Look back in anger / FRFI 238 Apr/May 2014

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 238 April/May 2014

Look Back in Anger – the miners’ strike in Nottinghamshire, 30 years on

Harry Paterson, Five Leaves Press 2014, 288 pages, £9.99

Harry Paterson’s book is written with class consciousness and engagement. It has a political shrewdness which distinguishes it from some of the more sentimentalised accounts of the struggle of 1984-85. A focus on the Notts miners, in an area where a better-off workforce largely refused to back the strike, evokes the passions and anguish of this huge industrial and political battle. The defeat of the miners, despite their courage, signified a huge blow for the British working class as a whole.

In Nottinghamshire the majority of miners scabbed on the strike. One important reason for this was the Area Incentives Scheme (AIS), promoted by the National Coal Board (NCB) with the deliberate aim of sowing divisions between miners. This scheme was pushed through under the Labour government in 1977, against the wishes of two thirds of miners, but it had the support of right wing NUM (National Union of Mineworkers) president Joe Gormley. The militant Arthur Scargill replaced Gormley in 1982, too late to stop the AIS. Crucially, many miners in the most productive coalfields, such as Notts and South Derbyshire, supported the AIS as it could raise their incomes above the mass of miners in Britain (a short-sighted view, given Thatcher's later plans to shut most pits, including in Notts).

The Tory government of Margaret Thatcher, elected in 1979, set about destroying much of Britain’s industrial base. Ultra-right-wing director ‘Sir’ Ian McGregor was first appointed to smash the British steel industry, reduced in the early 1980s from 166,000 jobs to just 71,000. Before McGregor’s appointment as coal board chief in March 1983, the miners had repelled an early threat of pit closures in 1981. By late 1983 an overtime ban was enforced all over the British coalfields, to reduce stocks in anticipation of a fight for jobs. Even the Notts area supported this ban until almost the end of the strike.

The strike began suddenly in March 1984, when the NCB made an official announcement to close 20 pits, with 20,000 job losses. An early disappointment however was the ballot against strike action in Notts, promoted by right-wing union activists such as Clarke and Liptrott who had links with the British state. Significantly the NCB did not announce any pit closures in Notts until after the strike was defeated. Paterson recalls the visits of Yorkshire pickets to Notts and their astonishment at their high living standards, often living in substantial private houses of a kind not seen in most mining areas. A minority of Notts miners did strike, including about 2,000 until the very end. Paterson’s father-in-law was a striker and picket, and his wife joined Women Against Pit Closures. Women became even more important to the struggle after harsh laws banned their husbands from picketing. The Notts ‘NUM loyalists’ were like partisans fighting behind enemy lines, with their home county sealed off by cops operating checkpoints.

Wider working class support is a crucial factor in any strike. As the government moved to cut welfare payments from miners’ families, which Paterson notes had been planned before the strike began, the question of their subsistence was raised. Donations came from sympathetic unions, such as the firefighters and railworkers and from street collections in working class areas. These were often done by miners’ wives, as in Notts, and by leftist political groups. The author recalls a mostly generous response to these, except in areas like Notts where opinions were influenced by the working miners.

Solidarity strike action could have won the dispute easily, given the possibility of paralysing the capitalist economy. Opportunities were lost, such as the dockers strike in July 1984, when their leaders quickly agreed a temporary deal with a government secretly committed to smashing their union. A basic pact with the railworkers banned the movement of coal by scab labour to build up stocks. The government responded by organising private lorries to carry it. Paterson shows why there couldn’t be a much wider general strike, as had happened in 1926. In 1926 the miners were betrayed by the TUC and left to fight alone and in 1984 the same forces were responsible for the lack of anything broader. The TUC had earlier pledged to oppose the new anti-union laws which outlawed solidarity strikes, by any means necessary, but in 1984, faced with further laws enacted by Tory minister Norman Tebbit, the TUC and the largest unions backed down through fear of having their funds ‘sequestrated’. Widespread support for the miners among the working class meant that TUC treachery had to be disguised with verbal solidarity and cash payments. Neil Kinnock’s Labour Party also played a key role in destroying the strike. Like the TUC’s Norman Willis, Kinnock complained about miners using violence, while faking sympathy for their cause.

