First Published: Autumn 1984.
Source: Published by the Workers Socialist League.
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The Thornett group handed out a bulletin – ‘Victory to the miners: bulletin of the Socialist Group’ – on August 26 at the Socialist Organiser summer school. The bulletin was dated August 16: ‘Socialist Group’ is the name taken by the Thornett group, having absorbed the former Democratic Centralist Faction.
A ‘second edition’ of the bulletin – quaintly numbered as 2, a separate bulletin – was distributed at the first day of the TUC Congress. It was a shortened and slightly updated version of no.1.
No.1 was four sides of A4. 2½ pages were filled by one article: ‘TUC support the miners: call a general strike!’ The rest was a list of names and addresses of miners’ support groups (1 page), and a short article on the support groups (½ page).A political snapshot
As one item in a regular newspaper, the main article might be tolerable: one-sided and flabby, but it could be counter-balanced by other coverage. But it was the first, and so far the only, statement by the Thornett group on the miners’ strike, and, indeed, their first political statement on any class-struggle issue since their polemic on the NGA last December (see elsewhere in this magazine).
As such it shows up and illustrates the utter political limpness and confusion of the Thornett group.
In fact, you get a good ‘snapshot’ profile of the Thornett group’s politics by looking at their bulletin together with a leaflet they also distributed at the Socialist Organiser school. The leaflet made the idiotic claim that Socialist Organiser “like the Communist Party” is interested only in fund-raising for the miners and “has carried nothing on building for strike action” (their emphasis). The only evidence cited for this claim is a reference, without further explanation, to no. 186 of Socialist Organiser – which carries prominent argument for a general strike, and detailed reporting on efforts by local groups to promote industrial action (and, of course, raise funds).
Just the usual wild denunciations – at level which makes it impossible to engage any rational discussion – plus a lack of serious ideas of their own: that’s the Thornett group summed up.
And what does it say about them that they put out such a leaflet to an audience where everyone would know that the denunciations were ridiculous? It says that they are demoralised to the point that the writer of the leaflet just churned it out without thinking about it was saying; and the others didn’t care, didn’t know, or didn’t read it very carefully.
Excerpt from ‘Bulletin of the Socialist Group no.1’.
The gist of the bulletin is that the TUC Congress should have called an indefinite general strike. There is a good deal of philosophising in the article over the meaning of various moves in the miners’ dispute, but there is nothing else in the way of proposals.
Now we agree that the TUC Congress should have called a general strike. But for socialists to make that their only proposal was foolish for a number of reasons.
1. It was almost certain that the TUC Congress wouldn’t call an indefinite general strike, or even a one-day general strike. The NUM itself was not calling for a general strike.
So then what? Abandon all hope? The bulletin certainly didn’t seem to have much hope of anything. For obvious reasons they had little hope that the TUC would heed their advice. And if, or when, the TUC Congress failed to call an indefinite general strike? The bulletin says: “The alternative is not very good . . . There is going to be no retreat by the government”.
2. It is simply not true that everything hung, or hangs, on TUC action. It is not even true that TUC action depended on the Congress.
The miners could win a limited victory without wider strike action. They did it in 1972, and their strike was a test case for a whole government strategy then, too.
Wider strike action does not necessarily depend on a TUC initiative. History has many examples of mass strike waves developing from the rank and file – in France in 1968, for example, or in Britain in July 1972.
And it is not even true that: “If no positive action is taken from this conference then there will be no realistic possibility of forcing the TUC to act”.TUC and the Rank and File
The TUC will act when, and only when, they are squeezed to screaming point by pressure from the Tories and the bosses on one side, and rank and file rebellion on the other. It would be good if the squeeze had come on just at the time of the TUC Congress. But it did not have to happen like that.
3. Even if a general strike had been called by the TUC Congress, its success or failure would be determined by the ability of the rank and file to organise to take it out of the hands of the top TUC leaders. So even if the chances of TUC action had been much better, we would have had to couple our call for it with a call for rank and file action.
