Kim Dotcom, the far left and Te Tai Tokerau: an autopsy

Posted: November 28, 2014 by Admin in Class Matters, Cover ups, Labour Party NZ, Maori, Marxism, New Zealand politics

Kim Dotcom and Mana Party leader Hone Harawira

by Philip Ferguson

After the September 2014 election, and in particular the loss of the Mana Party’s Te Tai Tokerau seat in parliament, Kim Dotcom apologised to Mana leader Hone Harawira for having turned out to be “toxic” and having cost Hone his seat.

Hone gallantly didn’t try to pass the blame to the Megaupload and Internet Party founder, but he did admit that the Mana-Internet Party alliance may have cost Mana votes, saying that people who had previously voted Mana in Te Tai Tokerau had told him that they didn’t agree with the hook-up with the multi-millionaire.

So it does seem likely that the Internet-Mana alliance cost Mana votes and, given the relatively small margin by which Labour won the seat off Hone, it could have made the difference.

Cross-class lash-up

Moreover, not only was the Internet Party founded and financed by multi-millionaire Kim Dotcom, but he essentially hired as leader of the party someone who had not long come from helping oversee the laying off of thousands of Auckland council workers, Laila Harre. While her blurb on the Internet Party site described Ms Harre as a “national treasure”, the left groups stressed her past credentials as a progressive activist in the Alliance Party and in the leadership of several unions, as if her role in the Auckland council layoffs did not exist and was not part of her CV-building.

Given that there are no less than three left groups operating in the Mana Party, groups that formally describe themselves as Marxist, what role did they play in all this? After all, the tools of Marxism are supposed to be a very helpful guide to working out political positions. Plus basic class analysis would suggest the need for independent working class politics rather than the kind of cross-class lash-up that the Mana Party entered into with Dotcom’s Internet Party.

Did these groups argue against the alliance and warn of the consequences?

The left groups in Mana: what happened to Marxism?

In fact, rather than fight for class politics within Mana, the left groups simply fell into line behind Hone, endorsing the Internet-Mana hook-up. The decision-making process within Mana about the alliance seems to have been fairly democratic, so it’s not even as if the left groups would have faced serious obstacles in arguing a class position. They simply capitulated to the cross-class politics which are endemic in a party like Mana.

These groups, and a layer of prominent individual left activists in the Mana Party who identify with Marxism, thus appear to be committed to Marxism in theory only. When any serious practical question arises, when it comes to actually doing something, Marxism is out the window and some type of reformism is embraced as the only way to go.

This was very evident with the Fightback group, for instance. The initial response of the layer of Fightback members who were part of its predecessor organisation, the Workers Party, was to oppose the oncoming trainwreck of an Internet-Mana hook-up. Very quickly, however, this position was reversed. The people in Fightback who were very much keen on endorsing the oncoming disaster were people who had been longtime members of Socialist Worker until its dissolution several years ago. Before its dissolution, SW had well sunken into the mire of populism, promoting classless politics, calling on corporates to be “good citizens” and “pay their fair share” of taxes and so on.

The Workers Party in 2011-2012 lost the bulk of its cadre – for instance, between February 2011 and June 2012 every single member over about 35 years of age left the group, as younger members increasingly evolved away from Marxism.  The remains of the group changed their name to Fightback and, having shed any serious commitment to Marxism, became attractive to a small layer of former members of SW. Their joining Fightback strengthened the shift to more populist politics.

It was perhaps no surprise then when the group dropped its opposition to the Internet-Mana cross-class lash-up it was a former SW veteran, Grant Brookes, who wrote the article explaining why. Fightback’s original position, he wrote, was down to the members being mainly young and white without much experience. Hone, on the other hand, was an experienced Maori activist: Hone must be right and the young white kids needed to recognise his superior political judgement.

In facebook exchanges with critics of the lash-up another ex-SW member of Fightback, Daphne Lawless, claimed that there was nothing wrong with the lash-up from the standpoint of class politics. Dotcom was an entrepreneur, as she herself was, she said. If revolutionaries couldn’t unite with Dotcom, where did that leave her? Lawless is apparently some kind of small-time musical performer; at most, she would be part of the middle class, she is not a capitalist. Kim Dotcom is a capitalist, one who accumulated hundreds of millions of dollars of wealth. This class distinction, important for Marxists, seemed to elude her.

In the end, of course, it turned out that the initial gut instinct of the young white kids was right and the more experienced superior judgment of Hone – and Grant Brookes – turned out to be seriously flawed.

The only left group in Mana which has seriously questioned its support for the Internet-Mana alliance is the International Socialist Organisation. A lively debate took place among ISO members about class independence and their national committee’s support for the alliance. Several of the group’s most experienced members, including national committee member Shomi Yoon, stressed the need for independent working class politics and that the Internet-Mana alliance was not an example of such politics.  This, and the fact that the debate in ISO was carried out publicly and appears to have been fairly democratic is certainly welcome.

Shifting the blame

Other leftist groups and individuals operating within Mana simply blame anyone and everyone else for the setback to Mana and the loss of Hone’s seat. The nasty National Party and nasty Winston Peters encouraged their supporters to vote Labour and this is what cost Mana the seat. Of course, these people have never wanted Hone to have the seat but he has weathered all past challenges. While the unity of these politicians with Labour undoubtedly helped Kelvin Davis win the seat, this alone cannot explain what happened. Hone lost votes – the explanation for this is the hook-up with Dotcom and his party and the millions of dollars that went into the Internet-Mana election chest as a result.  A layer of working class people, in particular a layer of working class Maori, in Te Tai Tokerau did not like this and withdrew their support from Hone at the polls.

The fact that all three leftist groups within Mana rejected independent working class politics and Marxism, when it came down to it, and instead endorsed the Internet-Mana hook-up means that, in their own modest way, they helped cost Hone his seat.  The sorry consequences of opportunism. . .

