The Socialist Action League: introduction to an autopsy

Posted: December 7, 2014 by Admin in Labour Party NZ, New Zealand politics, Revolutionary organisation, Students, United States - politics, Vietnam & Vietnam War
Anti-Vietnam War protest at parliament; the SAL came out of the youth radicalisation around the war and played a leading role in the anti-war movement

Anti-Vietnam War protest at parliament; the SAL came out of the youth radicalisation around the war and played a leading role in the anti-war movement

by Philip Ferguson

In the 1970s and into the 1980s the three main political groups on the revolutionary left in New Zealand were the (pro-Peking and then pro-Tirana) Communist Party of New Zealand (CPNZ), the pro-Peking (and then more independent) Workers Communist League (WCL) and the (Trotskyist) Socialist Action League (SAL), which was the New Zealand section of the Fourth International, the ‘world party’ of socialist revolution’ established by Trotsky and his supporters on the eve of World War 2.

The WCL dissolved in the late 1980s.  The CPNZ embraced the politics of the British Socialist Workers Party Trotskyists in the mid-1990s, reinventing itself to eventually settle on the name Socialist Worker; it dissolved several years ago.  The SAL lost most of its members in the late 1980s and early 1990s; there is a tiny remnant in existence in Auckland bearing the name ‘Communist League’.

The SAL began in 1969, with branches in Wellington and Christchurch.  The Wellington branch came out of the Socialist Club at Victoria University which had produced a magazine called Red Spark and the Christchurch branch came out of the PYM (Progressive Youth Movement).  In 1971 an Auckland branch was set up.  

While from the start the organisation was primarily based on the campuses, it did initially have some young blue-collar workers – this was a period in which the musical and cultural tastes of students and a layer of blue-collar workers meant that they hung out in the same places and intermixed to some degree.  This was the period of an unprecedented youth radicalisation which, while strongest among students, reached into both blue-collar and white-collar young workers.

The biggest movement was against the Vietnam War, with tens of thousands taking to the streets in national protests – ‘mobes’ – against imperialist intervention.  Women involved in this movement soon formed campus women’s liberation groups.  The radicalisation produced new, young Maori groups like Nga Tamatoa and, in Auckland, the Polynesian Panthers emerged, a group which reached across Maori and Pacific Island youth.  Subsequently the gay liberation movement emerged.  

The SAL, as an overwhelmingly young organisation, was heavily involved in the founding of the women’s liberation movement and, in Auckland, attracted a layer of the leading gay liberation activists.  It supported anti-racist initiatives by Nga Tamatoa, the Panthers and other groups.  The SAL promoted the idea of Maori self-determination from its inception in 1969, primarily under the influence of the US SWP’s attitude to the black liberation struggle in that country.  The SAL’s heroes were people like Che Guevara and Malcolm X. 

I joined the SAL as a young high school student activist – I was involved in the high school student movement and in the anti-Vietnam War movement – and was very active in the group for about eight years before going overseas for several years, where I was involved in British groups supporting the Fourth International.  I rejoined the SAL for about nine months when I returned, but left the country again.  By this stage I saw the SAL as beyond hope, although I lacked the tools to really analyse why.

I spent the next section of my life in Britain and in Ireland, briefly involved in the FI again in Britain but by far my longest political involvement in this extended period abroad was as an activist in Sinn Fein in Ireland.  As it became clear that the SF-IRA leadership was selling out and critics were completely marginalised, I left and returned to NZ in 1994.  While abroad I got the tools to work out what went wrong with the SAL and was not at all surprised at its massive decline during the period I had been away.  

The same decline had occurred in all the groupings which trailed behind the US SWP and followed that sect out of the FI in the late 1980s.

One of the people I discussed the SAL with several times in the early 2000s was Mike Treen.  Mike is a bit older than me, but had also joined the SAL while of high school age, having been involved in both the high school and anti-Vietnam War movements.  Mike had subsequently become a central leader of the organisation for a number of years before falling foul of their absurd rules – in his case he had gotten active in his factory in defence of a victimised worker, when the CL (as it was by this time) had instructed members that their main task in industry was to sell the American newspaper and Pathfinder books!  I think this was about 1992, or somewhere around there.

The piece below consists of the bulk of an email from me to Mike back in December 2005.  I have slightly edited it to take out some names.  There were several unflattering references to some individual members of the SAL leadership, the kind of thing that might be OK in a personal email or conversation, but probably detract from a public political critique.  I’ve also taken out the original final para which was about what I learned in Ireland, and isn’t relevant to the critique of the SAL.