4. To look at the various possibilities in between an indefinite general strike called by the TUC Congress on one hand, and the miners plugging away alone to almost certain defeat on the other, is not just pedantry or idle speculation. To fade out these possibilities is to fade out the role of rank and file initiative. It is thus to reduce your politics to literary commentary: demands on the leaders plus, presumably, “exposures” of them when they fail to comply.
That was the method of the Healyite SLL in the late 1960s. At each stage it would formulate a demand on the leadership, then centre everything round slogans, demonstrations, rallies, and journalistic polemic for that demand. Then the leadership would fail to deliver, and we would be told that it “stood exposed”, thus establishing the need to “build the alternative leadership” (i.e. the SLL). Thus the real processes of class struggle would be reduced to noises off, or illustrative episodes, for this drama of confrontation between “leaderships”.
The Thornett group is here returning to its Healyite bedrock of literary politics. But where the old SLL pursued such politics with verve and fire, the Thornett group mumbles and muses.“In the hands of the General Council”
The Thornett group bulletin raises “the problem with a general strike”, “that it would end up in the hands of the General Council and be sold out”. But its answer is no answer: “That is a possibility . . . But it is not so easy. A general strike has a dynamic of its own and it is difficult to see how the government would survive it”.
Unfortunately it is only too easy to “see” how the government could survive a general strike sold out by the General Council (as in Britain, 1926) or even a partially victorious general strike in which the government was forced to retreat but the trade union leadership blocked any further advance (as in France, 1968). The only real answer is to organise independently of the TUC General Council – for example through joint committees of miners and other workers taking industrial action. The general strike’s “dynamic of its own” can achieve nothing except through the conscious activity of militants.“General Strike to kick the Tories out”
The bulletin fails to say what objectives it proposes for a general strike. It implies something like the slogan ‘General Strike to kick the Tories out’, which the Thornett group have favoured in the past. It refers repeatedly to the government “falling” as a result of the general strike; it insists that nothing can be won unless the government does “fall” and it makes no reference to any other possibilities. In particular, it makes no reference to any revolutionary implications or possibilities of a general strike.
This line is bad in two respects. First, it poses an unreal ultimatum to the miners: overthrow the government, or you have no chance of, saving jobs. Topple the Tories, or be fated to endure everything they wish to impose on you.
Second, it would actually tend to help limit the potential development of a general strike once underway. The one thing that most certainly would not happen in a general strike is the government “falling”. It might hand over to some emergency administration: for any better outcome the working class would have to create its own government capable of replacing it. The vague notion of the government just “falling” in a general strike, and the ambiguous slogan “general strike to kick the Tories out”, could only – during a fully-developed general strike – help the bourgeoisie to have the option of defusing the strike by calling elections (as in France in 1968).
The truth is that a general strike can be motivated and initiated on limited, immediate demands such as the miners’; but once underway it tends by its own logic to escalate its demands, and Marxists should try to explain and prepare for that.A closer examination
Some of these points bear a closer examination. The bulletin, like much similar literature, can be read on two levels – on the level of the superficial impact made by the emotional content and resonance of key words, and on the level of how the actual detailed sequence of ideas stands up to sharp scrutiny.All is lost?
For anybody who reads the bulletin carefully, and accepts it seriously and literally, the bulletin preaches pessimism and defeatism. It says – more or less with the old Healyite content of 1970-4, but in a subdued and dispirited manner – that all is lost unless the government is brought down. Not only must the TUC call a general strike, but the general strike must bring down the government before there is any hope for the miners. “There is therefore going to be no retreat by the government. They have to be confronted with a force which can remove them”.
As if governments always achieve their objectives, and always get their own way, unless “brought down”! As if Heath won the 1972 miners’ strike, and Saltley Gate was a dream of Arthur Scargill’s!
What does it mean to say that all is lost unless the TUC congress calls a general strike, and unless that general strike “removes” the government – in a situation where the TUC congress was very unlikely to do that? It means telling any miner who reads what you write, thinks about it, and having thought about it agrees with you, that the whole struggle is next to hopeless.
