Letters

Trope

Jack Conrad’s ‘Thatcher in history’ (April 18) is an excellent overview and general analysis of the period, but, astonishingly and disappointingly for a publication like the Weekly Worker, is partially spoiled by that oft-repeated and old reactionary trope, “Scargill refused to ballot the members”.

This simply isn’t true at all, as there was no requirement to have a national ballot. In effect, there never really was a national strike. Under Rule 41 each locale conducted its own democratic vote and asked the executive for permission to strike. Area by area voted to strike, was given permission by the NEC, and then came out across the country in support. It was actually a series of rolling regional strikes; they were balloted and implemented not only in accordance with internal NUM policy, but also entirely in accordance with the law, as it stood at that time, and also by the honourable and long-established tactic of picketing men out.

Furthermore, the white-hot and furious debates that raged all over the coalfields, with thousands of rank-and-file miners packing out welfares and clubs to discuss the way forward, was substantive, living, breathing democracy in action. Of course, the bosses love secret ballots: atomised, isolated workers, gleaning only such information as is provided by the capitalist media, and voting on their own, away from debate and exchange and exposure to other ideas from their comrades. We should have no business in playing into that narrative. From my personal experience at the time, as a young, 17-year-old activist, and from all my research since, one thing has remained unchanged; the national ballot was a complete red herring and one with which workers’ organisations should have had no truck, once the dye had been cast and the miners had voted with their feet.

As for Scargill, the national executive committee were obliged to vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to officially endorse the strike and, on the day of the special delegate conference (at which Arthur didn’t even vote because he was chairing the meeting), not only was the vote in favour of declaring the strike official, but the NUM’s Sheffield HQ was surrounded by about 4,000 miners already on strike and just itching to lynch the leadership if they’d voted ‘no’. The chants of “Shove your ballot up your arse” left no-one in any doubt that the rank and file were calling the shots and, at that time, there was a widespread (although clearly mistaken) suspicion that the leadership were preparing a sell-out.

Far from the Tory lies, which painted miners as clueless dupes of evil Arthur, he was only ever the reflection, embodiment and manifestation of what the overwhelming majority of the rank and file wanted. Far from Arthur screwing them out of a vote, they’d already voted - with their feet! They’d have ousted Scargill in no time if he’d refused to back his striking members.

It’s somewhat ironic that the article takes to task the ‘great man (or woman)’ theory of history and yet here we have Scargill, one man, being blamed, yet again, for the loss of the strike. Yes, there were tactical errors and, certainly, as a tactic, some argued it might well have been politic to arrange a national ballot, but the majority of the rank and file felt they’d already had plenty of votes and had a mandate and a half for their course of action. Apart from that, there was also the widespread belief that such a device was merely a ‘scab’s charter’ and would only gift the Nottinghamshire traitors an excuse to vote their fellow NUM members out of their jobs.

I’m sure your regular contributor, Dave Douglass, can provide a much more accurate and informative response on this question than me, but I’m sure Dave would be the first to agree that the miners were easily the most militant and class-conscious set of workers anywhere in the country and they were no-one’s fools. While Scargill, at that time, was an outstanding working class leader who stood head and shoulders above his peers, almost without exception all accounts of the period totally underestimate how influential and how much the direction, nature and flavour of the struggle was decided and led by the rank and file.

This question and other mistakenly held views of the strike are all addressed in my forthcoming book on the strike in Nottingham, Look back in anger: the miners’ strike In Nottingham 30 years on, which comes out via Five Leaves Publishing in March next year.

Harry Paterson
Nottingham

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Cheap shot

Since the end of the 1984-85 miners’ strike, I must have given eight hour-long lectures at CPGB events. Indeed the CPGB recorded and posted online an almost two-hour session at the Communist University, including the questions and discussions. I have sold dozens of copies of my book Ghost dancers, which is a comprehensive history of the last generation of the miners and goes into microscopic detail of the features of the Great Strike and explodes great myths and general academic misinformation. Mark Fischer even presided over the purchase of copies of my book for the CPGB bookstall. So to say that I was grossly disappointed by Jack Conrad’s exposition in last week’s paper would be an understatement, as he clearly didn’t listen, didn’t watch or didn’t read any of this, as he ploughed on repeating a number of the key myths.

Scargill did not “refuse to ballot the members”. That decision was not Scargill’s; it was the national conference’s of April 19 1984, at which every branch of the union and virtually every member of those branches voted and mandated areas. There were seven resolutions debated, seven resolutions proposed and seconded. Scargill did not speak in support or against any of them because he was in the chair. He didn’t vote on any of them. So when there was an exhaustive vote - ie, you could vote in turn on all the options, so had seven votes on seven resolutions, one after the other - the decision was taken not to have a ballot. The reasons for this decision are explored in great depth in my book.