Paterson refers in detail to the media distortion of the struggle. The biggest flashpoint was at Orgreave, a coking plant in Yorkshire, where 95 pickets were arrested in July 1984. The BBC showed miners stoning the cops, who were then shown ‘defending’ themselves – the exact opposite of what actually took place. The Daily Mirror became openly hostile to the miners after it was bought by the Robert Maxwell, a man with MI5, MI6 and Mossad links. Media interest switched off after the struggle ended in March 1985 – the decimation of jobs was not newsworthy. In 1984 there were 228,440 NUM members, but by 1994, when the Coal Industry Act paved the way for privatisation, only a few thousand mining jobs remained. Not even the ‘privileged’ Notts miners had been spared.

In concluding his book, Paterson details new information that has come to light since the struggle. This confirms what Scargill and other activists said at the time – the Tories had a secret closure plan; Thatcher did intervene to increase cops’ harassment on picket lines; she did plan to involve the army and declare a state of emergency; and the government was seriously worried about a miners’ victory, especially during the July 1984 dock strike. As Paterson puts it, ‘Arthur Scargill, the most maligned and vilified trade union leader in British history, had been right all along and his nemesis, Margaret Thatcher, had consistently lied and misled both Parliament and the public before, during and after the strike.’

Martin Hope

Dead Prez interview with Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism!

After a storming performance in Manchester on 10 February 2014, revolutionary US rappers Dead Prez met with young supporters of Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism!

M1 and Sticman answered questions about their radical political approach, touching on ideas about racism, capitalism, socialism and the need for solidarity with the people of Palestine. In the first instalment of our interview, Dead Prez discuss how they became interested in political action.

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Justice for the Cuban 5!

What lies across the water, Stephen Kimber, Fernwood Publishing 2013, Can$19.95

Stephen Kimber’s remarkable work is both a forensic expose of anti-communist terrorism and the definitive guide to the story of the Cuban Five. With in-depth analysis of the activities and motivations of many key players in US-Cuban relations over the last 50 years and a detective-thriller writing style it is both highly readable and politically explosive.

In September 1998, five Cuban intelligence agents – Gerardo Hernandez, Ramon Labañino, Antonio Guerrero, Fernando Gonzalez and Rene Gonzalez – were arrested in Miami. The story of the necessity of their presence on US soil, infiltrating terrorist networks amongst the febrile world of Miami’s rightwing Cuban exile groups, reveals a hidden history of CIA-assisted intrigue. Their trial and the conditions of their imprisonment demonstrate the ruthlessness of the imperialist state and the thinness of the veneer of fairness that covers its oppressive ‘justice’ system.

Kimber reveals the existence of a widespread terrorist conspiracy among Cuban exile organisations. For every successful murderous plot such as the 1976 Cubana Airlines bombing, which killed 73 civilian passengers, or the 1997 Havana hotel bombings, there are many more abortive or less spectacular attacks. Kimber exposes not just the involvement of the key figures of anti-communist terrorism, the real-life movie villains Luis Posada Carriles and Orlando Bosch, but also the clear trail of money and support for them from supposedly ‘mainstream’, US government-friendly organisations such as the Cuban American National Foundation.

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Brushing away the cobwebs of bourgeois democracy/FRFI 235 Oct/Nov 2013

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 235 October/November 2013

Cuba and its neighbours: democracy in motion,

Arnold August, Zed Books 2013, £16.99

In Cuba and its neighbours: democracy in motion, Canadian journalist Arnold August demolishes the bourgeois propaganda that socialist Cuba is somehow ‘undemocratic’ by examining the very idea of what we mean by democracy.

The first part of this comparative study, ‘Cobwebs around democracy’, is an analysis of the US system. August exposes the deceptive character of the US two-party system as a cover for what he describes as an ‘oligarchic’ state but we would call imperialist. Using Barack Obama as a case study, he shows how a cautious ‘benefit of the doubt’ attitude towards Obama by Latin America faded in the face of a military coup in Honduras, perpetrated with US backing. August points out that ‘a new face’ changed nothing in US relations with Cuba: ‘His role, based on the illusion created regarding the two-party system, was to change tactics because they had failed to reach the same goal of regime change.’

August argues that Obama recreates the chimera of the American Dream at home, while promoting war abroad. The two-party system ‘constitutes the lifeline of maintaining the status quo and averting a crisis in the US political system.’ August shows that this system excludes up to half the voting age population, including convicted felons – the majority black – and those without official papers, such as many Latino immigrants. Thus large numbers of the most oppressed sections in US society are disenfranchised.