We have seen elsewhere in this magazine just how massively Thornett exaggerated the implications and ramifications of the betrayal and defeat of the NGA in December 1983. Here, in this, bulletin, we have the self-same ideas and attitudes transmuted and changed in their expression by the tremendous events in the class struggle over the last six months. But they are still recognisably the same. Thornett has forgotten nothing – and he seems incapable of learning anything.‘The question of power’
Readers of the Healyite press in the early 1970s will recognise the pattern of thought on the question of bringing down the government, even though in tone and manner the Healyites’ vehemence has been replaced by a plodding pessimism and half-despair, trying to keep its spirits up with fantasies and hopes for an immediate semi-magical solution.
For the Healyites, too, there was always the need to bring into every issue the question of ‘power’, the need to ‘bring down the government’. They insisted, for example, that the rent strikes of 1972 were pointless because only a general strike to kick the Tories out could achieve anything. They scornfully declared that only the soft-headed could hope to win any concessions from the Tories as long as they remained in office.
In today’s conditions, when the working class is still rousing itself, in an uneven movement, from years of defeat and the depression that results from those miserable years, to insist that the only way the miners can win is if the government is brought down is to preach demoralisation and defeatism. A big mobilisation to bring down the government necessarily presupposes that the labour movement has already travelled a very long way from where we are now. It is not impossible. But to say that all is lost unless such a mobilisation happens on a predetermined date (at TUC congress} is to tell miners who have been on strike six months that their cause is utterly hopeless. It is to undermine their self-reliance and resilience from the ‘left’.
If the voice of the Thornett group were not so weak and inaudible, it would be a dead weight on the miners’ militancy. If we can be certain that the pessimistic implications do not in fact matter or count for anything, it is because the Thornett group does not matter or count for anything.The responsibilities of socialists
As we’ve seen, the Thornett group’s line of general strike or bleak defeat is not necessarily an accurate assessment of the real alternatives. There are many stages and gradations between the full confrontation we would like and a hopeless battle. The actual outcome of the TUC congress was not what we wanted – it was way short of the TUC coming up to its proper responsibilities – but, despite the probable intentions of the main TUC leaders, it can give a limited boost to the miners and increase the possibilities of working class solidarity.
But suppose the Thornett bulletin’s line were based on a more or less accurate assessment of real alternatives. When the miners are still fighting, heroically, would it be the job of socialists to proclaim such assessments dogmatically, as Thornett does, in the complacent voice of a ‘great man of much experience’ donating his accumulated wisdom, so to speak, to the strike fund? No, it would not!
Even if a general strike were the only possibility of any victory, it could not be developed by giving an ultimatum to the movement: general strike, or you’re wasting your time! With a mobilisation on the scale of the miners’ strike there are all sorts of possibilities – the two dockers’ strikes; the two near approaches to rail strikes; the current ballot of the pit deputies, who if they strike will stop all the pits in the country; even the very limited TUC moves . . . The job of socialists is to help develop those possibilities.
When the miners, who know their own situation, choose to fight on heroically; when thousands of women never before mobilised are throwing their full weight into the strike; when pickets engage in epic battles with the police like that at Orgreave, when the press and other media and the politicians (including, scandalously, Labour politicians) do everything they can to weaken the resolve of the miners- then the job of socialists is not to pontificate, but to do everything they can to sustain and encourage the movement.
When the demoralising propaganda comes, as the Thornett group’s does, from people who have plainly not thought out what they are saying and what its implications are, then it is doubly to be deplored and condemned.Hand it over to the TUC?
The bulletin also contains an unintended, but very definite, linking of arms with the TUC right wing.
The TUC right wing have used the argument, ‘You can’t win without us’, to try to blackmail their way into control of the miners’ strike. And they are scarcely concealing an intention to end it as soon as possible, even on the Coal Board’s terms. The one thing the NUM leaders cannot agree to do unless they want to scuttle the strike, is to give over control of it to the TUC – to ‘King Rat’ Murray’s chosen successor and his friends.
