Thursday, 18 December 2008

You Say You Want A Revolution?

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-Sch├╝tzendivision 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.


Anonymous said...

Being on the far left let me give you my rambling reply. Have you ever heard of the new mandarins? What you quote from Lenin as characteristic of his attitude could easily apply to todays so-called "left wing" politicians. George Orwell would have called labour "right wing socialists". There is much more to the left of social democrats than marxism-leninism. I shouldn't even need to point this out to you. Marxism is simply one strand. The other major strand being libertarian socialism. Libertarian socialism and Marxism have much more in common than people may think, whereas bolshevism has much more in common with state capitalism than you may think.
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?
Maybe that's what the bolsheviks who perverted popular sentiment to their own ends believed, but that's not what most on the left, by which I mean left of social democrats think today. On the contrary they rally against it. They see that as characteristic of liberal politics of today, with their new mandarins and technocrats. How many former university lecturers and academics in Labour? and how many workers? Have a read of Chomsky. He's influenced my political thinking greatly.

I like Chomsky and jut about every one else on the left support reform. That's why I voted for Labour. To make the lot of the working man better. But I unlike you want to believe in a little more than state captialism. I want a true democracy, a worker's democracy, a free egalitarian society. An absolute impossibility under captialism.

Anonymous said...

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.

You sure about that part? Turnout was low in typical Labour strongholds, and recent studies have shown no strong preference for Labour amongst working class voters. Partly it helps that they're no longer a mass-membership party.

You seem to be discussing a conflict between the ghost of Old Labour and the ghost of the USSR.

Anonymous said...

Lovely, Chris. As always, stimulating, provocative, and eloquent.

If I may express but two long-standing personal observations elicited by your column:

One: the seminal bane of repressed peoples is internal division.

From the very Trotter/Edwards/Alliance-Labour/historical examples you provide above, to the kuia who this very day begged me to suggest a "white person" for their organisation's treasurer, (not to mention for a second the category of prime significance over the past 30 years; viz. gender), INFIGHTING, more than any other factor, explains why today we puzzle at the extraordinary aspect of a totally inappropriate and immature ingenue at the the helm of this formerly world-leading, progressive nation. True class-consciousness is yet to be achieved - but the signs are promising.

Two: Progression accelerates apace.
If "fire at will" is the worst they dare, then Key and "Labour-lite" are but specks in the historical dust. The Free Market is dying before our very eyes - while it's cheerleaders continue to sow the seeds of their own puppeteers' destruction. Broadband for all? Bring it on, whitebread: release the public's political consciousness from the tiny coterie of journalistic mercenaries who now dominate, and reap the whirlwind.

Joseph said...

Anonymous said...

The attitude to reformism usually defines the trajectory of a “far left” party. ‘Work with and struggle against’ is one truism, ‘always proceed from the facts’ another, alluding to the dialectical method that should by employed by any genuine Marxist Leninist. There is a constant readjustment required to get the right balance between regular support for social democracy in its parliamentary form (lesser evil thesis) versus focusing only on the underlying class collaborationist philosophy of the NZ Labour Party (class traitors, avoid!). Dialectical materialist methods need to be employed to usefully compare say the the 1999 Labour party with the 1987 version.
An underlying “all class” philosophy that benefits the corporates is present in both iterations but significant differences exist. Roger Douglas LP steamrollered ‘old New Zealand’ while Helen Clarks recent version delivered some useful reforms for sizeable numbers of some sections of the population.

The NZ Labour party will likely be supported by numbers of workers over the years to come, and most LP members will not entertain for a moment that they are all sellouts and wasting their time. If social democracy is delivering desirable gains as workers see it, the far left is not going to score too many brownie points by pointing out the class collaborationist nature of the Labour Party. The Marxists are correct of course, but is this a helpful tactic–almost castigating the working class for their lack of political understanding?

It is fundamentally frustrating for many people of a Marxist world view to have the answer to the horror that is capitalism but have that revolutionary implementation always just out of reach due to capitalisms resilience and firepower. It is easy to claim the main enemy to be social democracy when it is surely capitalism and major power imperialism.

The social democrats like to think they achieve things in the here and now and dismiss the communists (who they know in their hearts are right) as self righteous dreamers. It just takes an Employment Contracts Act and a wobbly union leadership to set back organized labour for generations. Reforms under capitalism always have to be defended. The NZCTU is currently up shit creek as they have had nine years of meetings and now need to get out and help organise workers. So a struggle based approach is needed–where does this scenario come from? Well from the communists actually.

I have seen a lot in my just over 50 years, was lucky enough to meet and work with many outstanding communists, members of the original pre 1960s CPNZ, members of the 1951 lockout committee, international brigade etc. The best of these people were unshakeable in their commitment to socialism that they knew was unlikely to occur in their lifetime. Incidentally, in the 1940s the CPNZ stood candidates in Auckland council elections that received tens of thousands of votes, but GH Andersen never did too well in Tamaki against RD Muldoon.

Todays crop of socialist party’s and ‘far left’ groups are in the majority smallish sects that have arisen from splits of splits or newer outfits run by well meaning beginners.
This Chris however should not cause you to write off the Marxist Leninists just yet.
The ideas and methodology are too powerful and useful to the working class, time and again all over the world us pesky Marxists keep surfacing, Peru, Mexico Nepal etc. etc.

Chris Trotter said...

I would never write-off the insights of Karl Marx, Relic, without his analytical power socialists would find it next to impossible to gain the required critical perspective on the capitalist world they inhabit.

I would also heartily endorse the importance you attach to the dialectical method. It is the "synthesis" which should be the focus of our current thinking: what will emerge from the present clash of social forces, and how can we best shape its nature?

You are right, too, in pointing to the hey-day of communist influence in the mid- to late-1940s. This was, of course, the period of the "United Front" - born out of the disastrous miscalculations of the Comintern during the 1920s and early 1930s, which saw the primary focus of communist agitation and propaganda directed at the "social fascists" in the world's social-democratic parties, rather than at the most deadly enemies of the working-class, the real fascists.

It was when the international communist movement swung in behind the progressive and social-democratic movements in the USA, France, and elsewhere, that the balance of social and economic power swung decisively against the Right.

In the context of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, I find it particularly depressing to hear talk of union leaders attacking the Labour Party, and young comrades calling for the creation of a rival political party to Labour's left. Unity, not division, should be the watchword in the current climate, and yet we hear a chorus of revolutionary leftists berating the party overwhelmingly supported by working people as "right-wing" and "anti-worker".

By all means let these (to paraphrase Lenin)disordered infants organise themselves seperately - if the thought of rubbing shoulders with genuine proletarians in the Labour Party is too horrifying to contemplate. But I would implore them not to confuse, mis-direct and antagonise the NZ working-class by pouring scorn on the political institution to which, overwhelmingly, it has given its electoral support.

Anonymous said...

From a centrist point of view, Chris's cynical propaganda in portraying the Labour party as centre-Left post-election is absolutely breathtaking.

We know from nine cold, long years that Labour is a hard-Left front party for the Trotskyite extremists. Is a little manufactured "disagreement" between the factions really going to convince the electorate otherwise?