The politics of the SWP

A political school for socialists

Hosted by the Alliance for Workers' Liberty, Saturday 1st and Sunday 2nd July, 2000

Preparatory Reading

The SWP and the miners

John Bloxam and Colin Foster review 'The Great Strike' by Alex Callinicos and Mike Simons (published by Socialist Worker, 3.95). From SO 225, April 1985

Somehow this book manages to make the great story of the miners' strike rather flat and dull.

For them it runs something like this. The miners fought hard. However, "the dead hand of officialdom" (p.92) had a very high degree of control. So by late May or early June the battle had turned decisively in the Tories' favour. Orgreave "marked the turning point of the strike, just as Saltley Gates had in 1972. This time, however, the ruling class won". The miners slogged on for another nine months, but eventually they crumbled. All is not lost, however. Trade union strength can be rebuilt as long as militants concentrate on "small but concrete issues" (p.229).

The problem is "the belief of militant trade unionists that by electing left-wing officials they can avoid future betrayals" (p.241) and that "many of those active in the strike will be drawn towards the Labour Party" (p.249). In these ways militants can be pulled into the bureaucracy and into Parliament.

Therefore a revolutionary party is needed - the SWP - which will keep militants focused on the "small but concrete issues". Out of the struggle on those issues, some day, somehow, will come workers' councils, capable of replacing the capitalist system.

The book does give a competent narrative. On some points it is very interesting: the description of how the first flying pickets to Notts were organised despite attempts by the Yorkshire leadership to restrain them; of how the Yorkshire leadership, again, dragged its feet over Orgreave; or of how the CP-oriented 'soft left' finished off the strike in February 1985. But it communicates very little of the living experience of the strike.

Page 252 does mention that: "The experience of the strike transformed...men and women" - but you would not have guessed that from the previous 251 pages. When miners are quoted, it is always to discuss the details of clashes with the police or how pickets were organised. The women of the mining communities are quoted very sparsely; in fact, apart from one sentence in the introduction, the role of women in the struggle is not mentioned at all outside 4 sketchy pages (pp.178-183).

The notion that real working class politics is about fighting hard at workplace level on small issues had possessed the SWP before the strike, and it made them unable to assess it or appreciate it properly. By early April 1984 Socialist Worker was saying that the miners' strike was almost a lost cause-"an extreme example of what we in the SWP have called the 'downturn' of the movement".

In early June, again, they were crying woe. "The chance was lost to rejuvenate a strike which has been drifting towards a 'compromise' settlement".

Then at the end of January 1985 while the majority of miners were still locked in epic battle with the NCB and the government, they ran a two-page feature which assumed the strike was already lost and asked "who is to blame?"

The book is less than honest about examining such errors, or acknowledging aspects of the struggle which refuted the SWP's stereotype ideas. It applauds the miners' support committees - "a great movement of solidarity" - but does not mention that the SWP dismissed these committees as "left-wing Oxfam" until October. It mentions the Labour left's role in that movement, but claims, quite untruly (p.250) that even the 'hard' Labour left refused to challenge Kinnock or criticise the TUC. It says something basic about the politics of the SWP that it tells downright lies to back up its campaign to stop militant miners joining or staying in the Labour Party.

Trying to dissuade miners and activists from joining the Labour Party, the book claims that "even the most radical and militant Labour Party member" believes in the parliamentary road to socialism (untrue: SO supporters and, in fact, many others don't). It also claims that parliamentary activity and workers' struggles cannot be combined.

In fact Marxists ever since Marx, without seeing parliament as the vehicle for socialism, have tried to use the parliamentary platform to assist workers' struggles. Dennis Skinner did it pretty well during the miners' strike.

But the SWP's drive to define away everything that falls outside the ambit of what they see as real working class politics - local economic struggle - also affects their assessment of the NUM leadership. Dennis Skinner argued that a national strike would never have taken off without brave and competent leadership from the national NUM officials. Probably he was right. Callinicos and Simons, while devoting most space to (mostly justified) criticisms of the NUM area officials, pay tribute to Arthur Scargill's "determination, courage and tactical skill".

