by Phil Duncan

There are at present some discussions going on around the country about developing new left initiatives.  And by ‘left’ I mean the actual left, ie anti-capitalist left, not those strange folks who want to manage capitalism and yet think they’re ‘socialists’ when they’re really just Labour-liberals.

The new initiatives, which are interlinked and seem to involve the same key people, include a think tank (already underway), a serious journal (already underway) and a Marxist party (still in the stage of being suggested).  The think tank, whose best-known figure is Sue Bradford, is Economic and Social Research Aotearoa; the journal is Counterfutures and is edited by Victoria University sociologist Dylan Taylor, with an editorial board drawn from around the country.  Dylan and Sue have been speaking, together and separately, at meetings around the country on the themes of an anti-capitalist agenda for Aotearoa in the 21st century and a new party.  In late May, speaking at a meeting at Otago University, sponsored by the Division of the Humanities, Dylan put forward a case for a new party, arguing very clearly that it would need to be a communist party.

Redline is keen to promote this discussion, drawing on our own experiences and those of party-building projects around the world, as well as dealing with the issue of whether a basis exists for a Marxist party-building project in the current conditions that prevail here; if so, what politics it needs to put forward; if not, what is to be done by anti-capitalists here and now.

The fact that there are such discussions going on is encouraging.  The NZ left has been something of a wasteland for several decades now.  Since the defeat (or betrayal) of the fight against the Employment Contracts Act of 1991, the working class has been in retreat.  Indeed, the confusion and demoralisation inflicted on the class by the fourth Labour government then the fourth National government, along with wider economic processes such as the shifting of chunks of production from First World countries like New Zealand to the Third World, and the massive decline of old industries around which working class communities were physically organised and politically cohered have dealt massive blows not simply to the organisation of the class but, more importantly, to its consciousness of itself as a class.

Class consciousness was far stronger 100 years and more ago than it is now.  At the same time, the ideology of the ruling class has shifted notably over the past three decades, essentially since 1984.  The liberal market reforms were accompanied by increasingly liberal ruling class attitudes in relation to ‘race’, gender and sexuality.  These days, the ruling class simply doesn’t care what gender, ethnicity or sexuality people are – all who accept the limits of capitalism as ‘natural’ limits are welcome on the inside of the system.

The retreat of the working class and the embrace of social-liberalism by the ruling class – essentially, the capitalists and the key figures in the state apparatus – have been accompanied by the retreat of the left.  Various forms of identity politics are accepted as ‘alternative politics’ by many people who see themselves as left-wing and even most of the far left continually support projects that point away from, rather than towards, the overthrow of capitalism.  The InternetMana fiasco was symptomatic of left swamp politics.  While the swamp left are happy enough to make nice with rogue capitalists like Kim Dotcom and his fortune, they regard revolutionary politics as innately sectarian and ultraleft.  The time for revolutionary politics is never today, always tomorrow.

Moreover, much of the ostensibly revolutionary and anti-capitalist left are soft on state capitalism and NZ nationalism.  This was obvious in the way most of the far left rallied in support of the state-capitalist profit-oriented companies that Roger Douglas and his pals set up.  In the 1980s, the left opposed the establishment of the SOEs (state-owned enterprises); 30 years later, most of the left were advocating in support of them, calling them ‘our assets’ and so on!  The same left forces continually compromise with NZ nationalism, the ideology of the ruling class and NZ imperialism.  This includes sections of the ostensibly anti-nationalist left.  After all, you can’t really denounce NZ nationalism and then throw yourself into things like the anti-TPPA campaign, which is not only nationalist through and through politically, but inevitably so.  Its nationalism isn’t an optional add-on!

While giving a helping hand to kiwi nationalism, something which serves to reinforce the national divisions among workers as a global class, this left fails to champion, in practice, slogans like Open Borders, slogans that can actually serve to unite workers as a global class.  Open Borders is for left conference posturing and a few articles in a group’s publication, not for active campaigning around.  The left prefers the much softer options.