Likewise the cheap shot about George Bolton and exemptions for Scottish coal going to Scottish steel is just such a distortion of the truth, I simply say, read my book, Jack. It wasn’t just Scotland, but all steel works granted enough coke to keep the furnace walls warm and intact. The quid quo pro was they agreed not to produce steel. That agreement held and the steel industry was tied down with a small concession to the survival of the plants and our own coal markets. Scargill, in a monumentally short-sighted decision, wrested control for these exemptions from the planning committees in the areas and stopped the exemptions. This led directly to the scab operation at Orgreave, us losing focus on the scab areas and wharfs, and the collapse of solidarity action by steel workers and sections of the dockers.

Can I recommend to Jack and other comrades in the CPGB, in order that their analysis doesn’t continue to suffer from such gross misunderstanding and misrepresentations, that they buy a copy of my book? You can have them direct from me (via Turn on JavaScript!) for £8, including the postage, or off your own bookstall if you still have any, or watch your own education school online.

I feel I must also comment on the fatal predeterminism in Jack’s prediction that, without Thatcher, the miners (and presumably our militant working class allies) could have defeated the state offensive to break the NUM as the central stump of working class resistance. But, had we won, they would have come back with even more grim determination. It is not necessarily the case that that particular brand of neocon free-market Toryism could have been broken here and set a trend for worldwide workers’ offensives against it. That society could have started to march in the opposite direction to ‘free marketism’.

However, it is the sheer negativity of such a proposition that gets me. Imagine our Jack at a branch meeting, convincing workers: ‘We can take on the employers’ offensive, we can fight, die, bleed, starve and be jailed and watch our children and communities take the full force of the state’s wrath, and we can win … for now. But then they will come back even harder and more determined next time. All those in favour of strike action?’ I think that sort of prediction would have workers flinging their caps on the gaffer’s table and taking what they could, while others would quietly cut their wrists in the corner. Perhaps the CPGB should adopt the old Tiswas ‘Bucket of water song’ as an anthem.

Well, we can fight, aye, but we will always lose until the working class worldwide synchronises their watches and launches a simultaneous, worldwide revolution, which will have to be led by the Communist Party (our particular brand of Communist Party, with our analysis), or we’re all doomed. Doomed, I tell ye!

David Douglass
South Shields

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Bad logic

Jack Conrad’s article on Thatcher suffers from both bad logic and bad history. He writes: “It [welfarism and Keynesianism] was a combination of the post-World War II boom, the power of the working class and the existence of the USSR as an ideological rival to capitalism.” But also: “The USSR had run out of workers ... There was no surplus labour to tap into … Nor was there any possibility of constantly revolutionising the means of production. Under those circumstances it could be predicted with certainty that the Soviet Union had to collapse.”

So which of these incorrect arguments does Jack want us to accept, because he can’t logically ask us to accept both at the same time? Mike Macnair has also put forward a similar argument in the past, but either welfarism was, at least in part, due to workers looking to a USSR that provided them with an attractive view of an alternative society, to such an extent that capital was so scared that it had to buy them off, or else the USSR was a bankrupt dead end that could offer no attractive alternative for western workers to look to, and so no reason why capital should make any such concessions to them; especially the kind of concessions that for all intents and purposes looked like the bankrupt system of the USSR - ie, top-down, bureaucratic and inefficient, statised industry, and widespread welfarism as an alternative to workers having decent jobs.

But the history is bad too, on several counts. Firstly, welfarism cannot be argued to have been a means of buying off workers, for whatever reason, because it has existed in all developed countries, including the United States, for much longer than either the USSR or any ability of workers to force capital to introduce it as some form of concession, even if that were possible, which, according to Marx, it isn’t. The 19th century proponents of free education in the US and the creators of the German national insurance scheme, at the same time, did not do so out of fear of the USSR or because they were forced to do so by powerful trades unions, but because such measures were an efficient means of reproducing the labour-power they needed. It was the same motivation that led the representatives of capital, like Neville Chamberlain, to propose similar welfarist methods in Britain, in the 1920s, as well as the Liberals to propose them at the beginning of that century.

While I am certainly no defender of state socialism, and even less so of Stalinism, I think Jack’s account is not sustainable. The USSR and other such states most certainly had not run out of workers. In fact, these societies suffered from chronic underemployment, as one means of hiding large-scale unemployment! That, together with the fact that they had huge welfarist systems that the productive capacity of the economy could not sustain, is one reason they collapsed. In the Stalinist states those policies were implemented because it was the means by which the bureaucracy did buy off the workers, a means of resolving the contradiction that those workers were the ‘ruling class’, and yet control was in the hands of the bureaucracy.