There are several big gaps in what is below, because it was an email written between finishing work and going to the gym one day, nine years ago.  I will be completing the autopsy with several follow-up examinations.  In the first, I’ll be looking in more depth at the SAL analysis of the Labour Party and the group’s resulting strategy; these were central to the effective death of the organisation under the fourth Labour government, a time when any revolutionary organisation should have been growing substantially.  Another article will discuss the SAL’s relationship with the ‘new social movements’.  Lastly, I’ll look at its relationship with the mothership in New York, which had such a debilitating and, ultimately, disastrous effect on the organisation.   The autopsy on the SAL will be followed by an article on an alternative kind of revolutionary organisation.

Note that because this was originally an email, the language is very informal.

To Mike,

Well, I’ve finished teaching for the day. . . So here’s the longer response I promised earlier, at least until I write the piece for Revo.* Back in 95/96 I wrote a short pamphlet about the SAL, but the critique in it was somewhat limited. The Revo piece will allow me to consider more stuff that I’ve had to think quite a lot about since.

The SAL had two strengths and helped give me two things. One is that it was a very serious organisation and helped teach me to take things seriously, be meticulous and organised etc. The other was that it emphasised the importance of political questions, especially to do with oppression and with NZ being a junior imperialist and not a neo-colony. Both those were and are very important.

However, everything else about it was pretty much crap. The internal political culture was a disgrace. Comrades never got any serious Marxism and were discouraged from reading anything but Pathfinder titles and a few other works deemed politically correct in New York. The blind following of New York was more mindless and soul-destroying than the CP’s blind following of Moscow and Peking, especially given the very limited achievements and of the US SWP (not to mention its philistinism). And at least the CP sometimes shifted allegiance, always to what at least appeared to be the more left option. I don’t think you or I could ever imagine the SAL ever making such a break. If the leadership in New York said they’d made contact with aliens, the SAL leaders and the CL remnant would organise a forum on life in space and start star-gazing at night.

The analysis of the Labour Party was totally wrong and played a major part in the political and moral collapse of the SAL. Because of the low political level of the membership and leadership and the shocking internal culture – its mindless and enforced homogeneity would almost have embarrassed Stalin – it was totally unable to critically re-evaluate anything of any importance. It supported Labour all through the 4th Labour government and was still calling on workers to vote for the assholes in 1990, when most workers looked elsewhere and Labour only got 25 percent of the vote.

It was the rearguard of the working class, rather than the vanguard. (That position was paralleled by its cheerleading for the ANC. Like Labour in NZ, the ANC was the necessary instrument for neo-liberal solutions to protracted capitalist economic crisis.) No-one in the SAL knew anything about Marx’s crisis theory in the 1970s and the early 1980s, because it wasn’t in Pathfinder books, so the organisation was incapable of forseeing that the Labour government that arrived in 1984 would not be a standard socdem government, but an especially vicious anti-working class one.

The result was that a period of unprecedented social conflict – from 1981 to 1991 – which should have been one of massive steps forward for the organisation of a revolutionary party, especially as Labour attacked the working class, was instead one of confusion, disorientation and political and moral collapse.

Nor did anyone in the SAL have the slightest notion of what a revolution is or what revolutionary struggle is. One of the most appalling and debilitating effects of the New York influence was that the American SWP’s hopeless and hapless reformism and obsession with peaceful legal liberal politics, with a dose of pseudo-Marxist education in the party press, was that the SAL ended up on the right of the mass anti-Vietnam War movement, discrediting itself from most of the most militant elements of the anti-apartheid movement and fixated on a series of self-defeating alliances with middle class liberals, ‘left’ union bureaucrats, Maori nationalists and various others who set the limits to SAL political activity. And who, pretty much without fail, were (or in the 1980s became) part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

A good example of this is the idiotic stuff the SAL did around Repeal. Having used and abused the independent activists in WONAAC(2) for SAL front purposes, the leadership then ran off with the Repeal group. This resulted in bizarre events like sitting round with members of the liberal bourgeoisie discussing how to create elite opposition to the Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion Act. But the Working Women’s Charter and Council were the same kind of crap.