If a genuinely revolutionary party is to be built the starting points have to be championing the interests of workers as a global class, knowing who the enemy is – the NZ ruling class, including its state, its ideology (kiwi nationalism in all its forms, including economic nationalism) and its political parties (Labour as much as National) – and fighting for revolutionary ideas today, not postponing them for some indefinite time in the future.

We don’t see much basis for a revolutionary party in this country today because there is almost no motion in the working class – a fact that doesn’t prevent some of the more easily excitable elements of the left talking up little struggles, claiming big victories, or acting as if students and rather louche youth are a substitute for working class activists.

What there is a base for, however, is trying to bring together serious left activists who understand the nature of the beast in this country, who grasp the need for class politics – including the championing of the rights of the oppressed globally – who understand questions like the state and the Labour Party and don’t exchange revolutionary politics for whatever little bandwagon happens to be passing by.


Can anything be done? Revolutionary politics and organising in NZ today 

What are anti-capitalist politics?

When is it time for revolutionary politics?

Labour: a bosses’ party

Capitalism, the state and the NZ left

Why immigration controls are not in the interests of NZ workers

Class, class consciousness and NZ left practice

‘Respect for diversity’: NZ capitalism’s necessary ideology in the 21st century

  1. John Kerr says:

    “What there is a base for, however, is trying to bring together serious left activists who understand the nature of the beast in this country, who grasp the need for class politics…”

    Okay, I’ll bite (both because I attended the meeting in Dunedin and I was pleasantly surprised by the positive note on which the above piece started) – to do what exactly?

  2. Phil says:

    I’m all in favour of Marxist parties, John. I just don’t see that there is a base for one at present. It has to be built *within* the working class, like the socialist groups were a hundred years ago. Otherwise it’s a waste of time. You end up with a few louche types and a little layer of students who are playing with radical ideas but are much more comfortable with left-liberal politics (in practice) than serious, revolutionary politics.

    This is probably going to disappoint you, but when it comes to “to do what exactly?” I think that’s matter for the serious people to discuss and a few of us are already talking about a modest gathering later in the year along these lines. But some initial ideas: putting forward revolutionary, anti-capitalist ideas to whatever tiny layer of workers might be up for discussing them; looking for ways of making these ideas relevant to workers in terms of their day-to-day experience, without dumbing down; and arguing for the ideas that are necessary to unite workers as a class – internationalism, championing the rights of all the oppressed, etc.

    This probably sounds rather ho-hum, but the reality is that it is not being done by most of the left today. However there are a few tiny layers of people doing this separately: the first task is to try to bring them together. Some of us are already in a very initial phase of discussing this – quite separate actually from the initiative that Dylan is trying to spearhead.

    There will be more articles on Redline about what a revolutionary anti-capitalist movement means, why a revolutionary organisation is necessary to fight for fundamental change (as opposed to the standard NZ left thing of getting in behind non-revolutionary politics and non-revolutionary ‘leaders’).


  3. Roger Annis says:

    Thank you for this interesting commentary. A considerable challenge of left-wing political party organizing exists in Canada. My recent commentary spoke to this issue, on the occasion of the national convention of Canada’s social democratic party. The NDP leader sought to stay on in his post following the big electoral setback the party suffered on October 19, 2015. Convention delegates rejected his effort. There is no sign in Canada of a Corbyn-type development in the NDP. This is the hoped-for development by people who should, instead, be engaged in serious, left-wing party organizing. My April 22, 2016 commentary is here: http://rogerannis.com/climate-change-emergency-shakes-canadas-corporate-establishment-fractures-countrys-social-democratic-party/
    Roger Annis
    Vancouver, Canada

  4. Al says:

    “What there is a base for, however, is trying to bring together serious left activists who understand the nature of the beast in this country, who grasp the need for class politics – including the championing of the rights of the oppressed globally – who understand questions like the state and the Labour Party and don’t exchange revolutionary politics for whatever little bandwagon happens to be passing by.”

    Agree, this is a great starting point and is so needed.

