Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Uncovering the Fingerprint of Communism on the British Coalminers' Strike

British coalminers' union accepted communist funds

A dirty secret of the cold war has come to light recently, as a study by Dr Norman LaPorte and Stefan Berger have revealled that Britain's National Union of Mineworkers accepted funds from East Germany in the midst of its 1984-85 coalminer's strike.

The revelation casts further light on a key page of cold war history.

The strike was considered a key ideological confrontation of the cold war. The British coal industry had been nationalized since 1946, when the Labour Party government of Clement Attlee passed the Coal Industry Nationalization Act. Coal mining in Britain would henceforth be managed by the National Coal Board until its privatization by the Thatcher government in 1987.

The strike began when the Thatcher government moved to close coal pits that were unprofitable, and had become a liability to the government. (The Tories had already attempted once to do this in 1981, but abandoned these plans in the face of a strike.)

The government's plan to close 20 pits -- at the cost of 20,000 jobs -- spurned the NUM to begin strike action.

But the Thatcher government was prepared for the strike. The conversion of many British power plants to oil, as well as pre-strike stockpiling of coal, allowed the government to ride the strike out and outlast NUM strikers.

If not for the financial intervention of the communist German Democratic Republic, one wonders how long the NUM could have held out.

The ferrying of these funds to NUM was seemingly an international affair.

"The documents talk about the possibility of using a 'go-between' from the French communist union CGT [General Confederation of Labour] who would deliver the money straight from Eastern Europe to representatives of the NUM," Berger explains. "They also allege that the East German FDGB union {Free German Trade Union Federation) helped the miners by providing free holidays for the families and children of British miners in the German Democratic Republic."

"The FDGB, the documents say, also co-ordinated the shipping of food parcels, clothing and so on to British miners," Berger continues.

The East German communists saw the coalminers' strike as a choice opportunity in the ideological struggle between communism and capitalism.

"The communists perceived the NUM as an ally in the international class struggle against capitalism - hence the close interest in the strike," Berger added.

Nor was the coalminers' strike the only time NUM associated with east European communists.

"Relations between the NUM and east European communism had been good since the 1960s," Berger explains. "It was among the first major trade union federations to call for the recognition of the GDR."

"However it was by no means the only union with a cosy relationship with East European communism," Berger continues. "By the late 1970s, 24 of 44 members of the general council of the Trades Union Congress represented unions which had 'fraternal relations' with East European communist unions."

"It was, above all, the anti-capitalism of left-of-centre British trade unionists which made them believe that East European communism was on the right path," Berger concludes. "The British Left ignored massive human rights abuses and the lack of basic freedoms behind the Iron Curtain because they believed that the basic development in the direction of socialism was right."

It was this same willful ignorance of the atrocities of communism that had turned George Orwell -- who helped popularize coalminers as a left-wing political cause celibre with The Road to Wigan Pier -- away from his admiration for socialism and led to the clear anti-communist attitude expressed in Animal Farm.

(Orwell, it could be said, may have been history's first neo-conservative.)

The revelations regarding the 1984-85 coalminers' strike could, in time, lead to deeper investigation of the 1974 coalminers' strike, in which NUM managed to bring down the Conservative government of sir Edward Heath.

With intrepid historians such as Stefan Berger and Dr Norman LaPorte exploring these issues, one can only wonder how many more such episodes could be revealled.

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