protestOn Tuesday, November 25, The Freedom Shop, an anarchist centre in Wellington, held a meeting about the way forward for the activist left.  A number of speakers were invited to give ten-minute presentations; below is the presentation given by Don Franks

Kia ora kou tou.  

Thanks for inviting me here this evening.

I appreciate the chance to participate in this discussion of how the activist left might make progress. Discussion of political ideas is something the New Zealand left hasn’t done very well. 

We’ve spent more time discussing other things. Such as how we can get this or that “good” person elected to some position. Or how we might achieve mainstream media coverage of a political stunt. 

We kiwi leftists are practical down to earth people, aren’t we? We like to get on with the job, do something real, get something going now, not later.  We care, we want to stop the drilling, feed the kids, not wank off over an economic textbook.

So, political study for long-term strategising is something we do, if at all, after completing our other supposedly more relevant duties.

That’s how it’s mostly been in the sections of the socialist left I’ve inhabited. Most of the time we’ve been hardworking reliable helpers of various reformists and union officials. 

On the plus side, these long hard hours had some positive effect, we’ve helped bring in some progressive reforms along the way. 

But we’ve also neglected to build our own programme and our own culture. Because of that it’s hard to identify “The activist left” as anything more than “certain people who usually turn up at various demonstrations”.

This meeting’s organisers have asked: What are our strengths and weaknesses? Can we learn from history or do we need to re-invent our movement? And, what issues and strategies should we consider?

These are very relevant questions, I think we also need to ask one more – what do we want to achieve?

I believe our central goal should be to destroy the capitalist system and replace it with worker-controlled economic and social organisation. 

Capitalism is a flexible system which rewards a minority and seems to offer promise for a wider minority.

Capitalism is also a ruthlessly vicious system.  Exploitation, war, deceit, and stark social deprivation are inherent unavoidable elements of capitalism. If humankind is ever to live in general peace and prosperity, capitalism must go. 

Most leftists would say they agree with this. Yet we very often act as if the destruction of capitalism was not any sort of priority. 

The New Zealand Labour Party is totally committed to capitalism, yet so many leftists support it as somehow “better” than National.

This, despite the fact that the working class have less faith in the Labour Party with each passing year. Few workers join the party, each election fewer workers vote for the party. This reflects Labour’s essentially anti-worker position. 

Anyway, responding to the questions before us tonight, what are our some of our strengths and weaknesses?

We live in a relatively peaceful, prosperous society, where most people are literate. So it’s possible to spread ideas and organise gatherings without being killed or imprisoned. In much of the world that isn’t the case. Our relatively benign social climate is not guaranteed; in my lifetime left activists have been imprisoned for possessing communist literature, and of course there were the terror raids just a few years ago. Still, we enjoy relative political freedom and should make use of it.

A serious weakness we have is reluctance to debate political ideas. Political criticism is too often seen as a personal attack. Sometimes it is, because we are often too ready to see politics as the whims of important individuals rather than struggle between classes. Thus, New Zealand involvement in the TPPA is, it’s frequently claimed, because of John Key’s mad desire to help US corporates destroy New Zealand people’s democratic rights. Instead of political analysis we have childish demonisation of John Key as some sort of crazy fascist.

Prime minster Rob Muldoon was characterised in the same way. While we were pulling faces at Muldoon nice David Lange’s Labour government crept up behind us and destroyed thousands of jobs. We were unprepared, because we were fixated with the personalities and not the real drivers of change – international and national economic forces.

Another weakness of the New Zealand left is fixation with parliament. Beneath all the fuss, parliament is a buffer for the capitalist class to hide behind while they conduct their business unmolested. Workers are losing interest in parliament, so should we.

Can we learn from history, or do we need to reinvent our movement? 

We are unavoidably shaped by our past, and the question I think is how we learn from history. We’ve had a tendency to copy the form and trappings of overseas movements. Better I think, to examine how successful overseas movements solved the problems of their particular environments, as we must solve ours.

What strategies should we consider?

If you accept getting rid of capitalism as the main leftist responsibility, then this is what I think we need to work on right now.