The reason that Bill Andersen was cool about touring Pat Starkey around Northern Drivers Union stopwork meetings was because the whole WWC and Charter were within the context of bureaucratic unionism. How many actual rank and file working class women were ever involved in the WWC? Or in any campaigning around the Charter? About zero? Once again, the SAL ended up capturing itself. The FOL adopted it, just like it adopted the 35-hour week, and that was the end of all that. And the SAL was totally complicit in the whole rotten business. In fact it did a whole lot of the legwork! No wonder the SUP liked Pat Starkey and other SALers. They didn’t even have to be paid.

By contrast, when a real working class women’s movement emerged in the shape of the Housewives Boycott Movement, founded in the heart of Wainoni by Kathy Himiona, the SAL turned its snooty nose up and I had to fight hard to get them involved and, even then, their involvement was half-hearted. And it certainly says something about the SAL that they preferred the Sonja Davies of the world and their bureaucratic FOL leadership initiatives to the Kathy Himionas and rank and file working class women’s rebellion. (Of course, full of its own self-importance, since it followed the US SWP blindly and the US SWP had the baton from Trotsky who had it from Lenin who had it from Marx, the SAL had little understanding of how it was seen from outside by people like Kathy.)

The Working Women’s Council and Charter was a totally bureaucratic initiative by Davies, an absolutely loathsome wretch and enemy of the working class. This is a top union bureaucrat who supported the fourth Labour government and remained a Labour MP and ratbag throughout the biggest attack on the working class in NZ history since the Depression. She’s the friggin enemy! At least Anderton had some genuine social democratic principles and was prepared to leave Labour (which placed him objectively to the left of the SAL in 1989). The WWC was just a career move for Davies and a way to build her profile while creating a safety valve for the union bureaucracy in terms of women’s rights. And the SAL was right there to do the foot-soldier work, like good little Mensheviks.

The SAL also maintained friendly relations with various Labour MPs, with guests from the Australian and US sections being taken to parliament and so on to meet them. What became of all these MPs, the likes of Michael Bassett? Wasn’t Jonathan Hunt also one of them? All of them, right-wing shits who slit the throat of the working class! Did any of the SAL’s prominent pals, the ones they did legwork for and were soft on politically, turn out to be any good in the long run? I can’t think of one.

The organisation lacked any sense of class hatred. To the extent that there was even a token understanding of the concept of the class enemy, it was reduced strictly to the National Party and the most reactionary section of the bourgeoisie. They had zero understanding of what terms like “the labour lieutenants of capital” mean in practice. It was something to trot off in a talk, but in practice the SAL were friggin’ water carriers for the labour lieutenants of capital.

Our tailending was everywhere, not just with left union bureaucrats and Labour MPs. Look at what became of Joe Hawke, for instance. A frigging Labour MP. The likes of Davies and Bassett and Hawke et al were who the SAL leadership looked to, not the working class. Even after the turn(3), the SAL leadership failed to take any initiatives in industry at all. (Compare that, for instance, to the early years of the Communist League in the USA. Where was our equivalent of the Teamster organising, the Flint sit-down strikes and so on?) Instead, it just did the footsoldier work for any number of left bureaucrats like Davies or for people like Joe Hawke.

Once the fourth Labour government and neo-liberalism came along, all these people stopped taking any initiatives that were even fake-left, like the WWC. Everything was packed away and they got on with going along with the Labour government while Labour slashed the throat of the class, what was supposed to be our class. The SAL was left high and dry. Its crap line on Labour totally misled it in relation to any understanding of what was coming.

Before the 1984 election, Socialist Action had an absolutely disgraceful stance, prettifying the Labour Party and making out that it had a load of quite good policies, but just needed to go a bit further! Plus it prettified Knox/Douglas. The SAs of that period do not stand up well at all!

About a year ago me and Sam Kingi went and looked in the library here at SAs from the early ’80s and we were just appalled at how shocking it was in relation to Labour and the depth of its illusions and the kind of illusions it tried to instil among the thousands of workers who read it. The SAL’s lack of any independent initiatives and its water-carrying for a load of other people meant that when these people stopped taking any initiatives, the SAL was finished. It was congenitally incapable of doing anything other than footsoldiering for left bureaucrats and the individual leaders of this or that issue or struggle. The political collapse of the SAL meant it was perfectly logical to stop publishing Socialist Action and start trying to interest workmates and passers-by in a paper with front page headlines about pig farmers in Turnipville, IO.(4)

With the collapse of the left bureaucrats, left Labour MPs and the ‘new social movements’, and thus the collapse of the SAL whose chief purpose had been to do their donkey work, there was nothing for Socialist Action to say. And nothing for the SAL to do. So SA was abandoned and they turned what was left of the organisation into booksellers, much like the Children of God or the Moonies (and complete with the same kind of cult behaviour, unquestioning obedience, financial demands and so on).

