Wednesday, 31 December 2008

Debating Social Democracy

No self-respecting human individual, of any class, responds well to the notion that he or she is like one of those faceless workers surging jerkily across the screen in a black-and-white newsreel from the 1920s; just another soulless cog in Marx’s irresistible historical juggernaut.

THERE is a huge difference between believing in something and making it happen.

So often, on the Left, we tie ourselves up in knots arguing about the principles and programmes we should believe in, and expend far too little effort turning those principles and programmes into real-world achievements.

Karl Marx, as usual, put it best when he wrote: "Philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it."

In the debate sparked by my Dominion Post "From the Left’ column of 12 December (see here, here, here, here, and here) my opponents have concentrated on what they consider to be the most important errors in my contention that the Labour Party is, as Quentin Findlay so succinctly puts it: "the only game in town".

Labour, they argue, no longer subscribes to the social-democratic ideology (or, at least, not in the way any "genuine" social-democrat would define the term). That being the case, they contend, Labour will never introduce the sort of legislative and/or regulatory initiatives required to eliminate social and economic injustice.

From both a strategic and a tactical perspective, insists the non-Labour Left, it is imperative to constitute an independent electoral force to Labour’s left – from which position the social-democrats can be "persuaded" to embrace a more radical policy agenda. The model they point to for historical vindication of this strategy is the Alliance.

It is important to take a few moments here to review the historical explanation for this idea that the prospects for a socialist transformation of capitalist society can be enhanced by multiplying the political instruments required for its accomplishment. A strategy which, on the face of it, appears to contradict the first rule of effective politics: in unity there is strength.

It originated, of course, in the triumph of nationalism over socialist internationalism occasioned by the outbreak of the First World War. Since the turn of the 19th Century, socialists parties around the world had pledged themselves to peace. Should an imperialist war break out, the proper response of the socialists in every country was to call a general strike. Rather than make imperialist war on their brothers, the working class was supposed to declare class war on their bosses.

That’s not what happened, of course. Confronted with what they saw as the unprovoked aggression of their neighbours, overwhelming majorities in all the working class parties of the belligerent powers voted in favour of supplying their respective governments with the necessary funds for waging war. Patriotism easily trumped the much vaunted, though seldom demonstrated, solidarity of the 2nd Socialist International.

Even so, the outbreak of socialist revolutions, in Russia, in February of 1917, and Germany, in November 1918, encouraged the minority of socialists who had voted against the war to break decisively from those majorities which still aligned themselves with the nation’s cause and supported its core institutions. The triumphant Russian Bolsheviks formalised this split in the world socialist movement by announcing the formation of a Third "Communist" International – the Comintern.

Thus was the international working-class divided into two, mutually antagonistic factions: the social-democratic "reformists" versus the "revolutionary" communists. By restricting membership of the Comintern to Moscow-approved Communist parties, and by employing state-of-the-art propaganda techniques, the Bolshevik’s highly centralised mode of organisation and revolutionary dogma soon came to dominate, if not the international proletariat, then at least the international intelligentsia.

It represented a crippling (and, in the case of inter-war Germany, a deadly) bifurcation of proletarian effort which was to last as long as "actually existing socialism" itself. Indeed, with the Sino-Soviet split of the early-1960s and the rise of the "New Left" a few years later, one could almost say the international socialist movement was spoiled by choice!

In the context of our original theme of political efficacy, to which we now return, the bifurcation of the socialist movement has had an equally pernicious effect. Constrained by its adherence to democratic principles, the reformers of the labour and social-democratic parties could not point to practical achievements on the scale of the totalitarian Soviet Union. In the midst of the Great Depression, the oft-repeated cry "There’s no unemployment in Russia!" carried a lot of weight. Not as much, however, as the social-democrats’ counter-cry "And no freedom either!"

"Nationalise everything, and shoot the buggers who complain" (as one New Zealand playwright wittily summarised Stalinism) may have got things done – but only at the cost of extinguishing those indispensable solidaristic and emancipatory impulses from which socialism draws its moral authority and political momentum.

As Rosa Luxemburg put it in her famous essay on the Russian Revolution: "Without universal elections, an unlimited freedom of the press and of assembly, and free contest of ideas, the life in every public institution dies down, turns into a pseudo-life in which the bureaucracy remains the only active element… a dictatorship indeed, but not the dictatorship of the proletariat but rather the dictatorship of a handful of politicians."

It is one of the besetting sins of the revolutionary Left that they massively and consistently under-rate the opprobrium in which working people hold socialism and communism (by which they almost always mean Stalinism and/or Maoism). No self-respecting human individual, of any class, responds well to the notion that he or she is like one of those faceless workers surging jerkily across the screen in a black-and-white newsreel from the 1920s; just another soulless cog in Marx’s irresistible historical juggernaut. Like everybody else, working people resent being taken for granted and told what to do. They like to be asked.

They also prefer to be led in directions they actually want to travel – a truth turned into a memorable political aphorism by Jim Anderton, when, many years ago, he advised a group of impatient young firebrands in Labour Youth to: "Build your footpaths where the people walk."

