Sunday 19 July 2009

Nineteenth century history? - The hell with you, Phil!

Continue the journey; maintain the challenge: Phil Goff doesn't seem to understand that capitalism, unmodified by the ameliorating reforms of a politically organised working class, can only end in deepening social injustice and rule by a wealthy elite.

LISTENING to Radio New Zealand-National’s "Focus on Politics" yesterday evening, I was incensed and depressed, but I can’t honestly say surprised, to hear Phil Goff dismiss Labour’s founding objective – "the socialisation of the means of production, distribution and exchange" as "nineteenth century history."

It got worse, with Phil adding ideological insult to historical injury by declaring that the modern Labour Party believed "a well-functioning market system is the most effective and efficient way of organising an economy". Yes, he was willing to "recognise market failure", but only to the extent of ensuring "an adequate level of regulation".

As the indignant hum of Mickey Savage spinning in his grave grew louder, Phil then proceeded to define Labour’s twenty-first century mission as being all about "how you make a modern capitalist system work more effectively, and work in favour of all of the citizens of a country – and not just the chosen few, the elite at the top."

Now, as a proud social-democrat, I have happily worn the opprobrium heaped upon me by revolutionary socialists for echoing Eduard Bernstein’s contention that, when in comes to the construction of a socialist society "the journey is everything, the destination nothing". Or, in other words, social-democracy has always been, for me, a work in progress: one that requires of its adherents a constant struggle against the ideological defenders of capitalism – in all their institutional guises.

But even a social-democratic reformist like me has to draw the line at Phil’s gross mis-characterisation of the Labour Party’s historical mission.

Let’s begin with his glib dismissal of the "socialisation of the means of production, distribution and exchange" as "nineteenth century history".

It was, in fact, only at the Labour Party conference of June 1951 that the socialisation clause was deleted from Labour’s aims and objectives. This was, of course, during the infamous 1951 Waterfront Lockout, when state-sponsored red-baiting was at its peak. As Bill Sutch notes in The Quest for Security, it was an "expedient" decision, intended to distance Labour from the locked-out Watersiders and their allies. But it was also a disreputable and cowardly decision which, as things turned out, offered Labour scant protection from the rhetorical assaults of its political enemies.

The dropping of the socialisation clause did not, however, mean that the Labour Party constitution was purged of any and all references to its socialist beliefs and objectives. Even today, the Party’s constitution declares, as one of its foundation principles: "Co-operation, rather than competition, should be the main governing factor in economic relations, in order that a just distribution of wealth can be ensured." And among its objectives one can still read of Labour’s determination: "To ensure the just distribution of the production and services of the nation for the benefit of all the people.", and "To educate the public in the principles and objectives of democratic socialism and economic and social co-operation."

While these principles and objectives remain firmly enshrined in the Labour Party Constitution, it ill-behoves its leader to tell Radio New Zealand-National’s political editor, Brent Edwards, that they amount to nothing more than "nineteenth century history".

I would also take issue with Phil’s description of contemporary capitalism as "the most effective and efficient way of organising an economy". Leaving aside the recent massive failures of capitalist institutions in North America and Europe, it is extremely difficult to see anything remotely "effective" or "efficient" about an economic system which constantly drives millions of human-beings into both relative and absolute poverty; contributes massively to social and racial polarisation across the globe; trashes the planet’s fragile ecology, and brings closer with every passing day the prospect of catastrophic climate change.

That Phil apparently believes it is possible to make such a system "work more effectively [for] all the citizens of a country and not just the chosen few – the elites at the top" tells me that he fundamentally misunderstands the market system he claims to support.

A capitalist economy, unmodified by the ameliorating reforms of a politically organised working class, will always fail to deliver for the overwhelming majority of the population. That’s because capitalism is intended to advantage the few at the expense of the many, and can only lead to the political domination of society by "elites at the top".

To guarantee that the economy works more effectively for the majority, it is necessary to challenge the idea that private ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange leads to a fair and equitable society. It has been Labour’s historical mission to lead that challenge, and to play a decisive role in the struggle against capitalist ideology.

The history of the past century has made me extremely wary of mounting that challenge primarily by the application of political violence and repression. My preference is for the principled and peaceful promotion of social-democratic ideas throughout the population – for making socialists of conviction rather than socialists by compulsion. Certainly, that means the journey will be slow, and there will be occasional reverses, but it most emphatically does not mean that we can ever afford to give up the challenge; put an end to the journey.

If it is your view, Phil, that the quest for democratic socialism should be dismissed as something belonging to "nineteenth century history", then I say: "The hell with you!"

