by Don Franks
“The Labour Party is composed of workers, petty bourgeois and bourgeois elements.
“It has a number of trade unions affiliated to it. In the past it has drawn on the more class conscious sections of the working class for electoral support. Even today, many militant members of the working class look to the Labour party as the salvation of the working class. It is committed to a vague kind of “democratic socialism ” which has nothing to do with socialism.
“Despite its working class base, the Labour party is not a workers party. Whether or not a political party is really a workers’ party is not determined by its membership or by the social origins of its leaders; it is determined by the people who lead it, the contents of its actions and its political tactics. When viewed from this correct viewpoint it is clear that the Labour Party is a thoroughly bourgeois party which is used by the bourgeoisie to systematically dupe the workers.
“Wedded to reformist ideas from its inception, the Labour Party has been the single most important instrument for organising working class support for the capitalist system. It has been supported in this work by social democrats and revisionists in the trade union movement, particularly at the upper levels. Through its electoral activities the Labour Party works to dampen down class struggle, to provide personnel for the state organs and to consolidate the capitalist system.
“Successive Labour governments have introduced and used anti-worker legislation (such as deregistration of unions and wage freezing), opposed strike action, advocated reliance on arbitration and conciliation, sought to harmonize the interests of the working class and the bourgeoisie, attacked Polynesian workers in dawn raids, extended the powers of the SIS, made strident anti communist attacks on working people, and abjectly served foreign imperialism.
“The Labour Party introduced peacetime conscription, actively worked to create the ANZUS Pact and loyally supports the American Alliance. It supported US aggression in Korea.
“Labour’s economic policies are essentially no different from those of the National Government, nor can they be any different.”
That characterisation of the New Zealand Labour Party was published in July 1979.
It’s an excerpt from the Wellington Marxist-Leninist Organisation’s programme.
I think this political assessment of the Labour Party is still basically valid, although obviously some details have changed over the last thirty-four years.
Today it would be even less true to say that “many militant members of the working class look to the Labour Party as the salvation of the working class”. Some, but not very many.
It was probably an exaggeration for the WMLO to cast 1979 Labour as “committed to a vague kind of ‘democratic socialism’.”
When asked in a radio interview for his definition of socialism, Labour leader Bill Rowling responded: “lending your neighbour your lawn mower”. It was also some time in the late seventies that Rowling floated the idea of changing the party name, to distance itself from the then strike-prone union movement.
Today, in face of a considerably-weakened working class and shrunken union movement, Labour needs make no pretence of commitment to any kind of socialism. Labour today presents as what it is, a liberal capitalist party with some residual connection to a few rather desperate union offices.
However, the main difference between now and 1979 is the experience of the 4th Labour government. The Rogernomics years of massive job destruction and wealth redistribution upwards spelled out in block capital letters that Labour was a defender of the capitalist system no matter what the social consequences.
Unpleasantly hard evidence that Labour was “a thoroughly bourgeois party”.
Such was the reaction to Rogernomics that a horrified Labour party left faction decamped, to form NewLabour, forerunner of the Alliance. Other demoralised party members just quit political activism altogether.
After the 1984 ambush, could such a party ever again be used by the bourgeoisie to systematically dupe the workers?
The bourgeoisie need not bother themselves with this question, because, inexplicably, since 1984, there has been a supply of left activists to do the duping for them.
To various degrees, virtually every left grouplet has, in practice, and often in theory, treated the Labour party is if it was something other than it is – an instrument of the capitalist ruling class.
For a short period, the Workers Party held the line on this issue, regularly exposing Labour’s capitalist nature in The Spark, and in the extended Marxist pamphlet The Truth about Labour.
Former Workers Party members maintained that tradition until the posting of this article on Fightback’s blog:
“Union movement gathers for Fairness at work”.
“Adapted from an article for Kai Tiaki Nursing NZ. By Grant Brookes, delegate for the New Zealand Nurses Organisation (NZNO) and Fightback member.
“132 delegates, representing nearly 300,000 union members, met in Wellington on 9-10 October.
“The Council of Trade Unions Biennial Conference 2013 examined the issues facing working people in New Zealand since the last gathering in 2011, and debated how to promote ‘Fairness at Work’ as we face a fork in the road over the next two years.
“Down one possible path, our future will see the end of guaranteed meal breaks, a loss of bargaining power, rising inequality and growing insecurity at work.