  5. Thomas R says:

    Dylan Taylor seems to propose a ‘Socialist Party’ (actually in the piece I read the S word is not mentioned, nor Marxism, possibly not even capitalism to be frank) as an empty vessel in which you can pour the nascent or barely existing ‘Social Movements’ ‘Activists’ and ‘Communities’ and somehow end up with something coherent. I’m not against Parties, I’m even in favour of ‘factions’ within a party. But to even have either the party, or the factions within it, there has to be some common ground – a basic understanding of what the hell such a grouping is for.

    They declare a party, I might join it for the experience and to see how things go. But I’m extraordinarily skeptical that it would be anything useful… the extremely broad socialist party means nothing but Labour with a darker shade of red as far as I can tell – more of the Left Wing of Capital but boostering for Maduro and ‘big man’ despots who oppose the US rather than daydreaming about being like “A scandinavian socialist country”. It’s about time to see this stuff as two sides of the same coin.

    I’m not even sure the ‘new party’ discussions would be broad socialist though – it would need to define its parameters more for that to even be the case.

  6. Phil says:

    I agree totally Thomas. And throughout the existence of this blog we have opposed mish-mash ‘broad’ left socialist parties – parties so broad the ostensible marxists are simply swallowed up and run round doing grunt work for reformists.

    But at the talk Dylan gave in Dunedin he stated explicitly that this would be a *communist* party. That’s what the article above is responding to.

    What I’ve found interesting is that he has gotten some kind of hearing for such an idea.

    But, as you can tell from what we’ve written on Redline in the past and from the article itself, we tend generally to the view that the basis for a revolutionary organisation – in any meaningful sense of the term – simply doesn’t exist at present in this country.

    However, having some discussion around what a revolutionary organisation might look like, and what revolutionaries *can* do right now, can be useful.

    As I mentioned before, we are the very beginning of having a few discussions with people we have good political relations with about a gathering later in the year to discuss the kinds of things that Al mentioned above.

    I doubt it will be an open gathering, because we are simply not interested in wasting our time with some of the flakes and phonies who might show up to an open gathering. The days in which we wasted our time trying to make silk purses out of sows’ ears are long gone.


  7. Thomas R says:

    In a way I’m prone to not 100% agree – the basis for the revolutionary class party exists in the relations of capital. The subjective consciousness of workers may be a large barrier, but it’s not a “First Cause” as I understand it.

    On the other hand, the reality is that the extent to which the class is interested in a party would be minimal – or potentially only a new parliamentary party as many people are, rightly, disillusioned with what is one offer. Is there room for an electoral Party to the left of Labour? Definitely… is that what communists should be doing? Not in my opinion.

    The reality of revolution, from what I can grapple with, is that an isolated revolution within the borders of a nation state may be doomed very quickly unless the international class acts even more quickly to push their conditions forward to a revolutionary situation also. As such it seems fundamentally Social Democratic to only be thinking about The Party as the party which is organised nationally.

    If a proletarian revolution is to succeed, it will be taking power in key economic and industrial regions beyond the boundaries of a nation state. An international organisational form becomes essential. Obviously declaring a new international, or a World Party in our current conditions would be delusional, but to build a national party form in the mean time may be the opposite of doing groundwork towards this necessary future development in a world party (for anarchists reading, I’m using Party in a very short hand ‘minimum definition’ way to say “formal political organisation unified around agreement to a programme”, rather than necessarily in a Leninist capacity).

    “Innovation” in revolutionary ideas much more often leads to principle-lacking nonsense, bombastic theory that reads more like poetry than anything else. Conference communism – “the idea of communism” types seem to be radical academics who get a kick out of the ‘c’ word. But as McKenzie Wark put it – is there a bourgeois alive today literate enough to be scared of the ‘idea of communism’, were they ever scared of the idea at all and not the practice?

    This is an era for critique, preferably seriously researched critique, and if there is practice to be done it’s probably on the shop floor – a skill that no orgs seem to be training into their cadre of undregraduates anyway. I have critiques of unions, of Labour Party members, of whatever bigoted opinons some workers might still have – but more than any of that what is most desperately lacking in the class is to *struggle at all*. In that sense – I almost don’t care where it starts, if it starts in Unions or it even starts in this ‘new communist party’ – so be it. But with an absence of movement at all in the class what do we have to go on?