And, to the members of the NZ Labour Party I say: "Find yourselves a new leader." 


lurgee said...

Welcome to the best party in town, Chris. The disillusioned, scorned left - we might be marginal, disinherited and riven with factional squabbling (Bernstein? Burn the heretic! "The final goal of socialism constitutes the only decisive factor distingushing the social-democratic movement from bourgeois democracy and bourgeois radicalism..."). But we do know how to party.

You're a little late, but don't worry, the bar is well stocked with tears and gall. If you're hungry, you can eat some of your words, or swallow a piece of humble pie. Oh, you're not hungry? You swallowed your pride on the way in ... don't worry, no-one here has much of an appetite, really, we've all had a gutsful of Labour mendacity already.

Pdogge said...

I have long had problems with Goff and thank you for letting me know where he believes Labour is in it's beliefs. I wish I had heard the broadcast and thanks for your reporting. I think it is time to go for me. Long have my wife and I been troubled by Goff's attitude to crime and punishment and have quietly accepted his more conservative views. We are a broad church and tolerant.For me, market forces, invisible hand crap, are well proven mythology used to paint the selfish "me first's" of the world a better colour and are far away from the peace , justice and fairness that co-operation and social deomocratic ways can bring.Very sad stuff to hear from Goff and thanks again for your essay.

Nick said...

Chris, as one of the members who voted with their feet in the 80's your post is a timely reminder that Labour was never freed of the taint of Douglas and his acolytes. Goffs comments remind us that what was the party of the workers is now a mongrel feeding from the bowl of the bosses. As for Goff, his attempts to mimic Blair and his third way clownery is laughable. Labour will not win back its core support by being a shade of pink.

Anonymous said...

Sign me up too. After all Hels' hard, crow-eating grind to undo the 4th Lab damage and cement-in her considerable (albeit largely unsung) gains, the last thing that is going to forge further progress (or more importantly inspire voters of any hue) is a somewhat shop-soiled and timeworn Key-Lite.
Now's the time to do it: leave it till later and suffer the fate of the Alliance. Time to step up Phil: your career or your original motivations.

Adolf Fiinkensein said...

You know,Mr Trotter, I can almost hear the north country accents in this comments thread.

The industrial revolution had gone, chaps. The proletariat now owns the means of production. You blokes are fucked but you don't know it.

Chris Trotter said...

I'd be intrigued to learn, Mr F., how the global proletariat miraculously came to acquire ownership of the means of production.

Did my friends from the North and I miss the international uprising of the world's workers?

Or, are you going to tell me and my cloth-capped comrades that all those (now largely worthless) 401Ks US workers foolishly put their life's savings into somehow constitutes "ownership"?


Anonymous said...

Not global, but as an example Australian workers are on track to own $1 trillion worth of institutional capital by 2010 because of their super scheme. Is the dividing line in politics between workers who make things and bosses who own capital, or is the line is now between workers who own things and people who control things?


Bill Ralston said...

Nice post Chris but I still wonder in what way Goff differs in outlook from Helen, Mike Moore, Geoffrey Palmer, David Lange, Bill Rowling or even Norman Kirk in regard to the vexed "socialization" argument?
Even if you go back to Fraser and Nash post War it is plain they had become by that stage, at best, mild Social Democrats - streets removed from the socialist roots of Labour in first half of the 20th Century.
I cant see anyone in the Labour caucus to replace Phil who would remotely resemble the leader of the kind of party you would want.

Chris Trotter said...

To Bill,

I think you'll find that, in the case of Kirk, the social-democratic flame still burned brightly, as it did (though with less intensity) in Rowling and (very wanly) in Clark and Cullen. But, in the case of Lange, Palmer, Moore, and now it would seem, Goff, it is indeed extremely hard to detect the presence of a flame at all.

It is, however, very important to draw a clear distinction in this discussion between the expression "socialisation" and the related concept of "nationalisation". The former embraces long-standing success-stories like the Mondragon co-operative enterprises in Spain. The international experience of nationalised industries, by contrast, is a much less happy one.

And this brings us to the point that Conor raises re: the Australian Super Scheme.

If that scheme was run by a board made up of genuine representatives of the worker investors, who got to decide in what industries, and under what terms and conditions, their funds were invested, well then I suppose you could make out a case for worker ownership and control. If, however, the fund is actually distributed among scores of privately-owned and run investment institutions (as is the case here) and the only power workers exercise is the power of one-dollar/one vote, then I fail to see any real distinction between the Aussie fund and all the other kinds of capitalist investment vehicles - such as banks and insurance companies.

