Politics and the choices we make

downloadby Philip Ferguson

I’ve been involved in the left for a long time. I went on my first political protest when I was 14 and that same weekend or very shortly afterwards I attended the founding meeting of CUSS (Canterbury Union of Secondary Students) which tried to organise high school students to fight for their rights – for more democratic schools, for education about racism and sexism, for the right not to wear uniforms and be subjected to all kinds of petty discipline. Then I joined High School Students Against the War in Vietnam. I generally hung out with radical students, a imagesfew young radical workers and, in general, people older than myself and my pre-politics and non-politics mates.

I think it was in that time that I first started thinking about the choices people make in life, including in politics. It is a subject that impresses itself on my thinking at regular intervals, most recently over the past few weeks.

To be political or not

I guess the first two types of choices I used to think about way back then in my early teens were why really nice people often went into relationships with pretty awful people (as a teenager I thought, of course, a lot about sex and relationships). The other thing was why so many of my friends at school, most of whom were nice, pleasant, thoughtful young people, were so uninterested in what was going in the world. Vietnam was the massive political issue at the time and protests and organising activities went on continually. Around big national demos me and my one semi-political friend at school would manage to sell badges and get a few of our schoolmates to turn out, but it was very limited. Why, I wondered, would my friends choose not to be interested in Vietnam and doing something about the fact that the western imperialists were engaged in a brutal invasion accompanied by mass murder, all being carried out in our name. How could they just look the other way.

A very early protest I attended was against the world surf lifesaving championships which were held at Brighton Beach in Christchurch. I went to Aranui High and some of my schoolmates lived along Brighton Beach and surfed. A few of them were a bit interested in the issue of apartheid; the catchment for Aranui High was a core hard working class area centred on Aranui-Wainoni and stretching down to Brighton. It was mainly white but there was a sprinkling of Maori and Pacific Islanders and most of us had Maori mates, so no-one supported discrimination based on so-called ‘race’ and thus no-one supported apartheid. But the lack of political consciousness also meant that few saw any connection between being against apartheid and being against the championship including a South African team. They chose not to look at the fact that it was an all-white South African team, anyone other than whites being excluded from South African national teams in any sport.

How could any serious radical choose Labour?

Later, as I got to know a wider layer of people, especially when I went to university, I wondered how on earth anyone could choose to be in Young Nats on campus. But I also wondered how on earth any young people who claimed to be left-wing could choose to be in the Labour Party rather than throw in their lot with the revolutionary left. I simply couldn’t take such people seriously as any kind of radicals.

In 1972 I went to a national organising conference of radical high school students in Wellington and stayed with people in the Socialist Action League for a few extra days.  There was a LP conference on at the same time and people in the SAL encouraged me to go along and sit in the public gallery. I could only take a few hours of this tedium. A bunch of conservative old white men, with a small leavening of radical trade unionists (although radical on a narrow range of industrial matters, which often didn’t translate into being radical around issues of race and gender). There was also a small number of young radicals. These were the days, after all, when the likes of Helen Clark, Phil Goff and Mike Moore were moving and supporting motions at party conferences for the replacement of capitalism with socialism. Again, if they were at all serious, I wondered, how could they choose to be in an organisation which was clearly dedicated to the maintenance of capitalism? And which was also just so soporific?!

In the NZ far left: good and bad choices

In the late 1970s one of my best friends was briefly also in the Socialist Action League. However, being a fairly critical-minded guy he only stayed for the few months of provisional membership and then left. At this stage I worked full-time on the SAL’s fortnightly paper and was not especially critically-minded about the politics of the organisation, although every now and then something would happen within it that left me uncomfortable or some position would be imported from the US – all SAL politics were derived from the smothering influence of the US Socialist Workers Party – which didn’t quite seem right to me. However, I lacked the political knowledge and theory to be able to work out why I felt uneasy.

In 1980 I left New Zealand and went to live in Britain. Away from New Zealand, I began to rethink some of the choices I’d made politically and, though it took about another four years, to break with the SAL, its mothership and the ‘Fourth International’ they belonged to, it did happen. And the break was total. My only regret was that it took so long; I could have made better choices earlier than I did.

My friend, however, went in the other direction. When I was in Britain he rejoined the SAL. Him and his wife came to Britain to do their ‘OE’ and we travelled together and for a little while flatted together in London. Some time after this, he happened to mention to me some comments made to him about me by the central leader of the SAL – I had committed the terrible sin of joining a left group that was unapproved of by the US SWP! I wrote a blunt letter to the SAL leadership, going through what I had concluded was some disgraceful behaviour in the organisation, especially by the group’s thuggish, misanthropic, misogynistic, homophobic national secretary, and pointing to what I thought had been political errors made by the organisation. They never replied, simply declared internally that I was now persona non grata and that no-one was to communicate with me. My friend was allowed a dispensation to send me a Xmas card once a year, provided there was no writing on the card other than Xmas salutations!

Crazy, eh?

Yet my friend, instead of waking up and deciding he wanted no part of an organisation that had more in common with a tinpot petty-bourgeois despotism than anything working class, made the choice to obey. And the more cult-like the outfit came, and the smaller and smaller it became, the more he (and his wife), who had joined in the interim, clung to it. I haven’t heard from him in maybe more than a dozen years, although I have a strong suspicion he reads Redline.