The lack of internal education and the absence of any serious education in Marxism, beyond the transitional programme and Struggle for a Proletarian Party(5), meant that no-one had the tools to develop a critique of any of this. They just surrendered to it or, in most cases, dropped out in a shell-shocked condition, knowing it had all turned to custard but not knowing why and not being able to work out why.

Frig, the CPNZ, for all its Stalinism, had a more dynamic life and at least some people there drew critical balance sheets and tried to develop a new way forward (Ray Nunes and, a decade later, Grant Morgan and co). Nothing at all emerged from the corpse of the SAL, just defeat, demoralisation and passivity. Moreover, at least the CPNZ and WCL, for all that was wrong with them, showed some revolutionary impulses. I can’t recall the SAL ever showing a revolutionary impulse about anything. It was absolutely terrified of anything that could by any stretch of the imagination be called “ultraleft”. It was so terrified of “ultraleftism” – scarcely the main disease affecting the working class in NZ! – that it swung to the extreme opposite. There was, perhaps, some modification of this during the ’81 tour when the organisation seems to have shown some balls but, afterwards, it was back to the same old business-as-usual reformist routinism.

What (annoys/disappoints ) me most about the SAL is that nothing came out of it. It collapsed without anything positive resulting. No new far left group with a healthier culture. No critical balance sheet. No lessons learned. Nothing. Just a minuscule mindless cult remnant on the one hand and a lot of defeated people who slunk off out of politics, on the other hand.

As far as our being harsh in the past: Mike, we weren’t half harsh enough. I was gone overseas by 1980, but people like you and Pete and Brigid, all of whom had some gumption and whom I respected, should have developed a critique, started an opposition and tried to build an alternative. It’s interesting how, once you try to do this, your learning curve goes up massively and you are forced to think seriously for yourself and develop ideas and take responsibility, instead of just mindless following of New York.

Phil

  1. Revo refers to revolution magazine.

  2. WONAAC was the Women’s National Abortion Action Campaign; Repeal was started by the NZ athlete John Walker and others to try to get the reactionary CS&A Act repealed.

  3. This refers to the re-orientation of the SAL away from the campuses and into core industry in the late 1970s.

  4. In 1988 the SAL suddenly stopped producing Socialist Action and, in its place, began selling the US SWP paper, The Militant.  This paper, of course, mainly had articles about the US and its headlines often used abbreviations of the names of US states, which made it even more surreal to sell on the street here.

  5. The transitional programme (also a pamphlet) refers to the founding document of the Fourth International, which lays out a particular political approach; The Struggle for a Proletarian Party was written by the main founder and leader of the American Trotskyist movement, James P. Cannon; well, strictly speaking, it consists of material written by him in the context of a faction fight in the US SWP that went on for a chunk of 1939 and 1940, resulting in a major split in the organisation.

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Comments
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  3. PhilF says:

    Thanks.

    I did wrestle with this a bit. It’s very informal, even with the editing I did. But I just couldn’t summon the enthusiasm to rewrite it. The history of the SAL is rather dull and uninspiring and the tiny cult group that is the end product isn’t worth comment.

    However, the articles on the SAL and Labour and the SAL and the social movements involve things that are still relevant. A lot of left practice today is very much in the same vein as the old SAL.

    For instance, while much of the working class have abandoned Labour, the left by-and-large remans confused. Another example is that the SAL used to promote the idea that consistent feminism led to socialism; actually plenty of their “consistent feminists” found niches in the Rogernomics era, while remaining feminist. Same thing happened with “consistent Maori nationalists”.

    Phil

    • Thomas R says:

      Wouldn’t finding a niche in the Rogernomics era and ‘remaining feminist’ reveal that those feminists are merely working in the interests of a minority of women? In which case it’s certainly inconsistent feminism, while it can still slap the label on itself (there are many examples of things that clearly aren’t consistent socialism slapping on the ‘socialist’ label, I don’t know how this is a different case).

      Thanks for this post, history of the NZ Left groups is definitely helpful for illuminating where we are now.

