Labour’s leadership contest: illusions and confusions on the left

Posted: September 10, 2013 by Admin in British politics, capitalist crisis, Capitalist ideology, Class Matters, Labour Party NZ, Marxism, National Party NZ, New Zealand economy, New Zealand history, New Zealand politics, Unions - NZ, Workers' rights
Labour leadership contestants

Labour leadership contestants

by Philip Ferguson

The simple fact about the Labour leadership contest is that it’s like various brands of some product being in ‘competition’ when by law they’re required to have the same key ingredients anyway.

However, you wouldn’t know this from much of the media comment.  While much of the mainstream media largely focuses on the Labour leadership contest as a personality contest, coupled with who has the best chance to beat Key, much of the ‘left’ media is fixated on who can beat Key, coupled with illusions – if not delusions – about who is more left than who.

Over on The Standard, James Henderson has some useful insights:

  1. “There’s a lot of nonsense being talked about a shift to the ‘hard-Left’ under Cunliffe. But the facts don’t support that. The ideas he’s put forward are mainstream policies. . .”

  2. “For quarter of a century, after being stung by Rogernomics, the Parliamentary Labour Party has been dominated by middle-class liberals and has predominately pursued liberal issues. It has failed to have a credible vision and plan around the economy, the small-s socialist side of things has withered, and Labour has largely bought the neoliberal consensus. . .”

  3. “The working class has abandoned a Labour that only considers them as an after-thought.”

Unfortunately, these insights are mixed in with severe illusions.  Thus the full sentences or paragraphs are:

  1. “There’s a lot of nonsense being talked about a shift to the ‘hard-Left’ under Cunliffe. But the facts don’t support that. The ideas he’s put forward are mainstream policies that have worked here in the past and work now overseas. What’s different is that Cunliffe doesn’t and won’t put them forward in a tepid, half-ashamed manner.”

2 & 3. “And what else is different is is unashamed focus on the economic causes of inequality. For quarter of a century, after being stung by Rogernomics, the Parliamentary Labour Party has been dominated by middle-class liberals and has predominately pursued liberal issues. It has failed to have a credible vision and plan around the economy, the small-s socialist side of things has withered, and Labour has largely bought the neoliberal consensus (including, to be fair, Cunliffe himself although the GFC was a wake up call and, to his credit, he responded where many haven’t). The working class has abandoned a Labour that only considers them as an after-thought. That will change with Cunliffe.”

Lacerate Labour, but endorse Cunliffe?

Further to the left is John Minto.  In a post on The Daily Blog, the veteran leftist, someone for whom we at redline have a great deal of respect, lacerates Labour.  He notes the impact of ‘Rogernomics’ on the working class and how Clark’s government never overturned the key changes introduced by the fourth Labour (and fourth National) governments.  As he notes of the fifth Labour government (1999-2008):

“Helen Clark was a less extreme free-marketeer but she never broke with the 1980s either in vision or economic direction. She did introduce Working for Families which eased the burden for families of those in work but deliberately left in poverty the families of beneficiaries.

“Instead of dealing directly with unlivable incomes and massive corporate profits Clark subsidised employers by topping up low wages and instead of dealing directly with high rents she subsidized landlords with the accommodation supplement.

“And despite nine years of strong economic growth she left office with 175,000 kiwi kids still growing up in poverty.”

John also notes, “a party seeking power for its own sake – to get its MP’s more lucrative jobs as cabinet ministers is the only obvious aim.”

Yet here the next two sentences, which make up the end of the article, claim: “David Shearer’s resignation last week gives Labour another chance to break the stranglehold from the 1980s. The only person capable of doing so is David Cunliffe.”

Labour no vehicle, but back Cunliffe?

Another enthusiast for David Cunliffe is the International Socialist Organisation, which identifies as revolutionary Marxist.  Like James Henderson and John Minto, leading ISO figure Dougal McNeill makes some important points:

“We do not think the Labour Party is a vehicle for workers’ interests. Rather, we argue for building our forces outside parliament – in the unions, in social movements, in protest campaigns – and, ultimately, constructing a revolutionary socialist alternative to the pro-capitalist politics of Labour.”  He also notes in relation to Cunliffe, that his “record in the Fifth Labour government as a proponent of Public Private Partnership reminds us we’re dealing with a canny politician and not a principled campaigner.”

Yet in the same article Dougal writes: “It’s a good thing (David Shearer) has resigned – he was useless and bumbling against Key when issue after issue offered opportunities to attack the government for its anti-worker record.”

