Lenin instructs the masses, as Trotsky looks on. Revolution was far too important to be left to ordinary working people.
IT is always a pleasure to respond to the critical writing of left-wing comrades – even when it is my own newspaper columns that are being critiqued!
Bryce Edwards, here, has taken me to task for a series of satirical jibes which I directed at the far-Left in my Dominion Post "From the Left’ column published on Friday 12 December 2008.
What appears to have upset Bryce most about the column was its underlying assumption that in New Zealand the revolutionary Left enjoys (if that is the right word) a reputation for being a motley collection of political Jeremiahs, who delight in the misery of the working class and positively welcome hard economic times on the grounds that such adverse conditions can only "heighten the contradictions" inherent in all capitalist societies and, hence, hasten their demise.
Bryce also takes exception to the other big assumption in my column: that the NZ Labour Party has always enjoyed, and will continue to enjoy, much greater success than the revolutionary Left in attracting mass working-class support - especially during periods of economic hardship.
Like many revolutionary socialists, Bryce regularly condemns the Labour Party for being a "right-wing" and "anti-worker" party.
On the face of it, this is a rather absurd charge. As I pointed out in my column, the Labour Party attracted 796,880 Party Votes in the recent election - most of them from working-class voters. (By way of comparison, the far-Left Workers' Party received just 932 Party Votes.) What Bryce's characterisation of the Labour Party as right-wing and anti-worker implies, therefore, is that the working-class is either blind (or has been blinded) to its own self-interest; or has itself become a hot-bed of right-wing and anti-worker beliefs.
Now, I don’t know for sure, but I'm assuming that Bryce, like most of those who adhere to the revolutionary socialist tradition, still subscribes to the principles of Marxism-Leninism. If so, his rather condescending attitude toward the working-class is perfectly consistent with the revolutionary model he espouses. As Lenin so arrogantly expressed it in What Is To Be Done?:
"The history of all countries shows that the working class exclusively by its own effort is able to develop only trade-union consciousness."
In other words, revolution is much too important to be left to ordinary working people! Far better to leave it to, oh, I don’t know – university lecturers – perhaps?
Sometimes, however, ordinary working people see the world a great deal more clearly than revolutionary academics. Ordinary working people just might, for example, regard advice from Rosa Luxemburg and Leon Trotsky as something to be taken with a very large grain of salt.
After all, if Rosa was such a visionary, how come in January 1919 she allowed a troop of demobbed soldiers, now serving in the notorious Garde-Kavallerie-Schützendivision Freikorps, to abduct her off a Berlin street, club her senseless, fire a bullet into her brain, and throw her lifeless body into the Landwehr Canal? And if Leon Trotsky was such a socialist seer, how was Stalin’s special assassin, Ramon Mercader, able to disaggregate his skull with an ice-pick in Mexico City in 1940?
I ask these brutal questions with a serious purpose. Because it is almost always posterity which invests individuals with the extraordinary qualities for which they are remembered. Luxemburg and Trotsky were both immensely talented revolutionary politicians, but just as prone to getting caught up in the day-to-day exigencies of their craft as the rest of us – and equally blind to their ultimate fates.
It is as foolish to abstract from their political context the political writings and observations of Luxemburg and Trotsky, as it is to quote at random from the commentary of a left-wing political columnist like myself.
Luxemburg was wrong about the revolutionary potential of the German working-class, and she paid for that misjudgement with her life. What she correctly identified, however, were the elitist and ultimately tyrannical tendencies within the Leninist revolutionary model – and for that she is justly remembered.
Trotsky, too, was wrong in his assessment of capitalism’s strengths and weaknesses. Far from being a brief respite, the economic recovery noted in his 1921 pamphlet marked the beginning of a capitalist boom lasting almost a decade. What’s more, when boom turned to bust, it was not the socialists who benefited, but the fascists.
What today’s revolutionaries always seem to overlook, when quoting Luxemburg and Trotsky, is the signal fact that their respective assassinations were not the work of the Right, but of their fellow socialists (Noske in the case of Luxemburg, Stalin in the case of Trotsky). They died because they refused to accept that the revolutions in which they’d played such an important role had reached the limits of what was politically and economically feasible.