Are there MPs in Labour's caucus who are ready to stand up and start openly debating these ideas? People willing to challenge the neo-liberals of the Rogernomics Era? Well, Bill, we shall see.

If it turns out that there are, then there is definitely hope for a new direction under new leadership.

If not, then I really don't think Labour has much of a future at all.

Unknown said...

You are quit right Chris, Labour doesn't have a future right now under the present leadership. There is a big dark hole at the centre of the Labour party and seemingly there is no individual in Labour willing to lead. Labour has become a factional party filled with time-servers, time-wasters, the never-could-be and the never-will-be.

It strikes me that Socialism has put more people into poverty, has been spectaculary inefficient in economic matters, has casued more ecological damage and eh the root cause of racial and social polarisation.

Whatever Phil Goff's problems are{uncountable as of today] I'm sure that harking back to your 19th century socialism is the last thing he ought to do.

Chris Trotter said...

Well, Kathryn, I suppose it all depends on what you mean by "socialism".

If you are referring to the totalitarian political, economic and social system which prevailed in the USSR from the mid-1920s until the mid-1980s (and in its Eastern European satellites until 1989) then I'd agree with you.

If, however, you are referring to the social-democratic economic and social settlement which prevailed in North America, Western Europe and Australasia from the end of World War II until the mid- to late-1970s, then I would strongly disagree.

All the evidence points to that 30-year period being one of unprecedented social and economic uplift for ordinary working people - blossoming in the 1960s into a dramatic period of racial and sexual emanicipation unequaled in the entire history of the West.

The widespread adoption of the ecological paradigm also dates from this period.

So, from the point of view of politics, economics, emanicipatory social and cultural change, and of our understanding of the natural environment, I'd have to say that social-democracy has been the most successful political ideology of the past 150 years.

lenny said...


Your adolescent rant reminds me of Don Franks
and other Workers Party fools. One expects Tame Iti to be stuck in the nineteenth century; but a higher standard from a prominent, professional commentator. I am embarrased for you.

lenny said...


I remember how you used to say Bill Clinton and
George Bush were the same. Have you learnt nothing?

Your tantrum is a flea bite on Phil Goff's record in Helen's strong social-democrat government.

Chris Trotter said...

I would ask you to provide some evidence for the Bill Clinton = George Bush accusation, Lenny. Doesn't sound like something I would say.

As for the comparison with Don Franks: I'm not sure who has the right to feel more insulted - me or Don.

Argument ad hominem, as I have said before, is not a legitimate form of debate - at least not on this site. Be guided by the tone and content of other commentators' contributions, Lenny, if you want to remain part of the Bowalley Road discourse.

Chris Trotter said...

Note to Lolol:

If you want to participate in Bowalley Road debates, grow up and learn some manners.

lurgee said...

[b][i]Your tantrum is a flea bite on Phil Goff's record in Helen's strong social-democrat government.[/b][/i]

I'm not sure what this means, and even if I did know, I'd be unsure how much irony to discern.

Joseph said...

Good one Chris. Phil Goff's a waste of space- under his tutelage, the Labour party has gone from wounded beast licking its wounds to invisible mythical beast once rumoured to be relevant. Even the election of David Dreary here in Mt Albert did little to revive any fighting spirit.

I know you're hoping for some Left wing champion to emerge from the ranks and save the day, but I can't see it happening in a long time. The acceptance of neo-liberal market economics is at the core of the LP's leadership, no matter what faction you look at.

lenny said...


Though there were constraints (like our utterly partisan media), overall Clark-Cullen-Goff provided us with strong social-democratic government.

Criticise's Goff's last nine years if you like, but I am embarassed to see you align yourself with the Franksian far-left. Look how many votes RAM/Workers Party got.

I agree BR shouldn't descend to the Kiwiblog sewer, but a bit of colourful, lively rhetoric is
why we debate politics, right? Exhibit A: your headline "The hell with you, Phil".

Robert Winter said...

We all understand that the Clark governments involved coalitions of tendencies within the Labour Party. Factions or tendencies always exist; in this case, they reflected in the main the tribulations of the 80s and the reform process. Thus, what, for example, I seek within the Labour Party - a clear social democratic ideology and practice, which is socialist - had to accommodate itself with a centrist tradition in the parliamentary party. An example was the Labour portfolio, in which Margaret Wilson came to experience something verging hatred on the part of some employers, and distrust by her centrist colleagues. Paul Swain provided a centrist re-orientation of the portfolio - an accommodation struck in the internal politics of government. At that point, the glass of judgement is either half full or half empty. They did better (or worse) than was possible under the circumstances. I am in the former camp, as I think that the economic transformation, inclusion and national idenity rubric makes great sense for many reasons. That said, there is a profound need for the Labour Party to articulate a clear social democratic alternative, which in turn requires the Party to begin a serious inetrnal (and external) discussion about its future. That's the bit that worries me - I'm getting little sense of the discussion emerging and I see few of the Party leadership willing to move beyond their current safe zone. Red Alert may become a catalyst, for example, but it requires something more substantial to underpin it. A further worry is the size of rhe Party membership and the existence (or not) of critical masses in the different policy areas able to sustain serious, informed debate.

