How do we challenge capitalist bullshit?

reformismby Don Franks

Recently I posted on Facebook: “Auckland Council’s Len Brown is on an annual wage packet of almost $250,000. His CEO Stephen Town gets $620,000 a year. Thousands of Aucklanders exist in desperate want. And that crap will continue whoever wins the general election.”

Joel Cosgrove responded:  “Yep, but the question is how do we build the movement we need to challenge that bullshit?”

Fair question, and this is my answer.

A challenge is a call to respond, or to take part in a contest.

So in this case, we could, for example, campaign against high council salaries and for a rise of poor people’s income. We could organise a petition, distribute buttons, picket the council chambers, make use of social media and quite conceivably get on Campbell Live. There might also be a question in the house from a sympathetic mp. With a lot of effort, a protest march of some hundreds down Queen street would not be out of the question.

That would be a challenge. It would irk the authorities to some degree, but they could cope with it.

Excuses would be sufficient establishment response to this challenge.

There would be no need for serious steps to be taken against crazy salaries or urban poverty, because both of those things are, at the moment, socially acceptable.

It is broadly accepted that CEOs should be extravagantly paid because they are entrusted with heavy financial responsibility. Grudgingly accepted in many cases, but still, accepted.

It’s also accepted that poor people can improve their lot by means of education, and that masses of poor people are feckless.  (Hence the misnomer ‘child poverty’, which facilitates blaming poor children’s parents.)

Of course there are those who think crazy salaries and urban poverty can be turned around. This group is presently a minority and divided into several parts.

There are those who recognise economic injustice but are not moved to act against it. Those who would like to act against it but don’t know how.

There are those who try to act against it using the political means to hand.

Repeatedly, such people try to mount a challenge to economic injustice, repeatedly and staunchly in the face of repeated failure. Failure because challenging the capitalist system is not enough to do away with economic injustice.

Every day of the week, labour unions challenge economic injustice. At best they are able to make a few temporary gains, which are retracted when capitalism feels the pinch. Most of the time unions are doggedly fighting defensive rearguard actions, running to try and stand still.

Unionists and others will persist in challenging economic injustice despite the odds, but for the foreseeable future we are unlikely to make lasting gains.

This is a bleak picture, but I think it reflects reality and concrete reality is where we have to start if we want to build something.

I am not in favour of trying to build a movement to challenge the system because if we do that we will always be knocked back.

I believe we’re better off trying to build a movement to change the system, ie to get rid of the existing one and put a better one in its place.

There is a qualitative difference.

Some will say the two are not mutually exclusive and that is theoretically true.  However, in practice, the two are opposed.

For over forty years I have been a part of one socialist group or another and tried to advance revolutionary socialist ideas outside the group. For the full forty years, the response of union functionaries and community leaders has consistently been, yes, you can have your ideas, but we don’t want them just now, not in this forum, let’s all get this or that reform or this or that person elected first.

The time to seriously work towards a change of system was never ever deemed appropriate.

The various little socialist groups found their presence was most acceptable if they kept their revolutionary ideas to themselves. The next logical step was for the little socialist groups to discard serious revolutionary planning inside their own organisation. There would still be a few arid ‘studies’ of socialist theory. But most of the time and energy went into supporting campaigns for various reforms, which seemed more real and more easily won more new branch members.

Over the years, campaigning has won some reforms, but gone backwards on big issues.

Over my lifetime, inequality has grown, insecurity for workers has grown, poverty has blighted the lives of increasing masses of folks.  Workers’ health and housing worsen daily, many become brutalised.

Economic injustice is built into the present system and can only be eradicated by the destruction of the system.

Some think an election might improve matters.

I once did.  In 1984, for the first and last time, I voted Labour. I did this because, along with the rest of the left, I bought into the notion that Muldoon was an evil man and Labour could only be better.

Then Rogernomics engulfed us.

These days, as best I can, I try to look past personalities to try to understand the social relationships that really shape our lives.

I still get told off for indulging in unrealistic irrelevancies instead of getting on with the practical business. First things first, you can have your revolution later.

But I want it now.