The politics he follows are essentially whatever whacky ideas come out of the head of a crazy old guy in New York (Jack Barnes). This guy and his side-kick (Mary-Alice Waters) have never worked a real job in their lives – they’re both in their 70s now, never led any movement of workers or any social movement, never been anywhere near a revolution. They are office ‘leaders’ who lay down the law to their dwindling number of followers. For instance, they preach that the ranks should never own their own homes, while they themselves live very comfortable existences in homes they own and take substantial amounts of money each year from the coffers of one of the ‘charitable institutions’ owned by the cult (ie, really by the royal pair).

The vast bulk of their membership have up and left and the average age of what is left is probably around 60. Yet even the advanced stage of destruction of the cult, the product of the utterly horrendous two-person dictatorship that sits atop it in order to continue their privileged lifestyle, has not shaken up my old friend. His choice is, apparently, to go down with the rotten old ship and its wee zombie crew.

Organisations becoming, or ending up as, tiny cults is hardly new or rare on the ostensibly revolutionary left. But why people choose to enable cults and cult leaders is a whole other issue. Some of it has to do with lack of backbone – it’s easier to just go along with things. This is, however, quite extraordinary. How is it that people who break with the all-pervasive, and certainly dominant, capitalist ideology of the imperialist centres are unable to maintain their ability to think critically when it comes to their own political position and organisation? Especially when the organisation is so obviously a sect or a cult.

Maybe they only have a limited reservoir of critical thinking in them and it all got used up thinking about capitalism! There’s none left to think about their sect or cult and what they are, in practice, choosing to enable.

In left groups there is often also a kind of herd mentality. I have known people who shared the politics of a minority but who went with the majority, when it came to the crunch, because they were the majority. They chose not to believe that an organisation was on the pathway to a swampy demise, even though the evidence was overwhelming. The idea of facing up to reality when it meant being in a small minority was just too much for them.

Another factor has to be the lack of Marxist political education in these outfits. People are not provided with the tools of Marxism and educated in how to apply those tools. Instead they are educated, much as in religious cults, with the texts of the organisation. The organisation – ie the tiny handful of ‘leaders’, often people with no or very limited experience in the class struggle, let alone anything revolutionary – are always right, every past opposition has always been wrong, and probably ‘petty-bourgeois’ to boot. The members are indoctrinated with the infallibility of a leader and his or her – it’s typically a male, but there are cases where it has been a female – cabal. They get the rightness of the ‘tradition’ rather than the critical tools of Marxism, so they simply lack the weaponry needed to reflect in any depth on the organisation, its politics and political course.

The road to hell is paved with bad decisions

At a certain point a series of bad decisions can become a whole treadmill, one that it is simply not possible to get off or stop. People who have spent an inordinate amount of time in an organisation – and used up a big chunk of their lives, energy and income in it – often find it impossible to face up to the idea that it might have been for nought. Instead, they can choose to waste even more of their lives, energy and income supporting the very thing that has sucked the life out of them. It’s like someone who thinks they’re a scientist but keep repeating the same failed experiment, day after day, year after year, in the crazy belief that one day that very experiment will succeed – the stinking piss will turn into wine – and all their efforts won’t have been wasted time, energy and money.

And it doesn’t matter who tells them that the experiment is not going to work because it is fundamentally flawed – the stinking piss can’t be converted into sweet wine; they still choose, indeed insist, on redoing that same whacky experiment every day until they die. (Maybe, if they’re lucky, they’ll transgress some ridiculous rule made up by the inevitably arbitrary and increasingly erratic cult dictator and not be contrite enough and flagellate and demean themselves enough, early enough, and be expelled for being a closet petty-bourgeois deviationist.)

What kind of revolutionary politics – indeed, what kind of living – is that? Nevertheless, it’s what a sector of the left that purports to stand for the liberation of humanity have long since made the choice to accept and, indeed, enable to be imposed on others.

These issues don’t, of course, simply arise in small ostensibly revolutionary groups. People in bigger movements and parties – left, centre and right – make choices too.

images (1)Bourgeois politics and decisions

Take John Key. The guy was born into what are often called ‘humble’ circumstances. His working class mother brought up him and his sister in a state house, part of their childhood and adolescence being in the days before the Domestic Purposes Benefit. Key’s mother was a battler and also, apparently, a bit to the left in her political views. Young John could have decided to devote his talents, such as they are, to working for a society in which everyone has the things they need to make the best life possible for themselves and their family. He could have become an opponent of the capitalist system that made his mother’s life far from a bed of roses.

But, instead, young John decided that he would join the people running the system that made his mother’s life fairly hard – and make the lives of most of humanity even harder – rather than fight them. (His own son, Maxwell Key, has decided he will one-up his old man. Key’s 50 or 60 million dollars is not good enough; young Max’s goal in life is to be a billionaire. Fuck humanity.)

