Symposium on the way forward, 2: What is to be done about the radical left in New Zealand?

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 second contribution in the series.

by O’Shay Muir

The main reason that I was quickly drawn to Redline was the fact that, compared to the majority of socialist organisations in New Zealand, Redline was not quick to jump on the bandwagon of every local or international protest movement. Instead of the usual left-wing opinionated blog journalism, I found a group of people that actually understood the meaning of materialist analysis. To me this was a breath of fresh air. It had not been since my time as a recent college graduate who was first getting acquainted with Marxism by poking my nose into the meetings of the Workers Party in the Auckland Trades Hall, where I was exposed to The Spark, that I had come across actual Marxian analysis of the situation in New Zealand. Although I was far from the most dedicated cadre, my time spent with the Workers Party was always productive and most importantly educational.

After having lost touch with the Workers Party and returning from a stint in OZ, I decided to once again get involved with socialist politics in New Zealand, but times had changed. The Workers Party that I had once known was a shell of its former self (soon to become Fightback). I was told that people like Phil, Don and Daphna had abandoned the class struggle in New Zealand and instead had chosen to become armchair Marxists. I bothered not to ask too much about the situation, as I thought to myself that it was simply a case of party politics that did not concern me, so instead I decided to just go along with the new Workers Party. However I was quick to find out that this was not the Workers Party I had once known. There was something missing. That something was a strong theoretical base.

Mana Movement and impact on radical left

I first began to notice this through the Workers Party’s/Fightback’s staunch support of the Mana movement. Truth be told, I too thought that supporting Mana was a good idea. This position of mine began to change. Wanting to get back into socialist politics I thought to myself that I better polish up on my Marxist theory and what better way of doing that than trying to tackle the first volume of Capital. The more I began to understand Capital the more sceptical I became of the welfarism of Mana and groups like Fightback and Socialist Aotearoa who had jumped on the social democratic bandwagon. Then I discovered Redline, home of the ‘armchair Marxists’ that I had been warned about. But rather than finding the ramblings of old disgruntled leftists, who should simply shut up and make way for fresh blood (this was a common opinion that I found amongst many of the young activists involved with Socialist Aotearoa), I found a group of people that had the discipline to put their own revolutionary fantasies to one side and instead engage with proper analysis of capital accumulation.

While I still maintained some hope in Mana, that quickly began to change once they teamed up with Kim Dotcom and formed Internet-Mana. Redline’s criticism of Social Democratic Mana and the negative impact that it would have on the radical left was proving to be correct. The recent elections and the horrible defeat of Internet-Mana, despite the millions thrown at it by Kim Dotcom, made me witness to the theoretical (Redline’s criticism) becoming material reality.
There was also another theoretical criticism that was floating in my mind as I watched the election results. This was the ideas of the greatest Marxist theorist after Marx and Engels. A theorist that despite being the most important Marxist of the 20th century, you will be hard-pressed to find, unlike Marx and other Marxists, getting the recognition that he deserves in academia (Engels also falls into this category). I am talking about Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. As I watched the election results, I could not stop thinking about his book, What Is To Be Done? and how his criticism of social democrats back then rings true today in 21st century New Zealand.


In this book Lenin provides one of the greatest Marxist critiques of reformism, with special attention given to the social democrat Bernstein. Lenin’s critique of reformism is also best understood through engaging with his thoughts on another prominent social democrat, Kautsky.

Bernstein was a social democrat through and through. For him there was no need for a revolution, socialism could be achieved through reforms and peaceful democratic elections. Kautsky on the other hand, still understood the reality of the capitalist class not giving up their position of power without a fight, but still maintained his faith in the ability of bourgeois democracy being the greatest vehicle to advance socialism. What both of these two had in common was the idea that socialism could be advanced through building a mass workers party. This is the idea that somehow all we need is a party that will represent the interests of all workers and, through large numbers, it will be possible to push through reforms in parliament that will advance socialism.

