"Certainly, The Impotent Are Pure": Gough Whitlam struggled to make the left of his party understand that purity at the expense of power is a poor bargain. “It is true that some parties can exist only as pressure groups ..... Neither our traditions nor our purpose permit us to adopt this role for ourselves. We are in the business to serve and preserve democracy. Parliamentary democracy.”
GOUGH WHITLAM’S LEGACY to Australian Labor is huge, so it’s easy to assume that he was always its hero. Nothing could be further from the truth. Such a doctrinaire beast was the Australian Labor Party in the 1950s and 60s that the “modernising” Whitlam was widely and deeply distrusted. Nowhere was this more evident than in Victorian Labour Party (VLP). Victorian Labour saw itself as the Keeper of the Flame of “true” socialism. Whitlam, a silver-tongued Sydney lawyer, born of privilege and power, was not the sort of person these “true believers” warmed to.
Whitlam, however, had a very clear idea about where Labor needed to go if it was ever to bring the seemingly interminable reign of the Liberal-Country Party Coalition to an end. The VLP, he knew, was a vital station on the federal party’s path to power. The Keepers of the Flame would have to be politically confronted – and ideologically defeated. In June, 1967, Whitlam finally bearded Victoria’s socialist lions in their den.
Speaking to the VLP’s annual conference, Whitlam laid it on the line – as only he could. Addressing directly Labor’s abysmal electoral record at both the state and federal level, he spoke the words that everyone knew to be true, but which no one dared to utter:
“We construct a philosophy of failure, which finds in defeat a form of justification and a proof of the purity of our principles. Certainly, the impotent are pure. This party was not conceived in failure, brought forth by failure or consecrated to failure. Let us have none of this nonsense that defeat is in some way more moral than victory.” [My emphasis.]
Nor was he afraid to name Labor’s two great enemies on the Left: the Moscow-aligned Communist Party of Australia; and that bastard child of Catholic reaction, the Democratic Labor Party (DLP).
“It is true that some parties can exist only as pressure groups. The Communists support this view because they do not want to win Parliamentary representation or power; the DLP supports it because it cannot win Parliamentary representation or power. Neither our traditions nor our purpose permit us to adopt this role for ourselves. We are in the business to serve and preserve democracy. Parliamentary democracy.”
It was this key insight that made Whitlam such an extraordinary change agent. He grasped what the Keepers of the Flame had either forgotten, or never quite understood in the first place. That before it could be about socialism, Labor had to be about democracy. Why? Because socialism only happens when people start taking democracy seriously.
The events of the past three weeks have made it clear just how urgently the New Zealand Labour Party is in need of a good Whitlam-style dressing down. Members of Labour’s Caucus have been stunned and hurt by the viciousness of their own party’s Keepers of the Flame. That Phil Twyford’s campaign to highlight the role played by offshore Chinese property investors in Auckland’s housing bubble could be likened to the activities of the Ku Klux Klan was beyond outrageous.
New Statesman columnist, Helen Lewis, calls it “values signalling”. Heedless of the personal and political damage inflicted by their social media interventions, the Values Signallers are only interested in letting their “friends” and “followers” know just how emphatically they are on the side of “the right and the good”. Not for them the hard slog of increasing their political party’s electoral support – always a desperately frustrating process, fraught with difficult personal compromises and dubious moral elisions. To operate in this world requires a level of maturity which most Values Signallers simply do not possess. For them, proclaiming one’s principled purity to the world is much more satisfying than helping one’s party win the next election. That such strident and unhelpful posturing might indefinitely delay the day when their principles are backed by the power of a parliamentary majority is not an idea they are much given to considering.
In the end, Whitlam’s observations about impotence and purity go to the heart of a much more profound political and philosophical debate. The invitation to sacrifice one’s personal political purity in favour of collective political potency is always a hard one to accept. And yet, if it is not, then the conditions permitting the enlargement of social, as well as individual, morality cannot be realised.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 31 July 2015.