by Philip Ferguson
The big victory of the right-wing opposition in Venezuela along with the capitulation to the European bourgeoisie on the part of the majority of the supposedly ‘anti-capitalist’ Syriza governing party in Greece reveal yet again the limitations of a left politics focused on using capitalist parliaments and the capitalist state to carry forward fundamental, radical change. In New Zealand, however, no-one on the left has much to stand on in criticising the Chavistas or the (apparently not-so-left) left social-democrats in Greece; after all, what has the revolutionary left in New Zealand achieved in the past four decades or so?\
Most people who were active in revolutionary groups in the 1970s and afterwards have long since abandoned revolutionary politics and made peace with the form of society based on exploitation and oppression. For individuals, most especially in the imperialist world, there is always a way back into ‘mainstream’ society, successful careers in academe, law, parliamentary politics, the union bureaucracy, the state apparatus, and so on.
Nevil Gibson, the paranoid right-wing editor of the NBR was, in his wayward youth, a Marxist and early (possibly even a founding) member of the Socialist Action League. Another prominent journalist was once in the Workers Communist League. Cheryl Gywn, the inspector-general (‘public watchdog’) of the state’s snoop services (SIS, GCSB) was also in the SAL and was for some years in the 1980s a freezing worker at the Tomoana works in Hawke’s Bay and happily talks about this in interviews. Peter Conway, the last head of the CTU, was around several far-left groups in his 20s. Several ex-SAL and WCL members were MPs for the Alliance and the Greens. And on it goes. Most, however, simply dropped out of politics altogether and slipped easily into ‘civilian’ life, having families, doing DIY and their gardens in the time they once devoted to trying to overthrow capitalism.
Now. . . and then
What is left is a few tiny sects that are not even a pale reflection of the far left of the 1970s and early 1980s. Back then, the collective far left numbered in the hundreds, produced weekly and fortnightly papers that sold thousands of copies, had scores and scores of members in core industrial sectors like the freezing works, the timber industry, the car plants, electrical assembly and elsewhere. I remember in the late 1970s, when I was a full-timer on the SAL’s newspaper, that we had several thousand subscribers and that in some of the timber villages in the central North Island half the houses had subscriptions. The CPNZ, in the last stages of its Maoist period, led a massive struggle by timber workers in the central North Island for a democratic rank-and-file-controlled union against corrupt right-wing union leaders. The WCL, while also having a small industrial base, was a real force among clerical workers in Wellington.
These organisations led real mass movements of tens of thousands of people on the streets: the anti-Vietnam War movement was largely led by the SAL and the WCL. The WCL played a crucial role in the anti-apartheid movement in the 1970s and into the early 1980s. The SAL was a vital force in the struggle against the 1981 tour and, briefly, broke with its ultra-legalistic approach to political work, with chunks of its activists being assigned to involvement in Patu, the physical hardcore of the anti-tour forces. The CPNZ was an important force, too, in the 1981 protests. The SAL and CPNZ played important roles in the major Maori land struggle of that era, the 1977-78 land occupation at Takaparawha (Bastion Point) in Auckland. The SAL was the key political force in the 1970s in the struggle for repeal of the laws against abortion.
At that time, the revolutionary left attracted ‘the best and brightest’ of a generation. Rather dreary young people (like Helen Clark) might still have joined the Labour Party and pretended to be more radical than they really were – because to be young and political meant to be radical, so they kind of had to.
Today, the total number of real activists possessed by the ostensibly Marxist groups could be fitted into a moderate-sized car. By-and-large they are a rather bedraggled bunch too. Often far left activists these days seem more like members of therapy/support groups than the people you might expect to find on the barricades. (I should note here the exception of the Aotearoa Workers Solidarity Movement. The International Socialist Organisation, meanwhile, has stood up best of the groups that identify as Marxist.)
In July I spent a couple of weeks in Melbourne, helping a friend of mine who is a veteran far-left activist there and I was impressed to see that at least one Australian group, happily the biggest, has a sizeable layer of serious, and increasingly battle-hardened, activists in their 20s and 30s, as well as a layer of seasoned comrades going back to the 1970s (and even earlier). I’m talking about Socialist Alternative.
Problems of continuity
But in New Zealand we simply lack this continuity and the firmness of principle it brings.
Some of us certainly made a serious effort. The Anti-Capitalist Alliance of the early 2000s sought to unite various revolutionary/Marxist elements in a common organisation where joint work would hopefully lead to mergers that would create a united Marxist organisation. Its size would have been modest, but large enough to have some impact. In the end only two tiny groups – the original Workers Party and the circle around revolution magazine – plus a small layer of independents came together. Some other forces we had hoped to be involved preferred their narrow shibboleths and sect-building to a party-building project, although they had no compunctions later signing up to a small reformist project around Hone Harawira. One of the banes of the existing ostensibly Marxist left is that it is much more comfortable uniting with forces to its right than to its left.