And he continues: “. . . what happens inside Labour matters. Tens of thousands of workers still look to Labour for some sort of alternative – no matter how much their expectations may have lowered down the years – and important unions are still affiliated to Labour. It remains a reformist party, and the most important political force in the workers’ movement. And tens of thousands desperately want to see an Opposition Leader who can do the basic job of opposition, whatever their stance on Labour. We want to see Key and his neoliberal agenda defeated. So the question of who leads the Labour party is not one that can be put to one side or answered with abstract slogans.

“It’s easy to see why many have become energised by David Cunliffe’s campaign. He’s appealing to the left-wing desires of Labour’s membership – a membership well to the left of the careerists and neoliberal relics who dominate the caucus – and is talking a language almost unheard of from Labour politicians in a generation. He made sure to mention taxing the rich and a capital gains tax in his candidacy speech; concrete, pro-worker policies.”

Dougal believes, “Cunfliffe’s campaign pushes the discussion to the left, raises questions about what an effective opposition to Key might look like, and seeks to raise workers’ expectations. It opens a space for left-wing ideas and phrases to get a hearing. Political questions and the question of strategy are getting discussed in offices, factories and campuses across the country. This can only be a good thing.”

As for Grant Robertson, Dougal sees him as “surely responsible for its meandering, directionless sense of ‘business as usual.’ He is the candidate for more of the same stale Third Way.”  By contrast, Dougal tells us, “Cunliffe recognises that the economic situation, and the level of disengagement from mainstream politics by the poor and workers, is such that, no matter how opportunistically, his tack to the left pushes Labour in a new direction.”

While Dougal rightly suggests that no worker or progressive should vote Labour, he rather contradictorily suggests “if you are in an affiliated union and able to vote in this contest, you should support David Cunliffe. A Cunliffe victory would push Labour, to some extent, to the Left, and has the chance to raise expectations beyond the party.”  Then he goes on to state, in contradiction to his endorsement of Cunliffe, “The real contest, of course, comes afterwards. How will we rebuild the union movement? How can we continue the fight against the ERA amendments? How can we oppose Key’s anti-beneficiary agenda? No Labour leader will answer those questions. It’s up to the rest of us.”

What are we to make of all this insight mixed up with illusion and resulting political contradiction and confusion?

Let’s start with John Minto’s endorsement of Cunliffe, because it is the briefest.  John’s endorsement of Cunliffe is in logical opposition to everything else that appeared in his article.  We don’t believe for a moment that John actually has any illusions in Cunliffe.  John is perfectly aware of the nature of the Labour Party as NZ Capital Ltd’s alternative management – and the fact that sometimes it is the ‘in’ management.  Indeed, we would guess that John is perfectly aware that on the two occasions that New Zealand capitalism has been up shit creek without a paddle, Labour – not National (or its Liberal-Reform predecessors) took over the waka and paddled it to safety, at the expense of workers.  I suspect John has simply been caught up, hopefully only momentarily, in the rather orchestrated circus around the Labour leadership contest and decided, without any enthusiasm, that he should publicly endorse Cunliffe as some kind of lesser-evil candidate.

Isn’t it rather late for illusions in Labour?

In the case of James Henderson, The Standard is a Labourite blog so it’s understandable that its writers would endorse one or other candidate.  However, in 2013, are James’ illusions about Labour understandable?  Is it really possible in 2013 for critics of capitalism to have illusions that Labour is anything other than one of NZ capital’s two management teams?  James points to the economic consensus that Labour is part of, and appears to understand it.  Or does he?  One of the problems is that his understanding is that Labour is part of “the neoliberal consensus”.  In other words, a policy consensus.  Thus, logically for James, Labour could choose to be part of some other, alternative policy consensus.  Or start a whole new ball game and force national to be part of that, as the last Labour-led government did with Kiwibank and Working for Families.  Leaving aside different estimates of whether National (or the Clark government) could even be described as ‘neoliberal’ anyway, the key consensus that Labour is part of is the capitalist consensus, not agreement around any one specific set or subset of capitalist policies like ‘neoliberalism’.

What drives Labour governments, and those who aspire to run them, is the needs of capital.  In the 1980s NZ capital was stagnating; indeed, there was a serious crisis, the most serious since the 1930s.  Capital needed to restructure: to cut costs, to cut drains on surplus-value, to step up the rate of exploitation.  In other words, it needed a set of measures to drive down the standard of living of the working class and the ability of the working class to resist.  (For a more in-depth account of how capitalism works and why, ultimately, it doesn’t, see here.)