But Jack’s account of the Soviet economy is also unsustainable. For an economy that could not revolutionise the means of production, they seemed to do a pretty good job of it. In 1905, Russia was heavily defeated by Japan. In 1914, the Russian military could not even supply its forces with enough rifles and ammunition. By 1941, the USSR had seen off the Japanese in the largest tank battle ever, to such an extent that Japan decided it was easier to attack the US rather than USSR. That freed up the USSR eastern flank, enabling them to send troops and equipment to the western front. After 1939, Germany, as the world’s most advanced military-economic power, had rolled over western Europe and defeated Britain in every encounter. Britain was penned up, and probably only survived because Hitler held out hopes of a peace deal with Halifax. The USSR essentially stood alone. The defeat of the Germans outside Moscow in December 1941 was the turning point of the war. From then on, the USSR essentially kept pushing Germany back, despite German temporary advances, such as that which led to the Battle of Stalingrad.

The USSR overall had better technology in respect of its tanks and other military equipment, including aircraft. That is despite the criminal mistakes of Stalin that led to the USSR initially losing 25% of its agricultural and industrial production.

In World War II, the USSR lost 30 million people, mostly of working age, and suffered incredible damage to its economy and productive capacity. By contrast, the US lost just 300,000 people and suffered no attacks on its territory. Instead it was able to use the war to build up its industrial capacity. Yet despite that, by the 1950s, the USSR had gone, in the space of 25 years, from essentially a peasant economy to the world’s second superpower. By the 1950s, it led in space, and western economies genuinely did fear that they would be overtaken economically. That could not have been done under those conditions without revolutionising the means of production at a phenomenal rate.

Yes, that process hit limits, but those limits were limits associated with a system of detailed planning, in relation to a modern, complex economy, and the needs of consumer, as opposed to producer, goods production - limits that cannot be resolved simply by replacing bureaucratic by ‘democratic’ planning. In fact, China has retained large-scale state ownership and control, but combined it with the kind of policy of NEP and foreign investment that Lenin proposed, and avoided many of those problems. It has created other problems as a result.

Arthur Bough
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Questions

Jack Conrad’s article on the ‘Grantham market mama’ and her place in history was full of useful insights, but I have a couple of questions concerning points where a bit more information would have helped.

How exactly was the poll tax “designed to ensure that, if a left Labour administration were elected, local voters would be penalised financially”?

Given that it was the issue of the European Union that caused the lady’s exit from the premiership, why was her stance of agreeing to the Maastricht treaty, whilst opposing further centralisation and demanding a UK contribution refund, not ultimately acceptable to the Tories, seeing that it appeared to straddle the gulf between the zealots and the sceptics in their ranks?

Chris Gray
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Empty rhetoric

Lawrence Parker’s article, ‘Explicable politics of extremism’ (April 11), on the appointment of Paolo Di Canio as manager of Sunderland FC hit a dangerously complacent note.

It is true that we do not want the state to have any powers over which ideas are legitimate, which is why communists should oppose the law banning British National Party members from certain professions. But Parker, perhaps bending the stick against the left’s shrill moralism, ends up patronising both football supporters and Di Canio himself. It is “actually positive” that some supporters have expressed outrage at the appointment - no doubt those working class football fans who object to their new ‘sieg-heiling’ manager are glad to have his approval.

But they are wrong to protest, apparently, and should stop taking things so darn seriously. Di Canio’s justification for such salutes - that it created a sense of belonging between him and Lazio fans - is accepted uncritically. Di Canio is a ‘sensible chap’ for denying fascist ideas now and, though he has admitted them before, he also said that he was not a racist. So that’s OK then. The reason why such a salute has resonance with sections of the club’s supporters, and what it represents, is unimportant.

Parker quotes Di Canio to try and prove that his behaviour is simply a matter of connecting with the fans. Whilst it is true that the Sunderland manager is clearly no fascist theoretician, Parker cannot see the wood for the trees in this very quote. The “true values of civility” against “the standardisation of society” is precisely the sort of appealing but empty rhetoric employed by the far right when attacking the alienation and hypocrisy inherent in ‘liberal’ capitalism. Of course, fascism has always pushed itself as representing the interests of the workers, and the last hope of human solidarity in the face of a crisis-ridden society.

Perhaps bitter over the failure of the British left to implant itself in the class, Parker fawns over any display of working class collectivity and belonging, and the politics cease to matter. In so doing he actually ends up buttressing the false notion that ‘politics and football don’t mix’ and that stadiums ‘can offer a set of magic resolutions that are set apart from society’.

Laurie Smith
North Yorkshire

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Hush

My main thoughts, in terms of Mike Macnair’s arguments against ‘secrecy’, is that they rely heavily on a comparison between a judicial system and left organisation hearings (‘Bureaucratic “justice” and dealing with sex assault cases’, April 18).

