This month marks the 100th anniversary of the founding of one of New Zealand capitalism’s two major political parties – Labour.
No-one on the anti-capitalist left in this country today puts forward a case that Labour is on the side of the working class. There are certainly people who call themselves ‘socialist’ who do, but they are essentially liberals with vested interests in Labourism – often for career reasons.
Nevertheless, there are certainly sections of the anti-capitalist left who, in practice, retain illusions in Labour. Some think Labour is still, at its core, some kind of “workers’ party” and that it is therefore permissible to vote for it and call on others to vote for it. Or to take sides in Labour leadership elections. Or to invite Labour speakers to speak at their educational conferences. Or to demonise National in a way that points clearly to support for Labour, without actually saying so.
Even on the anti-capitalist left, there are also some illusions about the first Labour government. And illusions about the early Labour Party from its founding in 1916 to the formation of the first Labour government.
It is a form of comfort politics. Just as some infants require comforters, a left which hasn’t yet grown up and been prepared to face the harsh realities of the 21st century capitalist world requires the comfort of thinking that there was once a mass force for socialism in this country and that it was the early Labour Party.
In fact, there has never been a mass force for socialism in New Zealand. There were certainly revolutionary elements in this country – marxists, anarchists, syndicalists – in the early 1900s and there were far more of them then, when New Zealand only had a million people, than there are today when the country has 4.5 million people. One of the functions of the early Labour Party was to destroy these revolutionary elements, in part by mopping them up and sucking them into Labour, transforming them into harmless social democrats. Where they couldn’t do this, they worked to marginalise them and destroy their organisations. All the while, through the 1920s, Labour moved rightwards, becoming more and more oriented to saving and running the system than getting rid of it. Labour was always far more hostile to the anti-capitalist left than it was to capitalism. And, of course, the early Labour Party staunchly advocated for the White New Zealand policy, indicated that they preferred a divided and politically weakened working class – ie one more likely to turn to Labour as its saviour – than a united, politically powerful working class which didn’t need the Labour Party.
Over the five years that this blog has existed, we have run a lot of articles on Labour, including some major, lengthy pieces. Below are many of the major ones but, for a full list, go to the Labour Party NZ category on the lefthand side of the blog home page.