But here there is a problem for the SWP. If Arthur Scargill had been a member of the SWP, then they would have withdrawn him from the election for NUM president! (The last time they had anyone put up for a national union position - in USDAW a few years ago - they withdrew him after he got the Broad Left nomination, on the grounds that rank and file activity was not sufficient to justify running for positions).

Yet Scargill's leadership did make a difference. More and better Scargills in the TUC leadership, or even just in the NUM leadership, could have made the difference between defeat and victory.

Despite the SWP's philosophy about this being an epoch of "building sectional strength" on "small but concrete issues", the miners' strike was a general class confrontation on a big and fairly abstract issue -jobs, communities, livelihoods versus capitalist economics.

The SWP did not have a policy for the labour movement in this confrontation. At best they had a policy for a small minority-join the SWP; if you are a miner, organise more picketing; if you are not a miner, organise collections.

The major turning point of the strike (in our view) passes almost without comment in the book: the month between the seizure of the South Wales NUM funds and the TUC Congress.

Miners' leaders called for a general strike. Ron Todd of the TGWU mumbled about a 'big bang'. The NUM put a motion to the TUC for "industrial action involving all unions"; FTAT called for a one-day general strike. But the TUC leaders escaped without committing themselves solidly at all.

All this drama passes almost without comment in the book, as if it were all a matter of course. No wonder: at the time the SWP's searching for the "small and concrete" reached almost farcical levels. In response to the seizure of the miners' funds their main proposal was: "The trade union leaders...should now launch a campaign to make sure the two Read firms (small haulage companies which had brought the court case) are completely blacked."

Likewise, in discussing perspectives after the strike, Callinicos and Simons have proposals for "the small minority of workers who are at present convinced of the need for revolutionary socialism" - i.e. join the SWP - but none for broader sections of the working class. Despite making comparisons at length with 1926, they do not mention the Minority Movement, the cross-union rank-and-file militants' network that existed in the 1920s. Chris Harman summed up the whole philosophy in Socialist Worker last November, arguing against the call for a general strike.

"We have at this point to stress demands that enable the militant minority to win over the majority in the workplaces to active solidarity (for example, support committees, collections, twinning), rather than those which assume the base already exists for such solidarity (for example calls for general strikes)..."

Calls for a general strike - like contests for union leadership, like parliamentary activity, like Labour Party activity in general - are presented as alternatives to nuts-and-bolts workplace activity, rather than complementary to it and the means of generalising, integrating and developing workplace activity into working class politics. And the result is to leave the SWP without general political answers (except - very like Militant, in fact - on the most abstract level of the need for socialist revolution).

Time and again Callinicos and Simons say that the mistake in 1984-5 was not to adopt rank-and-file based tactics of 1972. But this is at best quarter-true.

More centralised organisation was imposed on the miners by the facts of the situation: the length of the strike, the scale of the police operation, the depressing effect of the slump on solidarity. The same facts imposed on the miners a greater need for official support from other unions.

Those facts cannot be evaded by one million repetitions of the words "rank and file". The only answer is to fight to change the policy, structure and leadership of the unions.

And not just of the unions, for the story of 1972 did not end with the Wilberforce Report. Within two years the wage gains had been etched away and the miners were on strike again. They won again. Indeed, they pushed the Heath government into an election that it lost.

The miners routed the Tories. And then, as the fruits of their victory, they got a Labour government which curbed wages, executed IMF-imposed cuts, imposed the area incentive schemes on the NUM, presided over rising unemployment and paved the way for Thatcher.

In 1984-5 there was a large element of victory in defeat; and in 1972-4 there was a large element of defeat in victory. Full victory will require not only good workplace organisation but also better organisation and awareness on the political front.

That is why the fight inside the Labour Party is so important. By abstaining from that fight, and by adopting a sort of politics which leaves a great vacuum between the "small and concrete" immediate issues and the ultimate goal of socialism, the SWP has given itself tunnel vision.