See also:
Mistaken Mana Movement
Dotty’s Dream
Parliament does not exist
Class, class consciousness and left political practice
RockEnrol, Labour and the Mana Party
Maori liberation versus the Treaty process



  1. “Joel Cosgrove responded: ‘Yep, but the question is how do we build the movement we need to challenge that bullshit?'”

    Probably not by crossing a class line, as is unfortunately the case with the new Fightback position on the Internet Mana Party.

    One of the ABCs of Marxism is class independence. There is a class line in politics. The working class is on one side and the capitalist class, including Kim Dotcom, is on the other.

    The left groups that have endorsed the Harawira-Harre-Dotcom lash-up – a cross-class populism from above – have crossed that basic class line. In the case of Fightback it represents a further political retreat. They initially opposed the Dotcom hook-up, but have reversed their position and unanimously endorsed it.

    I think the left groups have done this not because they are bad people – those left groups clearly genuinely want to improve society for the mass of people – but because they are weak politically and easily succumb to the pressure of the milieu in which they operate. It’s easier to go for a shortcut, or it appears to be easier. But the shortcuts invariably fail and turn out to be cul-de-sacs and so the struggle, far from advancing more rapidly, is actually set back.

    Moreover, the logical corrollary of endorsing the Mana-Internet lash-up is to endorse Mana participating in a Labour-led government, should Labour invite Mana in. And/or to endorse overtures by Hone Harawira to Labour.

    Unfortunately, a number of left groups seem deadset not to learn from previous disasters and deadset not to integrate ABCs of Marxism, like class organisational and political independence, into their actual practice.

    And so things go round and round, in ever-decreasing circles. More demoralisation, without even any lessons learned.

    The IMP lash-up and the endorsement of it by left groups involved in Mana shows the urgent need for a new left, a movement for socialism-from-below rather than unprincipled lash-ups from above. A new movement which not only theorises class politics but practises them. A movement with no interests other than those of the working class.


    • Would have to agree Phil. The romance with Dotcom has been going on ever since he was raided, not necessarily by Fightback members but from many on the left.

    • While I sympathize to a small extent with some of your points Phil, lets be realistic. And I don’t mean “lets fight for reforms” realistic that Don mentions in this article, but realistic about the position of the left.

      The pakeha left has been entirely decimated since the 90s. There is such an absurd generational gap now due to past *dig in* mentalities that many people coming to leftist politics now in their early 20s find both these kind of old-school marxist analysis sites, and the leninist orgs that exist, totally bizarre.

      Where will the new left come from? This seems like a fundamental question of your proposal and I honestly have very little belief that any of us have any idea. Apparently it won’t come from the Maori radical working class, even though Maori radicalism survived a hell of a lot better than various Trotskyist sects who are bound to whatever Pom-intern is palatable. Where’s the humility there exactly? “We have already learned these lessons long ago” and yet the Tau iwi organised left is dwarfed by Maori radicalism.

      I don’t come at this from an optimistic position, or the same pessimism as I read on redline but a different sort of pessimism perhaps.

      While I think MANA is probably the most progressive electoral force since the alliance, probably more so as well, that’s not the primary motivation for staying involved. The pakeha socialist engagement with Tino Rangatiratanga has been incredibly lacking, crude, or just non-existent.

      We are a colonial state, supporting indigenous struggles for self determination is fundamental in my opinion.

      As for dogmatism, this seems a tad hypocritical as you’ve accused others I know of “flirting with random ideas”. This seems like a classic “heaven forbid we move away from the sacred texts” ie. the definition of dogmatism.

      As for Joe Carolan’s absurd rhetoric about Engels or whatever, seems like a bit of an easy criticism to make? “JC says completely overblown stuff” – yes, what else is new

      • Thomas claims “The pakeha socialist engagement with Tino Rangatiratanga has been incredibly lacking, crude, or just non-existent.” Thomas, you keep claiming stuff like this and it simply isn’t true.

        You need to go back to the 1970s and 1980s and you’d see there was a *massive* pakeha left engagement with the politics of tino rangatiratanga (or, as it was called in those days, Maori self-determination).

