Is direct action against an elected government compatible with democratic politics? One way to put this important question in perspective is to examine two events in the industrial struggle of the 1980s. Remember, according to the Labour leaders as we faced the Thatcherite onslaught, that direct action against a parliamentary majority, against its government, or against its police, is the greatest crime against democracy; it is the crime characteristic above all else of revolutionary socialists. Legality at all costs is better. So say the reformists. Look at the experience.
In 1989 dockers struck in defence of the National Dock Labour Scheme, which had regulated labour in the ports for the previous 40 years. When the workers were already out, nineteen shop stewards, the leaders of the strike at Tilbury, were sacked.
Circumstances were very unfavourable to the dockers; their strike soon crumbled: the National Dock Labour Scheme, one of the great achievements of the post-war Labour government, was abolished.
The sacking of the nineteen Tilbury stewards was a great blow, maybe a shattering blow, against the 1989 dockers' strike.
Two years later, an industrial tribunal said it was "unfair dismissal". Twelve of the nineteen have got their jobs back; the seven chief "troublemakers" are not likely to get back theirs. But even if all nineteen were to be reinstated, the effects of these ruthless, "unfair" dismissals — blows struck by the employers and the government in the course of the struggle to defeat the striking dockers — can never be undone: the debilitating dismissals worked their effects on the dockers' movement in 1989, and that is irrevocable.
Or take the "Battle of Orgreave", a turning point in the great miners' strike.
At Orgreave coke works near Sheffield, in the summer of 1984, Mrs Thatcher's police — semi-militarised and organised for strikebreaking from a special national police centre — fought miners' pickets in one of the major battles of the strike. If the miners had won Orgreave, they would probably have won the strike.
The police, specially trained and equipped, and operating like an army, won. They won by sheer brute, ruthless force, and more than they needed of it.
Much that the police did during the miners' strike was widely criticised at the time, even by liberals – for example, illegally stopping people moving freely about the country, or "occupying" pit villages. Still, they did it.
They did everything they needed to do to win. So did the vast employer-government machine for making dirty propaganda against the miners, whose main stock-in-trade was denunciation of "violence" — miners' violence.
And they won. If Orgreave was one of the turning points in the miners' strike, the miners' strike was a turning point for the working class and the labour movement. After the miners strike, the government and stone-age employers all over Britain were greatly strengthened.
Even so, say the philosophic people who lead the Labour Party and the TUC, it was a victory for law and order and parliamentary government against a semi-insurrectionary working-class movement. Democracy and the rule of law must prevail.
Move on seven years after the miners' strike.
In June 1991, 35 miners were paid a total of £500,000 in compensation for damage and injuries they received during the battles at Orgreave.
Earlier - in 1985 — the cases against some 95 miners charged with offences at Orgreave collapsed, when police notes were found to be forged.
But no, the courts cannot order a replay of the Battle of Orgreave. They can not, even if they would, order the Coal Board to go back seven years and act as if the miners had won at Orgreave; they can not turn Britain's industrial and political life back seven years, wiping out the still continuing effects of the miners' defeat, and substituting for it the effects of a miners' victory. If that were likely to follow from the ruling, the court would have reached a different verdict, or delayed giving one for another seven years.
Force decided that battle, which itself decided so much for the labour movement. The crying pity of it is that we did not manage to mobilise enough force to beat Thatcher's cossacks off the field at Orgreave!
The class struggle is not conducted, least of all by the employers, who always have enormous advantages, according to the Queensbury rules for boxing or by the Parliamentary Rules of Debate!
There are no early replays in the class struggle! The winners keep the spoils.
They will keep the spoils until we, having learned these lessons, beat them in the inevitable next round of the struggle of the classes, the ceaseless struggle which will never end until the working class, the great mass of the people, win the battle of political and social democracy.