Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Arthur Scargill (1985)

Book Review from the February 1985 issue of the Socialist Standard

Arthur Scargill and the Miners by Michael Crick (Penguin, £2.50)

Great men do not make history. Churchill did not win the last war — for most of it he was too drunk to find his way to a map of Europe, let alone to the scene of the action. At most, individual men or women play exceptional roles which explicable combinations of social factors have created. To see the miners' strike as a contest between Arthur Scargill and The Establishment (an analysis presented at times by both media hacks and Leftist leader-worshippers) is to personalise an historical process which cannot be comprehended through the biographical microscope. In order to understand the strike it is far less important to know about Arthur Scargill (whom the media has attacked with an obsessive hostility) than it is to comprehend the workings of the capitalist social system, the nature of which the media-producers would be too ignorant to tell the truth about, even if they had a will to.

The first weakness of Michael Crick's Arthur Scargill and the Miners (Penguin. £2.50) is its concern to explain the history of industrial relations in the coal mining industry, and particularly the present miners' strike, in terms of the leading characters in the NUM. Biographical accounts of contemporary "political celebrities" can be enlightening — and Crick's portrayal of Scargill is well above the standards of some tabloid-style mini-biographies-for-the-proles — but should not be confused with the study of the social events within which "great men" are but small parts.

What Crick tells his readers about Scargill is sometimes surprising. We are informed that at the age of thirteen he read Tressell's The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists but, as a supporter of import controls, we can only conclude that he did not accept Owen's correct pronouncement that capitalist tariff arrangements are no concern of the working class. At the same age he read Jack London's The Iron Heel and is quoted as saying that London was the main influence in his becoming a "socialist''. That he is not a socialist is clear from other information provided by Crick. His father is a member of the Communist Party and is. according to Scargill, on its pro-Russian side. Scargill claims to be a Marxist like his father — although "now he rarely describes himself as such" (p.136). His mother was a devout Christian and it would seem that Scargill's "Marxism" is not of the sort which regards religion as the opium of the people, for "Scargill says he is a Christian ..." (p. 142). Perhaps the Bishop of Durham will soon be joining the Christian Marxist Movement and the Pope will be signing up with the Secular Society. In 1955 Scargill tried to join the Labour Party in Barnsley, but could not get a reply after writing twice. He joined the Young Communist League the following year, and when the denunciation of Stalin became fashionable found it necessary to defend the old dictator because "he did play a valuable part during World War Two".

In the early 1960s Scargill left the YCL. but it is not clear precisely why. In one interview quoted by Crick, given by Scargill to John Mortimer, he "objected to the moving of Stalin's body outside the mausoleum and changing the name of Stalingrad. It would be like us trying to pretend Churchill never existed. It was distorting history." Other reasons for his departure from the ranks of British Stalinism were that he objected to the Russian government not allowing dissidents to leave the country and that he was not happy with the strict party discipline of the CP youth section. We are told that "Cuba seems to come nearest to Scargill's idea of a model socialist state" and Scargill is quoted as saying that Cuba is "a 100 per cent improvement on what you have in the Soviet Union" (New Left Review, July/August 1975. p.33). In fact. Scargill's conception of socialism is state capitalism: "all the means of production would be brought into public state ownership" (p. 141; this is Crick s summary of what he thinks is Scargill's view). The wages system would still exist in the "Socialist Britain" envisaged by Arthur Scargill: "the wages of workers — mineworkers or any other section of the working class would be determined on the basis of discussion within the central system" (BBC2. Futures, 30 September 1982).

Arthur Scargill is not a socialist — at the moment — but he does have more than a little experience and understanding of the class struggle. He recognises that class war is inescapable within capitalism: regarding the successful mass picket of Saltley Gate in 1972 he wrote. "We took the view that we were in a class war. We were not playing cricket on the village green, like they did in '26." He realises that in strikes "We had to declare war on them, and the only way we could declare war was to attack the vulnerable points . . . " (Quoted from the New Left Review article, cited above). He is also perceptive enough to realise that schemes for so-called workers' control, often advocated by the Left, should be opposed by workers:
I reject the argument that you can have some kind of workers' control within capitalism What you can have is class collaboration within capitalism. Once we've put workers on the boards they become bureaucrats . . . those who actually sit on the boards of directors . . .  begin to think with a completely different outlook from when they were workers' representatives (Marxism Today, April 1981.)
This contrasts with Scargill's predecessor as NUM President, Joe (now Lord) Gormley, of whom Crick writes that he "loved meeting and doing deals with Prime Ministers Conservative or Labour — or with Sir Derek Ezra, the Coal Board chairman. Often the NUM Executive was excluded altogether from negotiations with the government as Gormley stitched up some deal at Number 10, or at Hobart House, the Coal Board headquarters" (p.71). In short. Gormley was a typically undemocratic leader — but we do not recall the Fleet Street hypocrites crying for NUM ballots when the Lord-to-be was collaborating with the bosses behind his members' backs. The problem for Scargill if we accept that he recognises the inevitable antagonism between classes in society and is opposed to collaborating with the master class — is that he must face up to the revolutionary struggle beyond trade unionism which the media accuses him of wanting to further, but we suspect he does not yet comprehend.

Crick's book refers repeatedly and tediously to divisions in the NUM between the Left and the Right. He is not to be blamed for using such sterile terminology, but socialists are bound to point out that such political cliches convey little about ideas. Sadly, it is characteristic of the journalistic analysis of society to see social movements in terms of political intrigue at the top: leader-watching. It would have been more useful for Crick to consider why various ideas have arisen among workers at different times — to realise that the militancy of many miners during the present strike has been a response to priorities imposed by capitalism and cannot be understood by reading the minute books of NUM committees. Indeed, the pages of the book dealing with the history of trade unionism in Nottinghamshire (Spencerism, the Tory miner and the economic reasons for the class collaboration of the miners in that area) are the best in the book (pp. 113-18). It is a pity that Crick's need to publish a media story prevented him from pursuing the kind of serious analysis presented on these pages.

In 1982 Scargill stood as NUM President on a manifesto declaring unequivocally that he would support the implementation of national NUM policy to strike against pit closures; he won 138,803 votes — his nearest rival receiving 34,075 votes, and the other three contenders collecting between them less of the votes than those cast for Scargill. To explain the miners' strike in terms of Scargill undemocratically hoodwinking the NUM membership is both facile and not easily demonstrable Nonetheless, the recorded statement by Jack Taylor, President of the Yorkshire Area, that "I will tell you what worries me about ballots .  . . We don't really trust you" (NUM Special Conference Report, 19 April 1984) is indicative of an arrogant vanguardism on the Left from which the leadership of the NUM is by no means immune. (The "you" in question was not all NUM members, but just the Nottinghamshire ones.)

Scargill and the Miners is a book about a man who is a leader. The miners, mentioned in the title, are hardly discussed in the text. Crick's outlook is symptomatic of the journalistic leader-vision which blocks up the means of mass communication in society today, and you have seen in this article most of what is worth reading in the book (but for pages 113-8. which you can read in the library). Send the £2.50 to the Socialist Party instead — we can use it to print some real analysis.
Steve Coleman

1 comment:

imposs1904 said...

Spencer was in fact a Labour MP for Broxtowe. It was only after he led the scabbing against the MFGB in 1926 that he was expelled from the Labour Party.