We’ve asked several readers to contribute their thoughts on the way forward for the left after the 2014 elections.  The people we invited cover a range of viewpoints from class-struggle anarchist to independent Marxist and include at least one person involved in the Mana Movement.  Rather than invite well-known left individuals, who already have plenty of platform space elsewhere, we’ve invited people who have been battling away as much as they can in their own ways across a number of campaigns and groups.  This is the first contribution in the series.

by Leon Reilly

Did I care that Hone Harawira lost his seat in Parliament on 20 September 2014? Damaging as it might be to my Marxist credentials (and I like to at least pretend I’m a Marxist – everybody needs a God), I was hugely disappointed. I was not just disappointed as a member of the Mana Movement. I was disappointed because the voice of an oppressed portion of society, the marginalised, dispossessed and forgotten, was extinguished. My misery was compounded by the fact that the supposed party of the workingman took on the role of executioner. Kelvin Davis must be very proud.

I was under no illusions about the degree to which the Labour Party might exert itself to crush Hone, and thus rid themselves of the beast that was Internet Mana. The mildly egalitarian policy platform of this bizarre conglomeration was a clear threat to those in Red and Green. As Labour only aspires to replace National as the managers of our economy and moribund political system, any group that threatens these managerial credentials must be crushed, and crushed swiftly. It is testament to the intensity of this feeling within the ostensibly social-democratic Labour, that it harmed its own chances at government by taking Te Tai Tokerau in its name. Better to win the battle and lose the war according to Labour HQ.

Is parliament a dead end?

I often hear the claim from Marxists and other socialists – the distinction escapes some – that Parliament is a ‘dead-end’; a capitalist institution that funnels discontent into a black hole of Select Committees, Standing Orders and Press Gallery submission. Mana, such people would say, is therefore nothing but a tool of capitalist stability, diluting the radical spirit of capitalism’s natural enemies by focusing on reformism, and we should certainly not mourn its passing. This view, I fear, is short-sighted and does much to harm the cause of system change.

Mana was not a socialist party. While a socialist spirit lurked in its dark recesses, the Movement never developed a coherent socialist platform – one aimed at the radical restructuring of our society, and the challenging of established truths concerning the notions of work, property and democracy. Instead, the Mana Movement platform amounted to little more than a wish list of state-delivered goodies. The sentiments underlying these political demands were well placed (free tertiary education for example), but a clear vision for an alternative, socialist society was sadly lacking. A Mana Government, if such an unlikely occurrence can be humoured, would have been social-democratic, constrained by the mechanisms of capitalist power, and bankrupt in a day.

Mana – a step in the right direction?

What Mana represented, however, was a radical voice that mixed parliamentarianism with street politics. Mana made its home almost exclusively within the constituency of the poor and dispossessed, something not even the early Labour Party did. The Mana presence in Parliament finally gave this group a voice in the highest assembly in the country. It gave profile to the affiliated socialist organisations – ISO, Fightback, and Socialist Aotearoa – and an opportunity for radical left activists to engage and coordinate their activities. When Hone was condemned by the mainstream media for ‘politicising’ the death of New Zealand soldiers in Afghanistan with an anti-war speech in the House, he raised to the wider public serious questions concerning this country’s role in foreign military excursions. While many might have dismissed his conclusions, the very need to dismiss these ideas is a victory in the struggle to penetrate the collective consciousness.

The socialist left has always argued for improving organisation within the working class, and doing so on a radical basis and with class consciousness at its core. Mana was a step in the right direction. Despite the recent electoral defeat, I would struggle to name a more powerful radical left-wing organisation in the country. This strength did not come from a Parliamentary presence alone, but it was certainly facilitated by it. While parliamentarianism involves compromises and tactics that can stress dearly-held principles, it is not the ‘dead-end’ that some might see it.

Asking and answering basic questions

The task now for Mana and other left groups is to refine their purpose and goals. What do they hope to achieve? What is their vision for an alternative society? This requires more than the articulation of some vague principles, or re-quoting The Civil War in France or Grundrisse until we are all suitably perplexed by Marx’s almost intolerable writing style. It requires serious work to be done on building a vision of a socialist society that can answer questions like: Will I have to work? Who will pay me? What will I be paid in? How will we pick leaders? How will we trade? How will we care for the environment? And so on.

These questions might seem premature given how far away the revolution appears and the organic path that democratic, socialist change should follow. They might also seem to contradict some fundamental Marxist thinking, in that communism was not to be viewed as a ‘stable state’, and the focus for Marxists should be on growing class- consciousness. I agree with this perspective in principle, but I do not believe this forbids us from undertaking at least the crafting a vision of a new, just society. Marxism is easily the best tool for this analysis.