Starting to sound familiar? Well it should because, in a nutshell, this is what the Mana movement was –  except that they were not trying to advance socialism, but trying to return New Zealand back into the welfare state that it once was before its traditional bourgeois workers party (Labour) unleashed necessary (from the point of capital) reforms designed to protect capital accumulation. In other words, neoliberalism did not come about because kiwi capitalists are big meanies, but because of a series of contingencies resulting from the need to tackle the issue of a falling rate of profit.

Kautskyism on meth

Despite these neoliberal reforms coming to an end by the mid ‘90s, neoliberalism became the rallying cry of the New Zealand left and Mana was simply another version of a political movement motivated by this need of the New Zealand left to fight phantoms and joust with windmills. While the well-meaning activism of Mana as a whole could be forgiven for their lack of theoretical understanding, the speed at which so-called Marxist organisations jumped on the social democratic ship and stayed aboard even after hitting a large German iceberg (Kim Dotcom) makes them deserve a good old-fashioned Leninist theoretical scolding (plus a little bit of Maoist bookhead slapping; I was thinking of the Grundrisse, but better to start them off with something a little easier going like The Poverty of Philosophy as we know that theory is not their strongpoint). Mistakenly, these so-called Marxists somehow thought that their involvement with Mana would allow them to gain influence and turn a party whose version of radical politics was nothing more than welfare reform into a vehicle for socialist revolution.

This was Kautskyism on meth. Marches against asset sales, deep sea oil drilling, TPPA, GCSB spying, you name it, were only a step away from turning Auckland central into Paris of 1968 in their fantasies. Unfortunately for them, they were unable to turn Mana into a revolutionary socialist organisation; instead Mana had turned them into social democrats. This is because, as theorised by Lenin, if a party’s only strategy is simply gaining votes it does not matter if they use revolutionary rhetoric, because sooner or later they will find themselves conforming to the parliamentary system. Once a means to an end, their emphasis on reforms will simply become an end in itself.

What is to be done now?

Lenin’s solution to the theoretical shortcomings of Bernstein and Kautsky was the need to build a party whose aim is not to win overall workers, but rather engage with the most militant of workers. Instead of trying to push through a few reforms in parliament, this party would aim to raise the revolutionary consciousness of militant workers by educating them in Marxist theory. But such a party was all well and good in Czarist Russia where workers had already risen up, occupied factories and set up councils (Soviets). What about a country like New Zealand where fight back has almost become non existent, horizons are continually being lowered and workers are becoming increasingly atomised?

In such an environment, a traditional Marxist-Leninist party becomes a waste of time. This, however, does not mean that Leninism itself becomes pointless, far from it. We need Lenin in New Zealand now more than ever, but what we need is not a vanguard for New Zealand workers. Instead we need a vanguard that can engage with activists and socialists and educate them in Marxist theory. If we can achieve this, we may have some hope of saving socialist politics in New Zealand and help prevent such socialists from making more tactical errors.

Further reading: for the first contribution to this symposium, see here


  1. While I found some of the polemics/digs in this tedious (though it’s so common place in leftist writing that I don’t take it personally), the ultimate argument for some sort of educational focus.. perhaps a anti-capitalist left ‘forum’ of sorts in which to explore theory (in the old sense I mean, not an internet forum board) would be good.

    Extremely skeptical of Lenin worship, however. But that’s one of those useful tensions that can actually illuminate both sides of an argument. The eternal optimism of Auckland socialists generally always surprised me (I recall Dotcom being compared to Engels by SA at one point)

    • Thanks for the feedback. I agree that an educational forum is a step in the right direction. I know that Sue Bradford is working on building a broad based left-wing think tank modelled on the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation. If it goes ahead it could be a great opportunity to give Marxist analysis a more broader platform. But in order to make Marxism the voice of reason on the left, we first have to understand Marx. I would be saddened if the think tank goes ahead and the ‘Marxist’ organisations that get involved once again end up parroting the opinions of Social Democrats rather than being a voice of difference. On top of this it’s still important that we engage with protests and social justice movements, but we need to make sure that we strategically pick our battles and use them as an opportunity to advance revolutionary consciousness instead of being another face in the crowd. We maybe few in numbers, but if we are strategic and can articulate our ideas clearly, we can raise the revolutionary consciousness of those engaged in struggle and with enough time and effort the quality of the radical left.

