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Pit Sense – or No Sense?

From Subversion, No. 15 (Autumn 1995)

Book review of D. Douglass, Pit Sense versus the State: A history of militant miners in the Doncaster area (London: Phoenix Press, 1993)

This thin volume unfortunately does not live up to its title. Most of the book is a recital of union resolutions and a commentary on the activities of Doncaster miners in the N.U.M. during the 1984/85 national strike. For those not familiar with the mining industry or the structure and functioning of the N.U.M. it is also quite difficult to follow, lacking as it does a preliminary chronology of the strike or annotated diagram of the N. U. M.’s organisational structure.

Indeed the purpose behind the writing of this book is difficult to fathom until you reach the last 3 short chapters which are largely a duplication of material previously published in the pamphlet ‘Refracted Perspective’. It then becomes apparent that it is an attempt to provide some documentary evidence in support of Douglass’ defence of trade unionism and the N.U.M. in particular against criticism by revolutionaries. Basically he believes that “unofficial” action is parallel to and supportive of “officiaI” union action, rather than the beginning of a move outise and against the unions, as we believe. Partly this is done by falsely amalgamating the views of the “left” (particularly the trotskyists) with those of genuine revolutionaries. Douglass makes a reasonable job of exposing the left’s contradictory and arrogant attitude towards workers in struggle but his position in the N.U.M prevents him from dealing adequately with revolutionary criticism.

A reasonable demolition job on Douglass’s arguments has already been done in the Wildcat pamphlet “outside and against the unions“. and against the unions”. Other useful material on this debate can also be found in “Echanges” (from BP241, 75866 PARIS CEDEX 18, FRANCE in English and French). We don’t intend to repeat all these arguments ‘here but a few points are worth making.

In saying that trade unions and trade unionism are a barrier to the successful extension and development of the class struggle we are not saying that unions will never support or even organise industrial action.

Firstly, the trade union officials if they are to maintain their role as the workers’ ‘representatives’ and junior partners in the management of capitalism must be able to demonstrate their control of their ‘constituency’. This means that in the face of militancy amongst their members’ action’ of some kind has to be proposed – but the purpose of the action is to maintain their control not promote the workers’ interests.

Secondly, capitalism is made up of numerous sectional interests. The ruling class is only united when faced with a potentially revolutionary opposition In normal circumstances different sections of the ruling class are at each others throats. Different sections will be on top at different times. It is quite possible for trade union officials or a particular group of trade union officials to have to fight for their interests or even their survival within capitalism. That may even require wheeling in their members to do battle on their behalf. In some cases, and we suggest this applied to the miners and the NUM in 1984/5, both the workers and the union officials and their organisation can be under threat at the same time. In this situation understanding the different interests of each when both are involved in a ‘life or death’ struggle is much more difficult, but none-the-Iess necessary. The old adage that “our enemies’ enemies are not necessarily our friends” is worth remembering.

Thirdly, whilst we think it is necessary in any major struggle for workers to move outside the union framework, this process can often happen in practice, in only a halting and partial way. It is up to revolutionaries to encourage this process not try to tie it back into the union framework as Douglass wants to.

And lastly it is true to say that there are many aspects to the nature of the British coal mining industry and its relationship to miners and the union which make the case of the NUM not entirely typical of British and other unions. Douglass continually makes the mistake of generalising from the experience of the NUM rather than looking at the actual experience of other workers and the unions they belong to.

All in all we have to say that the writing of this book was a wasted opportunity.

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  1. January 2, 2011 at 12:57 pm

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