American Marxist Bertell Ollman perhaps puts it best: “Marx was clearly right that helping workers understand their exploitation as a fundamental and necessary part of the capitalist system is the “high road” to class consciousness. It seems equally evident, however, that the inability to conceive of a humanly superior way of life, an inability fostered by this same exploitation, has contributed to the lassitude and cynicism that helps to thwart such consciousness. Viewed in this light, giving workers and indeed members of all oppressed classes a better notion of what their lives would be like under communism is essential to the success of the socialist project.” (A useful tool for reference might be Ollman’s Marx’s Vision of Communism: the first stage, https://www.nyu.edu/projects/ollman/docs/marxs_vision.php)

Reinventing and rebuilding

Mana may be beyond the necessary reform to embrace its socialist spirit – indeed it may have been the wrong vehicle to begin with. But this is the nature of radical organisations, be they hopeful or genuine. The left must continue to constantly reinvent itself, rebuilding old institutions and constructing completely new ones. It must present itself as more than a rent-seeking interest group; more than a propaganda instrument; more than martyrs for an already-defeated cause.

The left must continue to operate as dynamic, professional and tireless advocates for a better world. Parliament has a place in this advocacy, as one part of the much wider struggle. I would urge us to consider the potential of such an avenue, while guarding ourselves against absurd temptations in the form of German cyber pirates. Rather than the shocking defeat it seems at face value, Election 2014 might instead be a rallying call for a more coherent left alternative.

Further reading: for the second contribution, see here

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Comments
  1. What’s missing from your critique…Te Tiriti o Waitangi, Tino Rangatiratanga…..and yes this is all part of the kaupapa of Mana. Leave Marx to his own and start your analysis from the history of Aotearoa and you’ll find the blueprint for transformation is already there.

  2. PhilF says:

    There is no blueprint, either in Marx or in the Treaty of Waitangi. The Treaty must be the most reified document in NZ history; different people read all kinds of things into it which simply are not there.

    Neither the Maori-language nor English-language versions have anything to say about a socialist society or, indeed, any kind of socio-economic system.

    The British elite simply assumed capitalism to be the natural order of things and concocted a treaty, similar to ones they used elsewhere, to get Maori chiefs to agree to British rule and the development/imposition of capitalism. The Maori chiefs signed, without being aware of this because they lived in a non-capitalist world which, obviously, had a completely different set of concepts to describe itself by.

    Since the history of Aotearoa from 1840 is the history of capitalist development, and how we all cope with the consequences of that capitalist development, Marx – the greatest analyst of capitalism – is highly relevant.

    Phil

    • oshay says:

      I find it interesting that many on the left in NZ view the Treaty as a progressive document and almost Socialist when both NZ Marxist and Non-Marxist scholars such as David Bedggod and Michael King to name a couple have both pointed out that it was designed to socialise Maori into accepting private-property relations. Bedggod in his book Rich and Poor in New Zealand often speaks about the irony of Irish and Scots made landless by British land reforms in order to make way for more sheep farming, joining the British army, disposing Maori of their land in order to make way for more British sheep farming. What are your thoughts on why so many on the left in NZ can’t join the dots (primitive accumulation in Britain and NZ) and choose to ignore (sometimes taking a hostile attitude) historical research?

  3. PhilF says:

    I got involved in radical politics in the days when the radical Maori movement said ‘The Treaty is a Fraud’ and ‘Scrap the Treaty’.

    Over time, however, all component parts of the radical movement were pushed back and chunks of it were integrated into the tentacles of the state and the ideology of the state and ruling class. That ideology, and the institutions of state, also changed in line with the changing needs of capital, so it was possible to make concessions in order to incorporate previously anti-state Maori activists. Today, there’s pretty much nothing left of those anti-state Maori activists and very few anti-state left activists of any kind (Redline and AWSM notwithstanding).

    The “Treaty” was dusted off as part of this process and declared to have all sorts of incredible powers. I remember about a decade ago, someone endorsing Workers Charter because the demands of the Charter were in line with “the principles” of the Treaty! Eh?!!! A document drawn up by the unelected reps of the unelected queen of England, in a year before the working class had the right to vote – in fact the modern working class was still in the process of being born – somehow had such magical power that it was in favour of the rights of workers 150 years in the future!

    This stuff is a sign of the degeneration of the radical movement in this country, a degeneration which sometimes takes on almost mystical qualities.

    When the movement was advancing, as it was in the late 1960s/early 1970s, the last thing it was interested in was reifying old colonialist treaties designed to hoodwink and dispossess indigenous populations.

    I remember back at the end of 1997, the first year of *revolution* magazine, we held a weekend educational conference in Christchurch. One of the participants, the late Mary Hart, some of whose work I hope to get into shape for Redline in future, made the point that in the 1800s the way to commodify land was to steal it off Maori and in the late 1900s the way to commodify land was to give it back. I thought it was a very sharp point.

    I think a movement for liberation would resurrect the radical slogan ‘Scrap the Treaty’ instead of the bourgeois slogan ‘Implement the Treaty’ and say, let’s start again. Let’s remake society on the basis of human emancipation and everyone having the means to make the best life possible, part of which is respecting Maori language and culture but free of all the reification in relation to te reo, culture and the Treaty of Waitangi.

    There’s an interesting article on Maori liberation versus the Treaty process here: https://rdln.wordpress.com/2013/11/05/maori-liberation-versus-the-treaty-process/

    Phil

  4. […] Symposium on the way forward, 1: Election 2014, the Mana Movement and the left October 7, 2014 […]

  5. […] also: Symposium Contribution 1, The Mana Movement and the left Symposium Contribution 2, What is to be done about the radical left in New […]