“But the good news, conveyed in a speech to the Conference by Green Party co-leader Metiria Turei, is that we are heading towards election year with the momentum to create a different future.”
We can do with some good news. What makes up this momentum – a new radical current?
On further reading, Grant’s “momentum” is revealed to be a series of promises from Labour leader David Cunliffe: “The Labour Government I lead will turn back the tide of anti-worker legislation that has been flowing from the Key Government for the last five years.”
Having quoted Cunliffe, Grant continues, “Both Cunliffe and Metiria Turei signaled support for an overhaul of employment laws, tying into CTU efforts to move beyond the Employment Relations Act and further strengthen unions, collective bargaining and security at work.”
Note that Grant not only takes this rhetoric at face value, he buys into the weasel wording: “CTU efforts to move beyond the Employment Relations Act”.
Not scrapping National’s Act – as if Labour ever would, having when last in office tightened up its strike restrictions – just “move beyond it” somehow, transcend the unpleasantness. Nice sounding. In terms of real workers’ rights – utterly meaningless.
Grant does sound a sort of warning amidst his pro-Cunliffe enthusiasm:
“But it also appeared that Cunliffe is straddling a contradiction. ‘These changes are not a one-off,’ he said. ‘They need to be an enduring part of a New Zealand that finds common ground between productive workers and good employers.'”
What happens when there is no “common ground”?”
A Marxist replies that all workers are productive, “good employers” may only be found in the cemetery, there is never “common ground” between classes, “what happens” is open or hidden class struggle and, for goodness sake, why on earth waste valuable time with such a dopey question?
“Cunliffe plugged his appointment of unionists Andrew Little, Darien Fenton and Carol Beaumont to industrial relations positions. But his speech to the Conference was silent about his appointment of neo-liberal hardliner David Parker to the finance portfolio.”
So right-wing ideologues are a worry but their ossified former union bureaucrat colleagues are fine.
Little, Fenton and Beaumont are well-oiled cogs in Labour’s party machine. In Grant’s lexicon they become comrades in the general movement.
“How Cunliffe’s contradiction would play out in practice in a Labour-led government will depend on how unions respond.
“Helen Kelly called on us to “continue the local activism to get workers on the roll and out in the election campaign – not just to vote – connecting all the campaigns to make wages and work a key election issue” “We need to use events like the asset sale referendum to maximum advantage”, said Helen Kelly. “Delegates in workplaces can facilitate the voting in the asset sale referendum – get people who do not get a paper to get on the roll, and check that those with a paper cast their vote.
“We then need to keep the momentum going into next year. We can make the difference.”
In other words, Labour can be held to its promises by union activism.
In various formulations, this theory has been around for donkeys years.
It used to be described as “pushing Labour to the left”. A variant was the notion of “raising workers’ expectations of Labour”. If the promises were not kept, the workers would supposedly be radicalised and fall into the arms of the left.
Today those sorts of expressions are a bit too crude. The theory remains the same but is now voiced as “momentum”. “Momentum” here is activism confined to a pointless referendum and the election of Labour MPs. Union money and energy is expended, in the name of workers’ interest,s for the actual benefit of a few sleek political careerists.
It is worth noting too, that Cunliffe’s latest promises, even at face value, are pretty small change reforms.
When he was on his way upwards in the union movement, union villain Ken Douglas was fond of declaiming “We don’t want the crumbs, we want to take over the bakery!”
Today’s left gaze upon Cunliffe’s handful of crumbs as if they were gold dust.
During the years since I joined WMLO and got some Marxist understanding of the Labour party’s anti-worker nature, I often raised my views in union forums.
I didn’t get far.
At best I was “not being realistic”, more frequently I was “dreaming”, “on pot” or “away with the fairies”.
Over decades, views like mine got little traction in union circles, while Labour’s missionaries resoundingly prevailed.
All around us, we may see and taste their bitter fruit.
After years of activists preaching faith in Labour governments, the union movement has withered, while inequality and dire poverty have massively increased. Being disarmed by Labour has rendered our class much worse off today.
There are historical reasons for the endurance of social democracy and the weakness of Marxism in New Zealand.
In the current climate of low class struggle it’s very difficult to advance revolutionary ideas. But not impossible.
Buried as it may be, the truth is on our side.
So why do left activists keep blinking away facts in pursuit of the unrealistic?