To return to young John, however. He did his little commerce degree and went off into the world of finance, becoming a money-trader and eventually graduating to working for Merrill Lynch. His career plan was to become rich and then return to NZ and become prime minister. Once you became rich it would be easy to get a National Party seat in parliament and use your smarm-charm to become party leader. After Labour had done a few terms and got worn out he then stood a good chance of National becoming the government with him as prime minister. Key wanted to be prime minister simply in order to be prime minister. People have described this as a ‘vanity project’ for Key. To some extent this is true. But he really is committed to being prime minister and for a long time; it’s not a little diversion to boost his ego.

The money markets man who can't bang in a nail straight gets to dress up as Fighter Man
The money markets man who can’t bang in a nail straight gets to dress up as Fighter Man

The odd thing, although perhaps these days it is the necessary form of bourgeois politics, is that he’s really not interested in doing anything much politically. He just likes being prime minister and getting to pretend he’s some kind of regular bloke – and succeeding so well at it that’s he’s very popular personally, which he is unlikely to have been at any other stage of his life. Also he gets to meet and hang out with important people like the president of the United States, as well as cool folks like prominent drag queens and a few pop stars. And even mince his way down the catwalk modelling new Air New Zealand uniforms. Fab, cool stuff he wouldn’t get to do as a mere socially-awkward hack money-trader. Not to mention getting to dress up in combat gear and flak-jacket in Iraq and pulling the ponytails of waitresses.

Politically, Key is a steady-as-she-goes, middle-of-the-road kind of guy. It’s hard to imagine him getting drunk, doing narcotics, having extra-marital affairs – or ever sticking his erect cock into a dead pig, like his more typically Tory British counterpart. It’s no wonder the prime minister in New Zealand history he says he most admires is Keith Jacka Holyoake. Holyoake was also from humble beginnings. And, like Key, he appears to have been a rather dull person – no affairs, no pig-porking. He, too, didn’t really do anything much as prime minister. New Zealand at the end of Holyoake’s long stint at the helm didn’t look much different to NZ at the start of his watch. Of course, Holyoake was prime minister when the long post-war boom was at its height and so there wasn’t much need to do anything. There were no economic storms; you could just have a light hold on the wheel of the mixed economy and even fall asleep and when you woke up the boat would be just fine.

These days the state of NZ capitalism is rather more parlous. However, since neither Keynesianism nor ‘new right’ economics have been able to bring about a new equivalent to the long postwar boom, bourgeois economic theory is in disarray and ‘nothing much can be done’ is the order of the day. So Key chooses to simply manage the malaise with a light hand. A few infringements on workers’ rights here and there and a few improvements in workers’ living standards here and there. (It’s mildly interesting, for instance, that Key has raised social welfare benefits and the last prime minister who did this was his much-admired Keith Holyoake – and it’s a comment on the Labour Party that three Labour governments have been in power, for a total of 18 years no less, between Holyoake and Key – 1972-5; 1984-1990; 1999-2008 – and none of them raised benefits.)

Labour politicians and LP members made the personal and political choice long, long ago to go along with the existing order, so they have no alternative to Key. They pretend to have major reservations about the TPPA, for instance, and then their most successful leader in decades, namely Helen Clark, chooses to stand beside Key and declare for the TPPA.

Clark, while having a personality as dull as dishwater, is a bit more interesting as a study in political cynicism and dedication to her own career and status, over and above any principles, if you look at her choices. Clark grew up in a much more privileged situation than Key, which perhaps explains why she’s more uncomfortable with ‘ordinary people’ than the National Party leader. I don’t doubt that she was genuinely affected by the Vietnam War and by apartheid and issues around racism and the oppression of women. However, the fact that the social movements were far more closely connected with anti-capitalist politics and the anti-capitalist left than they were with the Labour Party, yet she chose to join Labour, would indicate that she was always concerned with her own personal career advancement in politics. The Labour Party establishment, many of whom had been a bit leftie in their younger years, had no big problem with the likes of Clark, Goff and Moore sounding off at party conferences and Labour Youth adopting left motions. It was, they knew, ultimately all harmless; a kind of performance art that cried out for inclusion in the party mainstream. At most, it was the ‘youth’ making sure they got noticed in order to advance up Labour’s own greasy pole.

Clark went on to make a number of other choices. She chose to continue to pretend being on the left while manoeuvring and jostling for cabinet in the fourth Labour government. She then chose to secure for herself the distinction of being the minister of health who closed more hospitals than all the ministers of health in NZ history combined. She was very close politically and personally to Jim Anderton, the dominant figure in the party’s ‘left’. But when Anderton decided he’d had a gutsful of the fourth Labour government’s full-on assault on the working class and led a mass walkout from Labour to begin a new left political movement, Clark (and all the other MPs who were supposed to go with Anderton) remained in Labour. My parents were very close to Anderton politically and personally and left with him; I remember my mother telling me years later that Anderton had told her, “14 MPs were supposed to leave. I got up out of the trench and ran forward but when I looked around I found it was just me.” While all the other MPs, including all the once-were-radicals, put their cosy careers in Labour ahead of any kind of commitment to the working class, the departure of Anderton and his genuine allies did serve the useful purpose of gutting the Labour Party of an active membership. Although Anderton and his main lieutenants, like Laila Harre and Matt McCarten, subsequently led their movement into coalition with Labour, thereby killing it – and both Anderton and McCarten at different times returned to the Labour fold – the LP has never recovered from the 1989 split.