James seems to understand a bit better than Dougal that all Cunliffe is offering are “mainstream policies” in the economic sphere.  But James also believes such economic policies “have worked here in the past and work now overseas.”  Here he is only half-right.  By “worked here in the past” he is presumably talking about the period from the start of the first Labour government (1935) to the end of the third National government (1984) and by “mainstream policies” he is presumably referring to Keynesianism, the dominant economic theory and the set of policy prescriptions derived from it.  Well, they worked in the sense that they were the policies that were dominant during that period and for almost three decades of that time (1945-1973) New Zealand and the rest of the western capitalist world) enjoyed a massive economic boom period.  But were Keynesian policies really responsible for the boom?

The real reasons for the postwar boom

A massive capitalist crisis like the Great Depression from the late 1920s to the early-mid 1930s is a sign of the sickness of the capitalist system, but it is also a cure.  During a massive depression the price of workers’ wages is pushed down below the value of workers’ labour-power, inefficient capital is driven to the wall, competitors are wiped out, capital becomes more concentrated and centralised, and the state takes on wider responsibility for the management of the sickness.  Even with all that happening, the Great Depression was not really overcome until World War 2.  It took a world war and the resulting millions of human corpses for capitalism to be reinvigorated.

During war, especially on the scale of WW2, the capitalist state takes over direction of the economy and makes it massively more efficient and productive – no capitalists favour a laissez-faire market approach during a major war!  Through centralized planning, productivity expands dramatically, workers’ wages expand far less dramatically and the state oversees shackles being placed on workers’ ability to strike, massive amounts of capital are destroyed, partly through the physical destruction of war but, more significantly, through the destruction of capital values.  Thus the basis is established for a new round of capital accumulation.  In such a situation, which prevailed at the end of World War 2, practically any set of capitalist economic policies would have been “successful”.  In other words, it wasn’t Keynesian policies which made postwar capitalist economies successful; it was the massive destruction of the Great Depression and World War 2  which lifted capitalism out of slump and creating a massive postwar boom which made Keynesian policies “successful”.

From boom to slump: from Keynesianism to neoliberalism

However, by the early 1970s, the key factor undermining capitalism, one which is inherent to the system and for which there is no prevention, reasserted itself.  Namely, the law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall.  The response to the end of the postwar boom and the onset of a new period of capitalist economic slump was for governments to turn to their Keynesian handbooks.  After all, hadn’t even Richard Nixon declared in 1968, “We’re all Keynesians now”?  And so the standard Keynesian policies, or those relating to demand-side economics in particular, were implemented.  However, instead of solving the new slump, the implementation of such policies appeared to make things worse.  Putting more money into the economy, largely by expanding public spending through borrowing, produced a massive increase in inflation rather than having the expected result of increasing demand and therefore supply.  Because of the problems of profitability, capitalists were not prepared to carry out the massive capital investments in production which the Keynesians expected; rather, they simply put up prices.

The productive economy further stagnated.  The result was the phenomena of stagflation – massive inflation and massive stagnation – something which, according to Keynesian theory, was not possible.  Keynes therefore began to be discarded.  In other words, Keynesian ideas fell out of favour not because cabals of sneaky neoliberals took over Reserve Banks, Treasury Departments, government policy units and the economics departments of universities; it fell out of favour because it could not explain what was actually happening in the economy, while the implementation of Keynesian ideas in practice made the crisis even worse.

Neoliberalism became dominant for two reasons.  Firstly, because Keynesianism, at both the theoretical and practical level, had no answer to the crisis.  Secondly, because the policy prescriptions of neoliberalism happened to fit with what the ruling class needed to do: raise the rate of exploitation, cut drains on surplus-value, and open up new frontiers – both domestically and globally – for capital.

While neoliberal policy certainly succeeded in doing each of these things, capitalism today is so clapped out that nothing on the scale of the massive post-WW2 boom appears possible.  Neoliberal policy removed everything that neoliberal theory said was an obstacle to a dynamic capitalist economy – powerful unions, state spending on stuff that doesn’t produce or help produce surplus-value, regulation of private business and so on – yet still there is very little dynamism in the system.  We’ve had some bubble booms, which have quickly subsided – the boom in share prices in the 1980s that collapsed with the October 1987 share market crash; the dotcom boom; the housing boom; and so on – but nothing on the scale of the postwar boom.  Moreover, while the postwar boom was centred in the productive sphere – the sphere where new value is created – the ‘booms’ of the past 30/35 years have been in the non-productive sphere (the sphere which makes money by parasitising off surplus-value from the productive sphere).  The productive sphere has to shoulder the burdens of the debt built up in the non-productive sphere and thus becomes more stagnant itself.  So we have this strange situation where heaps of economic activity is going on, yet the capitalist economy in countries like New Zealand remains sluggish.

