At the time of writing it is impossible to predict with any certainty even the events of the next few weeks, let alone the overall outcome of the miners' struggle.
There is no doubt that picketing, particularly of rail workers, is starting to prove effective and might have some impact in the near future. On the other hand, a section of the NUM bureaucracy itself has come out openly in favour of miners crossing picket lines. The future of the dispute is obviously finely balanced.
We can, however, draw some overall lessons out of the events of the last few weeks.
The first few weeks of the miners' strike have shown us how a war of position, which is what the overtime ban was par excellence, can turn very quickly into a war of manoeuvre. The flying pickets, the successes and the reverses they experienced, and the sharp shifts in the tactical situation that followed from that were all examples of such a new phase.
This potential for sharp shifts in the character of the struggle is unlikely to be confined just to the miners' strike. Although there is as yet no firm evidence that the overall character of the struggle has changed, the possibility of such sharp flare-ups against a background of trench warfare is clearly a real one.
This has consequences for how socialists operate in the present period. We have in the past stressed that in a period when the working class is on the retreat it is important to start off from a realistic assessment of the situation and to seek to win to socialist ideas the small number of militants who are prepared to fight even in the difficult climate. Such a task inevitably involves a very high level of political sophistication on the part of socialists.
That assessment remains true, but there is a danger that it sounds rather one-sided. It has never been the case that this activity of winning the minority takes place in a vacuum. It has always been important to relate to the actual class struggle, and that invariably involves talking to large numbers of workers who while involved in a particular struggle are not yet ready to generalise their political ideas to overall opposition to the system.
Socialists face the difficult task of both, relating to the real needs of the struggle as perceived by large numbers of workers and of winning towards a clearer socialist commitment those fewer militants who begin to see the need for a more general opposition to capitalism. It must be stressed very firmly that the need is to do both.
In part this problem is another aspect of the famous distinction between agitation and propaganda. As Lenin points out in What Is To Be Done? the distinction is one between a large number of ideas directed at a small audience (propaganda) and a few ideas directed at a large number of people (agitation).
For us today, though, the problem is not one of laying down an abstract rule for the balance between the two: that is obviously something that will change over time as the balance of class struggle changes. Rather socialists have to be careful that we do not adopt a completely one-sided approach and engage in one activity at the expense of the other.
The miners' strike is a good test of the ability of socialists to adopt that tactical flexibility. It has presented the opportunity to speak to a much wider audience than has been the norm over the last few years and it is the duty of serious socialists to grasp the moment with both hands.
That is something which it is easy to agree with in the abstract but which can be quite difficult to put into practice in a concrete situation. For some people it goes against the ingrained habit of the last few years to suddenly find that you are not a lone and isolated voice crying in the wilderness. The temptation is to think that you must have said the wrong thing since people who are usually indifferent, cynical or hostile are now applauding your ideas.
It is vital that socialists seize the opportunity they are now presented with and learn to speak in the terms of agitation to large numbers of workers. It is highly unlikely that we will have any significant effect on the outcome of the miners' strike: there are too few socialists around for that. But we can gain respect for our ideas, win a new audience and shift, however marginally, the emerging generation of militants who are cutting their teeth around this strike, both in the pits and in solidarity, towards socialist ideas.
Whatever the outcome of the miners' strike, that task is an important one. It is most unlikely that, if the miners win, then the struggle will continue on an uninterrupted upward path to the seizure of power by the working class. And it is most unlikely that if the miners are defeated then that will mean that there are no more strikes anywhere for the next few years.
Of course, the outcome matters. If the miners win the general pattern will be one of improvement; if they lose the pattern will be one of decline.
Consider where we are starting from. This strike is much more difficult than that of 1972: then there were mass pickets but the miners were united and determined. This time the mass pickets have had to work very hard even to close down some pits. And we have to be clear that in 1972 there were defeats for the working class as well as victories. Although the victory of dockers over the industrial relations act gave a new confidence to every militant, it was immediately followed by a building workers' strike which, although hard fought and militant, was in fact defeated.
The probability is that this time round there will be ebbs and flows, perhaps of an even sharper nature. Therefore the task will continue to be one of maintaining a clear political position which will enable one to survive the worst aspects of any ebb in struggle while retaining sufficient tactical flexibility to intervene on a mass scale when the opportunities arise.
If those lessons are learnt now, then the chances of building a bigger socialist current capable of materially affecting events will be made that much easier.
Socialist Review - April 1984