Clark chose to put her emphasis on her place in history – her aim was to be the first female prime minister of New Zealand. And important, privileged people like her couldn’t let something like the rights and interests of such unimportant people as the working class get in her way. And, after proving she was every bit as adept at plotting and conniving as any male politician, she got rid of Mike Moore, took over the Labour leadership, saw off several challenges and, after the fourth National government virtually collapsed of exhaustion, Labour got elected and she got to be prime minister. Happily, however, not the first female prime minister. A mere farmer’s wife, National’s Jenny Shipley, beat her and it was from Shipley’s disintegrating government that Clark took over in late 1999.

She then chose to hold down wages, to maintain the cuts in social welfare benefits imposed in the early 1990s by the Bolger-Richardson government, to subsidise employers and the crap wages through bringing in Working for Families, and to join in the imperialist invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, while absurdly pretending not to be helping the invasion of Iraq. Clark also substantially increased the power of the secret state in New Zealand, most especially the snooping powers of agencies like the Security Intelligence Service.

She also desired a career path that would follow her prime ministership. And so off she went to United Nations, where’s she part of the elite which tells Third World governments and peoples how to behave. Ever the head girl.

While Clark’s choices are easy to understand – she’s a typical self-promoting, narcissistic, cynical bourgeois politician – what is not so easy to understand is why a raft of people who describe themselves as left-wing choose to pretend she is some kind of knight in shining armour, fighting for the downtrodden of New Zealand and, more recently, the whole world. Most of the people in the Labour Party who claim to be ‘of the left’ choose to ignore any signs that Clark is anything less that St Helen, Champion of the Oppressed. Try criticising Clark to such people and you’ll quickly realise what a waste of time this is and that these folk have chosen, of their own free will, to aid, abet and apologise for this wretched bourgeois politician and the wretched capitalist Labour Party. Even now LP opponents of the TPPA will be busy making up excuses for Clark’s endorsement of the TPPA and National’s fundamental approach. (I’m not a supporter of the opposition to the TPPA; such opposition is essentially a reflection of the petty nationalism which pervades much of NZ society and is particularly strong – and debilitating on the left – these days. The job of Marxists is to oppose capitalism, not pick and choose between capitalist options like free trade vs protectionism.)

Why do people choose to pretend that Clark and Labour are other than what they are? After all, the evidence is pretty overwhelming. How perverse – or how naive and gullible – can such people be? And where do these traits come from?

Choices in an actual revolutionary movement

So far I’ve looked at choices in tiny sects and cults, where choices have very limited ramifications in terms of society, and in bourgeois politics, where the impact of choices are of greater significance although, of course, these choices are made within the rather severe limitations of an economic system that produces continuous crises and that has less and less ability to offer much to humanity, let alone offer us a world of freedom and plenty.

The last type of political movement I want to look at in relation to choice is actual oppositional revolutionary movements. That is, movements which have fought, and may have threatened the existence of, capitalist states. The one that I am most familiar with is the Republican Movement in Ireland, aka the Provos. The two main component parts of the Republican Movement were the military arm (the Irish Republican Army, IRA) and the political arm (Sinn Fein). These two parts were closely linked, the political arm being essentially controlled, certainly where any major decisions were concerned, by the military wing.

The Provos were formed in December 1969/January 1970, arising largely out of forces which had organised to defend Catholic working class ghettos in the north of Ireland from pogroms by armed loyalists (extreme right-wing Protestant supporters of British rule). For the next 25 years they fought the British state and the “Northern Ireland” state which fronted for Britain and was based on intense discrimination against Catholics in jobs, housing and voting rights and which had repressive legislation on its books that was admired by the apartheid regime in South Africa. The Provos fought for what they called an all-Ireland democratic socialist republic – that is, they wanted not simply to reunite Ireland but create a socialist republic.

The British state used every type of repression against Irish republicans – executions of both republican military activists and executions of people taking part in peaceful protests; on protesters they used live rounds, rubber bullets and plastic bullets. They imprisoned IRA and other republican activists with huge sentences – one prisoner I used to visit had been one of a group of four who were caught with two rifles between them and given 18-year sentences. The conditions in which prisoners were held were, for many years, appalling: being in cells with only a blanket – because they wouldn’t wear prison clothes after political status was removed by the Brits – the cell walls covered in their own shit, because they weren’t allowed to slop out and, in 1981, ten members of the IRA and INLA (another left-republican military group) died long, slow, horrible deaths on hunger strike to try to improve conditions and return to their original status as special category prisoners.

The Movement, for a number of reasons which I discuss elsewhere, reached a significant size and level of support, but not enough to make a breakthrough. In addition, most of the British left was more interested in criticisng these revolutionaries than solidarising with them. (Most of the Brit left chose to immerse themselves in the capitalist Labour Party or in super-safe and respectable campaigns like CND.) The leadership of the Provisionals, most particularly Gerry Adams and the small cabal of admirers he had around him, along with Martin McGuiness, then chose to enter into a ‘ peace process’ with Britain in which they would abandon their struggle in return for Britain including them in the modified institutions of the ‘Northern Ireland’ state.