Yet the Thornett group bulletin states: “ Up to now there is little doubt that the tactic of the NUM in keeping the General Council out of the situation has been correct” (emphasis added) “But several factors have now changed. The TUC conference is not the General Council, there is a good chance of winning militant resolutions in support of the miners at the conference itself . . . ”
And more. “On top of that the strategic problems of the strike have changed. The war of attrition policy- you give us the money and we will stay out and win – has become more difficult with the successful use of the Tebbit laws in South Wales. The loss of the money paralyses the union . . . ”
So? The conclusion is not fully spelled out, but it seems to be, and logically must be that the NUM policy of keeping the strike out of the hands of the TUC General Council is not now correct. The train of thought is that on the present terrain of the strike (NUM ‘war of attrition’) the strike is lost, and therefore nothing more can be lost by risking a TUC sell-out.TUC control and the call for a General Strike
The Thornett group bulletin is utterly muddled on the question of the relation between TUC control and the call for a general strike.
It is right and proper to call for the TUC General Council to organise a general strike. There is no necessary corollary that it involved putting the TUC in charge of the strike. The NUM can and should make all these appeals and demands on the TUC and still keep the TUC far away from any control of the miners’ strike. In a general strike the NUM can and should contest the leadership with the TUC General Council.
Not only has the NUM been right to keep the TUC at arms’ length “up to now”, it is a life or death question, make or break for the strike, that it continues to do so, even during a general strike.
It is wrong, and can be harmful, to tell militant miners that there is a choice to be made between calling for a general strike and keeping the treacherous hands of the TUC General Council far away from the levers of control of their strike. There is no such choice; militant miners must do both, and it is imperative that, general strike or no general strike, they continue to distrust the TUC.
The militant miner who accept Thornett’s picture of the alternatives would have to reject the call for a general strike- for he would know that TUC control would be used to sell the miners out, probably before any general strike had even started.
All this may be dismissed, indulgently or impatiently, as just waffle by people who don’t quite know what they want to say – and that it surely is. But it is not accidental waffle. It sums up both their demoralisation and their underlying thoughts very well. These also are muddled, confused and contradictory, but with clearly recognisable hard shapes visible within Thornett’s cotton-wool thought and language.Saved by abracadabra?
It was perfectly clear when the Thornett group published their bulletin that the TUC was very, very unlikely to call a general strike from the Congress on September 3. The best hope the Thornett group seem to have had was that a general strike resolution would somehow emerge from the NUM, magically sweep the Congress, and then “probably up to a half” the trade unionists would go on strike.
But that would be enough. A sell-out by the leadership “is a possibility in any general strike at any time”, but this time the action “would be more than enough to . . . threaten the fall of the government in a very short period of time . . . A general strike has a dynamic of its own and it is difficult to see how the government would survive it”.
But, as we saw above, many previous general strikes – all of which had this “dynamic of their own” – have been sold out and .survived by governments. Or is it just old-fashioned ‘Trotskyist vanguardism’ to say that?
A third of a century after Pablo and Mandel discovered it, Thornett has arrived at the notion that the established leadership, pushed on by the ‘dynamic’ of historical processes, ‘can no longer betray’ – or at least that any betrayal would not have much effect.
There is a big element of ‘abracadabra’ politics here (as indeed there was with Pablo and Mandel in the early 1950s). The basic picture painted is very grim, if not hopeless: but then the problem is fantastically or magically resolved, and the underlying pessimism overcompensated for and denied by the ‘Pabloite’ method of constructing a hollow and spurious optimistic scenario.
One minute the miners are isolated and facing increasingly hopeless odds. “Nothing has come out of the meeting between the NUM and the left union leaders . . . ”. The right wing union leaders are openly hostile. The government is immovable. The next minute, those same union leaders have voted for an indefinite general strike, and even with a partial response, the previously immovable government “falls” “in a very short period of time”. Weary pessimism is wondrously transformed into fairy-story optimism. ‘With one bound’ Thornett ‘is free’.