And it is this, the recognition of what is – and what is not – politically and economically feasible, that distinguishes the political movements capable of attracting 796,880 votes, from those capable of attracting just 932.
As I recall, Bryce was, for a period, a member of Jim Anderton’s NewLabour Party (and worked for a while in the Alliance's parliamentary office). For more than a decade these organisations represented the most successful parliamentary assertion of democratic socialism in the Western world. That the Alliance, in 1999, secured four Cabinet seats in what was internationally regarded as the most left-wing Labour government in the world, was a huge achievement.
Indeed, such was the pull of its political gravity that the Alliance carried Helen Clark’s government several degrees further to the left than, left to itself, it would ever have felt comfortable travelling.
Would the renationalisation of ACC, the restoration of income related state-house rentals, the repeal of the Employment Contracts Act, the creation of a state-owned bank, and the introduction of paid parental leave and four weeks annual leave have occurred without the Alliance? Certainly not as quickly, and possibly not at all.
Were these reforms of benefit to working people? Absolutely.
Would a right-wing, anti-worker government (such as the one we have now) have introduced such measures? Never.
As it was, in threatening a full-scale investment strike, New Zealand’s capitalist ruling class, in "The Winter of Discontent" of 2000, signalled how very close to the limits of what was politically and economically feasible the Labour-Alliance coalition had come. When, in 2002, the Alliance Left indicated that it intended to test those limits further , Clark and Anderton (like Noske and Stalin before them) ruthlessly organised its destruction.
And when Labour, itself, took the revolutionary step of illegally appropriating sufficient public funds to mobilise its working-class base against the threat of a Don Brash-led National Government in 2005, the New Zealand ruling class made it very clear that the limits of its tolerance had been exceeded.
What followed Labour’s 2005 election victory: the "Establishment’s" three-year campaign of non-stop political aggression against the entire parliamentary Left and its NZ First allies; stands as an object lesson in what happens to social-democratic governments which mobilise their core working-class vote without a coherent plan for keeping it mobilised.
For Bryce should make no mistake, it is the latter variety of social-democratic governance that I have always stood for – and fought for. But, to pull off that sort of governance you have to box clever – very clever.
In my book, No Left Turn, I used a classical myth to illustrate the method adopted by the First Labour Government for slaying the capitalist monster:
"The conduct of Savage, Nash and Fraser calls to mind the legend of Perseus and Medusa. Befriended by Athena, the goddess of wisdom, and Hermes, the keeper of secrets, Perseus is provided with the weapons necessary to slay Medusa. But the gods also warn the hero that when the critical moment arrives for him to put an end to tyranny by striking off the monster’s head, he must be guided only by Medusa’s bright reflection mirrored in the metal of Athena’s shield. It was fatal to confront the Gorgon face-to-face: any man who gazed directly upon the true horror of her countenance was instantly turned to stone.
"Like Perseus, the first Labour government’s heroic achievements were secured by its wise refusal to confront its enemy directly. Capitalism in New Zealand was mastered not by staring it down, but by addressing its many institutional reflections: the private control of credit creation; the private provision of health and housing; the master-servant relationship in the workplace; the disciplinary effects of mass unemployment; and the class-based allocation of educational and cultural resources. By concentrating their reforming zeal on these institutional representations of capitalist power, Savage, Nash and Fraser avoided the massive social resistance which would inevitably have attended the wholesale expropriation of private property."
New Zealand politics, since the end of the long post-war boom in the mid-1970s, has been about little else apart from the New Zealand ruling-class’s single-minded determination to tear down the institutional walls in which social-democracy had immured it. The ferocity of that effort, and the limited nature of its success, reveals the deadly efficacy of Savage’s strategy.
It is also highly significant that in order to breach those walls, it was first necessary to subvert the Labour Party. No other political movement in New Zealand could have done it.
And no other movement in New Zealand will ever rebuild those walls. Only the labour movement – political and industrial – possesses the historical and cultural power to lead the counter-attack against the Right’s counter-revolution.
Ultimately, it is the wisdom and courage of ordinary working people – not academic Marxist-Leninists, or even erratic newspaper columnists – that will re-imprison the capitalist beast.
And the party they turn to for that purpose will be Labour – the real workers’ party.