Unfortunately, most of them – especially Fightback, Socialist Aotearoa and some of the more prominent leftist individuals in Mana – are not good at reflecting on their politics and activities. Rather than reflect, admit mistakes and correct them, they tend to simply ignore the trainwrecks they get involved in, and are partly responsible for, and rush on blindly into the next (mis)adventure.

No more train wrecks – we need a new left

A Friday or two ago on the TV3 comedy series Seven Days one of the comedians, I think it was Ben Hurley, said in relation to Internet-Mana, “I didn’t think it was real; I thought it was a sketch on the Jono and Ben Show.” Another comedian on the programme described it as a “trainwreck”. As it turned out, these comedians had a better understanding than the ‘Marxists’ within Mana who endorsed what any Marxist should have been able to diagnose as a trainwreck in the making. Not to mention as an alliance which pointed in the opposite direction to independent working class poltics.

The Internet-Mana-far left fiasco is yet another sign that we need a new left. A left which grasps the concept of independent working class politics and bases itself on those and the critical, analytical tools of Marxism.

See also: Developing our own revolutionary kaupapa and fighting for it and International balance sheet of the broad party strategy


  1. Thomas R says:

    I’ve avoided commenting here for a while but I think you need to fact check a bit of this. Perhaps the primary issue with some things you have blatantly wrong about Fightback’s views (can speak to that a bit as I was still involved at the time) is actually more a problem of where those debates happened. In that regard, ISO having it out more publicly was a good call.

    But in terms of arguing for class politics, this absolutely occurred? That the argument was ultimately unconvincing for MANA’s membership, that’s a more serious question for any leftists who want to remain involved in MANA. Points can be made, arguments can be put forward (which, again, they were – perhaps you are relying on the WSWS account of the Hui which was a good deal of sensationalist fabrication) but if they fail to convince or connect with people and resonate then there’s not much more to be done. Fightback’s turn around was indeed the wrong call, and the minority position which is a kind of positive ~spin~ on the election results (though, this hasn’t come from people you’ve named here) isn’t good politics.

    I don’t think the point was anything to do with Kim Dotcom being an entrepreneur, it was around the idea that self-employed contractor type of work is more and more common, but is hard to imagine as anything but rather precarious wage-labour work. That was at least the conversations I saw – so perhaps again with a more direct source (you prefer not to use Facebook, right?) that point may have been more clear.

    A breakdown of voting patterns is tedious I’m sure so I wonder if that is coming later – but it could be worth noting that the MANA votes were a drop in the vote in Maori Electorates, with a rise in General Electorates. This seems to me to suggest that the voter base MANA had initially were put off beyond Te Tai Tokerau as well.

    Another extremely disappointing moment was the Moment of Truth blundering and bluster. Particularly having Laila Harre introduce and praise Julian Assange – who still faces allegations of rape in Sweden. Surely Laila could not possibly exist even vaguely on the left without hearing about this stuff, and the contempt the whole thing showed towards survivors was pretty disgusting.

    While this is a little off-topic, but I haven’t commented in a while – but in the past I have got the impression that Redline did not think this National government would implement any serious attacks on workers. Would the legislation around tea breaks not be a fairly significant attack? Naturally, it’s hard to compare anything to the 80s and early 90s. But something as basic as a guaranteed tea break being stripped away does seem almost cartoonishly villainous to me.

    My own involvement of MANA was via Fightback, and having stepped back from the latter I don’t really know what’s going on internally with the former any more. But I believe they’re having some kind of National Hui again this coming weekend. Hearing what the membership base more broadly thinks about what happened could be interesting. At the very least, a new layer of people who previously have not been interested in politics at all have probably learnt something. Even something as basic as Labour and others on the supposed ‘left’ of parliamentary politics are not our friends – considering the way they undermine even rather pragmatic politics to their left like MANAs. And some things like that probably will need to be relearned, because even if other generations know these things – a blog or a paper or a zine or whatever won’t have the reach to really influence that many people to take that position against the Labour Party. Especially when much more popular sites like The Daily Blog seem to work quite hard to get people excited about the idea of Labour led Government.

    • Thomas R says:

      More specifically I think the Fightback piece included ‘we were wrong’ with regards to the Internet Party/MANA alliance. Retrospect makes me think that should have been put more as ‘we were wrong about how we made our arguments, not the content of them’

  2. Phil says:

    I never read any WSWS reports. In terms of Fightback I went *exclusively* on material that was published in their paper and comments made by their members on Facebook. In fact, I was generous in one sense, because I could have picked out other material by Fightback folk on Facebook that was worse!

    Given that I relied exclusively on material by their members, I don’t see how I would have their views/actions blatantly wrong. They originally opposed the alliance, then they changed to supporting it and the alliance proved very bad news for Mana. This was *entirely predictable* and could be seen coming even by comedians from Seven Days; it should have been obvious to Marxists.

    It was to some of us, but not to folks like Fightback. In their own modest way they thus contributed to the outcome.

    I’m not interested in labouring the point because it took me two months to summon up the energy to bother writing the article. There seemed little point in the sense that they won’t learn anything from it, even when their collective face is splattered with egg. In the end, I wrote it for the historical record and for any independent left activists who might be wondering what the hell went wrong.

    I agree with you that if a new layer of young people supporting Mana learned about how treacherous Labour is and how they attempt to destroy anything to their left, that is a good thing. But we cannot afford to simply say this lesson might have to be relearned with each new generation. Each new generation should be able to stand on the shoulders of the previous one, not have to re-learn the same lessons; that would simply mean the anti-capitalist left would never really progress at all.

    Thomas, what are you doing now that you’ve left Fightback?


    • C. H. says:

      I’m not surprised the New Zealand left is so demoralised these days. To go from being a sort of social democratic poster-boy to neoliberal trailblazer must have been bad enough. That the resulting individualism and apoliticism has lasted so long, while the left continues to collapse, is doubly disappointing.

      I wonder if the escape valve of mass working class migration to Australia has contributed to this. That country has some of the best living standards for workers anywhere in the world, backed by the buoyant resource sector and a fairly solid trade union movement. The exodus followed hot on the heels of the collapse of domestic manufacturing in NZ, which presumably broke up most large unionised worksites. The same collapse occurred later in Australia (and is still occurring).