Labour’s project

What all this points to is that, from the standpoint of the material interests of the working class, the salient point about Labour is that, whoever is leader and whichever set of “mainstream policies” are pursued, workers will cop it when capitalism faces profitability problems, as it regularly does.  Based on evaluating the past 30 years, there is no big economic boom on the horizon, so workers will continue to cop it.  However, even in a boom situation the rate of exploitation rises because, and as, workers become more productive; moreover, even a genuine boom would set in motion the very factors that create the law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall.

Since James is a Standard writer, we assume he is a left social-democrat although it has also been suggested to me by a usually well-informed friend that his name is a nom-de-plume for a Green Party spin doctor.  In any case the problem left social-democrats, or leftish Green Party spin doctors, face is that they want to make an inherently crisis-ridden and unjust economic system ‘fairer’.  The only way to create an economy which is not crisis-ridden and which provides for the human needs of all is to get rid of capitalism.  That is a project to which Labour parties, as capitalist management teams, are utterly dedicated to prevent happening.

Finally, to turn to Dougal.  Unlike James, Dougal is committed not to an alternative set of economic policies within capitalism but to the overthrow of the capitalist system and its replacement by a society in which production, distribution and exchange are owned and operated collectively by the great mass of humanity and operate in the interests of the great mass of humanity.  Unfortunately, as is only too often the case on the left, this desire, which ISO and us share, is obscured by the political approach of Dougal’s article.  For instance, why would Marxists be interested in giving advice to capitalist management like the Labour Party?  After all, isn’t saying that David Shearer was “useless and bumbling” a strange position for any anti-capitalists?  Why would any anti-capitalist care whether he was or wasn’t?  Isn’t that a concern of the capitalist media, political managers and so on, not one of anti-capitalists?  Isn’t it, in effect, advising Labour how to operate with a more credible leader?  In other words, it’s suggesting that this particular capitalist management team needs a better team leader?  How does that help the working class?  (Indeed, from the standpoint of the working class, isn’t it better to have more “useless and bumbling” capitalist politicians rather than fewer?)

Taxation and the needs of capital

Dougal, we know, has no illusions in the fundamental nature and workings of capitalism.  Why then, suggest that “taxing the rich and a capital gains tax” are “pro-worker policies”.  They are, from a Marxist viewpoint, no such thing.  The rich were taxed far more heavily under the third National Party government led by Robert Muldoon than under any succeeding Labour or National governments.  This would mean that Muldoon was pursuing “pro-worker” policies.  Indeed, as anyone who has done the Canterbury University stage one global history course knows, higher levels of taxation on higher levels of income was suggested over 200 years ago by Adam Smith!  There’s nothing inherently “pro-worker” about “taxing the rich” proportionately more.

Indeed, this is a redistributionist argument rather than an expropriationist argument.  It suggests that the problem is the distribution of income within capitalism, which can be solved by taxation, rather than the ownership of the means of production, which can only be solved by expropriating the capitalists.  Even ‘progressive’ wealthy capitalists like Sam Morgan and Gareth Morgan have pointed out that taxes on incomes have little effect on people like them and called for taxes on wealth.

However, the key problem is that higher taxes on the rich are suggested by many on the left as a way to solve the problems of capitalism.  But, since tax is a deduction from surplus-value, what higher taxation on the rich, in the context of a capitalist slump does, is deepen the slump.  Fair enough, we have no interest in helping capitalism stave off slump.  However, the left advocates of higher taxes never tell workers that this will be the result of the demand for higher taxes being met, just as high taxes on the rich deepened the slump in the 1970s and helped pave the way for the rise of neoliberal economic theory and policies.  The simple fact is that there is no solution to the problems of slump, intensifying exploitation and inequality under capitalism.  When some Marxists try to look more ‘realistic’ and ‘practical’ by putting forward Keynesian type views on taxation all they are doing is adding to the confusion of workers about the fundamentals of how capitalism works.  (For a more in-depth look at taxes and why capitalists prefer this or that type of tax, see here.)

What about capital gains tax?  That’s even less a pro-worker policy.  Sections of the capitalist class, especially in the productive sphere, favour capital gains tax.  It is a capitalist management device the purpose of which is to shift investment from fields which merely draw on existing surplus-value created in the productive sphere to greater investment in the productive sphere itself.  For instance, one of the marked trends in New Zealand capitalism today is investment in houses and property more generally and lack of investment in production, the arena in which surplus-value is created.  Even National has toyed with the idea of capital gains tax because they know that the existing situation cannot go on indefinitely and that the productive sphere is somewhat starved of investment.  Because the most parasitical elements of the NZ capitalist class tend to support National, Key has been reluctant to impose much discipline on them and use the power of the state to force them to shift to more productive forms of investment.  Although for part of the 1980s Labour monopolised the support of this sector of capitalists, in general the capitalists most inclined to support Labour come from the productive sector, capitalists whose businesses make actual stuff, ie create surplus-value.