Now, there was already a party in the Catholic or Irish-nationalist population that had been working on its own behalf with Britain for such a ‘settlement’: the SDLP (Social Democratic Labour Party). The Provos had long called these sellouts the Stoop Down Low Party and attacked them poltically for years. Now, however, the leadership of the Provos were going down the SDLP path, but further. The Provo leadership, after all, was going down a path that, even in 1994 when I left their movement, was clearly going to lead to a sellout and the ending of any and all struggle.

I recall at each stage of discussion while I was still a member – I was in the political arm – the leadership of the Movement (a core of the armed wing’s leadership constituted also the dominant part of the leadership of the political wing) argued along the following lines: “The Brits want to do such-and-such and we need to out-manoeuvre them by doing A”. When anyone said “But we have always opposed doing A, and we know from republican history that in the past when people have done A, they next do B and C. . .”, the leadership would choose to be most offended: “Look how far we’ve brought the Movement, we’ve fought the Brits to a standstill. A is just a small manoeuvre by which we can get back the offensive, defeat British plans to isolate us, and make some progress. We are unequivocally not going to do B.”

And the big majority of people, however uneasy any of them might have been, decided to back the leadership because the leadership had real mana – unlike the bourgeois politicians of Labour parties or the tinpot office despots of small left sects and cults, the Provo leadership had actually put their lives on the line and risked everything in a real fight against the British state.

However, having gained consent for A, the Provo central leadership cabal around Adams went on, as sure as night follows day, to do B. But they would argue that was “tactically” necessary too – everything became “tactical” and principles were all well and good but couldn’t be let get in the way of tactics! And, of course, they declared there would be no advance to C. And again, just as surely as night follows day, C would come on the agenda. It began to dawn on some activists in both the military and political wings that the logic of this path was a complete sellout, including winding up the IRA. Anyone who had the temerity to suggest this would happen would be met by a super-offended leadership. This would never ever happen we were told. During negotiations about demilitarising the situation in the north – the very fact that the leadership entered such negotiations was a pretty clear indicator of where things were headed – the ranks and middle leadership (and members of the leadership who weren’t part of Adams’ inner circle) were continually assured this was all clever diplomacy on the part of the core leadership. “Not one bullet”, the rest of us were told, would be handed over or destroyed. Of course, at the very time the Adams cabal were saying this, they were already preparing to decommission the IRA – put its weaponry beyond use and then dissolve the IRA itself or convert it into a harmless social club that would possibly be dragged out for a few ceremonial occasions.

What astonished me was just how many people chose to believe the lies of the central leadership. It was almost like they simply couldn’t contemplate the truth – big sellout looming – because it was so horrific. So many people had died, been tortured, lost loved ones, spent their 20s, 30s and even 40s, in prison. Surely not so Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness could sup with the British ‘royal’ family and sit in the corridors of power administering, as junior partners, a rotten little British imperialist colony in the north and a corrupt neo-colony in the south.

So horrific was it to contemplate that a full-blown sellout was coming towards them that many republican activists not only chose to believe that the sellout was actually a smart series of moves by the leadership that would deliver a united Ireland and, some unspecified time later, the socialist republic, that they could get extremely heated and even violent towards those republicans who could tell the difference between a betrayal and an advance in the struggle. Many activists, including comrades who had endured massive horrors in the course of the struggle, chose to believe the opposite to the reality. And they became incredibly emotionally-invested in this belief. In fact, the more clear it became that sellout was what was really going on, the more such people chose to deny it.

Moreover, in a movement that placed a lot of credence on people’s military records, Adams didn’t have much of one. Although he was in the IRA from his teenage years in the early-mid 1960s and was the dominant figure on the Army Council from the late 1970s, or at the latest the early 1980s onwards, Adams was never much involved directly in IRA operations – ambushes, bombings, gun battles etc. Indeed, one person who was in a position to know once said that he thought it unlikely Adams had ever fired a gun, let alone been on active service in operations in the field as it were. Although he served a stretch in prison, it was fairly brief compared to many other IRA activists. There was any number of people in the IRA with much more in the way of battlefield experience and in terms of time spent in prison. Yet a majority of these people chose to defer to Adams. This I found quite peculiar.

One of the results was that opposition to the course chosen by the Adams’ clique was quite fragmented. People who did come to see the reality did so at different times and thus depart the Provos at different times. They were sometimes, possibly often, viewed with a measure of disdain by people who had left earlier. On occasion people who initially remained loyal to the Adams’cabal were involved in shutting down critics and helping drive them out. So the earlier departees didn’t necessarily trust them, let alone welcome them with open arms. In the absence of a clear, united opposition of real size, a significant number of comrades also simply dropped out.

Today there are at least three political currents that arose out of the different pace at which activists in the Republican Movement chose to face up to reality. They are the 32-County Sovereignty Movement whose ideas are shared by a new IRA, formed out of several smaller armed groups whose origins are in the Provisional IRA; the Republican Network for Unity; and eirigi.  All identify with Connolly and socialist-repubicanism; all argue for an all-Ireland socialist republic.