After a few years the ACA changed its name to the Workers Party and the forces within it merged under that new-old moniker. We had branches in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch and active supporters in Dunedin and Hamilton at various times. We were by far the largest of the ostensibly Marxist groups. And we were built on hard-line politics, revolutionary-class politics: total political opposition to the capitalist Labour Party; total opposition to NZ imperialism and its ideology of kiwi nationalism (in all its forms); solid anti-imperialist work was prioritised, along with a workplace orientation. We opposed foreign interventions on a solid anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist basis, and the organisation even launched a fund-raising campaign for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, as we believed – with Lenin – that revolutionaries in the imperialist world are obligated to help provide material assistance to progressive anti-imperialist forces in the Third World.
Back into the swamp
We pretty quickly ran into problems, however. Perhaps the most significant was the poor quality of many of our younger recruits. Most of them were simply not up to it. In fact, they were a bunch of rather strange young people with all kinds of self-obsessions, phobias and a predilection for reformist politics. For instance, while we were trying to launch the PFLP campaign, some younger members in Wellington got immersed in a liberal single-issue campaign to stop the Israeli embassy from re-opening in Wellington. Instead of using any involvement in that campaign to raise the political level of other activists and help build the PFLP campaign, these younger members lowered their politics to the liberal politics of the people around them. Indeed, one young member – someone who seemed to think the left was a stage on which to perform and draw attention to himself – took on being the press person for the anti-embassy campaign and started issuing press releases that supported the existence of the Zionist state and whining that Israel needed to be more dedicated to the ‘peace process’, ie the fraud that was aimed at pacifying the Palestinian people and destroying radical resistance of the PFLP type!
In student politics, one young leader in Wellington got so excited about being elected student president (on a WP platform) that he sat down with a Labour hack and drew up proposals for change that involved sacking student association staff. Given all we’d done to educate people about the nature of the Labour Party, it remains a mystery how a member of several years standing could think sitting down to draw up such proposals with a Labourite could be at all acceptable, let alone overseeing staff cuts.
In Christchurch, a young member when running on the WP slate for mayor even publicly suggested that it would be OK to vote for a Labour candidate because the Labourite was young and for a law-and-order councillor because the guy had supported a hacky-sack circle for young people in the central city area.
It didn’t matter what we did. Our younger members were inveterately disposed to reformism and to not being able to handle dealing with people to their right without making unprincipled concessions – or simply giving in. In the 60s and early 70s, by contrast, the main errors of radical youth tended towards ultraleftism, a far healthier direction in which to err. It was very strange being in an organisation with young people who continually erred in a rightist direction, while the oldies maintained a very hard left stance!
Moreover, this layer of younger members was not unique to the Workers Party. They were part of an entire milieu of young people who saw themselves as radical and even anti-capitalist but who did not really understand those terms in any deep and serious way. In Wellington this milieu was especially strong and swamped both class-struggle anarchist and Marxist currents like our own. People in this milieu were, in fact, reflecting the dominant liberal end of the bourgeoisie and the kind of things that are taught these days in liberal social studies classes. They were the radical, tactically militant end of, in particular, liberal middle class views on ‘race’ relations and the Treaty of Waitangi, gender, ‘diversity’ ideology and so on. None of it had anything in common with serious, hardcore, anti-capitalist politics, let alone scientific socialism.
Many of this wider milieu were more like children than people living in the adult world. They often seemed to have been incredibly indulged by their parents and exhibited a culture of entitlement divorced from responsibility. They were a total contrast to the radical youth of the 60s and early 70s who tried to learn as much as they could from veterans while acting like adventurous adults, rather than wishing to be molly-coddled and protected from the vicissitudes of reality. The last people we wanted doing stuff for us were our parents. We wanted to leave home as young as possible, be economically and personally independent from parents and stand entirely on our own two feet. Whereas the radicals of the 60s and early 70s often sought out danger and tried to learn how to cope with it, many youth today are very tame, transfixed by notions of ‘safe spaces’ where they can escape from the danger of anything unpleasant ever happening to them in life. They seem to want less to face life and change it than to hide from its unpleasant elements and even from the ordinary vicissitudes of day-to-day circumstances. (The enfeeblement of a scarily large section of the youth of today – what a co-worker of mine used to call “learned helplessness” – is a subject for an whole separate article, or set of articles.)
