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Class Wars

Kevin Morley -  Striking Similarities, Parallels of Industrial Conflict, The Book Guild Ltd, Kilworth, Leicestershire, England, 2017.

Reviewed by D.R.O’Connor Lysaght

8 Octoberr 2017

Could do better. This is an important book on a very important subject. It offers a useful comparison between the two industrial disputes with which it deals. It contains much important information particularly on the capitalist state’s unscrupulous use of force to protect its ruling classes. Nonetheless, its subject matter demands more.

Its most glaring gap is one of perspective. Redoing it to the end, it might be hoped that it would contain some sort of rudimentary advice to its working class readers as to how they might avoid the defeats of 1913 and 1985. Instead Morley prints the aspiration that matters may be different in the next major clash, and does so while presenting evidence that they will change for the worse.

This is due in part to the approach expressed in the title and followed in the text. There were, indeed striking similarities in the course of the Dublin Lockout and the British miners’ strike, but the differences were important. too. They were essentially ones of context. To read this,  the  questing but uninformed reader would think that between 1914 and 1984, the socio-economic situation in these islands had changed but little, and that the conditions of the working people had been altered only according to ministerial fiat. As will be shown, this is reflection of a common, and reformist illusion prevalent in the movement Morley is trying to enlighten. The fact is that in 1984, the British economy, and particularly its industrial base was far weaker than that of the UK in 1914.  The intervening period had produced a series of crises that the classes tried to resolve according to their interests. The Dublin Lockout was part of a period of class upturn lasting until 1921-2, with the First World War being an initial setback, but an eventual stimulus. The workers failed to take permanent advantage of this  progress and their bosses beat them back (the general strike being a last industrial kick) and reimposed their solution into the Second World War. Once again, the need to abandon  classical liberal economics forced the state to  extend its embryo reforms in education, health and social welfare and to nationalise the service industries and (though with major resistance) iron and steel. this settlement lasted twenty years, but met its contradictions in the sixties. The workers wanted more: the bosses less. Labour’s commitment to parliamentary democracy could create only frustration in the class it claimed to serve. Meanwhile, after what  can be seen now as a trial run under Heath, the bosses initiated their solution under Thatcher. It involved the scrapping of most of British industry and the concentration of its economy in the Great Wen. This was the background to the miners’ defeat. With the international effect of the Soviet Union’s implosion, and the capitulation of so-called ‘New Labour’,  it has been able to last into the present decade. At last however, there are signs of a new upturn in militancy.

The point is that, as Morley remarks, the timing of the miners’ strike was set against the miners, but not just because it began in the spring, but because a general social tide was running against them. Jim Callaghan’s failure to deliver on the mid-seventies promise of his party to resolve the contradictions that had developed in the consensus had left the door open to Thatcher to set back the clock. Perhaps a victory for the miners could have reversed matters again, but the majority of Labour and union leaders were too demoralised to consider victory.

Matters were very different after the lockout. The workers seemed defeated, and were defeated in fact on Murphy’s trams.  However, in enough cases elsewhere, the workers’ renunciation of the Transport Union was ignored by bosses and workers to allow the union to survive, if weakened. Two years later, in November 1915, Murphy tried to give it the coup de grace by resurrecting the general lockout in support of the Dublin Steampacket Company bosses against their striking workers. His former allies refused to support him and killed his strategy finally. After 1920, they would attack and defeat the union on a number of fronts, but, but this was after the union had grown to an unprecedented size, only to fail to seize the opportunity to win full state power for its class. Today’s prospects have more in common with those of a century ago than with those of the 1980s, not least because it is clear what the free market can do and it is not pretty.

There is a further factor helping the working class resistance, and one which Morley should have mentioned.  He makes much of the anti-worker propaganda in the media during the miners’ strike, but he fails to note that this poison is unlikely to be as effective in the coming struggles. The social media is a force which has to be considered. The capitalist state and a few press barons can no longer dominate public opinion. Of course the net gives  space to the right, and often in its most poisonous forms. Nonetheless  it gives the left opportunities that it did not have in 1984.

These differences will not be sufficient unless the workers learn lessons from a factor mentioned in both cases by Morley.but under-emphasised by hm. In neither case was there an organisation of conscious motivated socialists to encourage the workers to think beyond the immediate issues. That the struggles themselves did encourage such consciousness is true, but it was not enough and it was weakened again in their unsatisfactory endings. The workers had to seek political guidance from  their union leaders and Labour Parties. After the Lockout, Larkin did try to build a political leadership, but it was in the militarised form of the Citizen Army, in which members learnt about military tactics bot not about the socio-political conditions for adopting them. Connolly saw an independent socialist party purely as a propaganda group. In the miners’ strike, revolutionary socialists  played important roles. but they were too fragmented to provide  any major pole of attraction for radicalising workers. The Labour Parties retained  the loyalties of most of the class that they would betray.

This leads to the question: what should such a party have advocated?  Here there are cautionary examples ignored by Morley. A socialist party should recognise the state, however democratic, as ultimately the coercive  force of the ruling class. Instinctively, many workers know this. Yet, despite the Bloody Sundays and the brutality of the police and military in both struggles, the strike leaders did not encourage their followers to draw  the necessary conclusions. In 1913, the Citizen Army was formed but whether it was a nucleus for a workers’ republic, just the cutting edge of the one big union that would break the shell of the capitalist state or just a defence force was not clarified. Instead, the strike leaders looked to success in the restricted democratic electoral process to impress the bosses. It was their failure to get such success in the Dublin municipal elections of January 1914 that broke the strike’s back.  Similarly, and though achieved, as Morley notes, with only 42% of the electoral vote, the Tory victory  of ’83, gave many trade union leaders in ’84 the excuse not to support the miners effectively.

Perhaps an higher level of political consciousness, this could have been overcome, but it was and based on a material force. Even in 1913,  only Connolly, Larkin and a few others could resist it.  Union building is an hard task, and those who built had little incentive for imperilling their task by what might prove to be adventures.  All too many of those who suffered  police violence and imprisonment for the right of workers to organise would turn to the democratic capitalist state to protect that right  and seek change, if at all, through the secret ballot. Moreover, there were rewards in this. For example, Thomas Foran, first President of the ITGWU, did not get anything like the perks enjoyed by his successors today. Nonetheless, he knew that his union position gave him a  better life than he had enjoyed as a docker and that, if it fell, he would be back standing in line at the port gates, not to mention the fact that, as a known militant he was likely to be blacklisted in Dublin and have to emigrate to find dock work in London or even Hamburg. Too many of his contemporary leaders were affected by such considerations;  they became more powerful over time as  the cautious strategy postponed the establishment of the workers’ republic and made it easier to compromise with the capitalist state. Prime Minister David Lloyd George knew well what he was doing in 1919 when he forced the union leaders to surrender in a rail strike by threatening them that if they won they would have to  take state power. All this applies even more intensely to Scargill’s alleged comrades outside the National Union of Miners in 1984.

There are minor criticisms to be made . The book could have done with stricter editing. There is too much hyperbole; for example, calling Thatcher a ‘demon’ tends to set her apart from the class she served and which. partly thanks to her, remains in charge. Morley gets various names wrong. Sir Herbert Samuel is styled Sir Hubert Samuel and Judge Sankey whose report recommended nationalisation of the mines was not yet a viscount when he presented it. Such errors can only alienate uncommitted readers.

The book remains a useful introduction to two important  industrial struggles. Though it leaves many questions unanswered, it encourages their pursuit.

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