      The subjective factor is also interesting. The Kiwi left should be immensely proud that the Communist Party of NZ stood alone in the West with its firm stand against revisionism. Likewise for the groundbreaking work of the broader left against Apartheid, nuclear proliferation, and around indigenous liberation. To then see the non-liberal left in a state of near extinction thirty years later is startling.

      Was this, as the author of the above article suggests elsewhere on this site, due to a lack of a Marxist intelligencia in NZ? If that is true, who was responsible for the theoretical work of the CPNZ, Worker Communist League, Socialist Unity Party, etc.? Were these parties not as well versed in Marxism-Leninism as they made out to be?

      As inequality in NZ worsens and the capitalist world economy continues to slump, perhaps an upturn in class consciousness will occur if things get bad enough. But who will act as the ‘tribune of the people’ that Lenin spoke of? Who will school the advanced workers and demonstrate the possibility of a revolutionary alternative?

      New Zealand communists such as V. Wilcox, R. Nunes and R. C. Holliss were known internationally for their work in unmasking the threats of reformism and revisionism. It is a tragedy that there was nobody to continue their work after their deaths. The leftovers of the CPNZ appear to be a pathetic rabble of petty-bourgeois Trotskyite liquidationists. (I am assuming that the SPA is now defunct.)

      • Phil says:

        I don’t think I’ve ever suggested the problems are due to a lack of a Marxist intelligentsia in this country. In fact, I’d say the lack of such an intelligentsia is a *reflection* of deeper problems – this is, to put it somewhat crudely, not very fertile soil for revolutionary politics. The lack of a revolutionary intelligentsia is an indication and result of that.

        The CPNZ, WCL, SUP, SAL did very little theoretical work. The SAL, for instance, prided itself on taking ideas seriously, but their ‘ideas’ were simply transplanted from the New York head office of the American SWP.

        You’re right to mention Ray Nunes. Ray was the person who fought to win the CPNZ to the view that NZ was a (junior) imperialist and not a neo-colony and who also was a pioneer in terms of the view that Labour is an out-and-out capitalist party and not some kind of degenerated workers party. He was well ahead of the rest of the left and his legacy is represented in the work of Redline, although half of us never knew him and a number of us would have disagreements with him over certain historical issues.

        Wilcox was never an intellectual of any sort. The SUP never produced intellectuals either. Don can talk about the WCL, but I can’t recall any particular theoretical breakthroughs from them and their chief theoretician abandoned Marxism relatively early on.

        Across the ditch has much more of a bolshie tradition than here. I’ve often thought it a pity that federation didn’t happen, as Australian workers don’t put up with what workers here do.

        On several occasions I’ve also contrasted the massive industrial disputes of 1913 which took place here and in Ireland. Look at what the Irish workers did compared to here. And, of course, this country has never produced a Larkin (with the possible exception of Jock Barnes), let alone a Connolly and a workers’ militia.

        In NZ, the only time much space opened up to the left of Labour it was filled by a new social-democratic formation (the Alliance); in Ireland when space to the left of Labour opened up it was filled by people who identified with Marxism (in the 1980s the Workers Party had 7 seats in the southern parliament; today, Trotskyists hold 5 or 6 seats in the southern parliament and scores of council seats in mainly working class areas).

        I know why Ireland is more advanced in terms of class/political consciousness – it’s because of Irish republicanism.

        But I’m not sure why NZ is like this – it definitely needs some serious analysis. But a couple of factors strike me – colonisation by fairly selective choice of migrants (well-behaved English agricultural labourers and servants), for instance), early social reform (beginning before the Liberals but epitomised by them), the welfare state (which still largely exists), the fact that the indigenous population, while being subject to dispossession and discrimination, were not subject to the intensity of oppression of Afro-Americans and Native Americans or Australian Aboriginals, the highly successful way the ruling class has used NZ nationalism and also incorporation of critics of individual forms of discrimination, the natural conditions which were successfully harnessed for capitalist agriculture, and other factors.

        Hell, we never even had a tradition of a left social-democratic opposition in the Labour Party, like Britain (and Australia and most countries with big social-democratic parties).

        The ‘breaking in’ of the country by British migrants also involved a lot of ‘can-do’ rather than a lot of thinking about hows and whys and so on. People who were interested in ideas often didn’t stay here but migrated to Europe.

        It also seems like people in this country will get fired up about once a generation. The fire might last a decade, but it never reaches a conscious anti-capitalist mass stage and so the ruling class always manages it successfully.

        Given that the chances our get are relatively rare, we need to be as well-prepared as possible for them. That’s why things like critiques of reformism, opportunism, populism, nationalism and so on are so important.


    • Thomas R says:

      What I’m doing is mostly reading and writing a bit and trying to make some sense of my own politics because I’ve found myself losing a bit of faith/interest in a Leninist model. Reading Lars Lih, which seems to actually make other Marxist more confident about Leninism, left me feeling the continuation of emphasis Lenin most often employed has very little place in a post USSR world. This I feel is most encapsulated by very optimistic Trotsykists who seem to be a bit disconnected from the reality ie. irrelevance of the far left in NZ and elsewhere.

      My point was more that the arguments were made, and opposing the Alliance was articulated both from Fightback and ISO from the get go. Socialist Aotearoa had the most extreme views from one organisation with Joe C on one side wholeheartedly in favour, and other activists being vehemently against. The fact that all of these views were expressed at the National Hui was perhaps part of the problem, though. The arguments against the alliance were there, they were not adopted or supported by the majority of MANA. At which point, I agree that many in Fightback changed their position which included some positive stuff about Internet Party which I thought was definitely reaching. Democratically speaking, Fightback endorsed to stay in MANA after the alliance was announced. But my understanding was that that was not immediately saying we supported the alliance, so whether follow up pieces were official Fightback positions, or just the positions of the people writing them in an ongoing debate process probably seemed unclear.