We need to develop and vigorously uphold our own left agenda, otherwise we will be forever responding to capitalism, on capitalism’s terms.

I see part of making our own revolutionary kaupapa in the creation of a regular bulletin, presenting a day-by-day left alternative to the capitalist media. This news service should seek to build a readership of working people, so that they may be armed with better understanding of how society works and how it might be changed.

The Marxist Redline blog I contribute to goes some way towards this function but only very little.

I would like to see a much bigger, more comprehensive news alternative. My vision is a regular bulletin in plain clear language addressing all worker-related issues of the day, with a consistently internationalist revolutionary focus.

Obviously, a regular, reliable, readable anti-capitalist bulletin is only part of the job. I do believe that properly done it could help us step forward together with more conviction, resolve and effect.

See also:
Symposium contribution, 1: The Mana Movement and the left
Symposium contribution, 2: What is to be done about the radical left in New Zealand
Symposium contribution, 3: The miseries of political life 


  1. says:

    I missed this event due to wage slavery, did any of the other speakers have useful things to say? and Don, I like the idea of a regular bulletin. Are you thinking a paper version, or an online thing. Paper is nice but would take more resources and time than we seem to have at the moment. I know that producing a paper is a good way to focus an organisation and provide a group with a regular and central task, but even capitalists are finding it hard to maintain regular paper based newspapers and magazines these days compared to twenty years ago.

    On the other hand, there are still large numbers of people who do not live on the internet and it seems to me that getting stuff out on paper is still a good thing, I just don’t know how we could do it. .

    • mark says:

      sorry that was meant to be signed Mark, not awsm.

      • Phil says:

        The WSM (Workers Solidarity Movement) in Ireland used to – perhaps still does – produce an on-line bulletin which people are encouraged to download and distribute. At one time I know there were thousands of copies of each issue doing the rounds.

        In my old Sinn Fein days, each district committee used to produce a bulletin for its area and we distributed these house-to-house. We financed these through pub collections. This isn’t really viable in NZ as we don’t have pubs on each corner in working class areas to do collections in and nor does the left have that kind of credibility that would make workers put money in the collection can.

        I think Don was suggesting an on-line publication, but with some possibility of circulating it among those without internet access, a group which I think is getting smaller and smaller.

  2. badcop666 says:

    Excellent Don. Straightforward and to the point.

  3. Don Franks says:

    I was thinking more of an electronic bulletin, with hard copy spin offs as required. My main desire is for our side to present a consistent radical alternative view of national and international events in a clear plain english.

  4. Barrie says:

    That comment about “clear plain english” is one ive been wrestling with for a while. The basic issue is trying to work out who exactly our ‘market/demographic’ actually is or who we would like it to be? Seems to me we rarely stop to think about that or ask ourselves whether answering the question requires changing how we write. Mostly you get people writing as if they’ve been locked in university tutorials and have Stockholm Syndrome as a result. If we are trying to reach out to academically minded types maybe thats fine. If we are trying to approach other people, then its tricky trying to find the line between talking plainly .v. insulting people’s intelligence. Its not always easy working out what to assume is shared vocabulary and concepts and we shouldn’t turn plain english into ‘dumbing down’. We use words like ‘the Left’ unreflectively, but i can’t remember ever hearing it used by people in any of the places ive worked, or at the bus stop or in the dairy etc and yet it has its uses, doesn’t it? Sometimes ive thought it wouldnt be a silly idea to do our own research by standing in the street with a clipboard and asking the literal ‘person in the street’ if they can define a list of 10 of of our most commonly used political words or phrases and seeing what the outcome is. Might be quite revealing.

    • Phil says:

      Good idea. There was actually a left group in Britain which used to do stuff like that. They happened to be very good at presenting complex ideas in very readable prose, without dumbing down. Unfortunately, they had a very top-down internal structure and when forced marching the organising failed to continue to deliver growth, the organisation was not able to cope and disbanded. (It was the RCP.)

      But they did a lot of ‘research gathering’ on the streets.


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