  4. Phil F says:

    The point was those feminists didn’t have to abandon anything they’d previously believed.

    But I’ll deal with this more when I look at the SAL and the new social movements.

    Interestingly, though, the SAL did shift in its view of feminism when it made the turn to industry. It became more critical of feminism and dropped that earlier argument. It also became a bit more attractive to working class women, although other things (its mindless following of the US mothership and its weird respectability) got in the way of that.

    I recall a young working class woman, a shop worker, who joined. She was about 15 or 16, and they made her wear a dress when speaking at a fund-raising meeting that was entirely internal anyway. They pressured her so much, they actually reduced her to tears.

    After they made the turn to industry everything about them was so alien to the working class that while they recruited a layer of workers – especially Maori and Pacific Island workers, but also women workers – they were never able to hold most of them.

    The ‘turn’ should have made the organisation a dynamic, outward-looking, scrappy, working class organisation, but it became a means to remake the organisation even more in the mould of the mothership.

    Anyway, these are themes for future articles.

    Phil

    • Thomas R says:

      Good lord, that is horrific about the dress thing! Hard to imagine that happening outside a church these days. Goals have certainly shifted in terms of what struggles around gender etc look like. Though some are ongoing considering NZ is still pretty poor when it comes to abortion reform etc.

      Paul Piesse mentioned the turn to industry to me in the past I think, and that in retrospect it was an odd decision – a lot of undergraduates leaving university to play at being factory workers. Sometimes it’s more beneficial to acknowledge and accept the position people are in and actually work from there. I’ve often thought it shouldn’t be such a crime to admit that socialist organisations today are basically fuelled almost entirely by graduates. This just happens to be the case, and is to do with conditions beyond those organisations control. That doesn’t mean that no good work, particularly theoretical work, can be done – considering the access to resources afforded to people who are at university.

      Bit of a tangent! Apologies. Will find the future articles interesting. Autopsies can’t be the most inspiring pieces to write – but without knowing the history of where the NZ Left has been it’s hard to imagine a way forward I suspect. This, plus a solid foundation in NZ History, particularly labour history, colonial history, and our role as imperialists in the pacific etc feels more essential to me than understanding the ins and outs of Hegel. Perhaps I’m more attracted to history than philosophy.

      Thomas

  5. Phil says:

    Paul was a founder-member and I’ve known him, on and off, most of my life. He’s still solidly anti-capitalist.

    There were a number of problems with the turn. The organisation definitely needed to recruit blue-collar workers but sending people *into* those jobs became a substitute for recruiting *from* those jobs. Suddenly the SAL had dozens of blue-collar worker members; but they were all from the campuses originally.

    And, as I said above, when they did recruit industrial workers – which was their focus – they didn’t manage to hold onto them for very long. Of the dozens of industrial workers they recruited the remnant that remains maybe has one or two members who were recruited from blue-collar workplaces.

    Nevertheless one of the interesting things was that the turn certainly increased the percentage of the organisation who were women, Maori, or of Pacific origins. They became the ‘brownest’ of the left groups, although I think the WCL also had a very high percentage of female members, mane even higher than SAL.

    A better approach than sending almost all their members into industry would have been to re-orient their work towards workers. However, the SAL went from a one-sided campus orientation (and the handful of blue collar workers they began with left) to an even more one-sided orientation to industrial workers. Both were, I might add, products of their mindless following of the US mothership.

    Looking back, the following was surreal – or, more accurately, it led to surreal things happening. But I’ll leave these to the article where I look at the SWP-SAL ‘relationship’, a kind of political sado-masochism the result of which is the ‘Communist League’.

    Phil

  6. vomitingdiamonds says:

    Maybe you could talk a bit more about the turn to industry. I’m no fan of Leninism, but as I understand one of the unique things of the SAL was that it was suspicous of union bureaucracy to the extent it never went for positions in the unions. Even to the extent that they were reluctant to become delegates. Which was a practice which seemed unique among the Leninist groups – even the CPNZ with its militant rank and filism did occasionally have union officials in its ranks from memory, certainly delegates. Compared to today, the SAL practice of workplace organising seemed a lot more radical, in that there is an almost complete absence of a rank and file and/or bottom up view of workers’ self-organisation – many if not most radicals regardless of their ideology just head straight for positions in the union bureaucracy to organise workers from above.