The Adams cabal atop Sinn Fein and whatever might be left of the IRA don’t have a great deal to worry about from any of these groups taken by themselves. Adams operated very cleverly to ensure there was no substantial movement formed by people who disagreed with the sellout. But he was only able to succeed in this because such a large body of activists who had serious doubts, or who were outright opposed to the course he was carrying out (largely behind the backs of most of the Movement), chose not to provide concerted political opposition to him at the point where such opposition could have brought together a counter-current and a large – and politically better – replacement organisation could have been formed.

Over its 200-plus years of existence militant Irish republicanism has attracted an incredibly impressive set of activists and leaders from proletarians like James Connolly and Seamus Costello to upper class women who turned their backs on bourgeois society to help make a revolution, like Countess Markievicz. While in New Zealand, people from humble backgrounds have chosen to join the class responsible for oppression and exploitation – one thinks of Graham Hart, NZ’s richest individual, and key National Party figures like Key, Paula Bennett and Michelle Boag – the liberating vision of Irish republicanism drew people the other way, Markievicz being the outstanding, but by no means sole, example. Always a bit unconventional for a woman of her class – she was the eldest daughter of one of the largest landowners in the west of Ireland – Constance Gore-Booth married a younger man, a Polish count, and mixed in artsy circles in Dublin after a stint at art schools in London and Paris. At the age of 48, she shifted from cultural activities to politics, joining the militant republican women’s group Inghinidhe na hEireann and shortly afterwards founded the first republican military organisation of the twentieth century – Na Fianna Eireann, a youth organisation composed mainly of working class Dublin kids. She taught them how to drill, how to shoot, how to blow up stuff – coming from the Anglo-Irish landed aristocracy she knew a lot about weapons – and wrote the military handbook of the Fianna. She also encouraged the Fianna to go and beat up members of the Boy Scouts which had been recently established in Ireland by the British imperialist Baden-Powell.

She also joined Sinn Fein, becoming a leading voice on the left-wing of its national leadership. A few years later she chose to leave Sinn Fein, which she had come to regard as hopelessly bourgeois, and joined Connolly’s Socialist Party. In 1913, she not only sided with the workers during the Great Lockout – the single most important industrial battle in Irish history – but helped found the workers’ armed self-defence force (the Irish Citizen Army) and served on their seven-person Army Council. Even Sean O’Casey, who couldn’t stand her – he was the proletarian who deserted the cause whereas she was the aristo who laid her life on the line for it – described her as “the bravest woman in Europe” and said she wore courage like a coat. She was second-in-command of the republican rebel forces at St Stephen’s Green in the 1916 Rebellion and sentenced to death by British court-martial, the death sentence being commuted to penal servitude for life on account of her being a woman. In prison in England with working class and lumpen women, Markievicz would recite Dante’s Inferno in the original Italian and later write several moving articles about the conditions in women’s prisons there. Regarded by the British authorities as a hardliner, she was in the very last batch of republicans to be amnestied over the following year. In late 1918 she became the first woman elected to the British parliament, voted in by the working class of inner-city Dublin. As a republican she didn’t take her seat in the British parliament – at the time of her election she was back in prison too.

When the republicans, having won a decisive majoroity of the vote in Ireland in the 1918 election, formed their own parliament and declared independence from Britain, the British authorities moved to crush them. A war for independence broke out in which the British did everything they could to crush the republicans. Markievicz spent part of the war underground and on the run and part of it in prison. She also served as minister of labour in the underground republican government. When a minority section of republican leaders did a deal with Britain that brought the struggle to an end without the main goals being met, Markievicz was a leading figure in the opposition to the betrayal. In the civil war, now into her 50s, she fought on the republican anti-sellout side and had to go on the run in Ireland and Scotland, as well as spending more time in prison.

The dominant figure in the Movement at that time was Eamon De Valera, essentially a social conservative who, like his military counterpart Liam Lynch, was unprepared to mobilise the working class and take the offensive military. The republicans lost the eminently winnable civil war. In 1925 De Valera broke with the republican movement and established a new party, Fianna Fail. By this stage, Markievicz was largely politically broken by a series of defeats in which principles had been traded for baubles and many of her friends had lost their lives. She joined De Valera and, against everything she had ever fought for, made the decision to pretend that De Valera was some kind of continuation of Connolly. However, having made that bad choice, she most longed for, as she said to friends, “the peace of the republican plot” (the republican section of Glasnevin cemetery). In making the choice to delude herself about De Valera and help him get Fianna Fail off the ground she had to break politically and personally with a number of her closest friends and comrades, who remained in the Republican Movement. Probably happily for her, she died in 1927 in hospital – she had insisted on going into the workers’ and poor wing of the public hospital and she died there from peritonitis. A hundred thousand people attended her funeral in Dublin.

Markievicz is one of my great political heroes, but her last choices were bad ones and she chose to delude herself that her ‘new course’ was simply another way of fighting for the same things, just as a lot of republicans of recent decades, including one of my closest friends who bears more than a passing resemblance to Markievicz, made the same decision.

Last time I saw her I stayed a couple of days at her house and we somewhat skirted around the trajectory of Sinn Fein.  In the end, however, I couldn’t help myself and told her that I just couldn’t bear to see her die a Provo (we were actually discussing death, when I blurted it out).  However, I suspect she may well end up doing precisely that.