Fishing, thieving, lying
We also had to deal with several left sects abroad fishing in the organisation and stirring up the waters to try to gain the odd recruit or two and possibly create another fake ‘section’ of their fake ‘international’, instead of being happy there was a revolutionary current already in existence here and working in a comradely and collaborative way with it.
The final straw for the central leadership group that left in early 2011 was several cases of theft and persistent lying about theft. Most of the younger members militantly defended the thief and called for no action to be taken against him. Ironically, his staunchest defender on the steering committee turned out a year or two later to have stolen several thousand dollars from the organisation.
Since our departure and the political retreat of the organisation into the politics of the swamp, it has declined numerically and is now in a state where its very existence is in question. This strongly confirms our analysis of where such politics lead, although this lesson will be lost entirely on those remaining members from that period. They never appeared to have much interest in learning from history – or even from contemporary experience. What mattered most was their personal feelings and desires; their ‘politics’ were inward-focused and self-referential.
While the poor quality of most of the younger members was an increasing concern – and used up a great deal of the time and energy of the veterans – the problem went much deeper. (And, to be fair, a few older members proved to be lacking in either backbone or understanding of class dividing lines too.) As those of us who left began to discuss things, the key questions that arose were: Why does what we thought we built out of solid rock turn out to have been built on shifting sand? Why have we recruited people of this fairly poor, mushy quality? What does this tell us about objective conditions in this country right now? Do the objective conditions right now make it possible for a party-building project? If not, what is to be done?
The real problem
It was evident pretty quickly that the real problem was not the calibre of most of the younger members, whatever we might have thought of that; rather, the problem was the state of the objective conditions in New Zealand, most particularly the state of the working class. As one comrade put it, “I don’t ever want to be on a tiny picket again where lots of people just pass by and go ‘good on yer’.” In other words, it’s time for the ‘good on yer’ people to front up and get involved in fighting for their own liberation.
Of course, the reality is that all of us at Redline have stood on tiny pickets since then, but we are certainly less and less inclined to do so and we have no intention of doing a load of political activism so that people who do nothing – they have more important things to do, like shopping, playing video games and enjoying life – can say ‘good on yer’. Nor do we have any intention of being foot-soldiers for the politics of reformism and liberal single-issue campaigns or nationalist campaigns around capitalist trade and so on.
The sad reality is that, at present, in its vast, vast majority, the working class in this country just isn’t interested. Of course, there are exceptions. Workers are still sometimes forced into action by the bosses launching extreme attacks – the Port of Auckland workers a few years ago, the Talleys meat workers at present being examples – but, by and large, workers facing mass layoffs and workplace closures are more likely to start crying than to start fighting. In their vast majority, workers are demobilised, demoralised and see no alternative worth fighting for.
The class struggle in New Zealand has, in effect, been dead for over 20 years. The working class, by and large, does not exist as a class. A majority of the population are still selling their labour-power and producing a greater new value than they are paid in wages or salaries. But their consciousness is thoroughly individualised and apathetic. They simply don’t see themselves as members of a class across New Zealand, let alone members of a global class, let alone members of a social force that can fundamentally change the conditions of its own existence and, in doing so, lay the basis for the liberation of humanity. That is for science fiction movies – although even sci-fi these days tends to be riddled with misanthropy.
Moreover, even leftists who pretend things are not so can’t escape from this harsh reality. The departure of the most experienced central leadership core of the Workers Party, for instance, was followed by the rightward drift of the organisation, the departure over the following year of almost everyone over 30 years of age, and the slow disintegration of what had once been the largest and most dynamic of the Marxist currents in this country. Today, what remains is a small rump called ‘Fightback’ that is no longer able to sustain a monthly paper – few of their members have the character to sell a left paper on the streets – or consistently pursue any political campaign work. They can’t grow, they can only shed members and pick up the odd person from the milieu described above, thus replicating their problems.
Moreover, critically reflecting on even their own decline appears beyond them. They have embraced the failed politics that we polemicised against for years – what some of us called ‘the politics of the swamp’. Minus the core of the original central leadership, the Young Turks simply slipped back into the politics that were easiest in the slacker-type milieu in which they tended to mix, socialise and organise. All the political gains that had made through learning the lessons of the previous ultimate failure of the NZ left were soon discarded, replaced by the early 21st century equivalents of those weak politics.
Indeed, whereas the revolutionary left and the most left Maori activists had long denounced the treaty of Waitangi as a fraud, this new, young milieu embraced this capitalist instrument for the acquisition of these islands, and more recently instrument for the creation of Maori capital, as something to be entirely supported, indeed a bedrock of their politics. It is possibly around this Treaty that they most clearly reveal themselves as the left-wing of capitalist economics and politics rather than an anti-capitalist opposition.