      I don’t think it can be that much of a surprise that socialists in MANA are not going to be taken that seriously by membership (who have had no interaction with them previously at least, there’s hubs where Marxists are more involved and have more support) particularly when you have the majority providing criticisms of the proposed alliance, while others will compare Kim Dotcom to the Engels of Hone’s Marx. Or the (sorry I don’t know the name) rich person who bought Lenin the ticket to get back to Russia ha.

      I agree that some lessons should be transmitted from one generation to another, but this one clearly has not – we should ask why? Other lessons may in fact have a different character now, and a lot of theory around Racism, women’s liberation etc. has developed and changed to more accurately reflect the present situation – often that side of theory and those lessons are more well articulated by younger generations.

      I recently listened to a podcast from some class struggle anarchists in the UK who have been working for a few decades and they made the point that ‘you don’t step into the same river twice’. Which is something definitely worth noting considering the changing nature of the National Party vs. the image of them as the evil conservative Tories which is still oft repeated in some sectors.

      They also note the damage wrought by the SWP, not just in the recent cover up of Rape but an ongoing pattern of chewing up and spitting out young people interested in revolutionary politics, who are then burnt out and never come back into politics. One thing New Zealand doesn’t really have is any sizeable group that is pushing a kind of activism-for-activisms sake, and looking to ‘win leadership’ in grass roots movements (though from what I’ve heard, ‘winning’ looks a lot more like ‘declaring themselves to be the leadership’ and alienating massive numbers of other student based orgs etc). So I am not ultimately a total pessimist. Things could be considerably more difficult here.

      • Thomas R says:

        re: what I’m doing right now, particularly looking at Bordiga v. Lenin with regards to the question of parliamentary participation, as I think it seems like a relevant question after all of this. Also a bit of Maurice Brinton, as he’s criticised Marxist-Leninist activist orgs and how they operate in the West for quite a long time and was probably correct in a lot of those criticisms decades ago, let alone now.

      • Phil says:

        The piece that had Grant B’s name on it wasn’t an individual piece; it announced that Fightback had changed its position and was now endorsing the Internet-Mana hook-up.

        The ‘you don’t step into the same river twice’ is a very old saying, usually used in educational abut dialectics. I first heard it about 40 years ago at such an educational talk. It’s very true, but it’s odd that many younger activists don’t see that National is an urban, liberal party, not the party it was 40 years ago. They often don’t accurately reflect the present situation in relation to National (or Labour).

        I agree things here could be more difficult. But they seem difficult enough to prevent the emergence of any sizeable working class-based revolutionary movement. Different left groups certainly made progress – the WCL and SAL made a little bit of progress in the working class in the 1980s, but they blew it. What fucked up the SAL’s progress was that they allowed themselves to be a little space-craft attached to a mothership in America. I’m not sure how the WCL blew it, Don would be the one for explaining that.

        I was quite interested in the CPNZ when I returned to NZ in 194. I thought seriously abut joining them but, instead of spending a few years reflecting on their sat and working out the way forward in NZ, they jumped into bed with the British SWP. That put me right off as I knew quite a bit about the SWP and had seen it up fairly close when I lived in Britain. So the opportunity to be something useful to the working class was lost by the CPNZ and its morphed into what became SW.

        At some point we (anti-capitalist left) need to seriously re-examine the period from 1981 to 1991. A period which opened with the massive militant protests against the Springbok tour and which ended with massive protests against the ECA. And was punctuated with struggles of all kinds – for instance, around gay liberation in 1986. Plus that decade saw the Labour Party exposing itself more blatantly than ever as an out-and-out capitalist managerial party.

        To me it’s a miracle (of the bad sort) that a large anti-capitalist organisation did not emerge out of that turbulent decade, one with some real roots in the class and among the oppressed. How did the far left fuck it up so badly?


      • Thomas R says:

        I’d be interested to hear what happened with WCL as well because that was a pretty sizeable group that I know less about than SAL or what eventually became SW. Sometimes accounts of what happened to various are one-liners, shibboleths or whatever. And while it can help frame discussion, it’s not an actual deconstruction of what happened and isn’t all that helpful. A detailed account of the history of the radical left, or even speciifcally Marxist left in NZ would be great to be honest. A pretty big work for someone.. or a collection of people to undertake some time.

        I do not know much of the history of that particular decade, but your suggestion seems like a good one because if you are right in saying that each generation will have a period of unrest, then we might be building towards another soonish? But without understanding the failure of the 80s/early 90s to build into something more it could easily just be a wave crashing on the rocks. There’s bubbling unrest, and some pretty detailed study being done in a few rather autonomous groups of student radicals around the country which is great. But obviously students alone can’t get very far

  3. Phil says:

    I think there’s very substantial discontent, but it’s at a rather subterranean level. There are protests, sometimes quite big ones, but they’re not connected into a particular dynamic, which is what existed in ‘the sixties’ and in that 1981-1991 period. People are unhappy but, by and large, unprepared to act. Who knows what it will take to unlock that discontent? I sure don’t.

    However, in the imperialist world, there is an aspect that seems important. People have tended to rebel when rising expectations are not met or the ruling class starts trying to lower them.

    Unfortunately, the big problem today is that workers, by and large, have accepted lower expectations, so that crisis point is not really on the agenda.

    The question then becomes, how do we help get workers to raise their expectations? We can’t dimly rely on individual conversations/consciousness-raising as we’d all be dead by the time we’d spoken to even a fraction of the class.


    • Thomas R says:

      Yeah that lowered expectations is a relevant point. The flipside of unrest of course is a much more dire situation than we’re likely to face unless climate and environmental catastrophe threatens food security because it’s unlikely we’ll actually get to starvation wages in NZ anyway. It’s not great or anything, poverty is clearly a big issue. But comparable to the sort of unrest pre-welfare state which often did tie into actual brutal work and living conditions. So it seems pretty grim either way. I still have the ‘somethings gotta give’ view, and perhaps NZ won’t be on the cusp but instead be sorta nudged along by more revolutionary events in other countries. Best we can do is, as you say, be prepared and analyse what’s gone wrong in the past, plus maintain networks of leftists who are also doing that kind of thing so that if there was a time when something more tight knit and militant seems worthwhile, that can be undertaken quite smoothly and with some fledgling basic political affinity and solidarity.