As democratic socialists, we should be striving to achieve "emotional congruence" with working people. Our political messages should map, as closely as possible, the way people are feeling about the problems and challenges that beset them. In my experience, there is only one sure way to do this, and that is through much informal discussion and a great many formal debates. And the only places this can be done effectively is in what remains of the mass organisations of the New Zealand working class: the trade unions and the Labour Party.

Don’t misunderstand me, developing emotional congruence is not the same as mastering the dark arts of political populism. The populist politician works with the feelings he, or others, have already found or implanted in their audiences, shaping people to a template only partly of their own devising. The populist plays upon, validates and exploits his audience’s anxieties, he does not attempt to investigate, challenge or inform them.

The most important strategic task those who seek to rehabilitate and revivify socialism in New Zealand could undertake in 2009 would be the task of massively expanding the opportunities for discussion and debate within the trade union movement and the Labour Party. The failure of both these institutions in 2008 reflected their woeful inability to ensure that there was an emotional congruence between the ideas, practices and policies of their respective leaders, and the hopes, fears and aspirations of their respective members and supporters.

Expanding that space will not be easy, and it will meet with resistance – probably from the very moment it is attempted. But there is a very good reason for that. What happens in the unions and the Labour Party matters.

Oliver Woods describes with some feeling the harsh treatment which was meted out to him and his comrades at the Princes Street Branch of the Labour Party – comparing it to the treachery of my own Castle Street Branch in the 1980s. All true, Oliver, but predictable as well, because some of the most influential Labour Party politicians of the past forty years have come out of those branches. You should never be surprised by the ferocity with which the designated gate-keepers guard the entrances to genuine political power. Learning how to get past them is an indispensable part of the process of becoming politically effective.

Steve Cowan, by way of contrast, regards this process as one in which people like myself are required to place themselves in an insoluble contradiction. On the one hand we want to be effective progressives, but, on the other, we want to be supporters of the Labour Party. You can be one or the other, says Steve, but you can’t be both. From my perspective, however, the most debilitating contradiction afflicting the contemporary New Zealand Left is the one which sees activists desperately trying to become politically effective while, simultaneously, refusing to make the ideological and moral compromises political effectiveness inevitably entails. To paraphrase Steve, you can do one, or you can do the other, but you can’t do both.

This lack of political realism is even more evident in the Workers’ Party’s commentary. Don Franks seems to believe that Labour’s failure to correct all the evils and injustices of 21st Century capitalism is driven by a combination of old-fashioned political treachery and unforgivable moral cowardice.

If the capitalist system were a static and non-responsive entity such a charge might carry conviction, but, as every sensible socialist understands, capitalism is one of humanity’s most dynamic, adaptive and ruthlessly responsive creations.

To satisfy Don, Labour would have to have launched a full-scale assault upon the neo-liberal edifice erected by Roger Douglas and Ruth Richardson in the late-1980s and early-1990s. But such a strategy, as he well knows, would have been tantamount to sounding the revolutionary tocsin - and at a moment in their history when all that New Zealanders wanted from their government was a respite from sudden and wrenching social and economic change.

Those parts of the capitalist system materially unaffected by a political party's temporary command of a parliamentary majority – the Armed Forces, the Police, the Judiciary, the Civil Service, employer organisations and the news media – would have made short work of such a foolhardy challenge.

Ultimately, all Don and the Workers’ Party seem able to offer the Left is the counsel of perfection – both for political parties and individuals. Don’s quite unnecessarily disparaging and inaccurate comments in regard to myself offer the best proof I can think of why artists should never attempt to become politicians. Don Franks the singer-songwriter, whose lyrics sparkle with wit and insight, delivers much more in the way of political wisdom to the Left than Don Franks the dour and unforgiving Maoist of the blogosphere and letters-to-the-editor columns.

The picture which emerges at the conclusion of this very interesting debate is at once depressing and encouraging. Depressing, because so much intellect and energy is being wasted on left-wing political projects that will, in the end, be extremely lucky to leave the slightest mark upon New Zealand history. Encouraging, because so much political talent still exists in this country. Directed towards achievable ends, that talent could make a real and lasting difference.

If, instead of by turns praising and lambasting one another in the splendid isolation of the blogosphere, or at conferences attended by nobody apart from the usual suspects, the revolutionary "philosophers" of the Left were willing, for just three years, to put to one side their fiery principles, and devote the many and considerable skills they undoubtedly possess to developing a much higher degree of emotional congruence between the leadership and the rank-and-file of the New Zealand labour movement, they might be surprised at how much of the world they could change.

As a wise old social-democratic parliamentarian from Switzerland told me at the Otago Foreign Policy School in May of this year:

"The democracy is in the discussion."


Anonymous said...

nice post

Anonymous said...

United we stand. Great post

Anonymous said...

Don can play guitar, has some great songs and his book is pretty good too.

Anonymous said...

LABOUR : "All your base are belong to us."

Anonymous said...

Very thoughtful, Chris. I will join this debate tonight or tomorrow on my blog.

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Unknown said...

Nice debate a motivational one