    So was the SAL turn to industry just following the SWP? Did not the SWP use rank and rile movements, eg Teamsters for Democracy, with the aim of overturning the union leadership? ie. merely replacing right wing bureaucrats with more lefty ones, who often end up being little different in the end (eg. Arnold Miller in UMW). In this regard, maybe you could talk more about how you thought the SAL was in practice tailing left wing union bureaucrats which I assume you are talking about the meat workers union.

    And maybe a comparision of the WCL and SAL’s turns to industry might be useful to write one day.

    • Phil says:

      Hi Toby,

      important issues, for sure.

      The SAL didn’t take positions, even delegate positions, but it wasn’t because of any strong anti-bureaucratic position, let alone a rank-and-filist perspective. It was essentially an absentionist position in terms of the class struggle, particularly as time went on. They were obsessed with “talking socialism on the job”, which basically meant having a few copies of the Militant and some Pathfinder titles in their lockers and trying to hawk these any time a co-worker and them got into a political discussion.

      They weren’t interested in challenging the union officialdom, in fact they wanted good relations with left officials at the very time that an intensifying economic crisis was pushing the same officials to the right. This was another factor in the virtual collapse of the SAL.

      Their perspectives in relation to both the Labour Party and the unions were simply smashed by events in the real world from 1984-1990. They were far too dogmatic and invested to rethink and change course quickly and dramatically, which is what would have been needed. They simply weren’t capable of that kind of reorientation.

      Mike T told me, and I trust his word on this, that he was suspended from the SAL because he got involved in a struggle in his factory over the victimisation of a co-worker. The SAL had several members in the factory and they were instructed not to get involved in the struggle but to concentrate on paper and book sales.

      There is a rather disingenuous few lines about this on James Robb’s blog. James recalls being at a union meeting where some union official announced they would not defend the victimised worker; James says that showed him how crap union officialdom was! Duh! What James omits is two things: one, the alternative was workers’ action (according to Mike T, the workers wanted to fight) and, secondly, the SAL (it was probably the CL by this stage) not only decided not to get involved and/or argue for that, but they instructed members in that workplace not to get involved. James went along with the leadership decision and Mike, to his credit, didn’t. I think both James and Mike would’ve actually been on the leadership at that point in time.

      I disagree with Mike T on lots of things, but I have some respect for him for being a fighter. James is an example of how you can take the boy out of the passive cult but you can’t take the passive cult out of the boy. Critical reflection just isn’t in James’ make-up any more, although once upon a time he was one of the most critical members of the SAL.

      Phil

  7. Phil says:

    PS: The US SWP has *almost always* been reluctant to challenge the union bureaucracy. Teamsters for Democracy was more an American IS project. The SWP was still campus-focused when IS in the States was starting to build among blue-collar workers. Even the Sparts did some impressive work at rank-and-file level. But the US SWP was always more geared to building relationships with left officials.

    I should add that I think the SAL position of not taking delegate positions was absurd. Especially since it was for essentially reformist reasons, dressed up as principle.

    Phil

  8. vomitingdiamonds says:

    OK thanks for your analysis. I think the saddest things about NZ today is the lack of rank and file activity, or indeed any group or grouping pushing for this (as far as I am aware). Plus also so many radicals become union bureaucrats without a blink of the eye, even ones that used to be critical of union bureaucracy. Plus our culture which is not conducive to political debate and far too often personalises such debate, as Don has said at a recent Wellington gathering.

    Oops, yes the IS pushed Teamsters for Democracy. I get my IS confused with SWP often – hard to remember which group is which given that the names seem to be used all around the Anglophone world and mean different Trot tendencies.

    I think your comments on the SAL are very interesting but perhaps at times a little caustic, which I think you sort of admit when you say your post is a bit rough.

    From reading their paper and talking to some ex-SALers, I don’t think I would call them abstentionist — they may have by the late 1980s but in the late 1970s/early 1980s they supported many strikes, and argued for them (including James, who can speak for himself, but he was involved in numerous stoppages including ones in the mid-1980s against the wishes of the Engineers Union bureaucracy who were busy stamping out strikes in Auckland factories due to their accomodation with Labour and neoliberalism – and capital for that matter). Certainly they might have focussed on selling their paper but at least in the late 1970s and early 1980s it had lots of reports of class struggle and particularly important was their interviews with people involved in struggle, rather than what their paper became, a newsheet mainly about overseas esp. in Cuba. But I would agree with you that there seemed to be a lack of a strong, well-developed critique of union bureaucracy and an absence of a firm rank and file perspective. Indeed, I think they dismissed such perspectives ‘ultra-left’ – or that was their view of the CPNZ from memory. And they spent much of their time supporting the leftist union bureaucracy. Still, I think it is to their credit they didn’t become union bureaucrats.