      Ultimately, capitalism does erode things that I think people do desire. Community, creativity, freedom, some level of control of ones own life etc. I know more and more young people who of their own volition set up little groups to kind of build communities based around common interests. It may not always be Proper Politics, but people coming together and organising some things for themselves often leaks over into ‘then why don’t we have control of this, or this, or this entire thing’ which is a good thing too. But it’s slow too

  4. tereoputake says:

    Good post and great discussion. If I can correct one small point; the SUP spent a hell of a lot of time of theoretical discussion and Marxist education. Most weekends, from memory! Many members also had the opportunity to study in the Soviet Union. Because of the parties political orientation, it was a pretty ‘straight’ Marxist Leninist line that was taught. And remarkably forgiving of leftist deviations like Trotskyism and Maoism, mainly due to a commitment to a united front way of working.

    I really appreciated the detailed analysis of mana/IP’s campaign. It seems to me there are many in mana who still don’t get that the association with Dotcom was not only disastrous for their own party, but probably ankle tapped Labour and the Greens too.

    Cheers, TRP

  5. Phil says:

    I will give the SUP kudos for one thing. It was actually a series a couple of their members ran in Christchurch where, although an SAL member, I was welcomed along and got introduced to some very basic political economy. The SAL was terrible for much of its existence in terms of *Marxist* education, as opposed to indoctrination in the ideas of the American SWP.

    But my memory of the SUP is that this was unusual. If you were in the SUP, however, I’ll take your word for it that they did a lot of internal education, but I’m going to have to disagree with you about their orthodox Marxism-Leninism. The SAL and WCL regarded the SUP as hopelessly reformist, barely to the left of Labour.

    I got involved in left political activity when I was 14 and virtually no-one of my generation had any interest in the SUP – they were backward on issues like gay rights and women’s liberation, they had a reductionist view of the Maori struggle, the experience that their older cadre had in 1951 meant they *always* backed off on challenging the state and they promoted the peaceful road to socialism, supported nationalist economics and so on and so on.

    I remember when Bill Andersen was briefly jailed – it was radical social democrats and independent very left unionists in positions of leadership in the unions who led the fight and tried to get a general strike, supported by the revolutionary left, while the SUP was extremely fearful of a fight with the state. When Andersen was released from jail, he immediately acted to defuse the situation. I discuss this briefly in an article on the third Labour government, here:

    The SUP, of course, also gave us Ken Douglas who led the betrayal of 1991.

    Lastly, the SUP’s uncritical attitude to Moscow was, shall we say, not helpful. The system that prevailed there, whatever label various left currents might attach to it, was not socialism. It was an awful monstrosity and one of the things that played into the hands of capitalism.

    As it happens all the groups of that era (by which I mean the ones that counted for anything) – CP, SUP, WCL, SAL – are gone. A fragment of the SAL lives on as a bizarre cult called the “Communist League” but there’s only about 7 or 8 people still in it.

    Looking back, however, I’d draw a line between the groups that did try to be revolutionary (CP, WCL, SAL) and SUP, which was never in the revolutionary camp. Of the WCL, CP and SAL, I’d say the SAL was the least radical – due largely to the suffocating and conservatising influence of the American mother ship. Of the revolutionary three, I’d say the SAL was probably also the one least rooted in NZ reality. (And I say that as someone who spent a majority of my teens and half of my 20s in the SAL.)


    • Tiger Mountain says:

      The NZ marxist left remains sidelined largely due to historical (since the 50s) and current theoretical and organisational disunity. Unity is best forged in action, as has been said–action without reflection is activism, reflection without activity being intellectualism, with action plus reflection hopefully equalling praxis.

      As an ex SUP member I can confirm that extensive regular national, regional and branch education and international extended education trips were held. The problem being putting all that theory into practice. Which was difficult in a party founded on what was called revisionism in the wake of the Sino Soviet events of the time. But none the less formal education in the theory of surplus value and dialectics etc was valuable for all sorts of situations.
      Younger members were activists particularly in union activity which suffered from the various problems of economism and indeed being too close to reformism. But it is easy to discard what previous generations have done. There were many hundreds of SUP members at one time, most of whom were genuine working class people from South and West Auckland, Wellington and SI–seafarers, storeworkers etc. and their families. Drawn to that party by union strikes and such like. I could easily have joined the NZCP or SAL I just met the other lot first. Once you have a class analysis there is a material underlying reason to take on employers with vigour.

      Of course their were several prominent class traitors in the ranks and several SIS plants too that were known about and several outed. The WCL devolved into Red Currents and basically fizzled out. But the WCL was a trail blazer in ‘identity’ issues. The once great NZCP ignominiously declined into SW etc.

      An old CP member told me that party went seriously off the rails after a party school in 1958 and showed me supporting documents from that school. There was an effort at left unity in the late 80s and early 90s with WISSE (Workers Institute for Scientific Socialism) which involved veterans Bill McCara, Diana Willsie, Rex Hollis and Don Ross (Struggle group) along with various SUP and left social democrats. They tried to embark on an up to date class analysis of NZ as a material basis for a way forward to left unity. NZ Aotearoa is a notoriously difficult population to organise with its post colonial setting and comprador capitalists and reactionary petit bourgeois aspirational elements. Some workers will no doubt be queuing up to buy ex state houses as “renters”.

      The truth is most of todays small left groups are splits of splits and class leadership is diluted each time and further mistakes result. The four main active groups currently are indulging in ‘dungheapism’ imo when they could actually be looking at amalgamating their activities more.
      The Mana engagement is a way to work together with people without committing to organisational joins. Some crude organisational fix is obviously not going to work but something has to be done before a whole generation misses out on a marxist leninist education and background.
      The problem is with the small left sects they still seem to view each other as almost the main problem. An opportunity continues to go missing with the potential marxist leaders in this country thanks to sectarianism.

