Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 27, 2014

Pride

Filed under: Film,workers — louisproyect @ 5:13 pm

Opening yesterday at three multiplex theaters in New York rather than in the art house circuit, “Pride” is calculated to appeal to a broader audience than one might expect given its theme: the alliance between a gay liberation group and the coal miners on strike against Margaret Thatcher in 1984.

This makes perfect sense since the art house venue would be the classic case of preaching to the choir.

As I sat through the press screening on Thursday night, I was impressed with director Matthew Warchus and screenwriter Stephen Beresford’s popular culture instincts. Basically, they put together a kind of musical comedy along the lines of “Footloose” in which a transgressive outsider from the big city breaks down the prejudices of a backward rural village. “Footloose”, made in 1984 when British gays and strikers were bonding with each other, is about the uphill battle a teenage boy has in overturning a local preacher’s ban on rock music and dancing. In “Pride”, the struggle is to gain acceptance from the miners and their families even when the Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM) have raised more money than any other support group.

There’s a key scene in “Pride” that not only evokes “Footloose” but two other icons of pop culture as well. The LGSM’ers have come to the miner’s village to drop off the weekly collections and to join in the festivities at a dance in the local union hall. As has been the case since they first began showing up, the miners stay as far from the gays as they can. They appreciate the solidarity but deeply rooted prejudices keep them at a distance.

In a flash of inspiration, one of the gay men has the DJ play a wailing disco tune that brings the women out on the floor. He joins them in a bravura performance that starts off mimicking John Travolta’s in “Saturday Night Fever” and comes to a climax with him dancing across the union hall’s bar like Pee-Wee Herman did in a biker’s bar in “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure”. In all instances, a smoking hot dancer breaks down the stiffest resistance. Even if Pee-Wee and Travolta were not explicitly gay, those in the know always knew they were.

In a way, it doesn’t matter that the film fails to point out that the miners went back to work because Thatcher broke the strike. The film ends with a Gay Pride parade with three busloads of miners joining in under the banner of the LGSM, as happened historically. While not a documentary by any stretch of the imagination, the film does not exaggerate the importance of the alliance between two groups shunned by bourgeois society. When the Murdoch press tried to drive a wedge between the two by publishing an “exposé” about “perverts” infiltrating the miner’s support movement, the LGSM came up with the brilliant idea of organizing a fundraising dance under the title “Pits and Perverts” that raised record sums. The lead group was the Bronski Beat, a fabulous band led by Jimmy Somerville, a gay man with a falsetto that would make an angel cry.

If the film gave short shrift to the outcome of the strike for obvious reasons, it was perhaps an even bigger failing that it neglected to identify the political orientation of Mark Ashton, the young man who came up with the idea for LGSM and who died of AIDS in 1987. The film alludes to him as getting involved because he was from Northern Ireland but there was more to it than that as the Guardian reported on September 20th:

But while many of those who inspired the film attended its recent premiere, Mark Ashton was absent. He died in 1987 of an Aids-related illness at the age of just 26. But now the film has sparked a surge of interest in his political activism. A memorial fund in his memory has received donations of more than £10,000 since the film’s release this month.

“He was an everything person,” said his friend Chris Birch. “He was an Irishman, a communist, an agitator, a lapsed Catholic who still went to mass very occasionally. He was very charismatic. His communism governed everything he did. He spent a couple of months in Bangladesh in ’82 and the poverty really politicised him. I miss him terribly. People tell me I didn’t smile for three months after he died.”

The Communist connection was always there, even if it was missing from the film. The Guardian article continues:

“We sought to broaden the struggle beyond the picket lines to what we called an anti-Thatcher broad democratic alliance,” recalled Hywel Francis, MP for Aberavon, and a former member of the Communist party, who helped forge links between the gay community and Welsh miners. “That is why our support group also set up the South Wales Striking Miners’ Choir and the South Wales Striking Miners’ Rugby Team.”

I can’t recommend this film highly enough for your friends and relatives who were too young to have lived through a period when the class struggle was still in the ascendancy. As the “sixties” began to wane, there was still enough of the lingering spirit of rebellion and solidarity that British miners and gays could make common cause.

Heading back home from the movie on Thursday, I reflected on how many years had passed when such things were possible. It was thirty years ago when LGSM was in the vanguard. When I joined the Trotskyist movement in 1967, I had no idea what it meant to see the labor movement in action as was the case in 1937. I only wish someone had made a film about the auto workers in Flint that would convey what was possible long before I was born.