The job of Marxists in relation to the various forms of taxation should be to demystify them for workers, especially since taxation, while real, also – and this happens both simultaneously and spontaneously – helps mystify the essential, or inner, workings of capitalism.

In effect, this is offering tax advice to capitalist governments, or lobbying them over tax.  No matter how militant the form of lobbying – and we don’t doubt Dougal is in favour of the most militant forms of lobbying – it is essentially giving economic advice to the capitalists, and their state and governments about how best to manage the distribution of income and investment within capitalism.

Labour: a workers’ party of some sort?

While Dougal repeatedly makes good points about how Labour is not our party or on our side and that parliament is not the arena in which fundamental social change will be organized, these points are continually weakened and undermined by concessions to parliamentarianism, like the concern that Labour’s leader not be “useless and bumbling”, and to the Labour party itself.  For instance, Dougal claims, “important unions are still affiliated to Labour. It remains a reformist party, and the most important political force in the workers’ movement.”  Actually, the big majority of unionised workers are not in unions affiliated to Labour and the vast majority of workers have no organisational ties at all to Labour.  While leaders of affiliated unions still spout delusional nonsense about Labour as some kind of “worker-friendly” party, when faced with any counter-arguments they usually adopt a defensive, even apologetic position on affiliation.

Affiliation is more often justified negatively – “it’s better to be inside the tent” – than positively.  Moreover, these affiliations work to the detriment of the unions involved.  Far from being a conduit for union militancy to pass into the Labour party – the standard claim made by Trotskyist currents for many decades – union affiliations are one of the mechanisms by which the capitalist ideology of the Labour parties passes into the organised working class and they are missionised by the low horizons which Labour, as a capitalist management team, must of necessity try to impose on the working class.  Instead of giving advice to unionised workers of which slimy chancer they should vote for as Labour leader, ISO would do better to be advising those workers to get their unions disaffiliated from the capitalist Labour Party.   Which brings us nicely to the nature of the New Zealand Labour Party.

Dougal claims it is still a “reformist party”.  Well, every party wants reforms of some sort, so in that sense it’s perhaps an argument.  However, Dougal, as a Marxist, presumably means it is still a reformist workers party.  Since he also says it is “the most important political force in the workers’ movement.”  But how so?  In fact, on this score the left social-democrat James Henderson has a better understanding, when he notes that it is essentially a liberal party.  After all, in what sense can the Labour Party even be said to be part of “the workers movement”?  In real terms, it has scarcely any worker-activists.  The leadership contest has brought out some working class paper members where we all already knew Labour still had some, like in south Auckland.  But where are the working class Labour activists?  In fact, Labour hasn’t had a solid body of working class activists since 1951.  Indeed, workers began dropping out of the Labour Party well before that – in fact, serious research has shown that the noticeable exodus of workers from Labour began under the first Labour government.

By the 1960s the Labour Party was a shell.  I know this from both serious academic research done by others (see our pamphlet on the LP referred to in Further Reading) and from personal experience.  For instance, I joined it briefly while at high school in 1972.  I joined it in one of the most working class constituencies in the country, with massive Labour majorities at election time: the old Avon electorate in east Christchurch.  In this traditional Labour stronghold, there was not a single working class member under 60, apart from myself, while barely 12-15 people attended the monthly meetings.  The only two other members under 60 were the daughter of motel owners, who went on to be a businesswoman and mayor, and another middle class person who made no great secret of the fact he had joined because he wanted to get on the city council.  (I had no ambitions such as those of David and Vicki and left after a few months, glad to breath fresh air again and confused as to why the Socialist Action League, to which I belonged, had gotten myself and other members to do a bit of entry work in this smelly old shell of a party.)

When the Labour Party did get an influx of members this influx was overwhelmingly middle class (people like Helen Clark ) or folks that came from the working class but had climbed into the middle class (people like Michael Cullen).  During the Muldoon era, middle class liberals flocked into the Labour Party.  Happy with the liberal social reforms of the fourth Labour government, many of these folk turned a blind eye to ‘Rogernomics’ or became Rogernomes themselves, Michael Bassett being a good example of a social liberal who embraced Rogernomics very comfortably.  In 1989 most of the ‘left’ within the Labour Party, led by Jim Anderton, walked out and set up the NewLabour Party, a mix of Old Labour economics and new liberal social views.  The Labour Party was gutted by that split and has never recovered.

