By Mike Simons
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Reform, Revolution and Direct Action amongst British Miners

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Issue 435

This is a very long overdue book. It reveals a period of the most extraordinary militancy by the largest group of organised workers in Britain, a phenomenon which has largely been ignored. In 1919, as a revolutionary wave swept Europe, mass strikes gripped British coalfields waged against the coal owners, the government and the miners’ own national and regional union officials.

One reason these events have been so undocumented is because it was led by revolutionaries fighting for an alternative road to socialism to the parliamentary path espoused by the relatively new Labour Party. Martyn Ives has done a marvellous job trawling the archives to give us a detailed, clear-sighted and above all, exciting, view of a mass movement based on the organised power of the working class. This book brings the miners’ struggle to life and anyone involved in socialist or trade union struggle today will be able to draw lessons and gain insights from it — not least on the dangers of calling off action for a “review” or inquiry when victory is within your grasp.

Revolutionaries writing on 1919 have argued that Britain was on the brink of revolution or that the lack of a “British Lenin” or the failure to develop a mass communist party before 1919 was the key factor limiting the outcome of the unrest which swept the country. The detail Ives has unearthed, from union archives, government documents and most importantly amazing local newspaper reports of the time, gives us a much more nuanced picture than was previously available of how the ruling class was able to survive.

While reaffirming the possibility of revolution in Britain, Ives looks at the complex interaction of the political skills of the prime minister Lloyd George, the determination of right wing Labour and trade union leaders to face down the notion of direct action as a mechanism to deliver social change, as well as the limitations of building enduring rank and file organisation in the heat of explosive struggle.

The heart of the book is a detailed study of four coalfields. Each delivers new insights, but for me two chapters stand out. We learn that Nottinghamshire in 1919 saw unprecedented political militancy that could have been a bulwark against the right wing union leaders that set the political tone in the county through and beyond the great strike, 1984–85.

The chapter on the Scottish coalfield uncovers the efforts of the Clyde shop stewards movement to build links with rank and file militants in the coal fields. These moves were largely neglected in the memoirs of the Communist Party associated leading figures of the Clyde Engineers, such as Willie Gallacher, which is the most readily available source material for the time.

A century on, the industry no longer exists, yet it casts a long shadow across today’s politics.

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