Olwyn said...

JK Galbraith describes history rather than ideology,as the truly relevant source of change. In the light of this, I do not think that Helen Clark and Michael Cullen were as wan as you claim. What they set out to do, I think, was to turn us into a saving rather than borrowing nation, with multiple trade options, so as to render good social choices possible. The advice to cut taxes and build more prisons tends to come largely from bankers to whom we owe money, and who will not lend us more if we disobey. That said, I do despair that the working class voice is virtually absent from public debate, which is these days analogous to two middleclass voices arguing over the lunch menu; orzo with pesto or meat pie. The smacking debate is but one example of this.

Anonymous said...

I think Clark, Cullen and Goff did a great job for NZ. I think Goff is a good leader.

RMJ ME35 said...

You have no idea how ironic and what a volte face Goff's new outlook is.

Circa 1972 Fab Phil was my workmate at the Westfield Freezing Co at Westfield and we sat at the same table in the smoko room. He was a socialist then, that is he held the view all workers should receive the same wages but thise doing really onerous or dirty jobs shouls have to work fewer hours. And he on more than 1 occassion cut out articles from the Herald that were demonstrative of the fact Granny Herald was a tool of the capitalsit system he decried.

I do not recognise Goff now, I have never understood why he did not decamp to ACT with Douglas and wonder why he has to live on his acreage up Kimptons Rd at Red Hill and not in ROSKILL WITH THE WORKERS.

The man is an imposter and has no core belief that relates in any way to workers, and epitomises to me the old saying" the working class can kiss my a---, I have got the bosses job at last."

Labour are doomed if he is the best that can be put up - Tory lite I suppose.

Anonymous said...


It is clear that socialism as you seem to portray it is a 19th-century doctrine that most have moved on from. It is also clear that most people have moved on from the pure market doctrine. The issue to me is what degree of socialism/capitalism we are talking about. I see a continuum from pure market doctrine to pure socialism and all we are arguing about is where in this continuum we feel New Zealand should sit.

Having lived in Sweden for some years it is absolutely clear that “extreme” socialism is not where I (and most New Zealanders) would want to see New Zealand go. I can understand the Swedish model from their history of feudalism and extreme poverty, hardship and starvation – none which we have experienced here in New Zealand.

If you or some parts of the Labour party think that New Zealand would be a better place under extreme socialism, I strongly suggest you spend some time in Sweden/Denmark and see for yourself how it really works for the people. All they have done is replaced giving their freedom and wealth to a feudal system with giving their freedom and wealth to a bloated Government system.


Chris Trotter said...

Well, Simon, to give feudalism its due, that was rather the point, wasn't it?

You place yourself under the protection of a group of armed men, and, in return for the security they provide, you and your neighbours turn over the local agricultural surplus to them.

So long as the lord and his men keep their side of the bargain, the weaponless tiller of the soil is probably ahead of the game - at least in a medieval context.

Nowadays, the welfare state has taken the place of the feudal lord, and our taxes have replaced the cartloads of grain sent up to the castle.

The distinguishing feature of the contemporary arrangement, of course, is that, unlike the medieval peasant, the modern citizen enjoys an array of human rights, and has the power to elect (and un-elect) his lords and masters.

The freedom to starve under laissez-faire capitalism hardly compares - does it?

Anonymous said...

Yes Chris, it was the point and again it's just a matter of degrees. The feudal masters took more than they needed leaving the peasants with little (or nothing) for all their hard work. The feudal masters didn’t want the masses getting too wealthy, then they wouldn’t be able to control them.

The same can be said for extreme socialist Governments (Sweden taxes its citizens upwards of 80%) who take more than they need and leave little for the working person (modern day peasant).

Your view of democracy is surprisingly pure as we both know that electing and un-electing our master isn't as straight forward as theory might suggest. Living in Sweden was like living under the shadow of a feudal master. The almighty Government controlled virtually all aspects of life and took virtually all our hard earned money. It’s just a modern day form of mass control.

Basically, it’s the same old story through the history of human civilisation and socialism is just another system in a long history of systems that is mostly about some humans believing that they are somehow ordained to control the lives of other humans.