      Oh, and my final comment, Redline tries to say the Nats govt is not overtly neo liberal in nature–really–with the Reserve Bank Act and SOEs and asset sales in place and an increasingly authoritarian surveillance state do they need to do much more to undermine working class resistance? People need certain reforms unless they are to wait until totally atomised or a revolution ‘appears’ but they do not need reformism as an ideology.

      The fundamentals remain; who and what is the main class enemy?, building a mass party or mass movements?, the attitude to international events, social democracy and united front work.

      • Phil says:

        In relation to your suggestion that the Nats are pursuing neo-liberal policies, nothing the Key-English government has done economically compares with the fourth Labour government and its National successor in the early 1990s. Moreover, as I have said repeatedly, the ruling class needs more neo-liberalism like a hole in its head.

        The ruling class is not stupid; they have long since moved on from neo-liberalism. I’ve explained the reasons for this over and over again. If the SUP education programme was much shakes, and really did teach you about surplus-value, you should understand why the ruling class isn’t interested in vigorously pursuing neo-liberalism any more. That phase of the accumulation cycle is passed.

        I think you are using ‘neo-liberalism’ as a catch-all phrase for capitalist economic policies. When the left does this stuff with Key-English it just comes across as name-calling, people don’t buy it – it makes the left look silly to say that John Key and Bill English are exactly the same as Roger Douglas and Ruth Richardson. It’s like the old nonsense of calling Muldoon a “fascist”; it was name-calling in the place of serious political analysis. And as Don noted in his talk to the anarchist meeting the other week, while the left were all mesmerised by Muldoon supposedly being a “fascist” the nice Labour Party snuck up behind them and into power and launched the biggest attack on workers’ rights since the Depression. (And still we have people on the left with illusions in Labour!!!)

        In terms of the surveillance state, it was of course the last Labour government that began the post 9/11 expansion of state surveillance and which used the “threat of terrorism” to expand the powers of the SIS. Or perhaps you believe Helen Clark was a neo-liberal too. Indeed, expansion of *the power of the state* isn’t even part of the neo-liberal creed. In fact, a section of neo-liberals oppose such expanded state power and are critical of the “war on terror”.

        These days even a layer of lefties who spouted the “neo-liberal” nonsense about Key-English have abandoned it. Most recently, Unite union leader Mike Treen said it simply isn’t the case. (Not that any of these folk are mentioning that we have been saying this all along!)

        In terms of dividing lines in class politics in this country, the keys are *independent working class action and politics* against all the capitalist parties (including Labour); opposition to NZ imperialism and NZ nationalism (both economic nationalism and political nationalism); solidarity with workers and the oppressed abroad, including open borders; unity of the working class through the class fighting all forms of oppression (gender, ethnic, sexual orientation, etc etc) and political opposition to the state (including an understanding that SOEs exploit workers and are focussed on surplus-value exploitation every bit as much as private companies; indeed, the SOEs were *explicitly* set up to create surplus-value; given that the legislation specifically says this, it’s a sorry comment on the left that so many of them can’t grasp this fairly simple reality.)

        Until the left gets the Labour Party, the state and NZ imperialism questions right, in particular, we are not really talking about an anti-capitalist left. We’re talking about a kind of nationalist left that wants to run things nicer (or elect people to parliament and government who will make nice).


  6. Peter says:

    An interesting article Phil, and one I find much to agree with. Sadly, the leftist groups within Mana proved to be underwhelming in their commitment to socialism, let alone Marxism. I shudder when recalling Mike Treen advocating just before the election the benefits of a Labour/Green/Mana/Internet government on the basis of a couple of extra dollars to the minimum wage. An improvement in the material conditions of the working class is a laudable goal, but this seemed to be a desperate attempt to validate a sharp rightward move by Mana. If I recall correctly, NZ First had a more progressive policy on minimum wage. When power is within reach, principles are quickly rationalised to suit.

    “The decision-making process within Mana about the alliance seems to have been fairly democratic, so it’s not even as if the left groups would have faced serious obstacles in arguing a class position”

    I take issue with this. As I understand it, the decision-making process was rushed and hardly democratic, with regions having one vote each that did not necessarily reflect the diversity of views in the membership. The debate was relatively brief, with speeches and decisions taking place in a few hours. This was perhaps necessary given the impending election and the administrative tasks required to formalise the alliance, but can hardly be regarded as best practice in democratic decision-making.

    The more salient point of course is that even if a working class position had been stridently articulated by the left-wing groups, I highly doubt the rest of the party would have been receptive to it. There are actually very few socialists in Mana who know the meaning of the word. That doesn’t mean they aren’t leftists, or admirable advocates for a more humane, just world. But it does mean that they do not possess the tools to analyse the capitalist system, or to develop a coherent vision of the alternative. I include the members of Fightback, Socialist Aotearoa, and ISO in this cohort.

    Despite this criticisms, I’m not as opposed to the Mana experiment as others. I think it served (and may continue to serve) as a useful and rewarding vehicle for collective left-wing action, confused and misdirected as it might have been at times. As I’ve written about before on this blog, Mana remains one of, if not the, most prominent genuinely left-wing organisation in the country. Whether it can survive is questionable, and personally I’m not sure if it would actually be helpful to the cause if it did. I agree with Phil’s final word.

    “The Internet-Mana-far left fiasco is yet another sign that we need a new left. A left which grasps the concept of independent working class politics and bases itself on those and the critical, analytical tools of Marxism.”

    Sadly I struggle to see where this is going to come from in the near future. I think a greater focus on local issues, including council politics, and the development of alternative socialist institutions, might be worth the investment.

  7. Phil says:

    Thanks for the info about the decision-making process in Mana. Perhaps I was being over-generous!

    You say “Sadly I struggle to see where this (new left) is going to come from. . .”

    Well, we do too!!!