        If you don’t know anything about something, it’s probably best to avoid such sweeping statements.

        Moreover, some of us on this blog were very involved in that engagement and, as a result of it (and a lot of critical reflection), we changed our minds about some things. Your unwillingness to even acknowledge this is dogmatic. If you didn’t see it – mainly because you weren’t born and haven’t bothered to go back and look at the material – you simply deny it happened. That’s dogmatic.

        You say that I accused others of (and you use quote marks) “flirting with random ideas”. Where did I say this, exactly?

        The definition of dogmatism is holding a set of beliefs regardless of evidence to the contrary. The softer elements of the left, however, like to suggest that holding to the Marxist method until it’s proven wrong is the definition of dogmatism. This is simply a way of attempting to disarm criticism of the major form of dogmatism in this country – liberal dogmatism (or dogmatic liberalism).

        You rightly note, “The pakeha left has been entirely decimated since the 90s.” But what was this pakeha left? It is the pakeha left that was based on the same set of politics which you lean to in relation to tino rangatiratanga and feminism. It was also a left that was soft on Labour.

        The perspective you suggest, yet again, is one that was *dominant* – yes, *dominant* – on the far left in the 1980s and it was shown to fail. Now, a generation later, you’re recommending we repeat it.

        No thanks.

        Been there. Done that. Got the t-shirt (and the scars).

        And spent years critically reflecting on the mistakes that were made by that left, a left I was integrally involved in. You, however, appear incapable of critically reflecting on any of your youthful shibboleths.

        But if you’re so eager – as you appear to be – and far too full of the newness of the experience to want to listen to those of us who have seen it all before (and where it led to), and spent a lot of time critically reflecting on it all, then you gallop ahead. And when it all comes unstuck, and you’re scratching your head about it (and because your head ends up bloody sore), remember that you – unlike my generation – were warned.


      • PS:
        Thomas, let’s cut to the chase here. Were you part of the unanimous vote at the Fightback internal gathering the other week to endorse the Internet-Mana Party stitch up?

        Lastly, while you say the forces for a new left will apparently not come from the radical Maori working class – ie you seem to be attributing this view to us – there is nothing any of us has written that suggests we think any such thing. A key component of a new left is working class Maori. (But the biggest single key component is working class pakeha.)


  2. The Fightback position is a new one. They decided their original opposition to the Mana lash-up with Dotcom was wrong, that as young white kids they didn’t sufficiently recognise Hone’s acumen, but now they do. . .

    It’s like the 1980s all over again, but on a smaller, more tragic scale.

    The logical consequence of an identity politics where ‘race’ trumps class.

    In relation to Dotcom, I think it’s right to defend him from state raids and oppose his extradition, because those tools shouldn’t be in the hands of the capitalist state. But, like you suggest Al, that’s no reason to romanticise him as some kind of modern-day Robin Hood.

    Some people on the left have even started drawing parallels between him and Engels!!!

    Instead of having a political practice informed by theory, what exists mainly on the left here is a political practice driven by subjective need and desire on the part of particular activists which then requires them to dismiss or downgrade theory and principles. Everything becomes subordinate to the desire to jump on some bandwagon, no matter how many times the bandwagon has been revealed to be going up a dead-end.

    I now think it’s a waste of time trying to point any of this out to most of the existing organised left; they are far too dogmatic to critically reflect on how this has all been done before and failed. Instead, we have to think about a whole new left and where that might come from and how.


  3. “Some people on the left have even started drawing parallels between him and Engels!!!”

    Well, they’re both German born, with access to money, and fond of having a good time.

    Engels’s personality was one of a “gregarious”, “bighearted”, and “jovial man of outsize appetites”, who was referred to by his son-in-law as “the great beheader of champagne bottles.”
    Engels interests included hosting regular Sunday parties for London’s left-wing intelligentsia where, as one regular put it, “no one left before two or three in the morning.”
    His stated personal motto was “take it easy”, while “jollity” was listed as his favorite virtue.

    Hmmm. Maybe we better take another look at this Man/Dotcom alliance…

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