    The truth of the socialist left in NZ as I have seen it is a tendency to tell ourselves that the one off events of activists is the same thing as an indicator of consciousness in the class itself. This, I would argue, is the substitutionism which is most dangerous today – not the substitution of the vanguard by the party, but the substitution of The Class by The Activist Scene. Economism and Trade Union consciousness as pejoratively defined by Lenin would be an improvement today – and I don’t mean an improvement in the working class (though that is also true) – but an improvement in what I largely come across in the socialist organisations themselves.

    To end on a more positive note: people resemble their times more than their fathers, and this century is shaping up to be tumultuous. Household debt has increased by a quarter in the last 5 years in New Zealand. The housing market is utterly unsustainable and ripe for a crash. We may not see a huge amount of hope around – but NZ has fared the GFC much better than other countries. The relative standard of living of the NZ working class is being maintained through debt more than anything – and I doubt this will continue forever. There will be opportunities where socialists may have some choice words that will resonate with dissent among the working class… there will probably be plenty of times our ideas are obstacles and the class might rightly tell us to piss off… but even so, Marx’ analysis of capital remains – and great swathes of it remain more true than ever before. I know a handful of Marxists under 25 who are fed up with the socialist orgs and the left but are returning to actually reading Marx himself – not Marx filtered through pamphlets of a particular organisation with a particular set of interests. Alongside this is a renewed skepticism in the complete rejection of universalism which a lot of post-colonial theory, post modernism etc, implies.

    This kind of thinking may not be dominant, and it may be largely untested because only the stage of history can really measure out the strength of revolutionary theory, but it is there and it isn’t an entirely defeatist position at all. Just one that might have a bit more patience.

  8. Phil says:

    You’ll notice I said the basis doesn’t exist in NZ right now.

    Sure the *objective* basis exists in the relations of capital (and labour), but all that means is that there is a potential to have a revolutionary party; it doesn’t make it always a goer. After the defeat of the 1848 revolutions, Marx and Engels decided that there was simply no basis for a party project anywhere in western Europe for some time to come. They didn’t keep trying to build an organisation (ie the Communist League). In fact, they argued for its dissolution. They decided to opt for a small circle of people while getting on with their lives, and also studying, writing and so on and biding their time until conditions changed and ut building an organisation back on the *actual agenda*. This occurred in the early 1860s.

    Most of your email I agree with; indeed, we have been banging away on the same things for some years. And, of course, internationalism is key to our perspectives. That is why we continually attack ‘kiwi nationalism’ and counterpose the need for consciousness of the class as a global class if progress is to be made. That is why issues like the right of workers to free movement (open borders) and such-like, along with liberation struggles in the Third World, are a key part of our coverage. It’s why we’re organising a study group on imperialism in the 21st century.

    It is out of real working class internationalism that a real international will be formed, in place of the current attempts of various groups to simply have more affiliates – ie semi-international (but not internationalist) sect-building.

    Back when the Australian SP came fishing in the Workers Party, they wanted to give a talk on internationalism at the very first conference of ours they came to. All they were doing really was behaving like small proprietors, laying out their stall, but we let them give their talk – but on a panel where we presented our views on how internationalism is very different from global sect-building.


    • Thomas R says:

      Indeed, and even if I think a bit of centralism is useful – at least to keep various largely autonomous groupings affiliated together at least true to their points of unity – the way the CWI just follows the whims of the Socialist Party of England & Wales strikes me as the worst kind of opportunism anyway.

  9. Phil says:

    All these outfits are built around motherships; extremely unhealthy. For a start it is incredibly limiting. For instance it means members can never really learn from other currents because the ínternational sect they belong to is in competition with the group they might learn something from, so everyone has to deny that anyone else has done anything good.

  10. vomitingdiamonds says:

    We need many more projects, movements, organisations, struggles in NZ and this one at least on the surface seems a bit more radical than the ones before perhaps. And there are many contradictions and tensions within capital today that are getting worse.