    We argue for the need for it and hope this will plant a few seeds, but without the working class itself moving into action there is little hope for a new left in any meaningful sense. Thomas, for instance, just above noted that there are little groups of young people out there trying to figure things out but that this layer, mainly on campuses, can’t get far without broader forces coming into play.

    When we started Redline it was basically to provide Marxist analysis of NZ society and cover international issues where we could, especially around issues to do with imperialist intervention. We hoped to attract individual thinking and critically-reflecting leftists and maybe a small number of people who are starting to think that capitalism is not the best humanity can do.

    We’ve had some success, but pretty limited. More and more people are finding out about the blog and reading it and a few more people are writing for it. So we’re a small pole of attraction; I guess basically we’re a propaganda group in the Marxist sense – i.e. explaining a lot of ideas to a small number of people.

    People involved in the blog have put forward various ideas about steps that could be taken next. Don has raised the idea of a workers’ bulletin, produced electronically that folk that download and circulate, containing articles about workers’ struggles and core anti-capitalist ideas produced in a readable (but not dumbed down) way.

    Something that has been in my mind for a while is establishing some kind of centre, like a Centre for Workers Power or Institute for Workers Power which would do research on the current state of the working class, wages, productivity, working conditions, living conditions, and argue that workers need to take control of the means of production, distribution and exchange.

    There are a number of people around who are also keen on study groups, which I think are always vital to sustained political work.

    But I don’t think organisation-building is on the agenda because that requires motion in the working class. Otherwise, what is it for? Meetings about meetings, meetings about how to do stuff that the working class in this country isn’t at present much interested in?

    I also think the disaggregation/atomisation of the working class over the past 30 years means that working class communities have become more important as areas for political work, although I would disagree on a focus being simply parochial. The anti-capitalist left needs to sink real roots in the working class, but continue to argue for internationalism and anti-capitalism, and make those things come alive for a working class audience.


  8. C. H. says:

    In ‘Coming Apart Down Under: the decay of New Zealand capitalist society from the 1970s to 1993’, P. Ferguson wrote:

    “The physical isolation of New Zealand from much of the rest of the world [cut] the country off from much of the progressive thinking taking place in other parts of the globe. Marxist ideas never formed any part of intellectual thinking in New Zealand, and the country never had anything which could be described as a Marxist movement…

    Because there was no coherent Marxist critique of New Zealand capitalism, and no determined anti-capitalist movement, the ruling class were able to manage the crisis. This required increasingly repressive measures such as legislation against the trade unions and the state onslaught on the mass militant anti-apartheid marches around the 1981 Springbok tour, where protesters were viciously attacked by riot police making their appearance on New Zealand streets for the first time in decades.

    Short-lived booms – based on credit extension, property and share market speculation and the shifting around of paper money with little relationship to real production – were possible, but there was no protracted boom. The general conditions of life of much of the working class deteriorated…

    In New Zealand today, the working class is in terms of its consciousness – and partly even in terms of its physical structure – fairly atomised. There is widespread disillusionment about the prospects for change. Bad experiences of labour reformism have played an important part in undermining belief in collective struggle and collective solutions…

    This process is taking place in a situation of capitalist slump and the discrediting of traditional politics. This means that the ground for building a real anti-capitalist movement in this country is more level than at any time since the militant industrial struggles preceding the First World War.”

    The author goes on to state that NZ workers require a revolutionary organization to “[equip] its members with a deep understanding of Marxism and creatively applying this to the concrete conditions in NZ.”

    In the twenty years since that was written, the world capitalist economy has faced its biggest crisis since the 1930s. The major political parties are even less attractive to ordinary people, as electoral turnout falls and reactionary populists like Ukip pick up the pieces. Radical left-reformists have taken power in Latin America, while varying stripes of communists have won power in Nepal, Cyprus and parts of India.

    In New Zealand, most of the non-bank financial sector has collapsed, and there is a ‘two-speed’ economy dependent on high dairy prices and the rebuilding of Christchurch. Workers’ living standards continue to decline. Significant unemployment, under-employment and work insecurity remain.

    Meanwhile, the NZ left has spiralled into theoretical confusion and imploded.

    I believe that any country is better off having a Marxist-Leninist party to provide political clarity and a compelling alternative vision – however small that party may be. Those who become interested in Marxism need a pole to rally around, and the guidance to expose anti-communism, reformism and revisionism. At least some of the next generation must be theoretically equipped to lead new struggles as they arise, or else our movement will become even more irrelevant.

  9. Phil says:

    I agree with your general sentiments, but half a dozen people setting up a party of themselves is artificial. What is primarily needed is a pole of attraction for Marxist ideas and Redline acts as that. We do it in a very limited way, because the audience for our ideas is very limited. But it’s a beginning.

    I first wrote ‘Coming Apart Down Under’ as a result of visiting NZ in 1992; I lived in Ireland at the time. I typed it up in London in early 1994, just before I came back to NZ. That’s 20 years ago. Since then we have been round the traps a few times more and there have been several attempts at party-building, most particularly being with the Anti-Capitalist Alliance, which subsequently became the Workers Party (the original WP being one of ACA’s components; I came from one of the other components).

    That merged WP, based on a hard Marxist position, grew quickly into the largest and most nationwide of the various small left currents. But we could never break out of a very limited base; we got to a certain number of activists and we couldn’t get beyond that. We tried a lot of different approaches, including signing up enough paper members to become a registered political party, while maintaining our solid Marxism at the core, but the objective conditions simply weren’t there. Indeed, soon quite alien pressures bore down on the organisation and a layer succumbed to what I would say were those fairly alien pressures and have gone off into a kind of radical liberalism. But they weren’t the problem really, they were a manifestation of the deeper problem: we were dealing with thoroughly unfavourable objective conditions for any kind of revolutionary party-building project.

    As I’ve noted before, Marx and Engels didn’t just carry on business-as-usual after the defeat of the 1848 revolutions. They proposed the dissolution of the Communist League and they went off and did other things, preparing for a time when an organisation-building project was on the agenda. And I’d say that is what we are doing.