The ‘Pabloism’ here is in no way in contradiction to the Healyite strand in Thornett’s arguments. The Healyite line of the early 1970s had its element of abracadabra, too. While it insisted sternly that no concessions could ever in anyway be wrung out of the Tory government, it was rosily optimistic about what a subsequent Labour government would do.
“Once the working class has been mobilised in a general strike to force the Tories to resign”, declared the SLL’s paper, “it will be able to deal with the traitors inside the Labour Party and the trade unions. It will have the strength to force socialist policies on a Labour government returned by direct class action . . . With such policies forced on it by the strength of the working-class, a Labour government could not be the same as previous Labour governments”.
The Labour government “returned by direct class action” in 1974 showed the worth of such predictions. Yes, the Labour leaders could still betray, even after the working class had displayed tremendous strength!
The Thornett group’s variant is simply to replace the Healyites’ prediction of the Labour leaders’ “inability to betray” in a future government with a prediction of the TUC leaders’ “inability to betray” in the general strike.Gormleyism
The combination of bleak pessimism for the here and now with an appeal to semi-magical great events which will resolve everything has a long history.
Back in 1973, the right-wing NUM president Joe Gormley got up at the NUM conference and called for a general strike. His purpose was to persuade miners not to go it alone in a clash with government policy. Only a general strike could beat the Tories, he said, and therefore the NUM should not try. It was a classic case of transparently fake ‘leftism’.
Lambeth council leader Ted Knight used the same technique in 1979-81 to justify rate rises and eventual cuts. The councils can’t stand up to the government, he said: only the big battalions of the labour movement could do that. He called for a general strike in January 1981. And. if the unions failed to deliver at the stated time -the council would have to raise the rates.
Socialist Organiser wrote at the time: Knight’s “statement hinges the whole cuts fight on a general strike by council workers in January 1981. The unvoiced let-out clause is that if the unions do not meet this arbitrary deadline, then the Labour councils will go ahead, include cuts and rate rises in next spring’s budget – and claim they have no alternative!” (SO 27.9.80).
And so it proved. The Thornett group’s intentions are different, of course. They want the miners to win. What links them to Knight and Gormley is their pessimism, which makes it impossible for them to believe in victory without a near-miracle at the TUC Congress, and their hollow Healyite concepts which lead them to focus on ‘the question of power’ in the addled form of ‘bringing down the Tories’.
Plainly they didn’t believe that the TUC congress would call a general strike. But they were trapped by old Healyite formulas, and attracted also to those formulas by the need to deny and over compensate for their prostrate pessimism. The result is that anyone who listens to them seriously will get precisely the message that Gormley and Knight aimed to put over. It is only when he breaks an eight months abstention from comment on the world around him that you realise just how golden Alan Thornett’s silence is.Conclusion
The general conclusion from all this is the same as the message about the Thornett group that will be found in the rest of the material about them in this magazine. These comrades are utterly confused and disoriented politically. They are incapable of analysing the world around them. They are hung up on old Healyite formulas. They are incapable of working out the implications of what they are saying. They cannot distance themselves from their feelings enough to think objectively. They are demoralised. At the same time they are moved by a blind revolt against those who “oppressed” them by arguing against them in the WSL. The result is an incoherent jumble.
Thornett and Jones are, as we have seen, the ‘worker leadership’. But that is all that defines them politically, in essence -a description, primarily a self-description. They are, therefore they are.
To build a worthwhile organisation it is necessary to be able to function: in the first place, and irreplaceably, to be able to think more or less straight. The ‘Socialist Group’ bulletin is the latest example to show that the Thornett group just cannot do that.
You cannot build a Marxist organisation around such a grouping as Thornett has now put together – positively a personal fan club, and negatively a few people who for reasons all their own revolted against the ultra-liberal democratic-centralist regime in the new WSL and chose to discard whatever efforts they had made to think as Marxists in favour of Thornett’s watered-down Healyism.