There has been no new flooding of workers into Labour.  Moreover, even a quick glance at Labour’s lists at election time reveals a bunch of managers, lawyers, academics and other professionals, accompanied by a tiny number of trade union bureaucrats.  This is in marked contrast to Labour’s first few decades where some sort of apprenticeship in the working class, even if a pretty wretched one, was essential for people aspiring to becoming Labour MPs.  The New Zealand Labour Party today is a liberal-capitalist party in terms of politics and a middle class party in terms of dominant social composition.  Dougal’s analysis of Labour’s connection to the working class is at least 60 years out of date.

The last point in Dougal’s endorsement of David Cunliffe for capitalist management is the tactical one which sadly seems to regularly trump core principles when it comes to ISO’s practical politics (see, for instance, here).  This is Dougal’s view that “A Cunliffe victory would push Labour, to some extent, to the Left, and has the chance to raise expectations beyond the party.”  This a variation of the unfortunately rather widespread view that Labour victories raise workers’ expectations.  The idea is that Labour will then fail to meet these expectations so the working class will get pissed off and go into battle.  The most prominent Marxist to put forward this view in recent decades was Tony Cliff, the leading figure in the British Socialist Workers Party and the founder of the international socialist tradition which the ISO comes from and still largely identifies with.

Cliff suggested (and his organisation recommended) that workers in Britain in 1997 should vote for Tony Blair and the British Labour Party for these reasons.  However, the opposite happened to Cliff’s prediction.  Far from Blair’s victory raising expectations, the Labour Party was dedicated to restraining such expectations.  Indeed, it was dedicated to lowering workers’ expectations and then attacking the working class.  The result wasn’t that the working class surged forward into battle; it was that workers entered a period of demoralisation and depression.  Cliff’s expected fightback never occurred, and his organisation has never really recovered from that disorienting experience.  Nor, sadly, have they learned anything from it.

In fact, in 1997, the tools of Marxism, creatively deployed, would have made an analysis that identified that Blair and ‘New Labour’ in Britain were in the business of lowering workers’ expectations.  Furthermore, the needs of British capital meant that a new programme of privatisations and commodification was on the agenda, along with other attacks on pay, conditions, the ‘social wage’ and so on.  Labour, as one of British capital’s two main management teams, would have the job of carrying out this programme.  Calling on workers to vote for this team of capitalist managers could only serve to obscure the key function of Labour, confuse and demoralise any workers influenced by the SWP, and disorient the SWP’s own work within the working class.  And all that is exactly what happened.

Moreover, in this country the SAL took a similar position in relation to the 1984 election and never recovered from their totally false expectations of what would happen after the fourth Labour government took power.  Or look at something in New Zealand like the election of the fifth Labour government in 1999 or, say, the election of Len Brown as mayor of greater Auckland.  Did Labour’s 1999 victory raise workers’ expectations and lead to increased levels of worker militancy?  Were the expectations of the working class in Auckland raised by Labourite Brown’s election?  Or did the affiliation of the Maritime Union to the Labour Party when Brown and the council-owned Ports of Auckland company was attacking the Ports of Auckland workers simply make MUNZ look like a target who was, in effect, willingly giving bullets to a hitman.    Did MUNZ support for Brown and Labour help clarify or obscure key issues for workers?

We can see why David Cunliffe is presenting himself as “pro-worker”, but it’s a bit of a mystery as to why ISO should lend him a hand.  Wouldn’t it be better to just tell the truth to workers, however difficult it might be, rather than encouraging them to vote for Cunliffe for leader and breeding illusions in the class nature of what is really a party of the class enemy.

Further reading:                                                                                                                                    We’re currently updating our history of the New Zealand Labour Party, but for the story up to the early 2000s, see Labour: a bosses’ party.

  1. says:

    “Why then, suggest that “taxing the rich and a capital gains tax” are “pro-worker policies”. They are, from a Marxist viewpoint, no such thing. ”

    Phillip have you actually read the communist manifesto?

    Either Marx himself is wrong along with Dougal or you are.
    (I think it’s you)
    What makes your version of marxism disturbing is the I AM RIGHT AND EVERYONE ELSE IS WRONG sanctimony that infects your entire corpus of work. People can just disagree on stuff you know.

    • Thomas r says:

      Capital gains may hit the rich rather than the Working class, but its Wrong to label then pro worker.

      What I thought Henderson failed on is some facts though. The working class in Australia still vote majority labour, and I imagine that trend is similar here. Perhaps many abstain from voting, some support for third parties too. But it seems incorrect to say no workers vote labour. Labour arent a working class party, but the people voting for them can not have sprung out of nowhere? Unless we are woking with different definitions here, the working class are still the majority, and nz still has the majority of people participating in elections, no?