    But after that brief spell of positivity onto a few criticisms. I really don’t think the opportunist leftist trend since Labour became neoliberal and the left has almost evaporated has really helped all that much. There is no analysis of the failures of NLP, Alliance, Mana, Workers Party etc after the initial hopes for these parties. Seems to be another case of what foul beast shambles towards Bethlehem (or rough beast slouches towards Bethlehem to cite Yeats properly).

    So this project seems to want to cash in on the more global trend towards a revitalised leftism with Sanders, Corbyn, the pink tide in Latin America, SYRIZA, occupy etc. But all these trends have problems – to borrow an argument of Phil’s (please correct me if i remembered it wrong) I don’t think there is a real space for social democracy because capital can’t afford a genuine soc dem – plus there are the wider constraints of global capital – look what they did to SYRIZA turning it into a party of austerity.

    Finally, my cynical superficial at first glance look at this proposed party: it seems that this party will be drawing a mushy post-modern style mash up of academic trends towards ‘communism’, liberal little-a anarchism and letfist activism eg occupy – and call it ‘communist’ (and even draw superficially from the communist current ie. the non-aligned, non-Leninist (or anti-Bolshevik) communist milieu). So you’ll prob. see a few slogans drawn from that tradition eg. communisation and class composition currents. But I don’t really think the revolution is a party affair (to borrow from Ruhle)…

    • Admin says:

      I agree with most of this. I was positive about it because Dylan was very specific that he was talking about a communist organisation, not an opportunist left mish-mash.

      In terms of analysis of NLP, Alliance, Mana: well, we’ve certainly done a fair whack of analysis of that ourselves, here and in earlier print publications. But, I agree, this has generally not been done. In terms of the Workers Party a few people in Redline have written bits and pieces.

      What precipitated the departure of the older core of the leadership was the combination of several cases of thieving and pathological lying by a young member and the defence of the thief-liar by most of the other younger members. This came on top of continual political backsliding by younger members who really didn’t understand Marxism or the discipline of an organisation.

      However, these were just triggers – why did we have this layer of crappy members? And that’s where we concluded we were being punished for our hubris in thinking that we could take forward a party-building project in material conditions that simply militated against it. We recruited what was available and, in a long period of downturn and the lack of lessons being drawn about the past (although some of us worked damn hard to draw the lessons and pass them on!), what was available was what we got. It was simply impossible to build with such poor human material – but there just wasn’t much else available.

      We had tried to build around a critique of the standard swamp-left practices, but most of the younger members never really understood this and, at the first serious opportunity, demonstrated they were very much mired in, and the product of, the precise swampy politics that we had organised against.

      I think this is also a product of something about NZ society. Namely, that there has been almost no revolutionary tradition here; liberalism has reigned supreme and that is especially true today. We have a liberal ruling class and a liberal opposition to the ruling class. Unfortunately some of the liberal opposition thinks it is more anti-capitalist than it is, so left-liberalism and anti-capitalism kind of merge into each other in the specific conditions here.

      I think a revolutionary left would have to totally cut itself off from the liberal left and their movements and campaigns and build in the working class, and look at the world from inside the class looking out while at the same time taking Marxism into the class (because it doesn’t just pop up spontaneously – would make life a helluva lot easier if it did!).

      (Funnily enough, in relation to WP, a year or two after we left, we heard that the thief-liar’s most ardent defender on the WP steering committee had stolen most of the organisation’s money – so I guess their louche attitude to this kind of stuff came back to bite them. Earlier this year the Christchurch branch resigned and that was pretty much the end of the ‘organisation’ I think. Also, once the delicate souls remaining had to pay their own fares to national gatherings – imagine! – things must’ve got rough, and they seem to have dissolved what was left of the group.)

      Still, as I said earlier, even as hopeless and kinmd of pathetic as they were, *they* were not really the core problem. They were simply the flotsam and jetsam thrown up by the core problem, which is the infertile soil for revolutionary politics in this country right now (and for the past couple of decades and possibly for some time to come).

      Phil F