      • I was confused about Sue Bradfords ideas. It was unclear if it was going to be explicitly anti-capitalist.. or some sort of ‘left of labour, left of greens’ broad educational forum. Either would probably be useful

  2. Don’t know about digs, but I was bemused to read about the fibs your comrades in Fightback told O’Shay about us. But I’m well used to it. Weak politics always leads to dodgy behaviour although it was dodgy behaviour of a worse sort, and the defence of that behaviour by many young members, that was the last straw for those of us who left in early 2011.

    On the much more important political issues, I think that trying to build in the way that the existing ostensibly Marxist groups are is not productive, but if that’s their bag that’s fine with me.

    Marx and Engels didn’t just try to keep building in the same old way after the defeat of the 1848 revolutions. They were materialists; their organisational efforts were based on material reality and when that reality changed – a long pall of reaction settled on Europe, in their words – they didn’t simply keep trying to build their group, the Communist League. Their activity took other forms.

    Their reaction to the long period of unpropitious circumstances has probably been the single biggest thing influencing my decisions about what to do; those thoughts were given a big heave forward by internal shenanigans (to put it kindly) in WP in its final phase and behaviours and attitudes that disgusted me. But I owe those awful folks a favour, because without them doing as they did, I might have wasted more time sticking around doing stuff that was pointless.

    We’re doing pretty much what Marx and Engels did, but the 21st century version.


    • Phil, didn’t Marx go an write Capital in that period? I respect what you’re doing here and find many articles useful. But it’s probably good to keep things in perspective – I’m not sure that Redline are producing a Das Kapital for the 21st century, worthwhile analysis though it is.

      That being said, I heard through the grapevine you had considered publishing your Thesis/Dissertation or something at some point? That would be quite valuable (the topic has left my mind but I remember Byron mentioning it and it sounded very interesting)


    • Marx and Engels change of strategy after the failed revolutions of 1848, along with Lenin’s return to Hegel in 1914 shows us the importance of having to revise our strategy in the face of changing circumstances. It also shows us that dialectics is not just some abstract theory, but a tool of revolutionary practise.

      • Yep, otherwise we’d end up with some kind of metaphysical approach. Building a certain type of organisation, which was specific to a certain set of conditions, long after those conditions had ceased to exist.

        This is also important in understanding questions like the Labour Party. ‘Orthodox’ Trotskyists tend to take their cue from the position that Lenin suggested to *British* communists in relation to the *British* Labour Party in the *specific conditions* of *Britain in 1920*.

        But that position doesn’t tell us anything about *methodology*. For methodology we need to consider something like Lenin’s comment that comrades had learned how to rote-repeat certain slogans without understanding the *preconditions* for those slogans. In other words, if the preconditions for the slogans change, then the slogans no longer hold. Dialectics is useful in the practical sense here, because it provides the methodological tools for such analysis.

        While a grasp of dialectics doesn’t prevent people going bad, a working knowledge of dialectics and the preparedness to apply dialectics to concrete political conditions and problems is, or can be, a big help to getting things right.

        In relation to Labour, for instance, Lenin pointed to the contradiction between its class base and its capitalist politics. From dialectics we know that contradictions play out. One set of contradictions is resolved, creating new and higher contradictions. I’d argue that the contradiction Lenin pointed to in relation to Labour is resolved when Labour parties take power. And, hey presto, it’s precisely under the first Labour government that the working class begins leaving the Labour Party and that Labour rules very clearly in the interests of capital and helps save NZ Capital Inc, takes NZ Capital Inc into World War 2, centralises capital, organises it more efficiently than interwar ‘market’ operations did, and draw the working class and its main organisations (the unions) into the web of the capitalist state. Under that frist Labour government, labour productivity increased far more than wages, so the rate of exploitation of the working class was increased.