However, the arguments put forward in Hannah Sell’s statement make comparisons - more relevant in my view - to employer disciplinary processes (and, I would suggest, in hearings organised by the main political parties and trade unions). These, of course, are secret and often even the exact outcome is not reported.

I think the issue of witnesses is also relevant in this argument - as in a judicial process witnesses can be required to attend. In the case of left organisations such a requirement is not possible, and it is seldom a requirement in employer cases - even when the witness is another employee. Or I should say it is seldom a requirement in terms of defence witnesses. When an allegation relates to a conduct issue involving a child, the child would never be called (although an interview might be held and reported to the hearing).

I can also envisage that some people would be less than comfortable arguing the detail of what did or didn’t happen in a sexual assault case, in an open hearing. Thus I am not sure that the secrecy issue (probably the main point of argument) has quite the weight the article puts forward.

Ray McHale
Ellesmere Port

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Man to man

Phwoar! Who knew the letters page of the Weekly Worker would be such a great place to find a real man? Both Tony Clark and Dave Douglass advertise themselves as alpha-males (April 11). But I’m sure what all readers are now wondering is, who’s more alpha? Maybe the left should arrange a no-holds-barred mixed martial arts tournament on a remote island to select the right leadership who can take us forward together. Perhaps, as Dave appears to suggest in his bizarre baboon tale, some sort of IQ test would be more appropriate.

Or - I don’t know, it’s just an idea - we could encourage all to be leaders and start taking responsibility for the tasks ahead, instead of divesting our will onto some fantasy leadership and using the behaviour of lower orders of animals to excuse it.

Ed Cocker
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Alpha Marx

I’m inclined to believe there is (and always has been - even among Marxist revolutionaries) considerable disparity between what is said (and believed) by both male and female comrades, in theory, and their practice, in everyday life and within their political organisations, when it comes to the aspired basic equality between men and women.

The Socialist Workers Party’s ‘comrade Delta’ issue, currently a regular discussion topic in the Weekly Worker, is surely just the latest manifestation of what has always been the situation in self-styled ‘revolutionary’ groupings; lots of speeches endorsing gender equalities, even an occasional female representing the members at higher levels, but when it comes to the nitty-gritty aspects of party work, leadership in theory and practice, it’s the males who tend to take on the ‘alpha’ roles. Certainly that was the case in the 1950s: I never attended a weekly meeting, held in homes of numerous party members, where tea and cakes weren’t prepared and delivered by the hostess! I’d like to think that application of this ‘rule of thumb’ measurement no longer applies at CPGB meetings.

But Henry Mitchell propagates mythology when he assumes feminism was “well understood ... in the days of Marx and Engels” (Letters, April 18). Other readers who subscribe to myths of this kind should look at the two paragraphs Marx wrote to Paul Lafargue - aspiring suitor to Marx’s daughter, Laura - in August 1866: “If you wish to continue your relations with my daughter, you will have to give up your present manner of ‘courting’ … The practice of excessive intimacy is especially inappropriate … To my mind, true love expresses itself in reticence, modesty and even the shyness of the lover towards his object of veneration …”

Marx’s letter demonstrates the extent to which even he conformed (even accepted?) gender convention. I bet he would have happily participated in today’s discussion.

Bob Potter
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Action vote

Good news in the fight against the victimisation of longstanding trade union activist Lee Rock: 62% of PCS members in the Sheffield contact centre voted to go on strike against his unfair dismissal. At 45%, turnout was slightly better than expected.

“I am very pleased with the result,” says Lee. “It’s difficult to get people to make the connection between the dismissal of one man and the fact that this was an attack not on me as an individual worker, but as a trade union activist. Why else could there have been reference to my trade union work in my referral to dismissal? Why else would my case have been handled so differently to other, similar cases?”

As his PCS branch in Sheffield writes, “This is excellent news and shows that the members here are not swallowing the spin Sheffield contact centre management are trying to feed us about this being ‘just like any other managing attendance case’. It is not: it is an attack on union members as a whole and rest assured that, if we lose this fight, it will be much easier to attack union members and reps with the most spurious of excuses in future.”

A members’ meeting later in the week will now discuss on what date the strike will take place. “Judging by the experience of similar actions, we expect about 90% of PCS members to follow our call for strike action on the day,” says Lee.

Messages of support can still be sent to Turn on JavaScript!. Up-to-date news is available on the branch website: http://pcsdwpsheffield.wordpress.com.

Tina Becker
Sheffield

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Support

Thank you for your message of support (‘Message to ISN’, April 18). As I am sure you will appreciate, we are still establishing ourselves as an organisation, and are not yet in a position to respond in detail to such requests. We will be raising your request at our next steering committee meeting, and will hopefully get back to you after that.

Steering committee
International Socialist Network

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