    Some people left WP later and essentially went home; we started what we feel is an initiative related to the times and conditions in which we find ourselves.

    Interestingly, Redline, small as it is, reaches far more people than we ever did in the ACA/Workers Party with a party paper, leaflets, public meetings and all the rest of it.


  10. Mark E. says:

    can you tell us a bit more about those “alien pressures”. my (Wellington based) impression was that a lot of the younger folks in the WP became a sort of activist social scene, and started to attract more of the same sort of people, who werent necessarily marxists or revolutionaries at all. (kinda like the welly anarchist scene in the mid 1990s, which was big and active, attracted young people but didnt focus much on class politics, it collapsed partly because the Green party became a better option for a lot of people who wanted to do activism, but didnt worry too much about political ideas). Am I right in thinking a similar process happened in the WP? Presumably the WP had a far better internal education programme than the anarchist scene ever did. why did it fail? I realise there were almost certainly deep and nasty personal dramas happening as well (these things always happen) but I havent seen any political autopsy on the workers party and how Redline emerged from it..

  11. Phil says:

    I think you are on the right track there Mark.

    Some day we’ll write up the whole sordid thing, but we’re in no hurry. More important things to do for now.

    But the biggest problem was the objective conditions; we recruited what was available. Essentially, we paid the price for our hubris in thinking we could build an organisation of some (albeit fairly modest) consequence when the ground just didn’t exist.

    We’re treading more carefully now!


  12. Jordan says:

    I agree with the gist of this article. Woe to the opportunists etc. But this is, as you admit, a tedious thankless, labour of criticism. These groups themselves chronicle their own views and the best critique of their tergiversations is a moment spent reading their blogs. The political failings of consciousness-raising sects are self-evident. They are irrelevant politically and intellectually. This goes without saying but I’ll say it anyway. And it’s something true just as much for marxists as for ordinary jo and jane bloggs.

    I seriously think it a more worthy use of Redline’s time to put these critiques away. The Plekhanov position is vacant on the NZ marxist left. Maybe attempt, with concerted effort, institutionalised or not, to found some “authentic” or original NZ Marxism, or at least develop it to the level of marxism in the “core” countries where there have existed strong marxist tradition independent of leninism. Countries, incidentally, which all had strong Hegelian traditions before the rise of Marxism. (NZ has no Hegelian intellectual tradition.)

    What Marxist tradition or current ought NZ marxists to draw on, in Redline’s view? Our autochthonic tradition seems to have never existed at all. Or else arrived at the apex of morbidity. That is my view when I arrived on this scene a year or so ago and though I am familiar with figures like Ray Nunes, whose moulding pamphlets can be found in James Height, it has not yet been challenged in any significant sense.

    I note above the awkward juxtaposition among the various tendencies and currents and organisational forms professing the embodiment of the former (or as is more usual with “organisations”, the awkward subjectivity of the one or two people who keep them afloat), which fall roughly within the tradition of Leninism: Trotskyism(on the ‘left’, let’s say) , Maoism(MLM), Stalinism(ML), which seem to have dominated the organisational and theoretical schools of the tiny Marxist left.

    These currents, particularly Maoism and Trotskyism transfigured in motley (e.g. Stallinicos’s althusserianised trotskyism) or newfangled (Kasama) forms, have obviously profoundly affected the NZ left since the Fall of the Wall.

    Perhaps the NZ left could avoid these intermediary ideologies and go straight to the sources, i.e. the marxological approach, much maligned, as it involves a rewarding if tedious labour. But without that labour by someone, imbibed and digested and elaborated (or shit out), for a given constellation in marxism, I don’t know with what justice Marx’s name belongs to it, or any marxist current or tendency. What is the point of Marxism if it prefers to get its Marx as second hand? Anyone familiar with the difficulties of translation and the ambiguities of language knows that one of the chief problems of anglophone marxism is its removal which increases reliance on ideologies e.g. the influence of Mandel’s Trotskyism who wrote the foreward to the Penguin English translation of Kapital. Harvey’s influence is also decisive—although critics have noted he has a very strange interpretation of Kapital with bungles the transformation problem and introduces the concept of “oxidisable” money.

    Furthermore, another problem, is that the three forms I noted above of Leninism (and Leninism itself), are all named after powerful, and measured by the life-span of the human animal, reasonably successful men, whose marxism enjoyed concrete success on the historical stage. Marxists celebrate this fact I think a little too naively, mumbling platitudes about the importance of praxis or something. The neglected fact is that all of these traditions have absolutely failed. Lih’s work demonstrates I think to which Lenin derives a great deal of his marxism from other prominent Russian marxists, often vulgarising their work like he did with Bukharin’s work on the national question and imperialism. Trotsky is only the only serious intellectual of the bunch. I think this fact testifies to the the uncritical worship and idolisation of (short-lived) “success” that marxists have attached to certain figures’s writings and political practice.

    It seems to me like the majority of NZ Marxists take their marxism from these readymade forms and, to use a national expression, no.8 wire that to myopic, sentimental and halfbaked political analysis of the current situation of the class struggle here.

    This is not ideal. For starters there are so many readymade marxisms today that exist within and without the tradition of Leninism. Wallerstein’s coinage, The Flowering of a Thousand Marxisms, captures the intellectual atmosphere well. It’s a fucking deluge. Whatever ‘shared consciousness’ arises between those sworn by this cross-woven tapistry of marxism, it can only be very strained. Not that a political organisation born of ideological purification is likely to do much. The major problem marxists have to grapple with when it comes to political projects is the enormous problem of what is broadly labelled reification (via Lukacs, which Marx called Commodity Fetishism), theorised in different ways, but which point I think to the objective conversion of subjective consciousness, that could be the grounds of organisation, into something “false” or reified, by a mass culture industry that produces something like a “one-dimensional man”, which bourgeois sociology refers to as the consumer.

  13. […] And on the left groups in Mana, the party, the alliance and the election result, see here. […]