        Since the contradiction between Labour’s pro-capitalist politics and its working class base was resolved by the victory of its pro-capitalist politics over its working class, a new, highger set of contradictions emerged: two that spring immediately to mind are the contradiction between Labour and the working class and the contradiction between the reality (Labour as a managerial party for capitalism) and the consciousness of the working class of this reality (lowered class consciousness not understanding the real nature and role of Labour).

        After the experience of the fourth Labour government, you could say that the contradiction between Labour and the working class reached a new level, as much of the working class desrted Labour, In 1990, as many manual workers voted National as voted Labour.

        In 2011, the votes of manual workers went slightly more to National than Labour. My guess is that the same happened in 2014. And, of course, many manual workers simply abstained from voting in 2011 and 2014, because they don’t see a party which speaks to them and their interests.

        Given the vital importance of dialectics to understanding all this, you might think dialectics would be a cored part of the political education of activists in the ostensibly Marxist groups. But actually none of them are much interested in dialectics. ‘Too theoretical’ and other such philistine views prevail. So the ‘Marxist’ left remains with its wooden, metaphysical approaches to questions like the Labour Party, organisation-building and so on.

        It’s only some approach has failed to the extent that it’s become utterly untenable that these groups begin to question (if at all; some continue with the mistake indefinitely). But, while Marxism has no crystal balls, the tools of scientific socialism should allow us *some* foresight. When a train-wreck project is approaching, eg InternetMana, we should be able to see it coming, for instance. Sadly, this has not been the case with a number of groups.

        We’ll never get on the offensive this way. And unless our side is on the offensive, we’ll never win. You don’t win wars by exclusively defensive methods.


  3. Thomas wrote:
    “Phil, didn’t Marx go an write Capital in that period? I respect what you’re doing here and find many articles useful. But it’s probably good to keep things in perspective – I’m not sure that Redline are producing a Das Kapital for the 21st century, worthwhile analysis though it is.”

    I was writing very quickly as the library I was in was closing. I wasn’t at all trying to suggest that what we’re doing is the equivalent of writing ‘Capital’! .-)

    I meant we’re doing the equivalent of what Marx and Engels did in the sense of *not* trying to build an organisation when the material conditions simply don’t exist* and concentrating on educational work and analytical work instead. But, no, we haven’t – and won’t be – producing the equivalent of ‘Capital’ or making claims that we’re doing that. .-)

    After Marx and Engels pulled out of the Communist League – I can’t recall if it dissolved or if they left before it dissolved – Marx wrote that he wanted a small group of no more than a dozen people who would discuss ideas, educate themselves, do research and so on. These days, with the internet (and international travel) it’s possible to have a wider circle than that, but in NZ a dozen clued-up people of integrity, dedicated to facing reality and analysing it, would be a step forward.

    At the same time, we’re also active in various things. I know I probably spend as much time on political work as I did before leaving WP, but what I spend it on now is actually much more productive, because I’m not having to deal with a load of problems I had to deal with back then, problems that really shouldn’t arise in a revolutionary group.

    My PhD was on the White New Zealand policy and covers the years of its formation and development, which was basically 1880-1920. The door was firmly closed on Chinese immigration with a 1920 piece of legislation and the policy ceased to be an issue in NZ politics. When the poll tax was eventually removed, several decades later, it was because of NZ imperialism’s needs in World War 2 – in this case ideological needs, rather than labour needs.

    The first few chapters are up on the blog, and I’ll get the rest of it up on the blog over the next month or two.

    My MA was on Irish political movements of the early 1900s and is already on the internet, on the Irish politics blog I do.


  4. Sue Bradford draws a distinction between the left that wants to manage the system and make it nicer and what she calls the ‘transformative left’. The problem with her think-tank is the one O’Shay mentions – which of these lefts will it represent.

    I’m in favour of something like an Institute for Workers Power or a Centre for Marxist Education, a centre which is unambiguously anti-capitalist and which doesn’t have illusions in the NZ state, doesn’t promote left-nationalism etc.

    But short of winning Lotto, I don’t see a way to develop such a centre.


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