      • PhilF says:

        Yes Thomas, I agree. Clearly a significant section of workers still vote Labour here. In the United States, a large section of workers vote for the capitalist Democratic Party. However, a substantial part of the working class also no longer vote Labour. As you suggest, many abstain. Many vote for other parties, including National. National could never form a government without a significant amount of workers voting for it, for instance.

        However, a lot of people on the left haven’t engaged in much analysis of Labour *over the past 30-40 years*. In our Labour Party pamphlet we used serious academic research about stuff like Labour’s social composition and the base of its vote. Too often people on the left make statements about the Labour Party that haven’t actually been true for many decades. Those kinds of statements are rarely, if ever, backed up by statistics or other credible research.

        In NZ the idea that Labour is still some kind of workers’ party is an article of faith rather than the result of serious analysis. On the Marxist left, I think it is only ourselves in Redline and the group you belong to, Fightback, which reject the notion that Labour is still some kind of workers’ party. (Obviously, outside the Marxist left, there are the class-struggle anarchists who also reject the notion of Labour being any kind of workers’ party.)


    • PhilF says:

      Yep, Fattony, people can just disagree on all kinds of things. I’ve no problem with that.

      But then, you also tell me that I’m wrong and in contradiction to the Communist Manifesto, and that you’re right, so you don’t seem to be quite living up to your own admonishments!

      Anyway, I’ll answer your point about taxation and the Communist Manifesto because it’s a common mistake on the left and one I also made for many years. I assume the bit of the Communist Manifesto you are referring to is the ten-point programme in Chapt 2. Point number two is “A heavy progressive or graduated income tax.” However, you don’t seem to have read what goes before that.

      Here’s the *actual context* in which they argue for the implementation of the ten-point programme: “The proletariat will use its political supremacy to wrest, by degree, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralise all instruments of production in the hands of the State, i.e., of the proletariat organised as the ruling class; and to increase the total productive forces as rapidly as possible.”

      So it’s very clear that the ten-point programme is to be implemented by a *revolutionary workers government in the course of abolishing capitalism*. Progressive taxation would be imposed by “the proletariat organised as the ruling class”. Hardly the situation in New Zealand today or the context which Dougal was writing about.

      Marx and Engels are not arguing that leftists should demand *a capitalist government* bring in progressive tax. As I noted, it was Adam Smith who argued for that position.

      So it appears that it is Dougal and your good self who are wrong. (Actually, it might be just you because Dougal never claimed that Marx and Engels advocated that position in the CM; that was just you.)

      It will be interesting to see if you have the good grace to recognise that you took Marx and Engels out of context.

      It’s also important to note that the Communist Manifesto was one of their earliest writings and appeared long before their major works of economic theory and analysis were produced.

      Btw, fattony, if I had a dime for every mistake I’d made in the course of my political life, I’d be rich indeed. But your objection to the critique of the ISO position is phrased in such a way that it would mean any serious polemic would be impossible. Anybody would be able to present anything as Marxist and no-one would be able to disagree.

      Meanwhile, fattony, it would be nice if you actually engaged with the article in some kind of constructive way.


    • Don Franks says:

      Your “I AM RIGHT AND EVERYONE ELSE IS WRONG” accusation does not stand up Fattony.

      As well as differing with them, Phil also cites several points of agreement with James Henderson, John Minto and Dougal McNeill.

      “Labour’s leadership contest: illusions and confusions on the left” uncompromisingly and thoroughly critiques a gang of rogues. Pro worker activists will find it a handy weapon.

  2. Don Franks says:

    (Just to be clear, by ‘gang of rogues’ I refer to the capitalist Labour party, not the activists .)

  3. Malcolm says:

    Hi Phil,

    Good article. I’ve also been puzzled by how much the current Labour leadership contest has been talked up by people on the left as if it indicates some kind of shift in the role of the Labour Party. I’m interested in what you think about the question of capital’s ability to grant concessions to the working class. Do you think reformism is no longer viable? Has social democracy been consigned to the dustbin, or do you think it is still possible to think about some kind of renewed social democratic party? I guess I’m asking about the continued relevance of parliamentarianism to revolutionary politics.

  4. PhilF says:

    Hi Malcolm,
    We tried to grapple quite a bit with this back in the days of *revolution* magazine. I’m not exactly a fan of Tony Cliff but I thought he made a good point in the 1990s when he referred to “reformism without reforms”. However, he didn’t take it to its logical conclusion, which is that, without being able to deliver reforms, can we still call if reformism in the way that Marxists and class-struggle anarchists have traditionally meant reformism (in particular, social democracy)?