Although forms of identity politics and political correctness tend to repel workers, so this milieu simply reflects on, and tends to devour, itself, the working class remains very much disinterested in any kind of oppositional politics.
The working class: not moving, not feeling the chains
And here is the crux of the problem. As Rosa Luxemburg pointed out a century ago, those who don’t move don’t even become aware of their chains. There is no clatter, let alone a throttling effect. And in the imperialist world, of which New Zealand is part, the chains have a bit of ‘give’ in them. So capitalist governments here, while presiding over a situation where workers are working longer, harder and faster for less, can still make some concessions. National can put a little bit more money in the pockets of the poorest sections of the working class through across-the-board tax cuts and through modest increases in social welfare benefits, while Labour long since totally turned their backs on beneficiaries. Labour, however, can make tiny adjustments to industrial law, to allow unions a little more leeway, while National makes further, albeit modest, inroads against unions.
A couple of weeks ago I had coffee with a new friend of mine who spent some years working in a railway workshops and was recently involved in trying to organise against mass layoffs there. It was impossible to interest the workers in an occupation of the workplace, he said. Of the handful of remaining workers, none are politically interested, despite the massive attack on them and their (now dispensed with) workmates. Yet many of the workers there were older workers who would have started their working life in the workshops when it was a centre of radicalism. An old retired worker from this same workshops told me a couple of years ago how, when he worked there in the 60s, 70s and into the 80s, they quite often had radical speakers come in to give talks on stuff like political economy, apartheid, the Vietnam War and so on, and how it was a very political workplace. All of that has gone, even for the workers who went through those years and talks and experiences of class politics. As my friend who still works there told me, his politics are just on another planet to those of his co-workers and it’s extremely difficult to find any point of contact politically with them.
In the absence of class struggle, class consciousness and even of class memory, what is left? Do we just give up and watch the ‘reality’ cooking and home DIY competitions that litter our TV screens – and how much our TV screens have changed since the great teleplays and drama series of the 1960s and 1970s – and tend our gardens.
What can be done then?
As a fellow Redline comrade once put it to me, once you’ve seen and understood certain things you can’t just draw the curtains and pretend you haven’t. For thinking, intelligent beings, with a bit of spine and principle, that is clearly not an option, although we certainly all need a bit of time out once in a while, especially as we get older and our energy reserves are no longer what they once were.
While for those of us who live in the imperialist world and who know what we know, and who have that bit of spine and character, the absence of class struggle, consciousness and memory restricts our ability to act, it is not the last word. Struggles continue elsewhere and Marxism still has the best tools for understanding how the world works and why – and where we all fit into the bigger picture.
What revolutionaries in New Zealand can do is anti-imperialist solidarity with the struggles around the world which do exist, something which helps promote internationalism in this country. We can propagandise for Marxism, showing the continued relevance of the tools it provides – indeed, one of the cruel ironies is that these tools are more relevant now than ever as capitalism is so clapped out – and we can group together a small network of people determined to not surrender to this decaying, rotten system.
One of the most serious challenges facing genuine anti-capitalists here right now is analysing the changing face/s of New Zealand capitalism – the increasing removal of non-market forms of discrimination while intensifying the exploitation of labour-power by capital, the dominance of liberal forms of capitalist ideology, the embrace by most of the left of forms of bourgeois ideology in relation to ‘The Treaty’ and ‘race’ relations, gender, new forms of irrationalism, and new forms of social control, including increasing pressure by the liberal-left against free speech around these kinds of issues.
We need to reassert the importance of science, reason and rationalism; the goal of human emancipation – the ability of humans to transform their circumstances rather than huddle together in fear of the world; the need for clinical political analysis – including of very popular, but politically disabling, liberal-left shibboleths; the need for solidarity rather than pity; the need for internationalism rather than the left-nationalism which plagues the left in this country; the need for materialist approaches rather than politics based on individual emotion-based approaches; the need to raise the political level rather than bring everything down to lowest common-denominator politics and the feelings of the most frail or needy. An instance of this would be basing political activity on what the working class needs to know in order to develop its own class consciousness and challenge capitalism, rather than campaigning around what individual activists feel is in their personal comfort zone or is their personal-centred issue.
Part of our motto should be ‘Better fewer, but better’ – a very small network of serious anti-capitalists. Such a network can still do serious useful work and avoid succumbing to the pressures of capitalism, the poisoned chalices of labourism liberal identity politics (and the silencing conventions of political correctness which go with it) and the temptations/dangers of falling into ritual and substitutionism.