Her choice has been in some ways an odd one. Having been involved in the armed struggle and done a stretch in awful conditions in a women’s prison in the south of Ireland, including giving birth in prison, she became a member of the national leadership of Sinn Fein and deputy-head of its political education department. She initially opposed the course taken by the Adams’ cabal and was basically pushed out of the leadership as a result and dropped out.  She has no reasons for illusions in the central leadership.

However, she found she had nowhere else to go politically – the left splits hadn’t yet taken place – and just could not bear being politically isolated and outside the Movement.  So she went back to the Movement and pulled the curtains over all her former criticisms, as if they had never existed. She knows, however, that there has been a sellout and Sinn Fein is now just another harmless bourgeois party; that it is not going to lead anyone to the socialist republic.

I don’t really understand why, now that there are alternatives, she chooses to stick with Sinn Fein. The person with whom she has worked most closely for the past three decades, and who was an important figure in the IRA, also moved over from opposition to support for the Adams’ ‘strategy’. Personal loyalty to him seems to be an important factor. She is also now in her 70s and quite frail and that may be a factor. Since she sometimes pops up at public meetings of “dissident republican” groups, however, maybe she hasn’t closed off the possibility of choosing to leave and join perhaps éirígí, the best of the left-republican groups.

download (1)Left activists and choices

This article is much more personalised than I normally would write. This is because, while I think there’s far too much personalised stuff on the NZ left, there are some occasions when political issues can be most effectively explored with reference to individual political experiences. Moreover, across the years, I’ve thought a lot about choices.

I’ve seen people in left groups cheat, lie, steal, defend stealing and lying when it suited them for political purposes.  I’ve seen people do stuff like take on work delivering summonses, repossessing poor people and spying on alleged crims (worked outsourced by the cops), while rhetorically adopting ultra-militant stances; I’ve seen several central leaders of one left group physically assault people without a thing being done about it; I’ve seen people with severe alcohol problems choose not to opt to get on the wagon and sort themselves out, but prefer to be drunk, obnoxious and even violent again and again and again; I’ve seen people (and whole left groups) avoid open, public debate with critics to their left, while trying to smear the critics behind their backs; I’ve seen a lot of good people make a lot of bad choices and get on a treadmill they then couldn’t get off and I’ve seen a lot of bad people make bad choices and often get away with it.  The quality of a lot of the human material on the left in NZ these days is not that good.  The days when the left attracted the ‘best and the brightest’ seem a long time ago.

So, hopefully, my approach in this article is of some use.

My own bad choices usually involved keeping my mouth shut about stuff I had doubts and reservations about.  For instance, I stayed in the SAL far too long.  I ignored some appalling behaviour by various members of the Workers Party far too much.  Happily, I never managed to keep my mouth shut for very long and I generally kicked the habit a long time ago, before briefly falling back into that bad habit for a while in the ACA-WP.  When a core of the leadership of the Workers Party had finally had enough by early 2011 and we packed our bags and left, it was like a great feeling of release and liberation.  We were free; free at last.  By contrast, every minute of being part of this blog has been pleasant and enjoyable – even the most tedious bits of donkey-work are rewarding.

In terms of the left and left groups, these days I usually just say what I think, including what I’ve learned over more than four decades of trial and error.  People who are serious about revolutionary politics can cope with that; it’s the essentially liberal types on the left, including the flakes and walking wounded who regard the left as a kind of space for self-affirming therapy, that get all outraged – and they’re not the human material for a revolutionary movement anyway.

In terms of the New Zealand political scene, as well as the Redline folks, I am on very good terms with people in the Aotearoa Workers Solidarity Movement (AWSM).  I’m never likely to become an anarchist, but they’re the group in NZ with which I feel the most political affinity outside the Redline collective because their politics are, like ours, rooted in class-struggle approaches.  We share loathing of the capitalist Labour Party and NZ imperialism (and its concomitant ideology, kiwi nationalism) and identity politics, things that most of the ‘Marxist’ groups are politically weak and conciliatory on – certainly in practice.

Personally, I can’t imagine ever choosing to make peace with a system that can only condemn a majority of the world’s population to endless poverty. A system that continually goes into crisis, destroying vast amounts of wealth in the process and wasting vast amounts of human labour-power. That requires warfare which kills on unprecedented scales and immiserates and uproots entire populations. But I also can’t imagine choosing to be in an organisation out of loyalty to the organisation when it has abandoned its original principles and/or become corrupt(ed) in other ways – the kind of bad choice so many people on the left seem so prepared to make.

And, at the end of an article that has turned out to be much longer than intended, I still don’t really know why people make that kind of choice. Moreover, if you can’t chose to do the right thing and show some principle, spirit and backbone when the worst that can happen to you is being deprived of the dubious privilege of being part of a whacky wee sect or cult, how on earth are you ever going to be able to stand up to the capitalist state when – or, perhaps in the NZ case, if – things get serious and the question of revolution is actually in the air?

