruling class are at each others throats. Different sections will be on top at different times. It is quite possible for trade union officials or a particular group of trade union officials to have to fight for their interests or even their survival within capitalism. That may even require wheeling in their members to do battle on their behalf.In some cases, and we suggest this applied to the miners and the NUM in 1984/5, both the workers and the union officials and their organisation can be under threat at the same time. In this situation understanding the different interests of each when both are involved in a ‘life or death’ struggle is much more difficult, but none-the-less necessary. The old adage that "our enemies’ enemies are not necessarily our friends" is worth remembering.

Thirdly, whilst we think it is necessary in any major struggle for workers to move outside the union framework, this process can often happen in practice, in only a halting and partial way. It is up to revolutionaries to encourage this process not try to tie it back into the union framework as Douglass wants to.

And lastly it is true to say that there are many aspects to the nature of the British coal mining industry and its relationship to miners and the union which make the case of the NUM not entirely typical of British and other unions. Douglass continually makes the mistake of generalising from the experience of the NUM rather than looking at the actual experience of other workers and the unions they belong to.

All in all we have to say that the writing of this book was a wasted opportunity.



12 years 10 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by Samotnaf on June 17, 2011

For what they're worth, here are some comments I wrote about Dave Douglass's distortions in "Pit Sense Versus the State" - in his "critique" of 'Miner Conflicts - Major Contradictions' - in this far longer text (So Near - So Far) . DD refers to this quote in the text:"We were the first branch in the Doncaster area to go out picketing into Nottingham and we went to Harworth colliery. And that was the only time I've seen a trade union official on the picket line. Jim Tierney from Castlehill Pit in Scotland reported things were very much the same up there. "At pithead meetings the Friday before the strike started, we were told the best thing for us to do was to enjoy a long lie-in on the Monday, leaving it to the branch committees to make sure all the pits were out in Scotland. "Fortunately we ignored that, but it was the Tuesday before we got all the pits out. Again last week our area strike committee, of two delegates per branch, booked eight buses to come down to Sheffield to picket the executive meeting.But then we were told we weren't getting any money for the buses. The Scottish leadership had taken a political decision they didn't want people down there! At the same time, pickets were being sent out when they weren't really needed, as when they were sent to Northumberland after the coalfield had voted to strike. Or again, when the there was a plan to send hundreds of them to Longannet power station at ten in the morning just so that two representatives of the Scottish TUC could pose in front of cameras. Fortunately on that occasion, the strike committee got people there for half six in the morning and stopped the place." ( Pickets quoted in 'Socialist' Worker , April 14th 1984).

"So Near - So Far" says:

Dave Douglass refers to this quote as part of his criticism of this text in ‘Pit Sense versus the State’ published almost 10 years after this text was written (in November 1993, by Phoenix Press, P.O.Box 824, London N1 9DL). DD slags off in particular this quote, which he attributes to Socialist Worker, though in fact it's a quote from a striking miner in Socialist Worker. He gives no date for this quote but then goes on to say how much bollocks it is to say officials weren't on picket lines because officials were arrested at Orgreave – some two months after the period this striker is talking about (moreover, the miner is talking about his own precise experiences at his pit, not about NUM officials in general). The impression given of "Miner conflicts..." is that it's so out of touch that it's not worth reading. In this typical Leftist deceitful 'amalgam technique' he connects things that have no connection in order to make them seem the same – in this case the SWP and me. Worse, sandwiched between different attacks on this text, he attacks the crudely anti-strike propaganda of Ian MacGregor and two obnoxious journalists (Martin Adeney and John Lloyd), which subliminally puts my text and the reactionary texts in the same boat. The distortion of the point of view of opponents is sadly typical of those who have an ideology and a role to defend, those, regardless of their ostensible desires, who are incapable of advancing the struggle one milimetre, at least in terms of their stated views (in practical terms, workers often participate in class struggle and yet at the same time have stupid ideologies and roles that undermine their practice).

Another note in "So Near So Far" refers to DD's dismissal of my calling Jack Taylor a Stalinist:

If it seems excessive to talk of Jack Taylor as a Stalinist, it might seem utterly dishonest to talk of DD as one. But it's only stylistically stretching the truth a tiny bit. Taylor agreed with Scargill's support for the Polish State's crackdown on the class struggle in Poland at the end of 1981 in the name of opposition to 'Solidarity' and the Catholic Church, as if 'Solidarity' was in total control of the movement (to name just one example, at a prison riot in Bydgoszcz in Poland, before the crackdown, Communist Party hacks, State Police, and Solidarity union officials joined together in defence of the walls of the prison against the townspeople who were helping prisoners escape). In 'Pit Sense versus the State' DD virtually does the same as Taylor and Scargill; though he rightly attacks Solidarity for not blacking the export of coal to Britain, he conveniently fails to mention that it was Jaruzelski's government, which Scargill supported, that was doing the exporting, and attacks "Miner conflicts - major contradictions" for attacking Scargill's support for the Polish State. In the crackdown on the movement in Poland in 1981 – which was not merely a crackdown on Solidarity but on the whole of the class struggle, 6 miners were killed by the State when they occupied their pit - but we have heard nothing about this from DD - all we have heard is support for Scargill's support for Jaruzelski. Of course, strictly speaking Jaruzelski too was not a Stalinist, since the whole of the East European Stalinist bureaucracy were officially not Stalinist from 1956 onwards, since Stalin had been denounced by Krushchev. But let's not get over-semantic. DD, whilst still a supporter of the old Class War group, still writes ( or wrote) for such papers as The Leninist or The Weekly Worker, the official organ of the Communist Party of Great Britain - and criticised nothing of their politics in either paper. An anarcho-Stalinist chameleon might be a better definition of him, more concerned with trying to be 'popular' than consistent.
In 'Pit Sense versus the State' DD, in his attacks on "Miner conflicts..." plays the classic political manipulation game of quoting out of context by implying, in a text that very clearly attacks scabs, that I support the Notts scabs on the basis of their resentment of Scargill's support for the crackdown in Poland. Now Scargill's (and effectively, DD's) support for East European Stalinism was probably merely a pretext for certain Polish miners scabbing, and there's no justification for it offered in "Miner conflicts..." – merely a bit of an explanation (after all, it requires a greater degree of integrity than Scargill or DD to support a strike apparently led by a man who had nothing but praise for the murderers of Polish miners, possibly people known to you or your family personally). At this time I had no knowledge of Polish miners in Britain – but it seems most of them (though with some definite exceptions) were a very insular and servile lot, uncommunicative outside of their Polish circle, and were only interested in making as much money as possible in as short a time as possible. Clearly no integrity there.