In contrast, August shows how the participatory democracies of Bolivia, Ecuador and particularly Venezuela are transforming the lives of the poor. In his examination of the Bolivarian Revolution’s transition towards ‘21st century socialism’, August describes the ‘missions’, inspired by Cuba, that bring social change into the barrios, incorporating ‘Venezuelans into a growing, parallel, state-sponsored economy that competes with the traditional private sector and ultimately seeks to supplant it’. He shows how the country’s constitution was drafted by the people themselves, and writes: ‘This participatory experience contrasts significantly with how the US constitution came into being: exclusivity based on the protection of the unlimited accumulation of private property.’ He does not brush aside the challenges of attempting to develop such an explicitly socialist democracy when capitalist relations are still the dominant mode of economic activity, but says because of the development of popular power, ‘The elections are…a vehicle that drives the Revolution, and the grassroots are the fuel. Participatory democracy is a daily way of life for a growing number of people.’

August shows how in both Bolivia and Ecuador a similar, although less developed, process has taken place. Bolivia’s Movement towards Socialism (MAS) mobilised more than 80% of the population, including campesinos and indigenous groups, for the 2005 elections; its constituent assembly represented a significant move towards developing participatory democracy in the country. Led by Evo Morales, the new government enabled one million Bolivians to escape poverty in six years. Morales’ election signified an end to the ‘apartheid that had marginalised the majority of the indigenous population since the Spanish conquest’. However, as August says, ‘the future of Bolivia’s fledgling participatory democracy depends on the capacity of MAS and its leadership to resist pressures and interference from the right-wing, tied to US interests’. He points out, too, that such democracy is not static but constantly evolving.

In Ecuador too, August shows, there has also been successful movement for the rights of the most oppressed sections of society, including the enshrining of indigenous peoples’ rights and the stipulation that the natural resources of the country are the patrimony of the people.

August rounds up part one by analysing the progressive Latin American alliances of ALBA and CELAC and their key role in opposing US imperialism by building co-operation amongst member countriesagainst ‘US centrism’ and its attempts to impose its own limited concept of democracy on the continent.

Cuba

The bulk of the book deals with the democratic system in socialist Cuba. As well as a detailed explanation of how the electoral process itself functions at municipal, provincial and national level, with all Cubans automatically registered to vote at the age of 16, what is most valuable is his exploration of how the state functions between and alongside the formal electoral process. August shows how since the Revolution the system has been through a consistent process of renewal: he describes the rectification campaign of the 1980s against bureaucracy and corruption which renewed the relationship between the people and the state, and looks at the changes that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s.

Particularly interesting are the local gatherings in 2007 that followed a key speech by then Vice President Raul Castro, in which he detailed economic and social concerns of the people and welcomed everyone to ‘the daily battle’ – to discuss ‘difficulties, successes, strong and weak points in the revolutionary process’ in their workplaces and educational centres, which were then presented to local Committees for the Defence of the Revolution. It was this process of popular power through national debate that led, for example, to the distribution of uncultivated land rent-free to individuals to increase food production and lower prices.

The Congress of the Cuban Communist Party took on board the proposals of these national debates, leading to a final drawing up of 313 guidelines. The measures addressed every area of life and are described in detail in the book. The fact that this revolutionary renewal was possible is because, as August says, ‘there is…a dialectic bond between the leadership and the people. A continual, reciprocal, bottom-up and top-down process takes place.’ August praises this creative and flexible process, although warns that the outcome of the changes is yet to be determined.

August writes as an academic rather than as a socialist, and there are places in the book where one could take issue with him. But overall, Cuba and its neighbours provides meticulously-researched ammunition for all those fighting in defence of a socialist system of participatory, working class democracy and exposes the bourgeois democracy defended by the United States as a sham.

Nazia Mukti

Marx in Soho - a play by Howard Zinn

Directed by Comrade Sergio Amigo with Daniel Kelly as Karl 

Wednesday to Sundays till 13 October
The Calder Bookshop and Theatre, 51 The Cut, London SE1 8LF
www.calderbookshop.com

Tickets £10 (£8 concessions) To reserve a ticket call 020 7620 2900
or email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Also two nights at The Marx Memorial Library
Tuesday 22 and Wednesday 23 October 7pm
37A Clerkenwell Green, London, Greater London EC1R 0DU

Howard Zinn’s play has Marx fighting in heaven for the right to return to Soho (unfortunately he ends up in New York Soho rather than his old London haunts) and prove that his ideas are not dead but still relevant in the 21st century. ‘Why must they declare me dead, again and again?’ He is allowed only an hour on earth and a wonderful hour of theatre it is.

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