  9. Phil F says:

    The late 70s and early 80s was really the heyday – the early stage of the turn to industry. In one way, it was all up for grabs. Yes, they supported many strikes and the paper had a wide readership in some sections of the working class. For instance, in some of the timber towns in the central North Island half the houses had subscriptions to ‘Socialist Action’.

    However, in an important sense, it wasn’t all up for grabs because the limitations of the SAL’s politics ruled out that they would ever build a real base in the class during the momentous years 1981-1991.

    Even though, as you say, the SAL supported lots of industrial actions taking place, the SAL had *no strategy* for challenging the bureaucracy in the unions and the SAL’s position on the Labour Party was an obstacle to developing any such strategy. Moreover, the SAL didn’t really have much grasp of the shortcomings of a lot of *left* officials. Take a look at the last year of the paper – there’s stuff in there, for instance, about the meat workers in the lower North Island, whose leaders the SAL talked up. Then suddenly that resistance collapsed – the very leaders the SAL considered to be roughly on the same page appear to have capitulated. The SAL couldn’t really explain it, in terms of their existing politics.

    Dumping SA and instead selling the paper of the American mothership solved a lot of awkward problems for them. Now they’d never have to explain anything. They’d just report for and sell the Militant. They’ve been doing this for 26 years now, with no gains and many losses.

    There was a crying need for a rank-and-file movement not only during that 1981-1991 period, when I think the objective conditions existed for building an impressive revolutionary organization, but even before that. However the SAL *always* opposed and *always* argued against rank-and-filism.

    They should have been looking more at Britain than the USA and learning what was positive and what was negative about the way that the SLL/WRP and IS/SWP built rank-and-file movements there and then attempting to apply the lessons from those to the New Zealand reality. Take a look at Alan Thornett’s writings on trade union conferences organized by the SLL/WRP for instance. Lots of problems, lots of things wrong with them, but still quite impressive gatherings and providing important lessons for revolutionaries here.

    Phil

  10. Barrie says:

    I remember encountering the various NZ lefty publications as a teenager in the 80s. Based on first impressions they seemed bizarrely fascinating for the strange terminology nobody else used and the fact they championed regimes that even with my limited knowledge, just didn’t feel right. I wonder how many people at that time actually converted to seeing Tirana as a beacon for the future on the basis of prolix headlines,dry stats and pics of hydro dams in ‘Peoples Voice’, for example?! Was a good lesson in how not to sound and also the importance of both avoiding being messengers from another planet while not falling into left kiwi nationalism as a default alternative.

    One of the anecdotes I recall about the WRP was the way they would set up discos for teenagers in the 70s at cheap rates. Then when the hall was full, slam the door, switch on the lights and tell the befuddled occupants that their ticket had paid for membership in the WRP. It resulted in lots of ill feeling, a high turn over among the few that did join and of course Healy and the Redgraves et al subjecting underlings to diatribes using their own idiosyncratic interpretation of ‘dialectics’.

    Guess its possible to learn from negative examples as much as positive ones? 😉

  11. Phil F says:

    The WRP method came to NZ; they had a wee band here who began doing it in Porirua. But like many such direct transfers of tactics from a mothership it didn’t work.

    PV was an incredible paper. The language was like nobody spoke and utterly turgid. I think I came across PV first and was entirely put off by it, as a 14-year-old newly radicalising young person whose main political reading that year was Malcolm X (I found ‘Malcolm X Speaks’ in the school library and had it out 7 times that year). Then, shortly after coming across PV – I used to go up to the Progressive Books shop in town sometimes on Fridays after school), I came across SA and it was quite attractive by comparison. Later, I worked on SA for two years; it was a very well-run operation that produced the paper.

    At one point, the SAL had about 7 full-timers: three of us on the paper, a full-time national secretary, a full-time national union work director, a full-time office manager, and a full-timer on Pathfinder Press. We had a six-room national office in Anzac Ave in Auckland. As well as that each branch had its own public headquarters, initially downtown but, with the turn, the branches moved out to industrial/working class suburbs, like Otahuhu, Porirua etc.

    Phil