    As we worked through those ideas in Revo, and later in the Anti-Capitalist Alliance and WP, it seemed to us that much of the ostensibly Marxist left had a view of the Labour Party that was derived from Lenin’s position on the British Labour in 1920 or thereabouts. But (as Lenin himself noted) there are comrades who have rote-learned slogans without understanding the preconditions for those slogans. So the view of Labour as a “bourgeois-workers” party, by so-called orthodox Leninism or Trotskyism, was actually just a rote-learned slogan, ignoring that the conditions upon which that old position of Lenin’s was based had actually changed. Changed qualitatively. (For sake of argument, I’m leaving aside the issue of whether Lenin was right in 1920; class-struggle anarchists, of course, would say no.)

    Reformism, in the sense of traditional social-democratic parties, can only ‘deliver’ during boom periods. The experience of severe downturns since the end of the postwar boom is that reformism does’nt deliver anything to workers – it simply lowers their horizons and cuts their living standards in a way which would provoke a more serious fightback if it was done by traditional capitalist parties like the Conservatives in Britain and the Nats here. Reformists in NZ certainly delivered some stuff when they came into power in 1935, but that’s a long time ago. They haven’t delivered in any downturns since – and even in the 1930s it could be argued that NZ was coming out of depression when Labour got into power although it was WW2 which specially lifted the economy.

    The other day another Redline comrade, in a private email to me, referred to the Labour Party leadership contest as a “freakshow”, and I think that’s a good description. It really is. It has absolutely nothing to do with the *independent interests of the working class* and *anti-capitalists* of whatever hue have no stake in it at all. Grief, how many David Cunliffes do we have to see in power before that sinks into some of our comrades on the left?

    As I’ve said before, these days I generally tend to find I have much more in common with class-struggle anarchists than with a lot of people in Marxist groups here (with some honourable exceptions). One of the reasons is that class-struggle anarchists aren’t caught up in the Labour Party circus show.


    • PhilF says:

      A PS: We’ve reprinted a couple of articles from the old Revo days where we dealt with the nature of ‘social democracy’ and ‘reformism without reforms’ today. See ‘Realism versus Reformism’:
      and ‘Burying or reviving the corpse of social democracy’:


    • Thomas r says:

      Out of pedantry it’s worth noting that autonomous Marxism would be part of class struggle anarchism no doubt, but also part of Marxism. Having the two mentioned as entirely separate always seems to me to imply that “Marxism” means “Marxism (Leninism)” but that’s not the case for many, particularly in younger circles

      • PhilF says:

        The autonomists I’ve known (mainly Australians) always considered themselves Marxists not anarchists, so I refer to Marxists and class-struggle anarchists as separate categories. Class-struggle anarchists include various strains themselves, as do Marxists. I know Marxists who do not consider themselves Leninists; indeed one the finest Marxist writers on political economy in the 21st century is a Marxist anti-Bolshevik – Paul Mattick. He even wrote a book called ‘Anti-Bolshevik Communism’ (1978). One of the Redline collective has a background in a Marxist organisation opposed to Lenin/ism.

        At the same time, all the class-struggle anarchists I know are well-disposed towards Marx in terms of his critique of political economy; historical and dialectical materialism; and other important stuff. So it’s actually even more complex!

        That’s why I use the terms Marxists and class-struggle anarchists – they are the biggest, broadest categories – rather than having to list any number of different permutations within those two categories. There are, for instance, dozens of different types of Trotskyists.

        One of the (few) good things about the current political cycle is people talk to each other across specific labels in a way that didn’t happen a few decades ago. I think every ‘ism’ on the left realises that no-one has everything right, there’s no baton of ‘orthodoxy’ (despite what various Trotskyist sects claim) and lots of different currents have done useful work, produced useful insights, including people who don’t really constitute formal political tendencies.

        For instance, I never had much time for the Frankfurt School, apart from the first book they ever published (Grossman’s on the law of accumulation), but over the past decade I’ve realised they had some very useful insights. I’m never going to become a big Marcuse cheerleader, but his insights about repressive tolerance are very helpful, for instance.

        In Redline, we have folks with backgrounds in a couple of varieties of Trotskyism; Marxism-Leninism-Maoism; pro-Mao (but not Maoist!) Marxism; Irish socialist-republicanism; and the Alliance. But we’re all Marxists, so it’s better to just use the term ‘Marxism’ than making a big list and qualifying every label.

        Pedantry can be useful – I’m always writing on students’ essays “Do you mean xxxxx? If so, say so. Be specific!” – but pedantry can also just get in the way.


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