While the labor movement was not that much of a movement when I became an activist, there were still some signs that a broader mass movement could bring together disparate elements here just as would happen in Britain. This is a report on how truck-drivers, the American equivalent of the British miners, sought out student antiwar protesters to support their strike in 1970. David McDonald, who was a member of the student support group, is the author:

The Student Worker Action Collective got its start on the Monday after the Kent State killings. The UCLA Student Union building had been thoroughly trashed and its main assembly room was emptied of earlier stuff which had been replaced by over one hundred tables staffed by various organizations of do-gooders, radicals of all stripes, people handing out peanut butter sandwiches, you name it.

Up walks Steve __________ (God help me, I’ve forgotten his last name). He worked in the office of a trucking company. The week before the 1970 Master Freight Agreement had come up for a vote in Teamster Local #208, representing local delivery drivers. The membership had rebelled, because their prior local contract, like a few others around the country, had better provisions than the proposed contract. So it was a giveback contract, pretty unheard of in those days. This occurred because Hoffa wanted all the Teamster across the country to have the same contract (a worthwhile idea, of course). Anyway, just as the rebelling local drivers were about to vote down the MFA and go on strike the meeting was gavelled closed by the local leadership. The rump body voted to strike anyway, but of course their vote was technically illegal and the bosses instantly got the courts to limit their picketting to two people per terminal by injunction.

So Steve ________ came over to UCLA and said something like, you kids are on strike, we’re on strike, but we can’t walk our own picket lines, so what if you organized a bunch of kids to come out and walk the lines for us? It was absolutely the coolest proposition anyone had ever made to any of us, so we got started on it right away. There was nothing, absolutely nothing to organizing a turnout of 2-300 kids every day to go wherever the Teamsters wanted us. Our biggest problem was always finding the barns, tucked away in corners of south LA none of us was familiar with, but we got over that. There were lots of fights with cops and pretty soon the cops began bringing giant black and white buses to cart us off in. So the Teamsters adapted and started having us show up at different places each day. Once they sent us to one barn to draw away the cops, and set off a bomb at another. That got some attention. There was a kid named Attila who had one of the first video cameras I’d ever seen, and he got the Auto workers to pay him to do a documentary of the whole thing. I never saw it. It was a very cool introduction to working class politics.

Several strike leaders went to jail for reasonably short times because they would go up in the mountains and take pot shots at scabbing truckers. We went to their trial and supported them with our little newspaper. These efforts were appreciated and when they got sprung we were invited to the out of jail party, at which I order a Coors (scab, unknown to me) beer and got unmercifully kidded about it and had to drink it with about 50 guys watching me, laughing their asses off at my newbyness at union movement stuff. SWAC boiled down to about 25-30 regulars after the Teamster strike ended (in defeat, of course) who then got lost in search of more strikes to support. Meanwhile, lots of us graduated (or so we thought) to the IS, which with WWP was the only tendency to consistently view the radicals in SWAC as recruitment material. Through people we met in the strike we later got wind of a pension reform group called $500 at 50, whose initial meeting in Grover E.(Curly) Best’s garage Steve Kindred and I attended. They had no trouble spotting us for ringers, but they didn’t care, we were good kids as far as they were concerned, and they took us along to a national rank-and-file gathering in Toledo, Ohio where we were the only ones with a mimeo machine, which Kindred and I transported from LA in a 45-hour non-stop (except to pee) drive. This little grouping blew up in no time at all, but it was the direct precursor to Teamsters for a Democratic Union, and Ken Paff, its longtime organizer, was a Bay Area ISer who, in my view at the time, vamped on our group to do his own thing. It’s all pretty boring after that.

Those days will return. Trust me. You can’t keep kicking someone while they are down, especially when they number in the tens of millions and the people doing the kicking are in the thousands. If “Pride” succeeds in reminding a mass audience of how such things come about, it will be making a great contribution—not to speak of the wonderful music and dancing.

 

3 Comments »

  1. Props for mentioning Bronski Beat.

    Comment by jschulman — September 27, 2014 @ 5:27 pm

  2. Jeez, I so clearly remember the chant “we’re here, we’re queer and we support the miners” on the demos. I just googled it and only one site appeared and that was some forum or other. I wonder if it’s chanted in the movie.

    Comment by levi9909 — September 27, 2014 @ 8:25 pm

  3. Good review.

    How are truck drivers equivalent to miners? I don’t get the connection even as a retired truck driver. Miners are miners, truckers are truckers. Most of both industries are now non union. Miners were always more militant and their union less corrupt. They were striking hard into the 80s.

    You said you came too late for the big struggles, but that’s odd. Didn’t you see the miners for democracy stuff around Arthur Miller, the Harlan County brookside strike and Pittston? These were major battles.

    Speaking of the kind of documentary with footage of old struggles you would have loved to have seen, the 1980s film “Labor’s Turning Point” is now available in its entirety on YouTube.

    Solid

    Comment by klatt — September 28, 2014 @ 5:59 am


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