Lastly, we live in a world with a social system which cannot deliver the things humanity needs, the conditions of our lives are limited and our options constrained. All the more important then that in the areas where we can make choices we make those choices based on principled politics rather than personal ties and loyalties, bribes, personal advancement, fear of ostracism or isolation, being in a majority or minority, or any other considerations which, in the overall scheme of things, are fairly mean and petty. The liberation of humanity is not likely to be achieved by a left in which so many people prefer to make mean and petty choices while pretending these were the only ones possible. If we’re not better than the class enemy then we simply don’t deserve to win – and we won’t.

Further reading: The miseries of political life


  1. Interesting thoughts Phil. Hadn’t heard of Countess Markievicz – not that I claim much knowledge of Irish history. Also didn’t realise SAL were so backwards on social issues. Interesting cross-sections of a few different moments in time. Cheers

  2. The SAL were in the forefront of the feminist movement and big advocates of Maori self-determination. They were also in the forefront of the gay liberation movement at the beginning. It was just that the person they had as national secretary was a thuggish goon.

    Phil F

  3. An interesting read on Left history in NZ and Ireland, as are many Redline pieces. Incidentally, where did SAL’s national secretary end up going? I remember reading of him, and seeing his photo in a 1970s SAL election leaflet (which also featured Matt Robson).

  4. He parted company with them some time in the 1990s. After he left they got up the courage to draw up some kind of code of conduct. Too late – the horse had already bolted and the group was completely finished by that stage. They’re the sad- and broken-looking people you might sometimes see in Auckland hawking a US paper with stories about pig farmers in Iowa, meat packers in Nebraska and so on. Children of God stuff.

    I’m not interested enough to follow the subsequent career path of the former national secretary and tinpot despot of the SAL. Now they follow the top tinpot despot in New York directly, without an intermediary.

    Phil F

  5. Is interesting your comments about not understanding as a teenager why your class mates weren’t interested in the big life and death struggles of the day such as Vietnam. I had similar feelings as a high school student in the 2002-2005 period, after taking part in the mobilisations against the war on Iraq, genetic engineering and supporting the campaign for Ahmed Zaoui. The difference is I assume during the 1970s a far greater proportion of NZ youth would have been interested in political and social issues. Maybe even in the upswing of activism in the 60s-70s the vast majority of NZers were apolitical.

    • Yes, in the early 1970s politics was kind of ‘in the air’. I remember being the high school speaker at an anti-Vietnam War rally and addressing over 10,000 people in the centre of Christchurch. There was an activist core of several dozen school students between CUSS and High School Students Against the War and quite a cross section: a whole layer of students from Girls High, in fact they would have been the high school from which the largest number of activists came. Working class high schools like Aranui High and Papanui High had about four-five activists between us.

      The big anti-Vietnam War mobilisations would make an impact in schools. There were radicalised young teachers, for instance, although I never really trusted teachers. My original intention had been to be a teacher but my high school years progressively put me off that. The radical teachers never had much gumption – they’d take off their anti-Vietnam War badges when told to and then enforce all kinds of petty discipline stuff on the students, trying to make us take off ours as well.

      I remember that by the time of the last big national mobilisation against the war, there were heaps of students in my school wearing antiwar badges and talking about defying their parents and going on the demo – and remember we had no facebook or twitter etc to advertise stuff in those days. It was all posters, leaflets and badges. But it all faded away very quickly.

      My best mate at school, for instance, underwent a significant change. He was from the West Coast and, like my parents, they had a bit of class consciousness. But then they bought a dairy and became petty capitalists. Their attitudes towards unions and workers’ rights changed almost overnight and my best mate became quite reactionary on class issues and we fell out.

      Obviously HSSAW ended when the war ended, but CUSS didn’t endure either. When our layer of school students finished high school there was no replacement layer.

      Other social movements ended in terms of organised expression too. The most left of the women’s liberation organisations – the various WLFs – only lasted a few years as did the GLFs. Working class struggle, however, increased and the Maori land rights struggles became significant too. The anti-apartheid movement was organising and growing at a kind of subterranean level – it couldn’t mobilise many people but the hard yards were being put in so that by the time of Soweto (1976) it could mobilise several thousands in each of the main cities and was growing in the smaller cities and heartland areas, so that by 1981 it kind of burst onto the scene as the biggest mass movement in NZ history.

      I remember when I was involved in high school stuff, antiwar stuff and so on, my grandfather said to me something like, “I don’t know why you bother with all this stuff; the real issue is the battle between labour and capital.” He had been radicalised during the Depression and then worked for decades in the railway workshops. As the ‘new social movements’ faded and chunks of them got incorporated, core class issues certainly came to the fore. Class also cut a real dividing line within what remained of the social movements. I intend to write about some of this at some time.

      It seems to me that the serious left, the anti-capitalist left, gets ‘windows of opportunity’ maybe once a generation and then the windows are closed off. People get sick of marching, the ruling class co-opts chunks of the mass movements with reforms, people are lured into the Labour Party (the graveyard of radicalism), the state apparatus and so on, and that’s that.

      That’s why it’s vital for each generation to stand on the shoulders of the one before, rather than simply start where they started in terms of political development and consciousness. In NZ, that hasn’t happened. Most of what passes for some kind of ‘left radicalism’ today is behind where the left was 40 years ago in many ways.

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