Monday 14 December 2009

Who's Left?

Who's Left? Phil Goff poses before the biker rally against ACC levy increases. Over the past fortnight, the identity and efficacy of the New Zealand Left has become the subject of a fruitful on-line debate.

PHIL GOFF will head-off this week for a well-earned summer-break. He departs for his Clevedon life-style block with the mixed messages of the 3 News Poll ringing in his ears, and the burden of composing January’s "State of the Nation" speech weighing heavily on his mind.

As he contemplates the best possible theme for that scene-setting New Year address, Phil will be turning over in his mind the same questions that every thoughtful person to the left of the National Party has been asking themselves this past fortnight:

What is "The Left" in 2010? And: How can "The Left" become more effective?

Kiwipolitico’s "Pablo" has posted an interesting response to these questions. Having dismissed the Labour Party as "no longer a genuine Left party", he constructs a rough template for how those parties and movements to the left of Labour might operate as an effective political bloc. In essence, his template calls for the Left to divide itself into a "political" branch and a "social movement" branch, and that these two branches should further separate themselves into "moderate" and "militant" wings.

"The political branch would encompass Left/progressive political parties such as the Greens and the Alliance as well as fringe parties willing to cooperate in a common venture such as the Communists, Socialist Workers and the like."

I do not believe we need go any further than this suggestion to recognise the sheer impracticality of Pablo’s suggestions. For a start, the Greens would want no part of such an unwieldy alliance. (Once bitten, twice shy!) And besides, the whole political thrust of the Greens since the 2008 General Election has been towards the political centre. A party that rejected Sue Bradford is hardly likely to tie itself to "the Communists, Socialist Workers and the like".

The other problem with Pablo’s proffered solution to the Left’s palpable weakness is that none of the Marxist parties, and hardly any of the now not-so-new social movements carry very much in the way of political "heft".

Back in the days of the USSR, the Socialist Unity Party’s 500+ membership (most of it strategically located in the trade union movement) carried with it the unmistakable chill of Moscow. As such, it was a force to be reckoned with. Moscow funded the party newspaper. Moscow trained and indoctrinated the SUP’s leading cadres. And Moscow’s international propaganda apparatus supplied the party with its talking points and kept it resolutely "on message". Mutatis mutandis, the same could be said for those parties drawing their inspiration from the Chinese, the Cubans, the Albanians, and whatever faction of the Trotskyist "Fourth International" was currently in vogue in these shaky isles.

The sudden collapse of "actually existing socialism" in Russia and Eastern Europe cast its New Zealand representatives adrift without a compass. Deprived of their international sponsors, the various parties’ tiny membership bases were incapable of supporting an organisational infrastructure sophisticated enough to confer political relevance. Nor were the Marxist groups capable of furnishing the wider Left with a figure of sufficient ideological skill or political charisma to carry the Marxist message into the political mainstream. In the 20 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall this situation has only gotten worse. The parties and organisations of the Marxist Left have become a row of empty seed-pods, mournfully rattling in the dry neoliberal wind.

The so-called "New Social Movements" have fared little better. Essentially, the movements promoting Feminism, Gay Rights and Environmentalism represented the "unfinished business" of modern bourgeois reformism – which, in the guise of "Progressivism" (and in order to forestall a bloody revolution) had interposed itself between the capitalist "Robber Barons" and the rapidly-growing socialist movements of the late-19th and early-20th Centuries.

Unfortunately, like all reform movements, the mass campaigns for the emancipation of women, gays and lesbians did not long survive the moments when their legislative shackles were struck off. And, in the years that followed, those bold enough to look couldn’t help but notice that the people who had won the most out of these last, great reforms of bourgeois liberalism were – surprise, surprise – the liberal bourgeoisie.

Environmentalism has always drawn its political power from the cultural legacy of the Romantic Movement of the early-19th Century. The transformation of Nature: from something to be feared and conquered, to the moral and spiritual regenerator of a human species marooned among the "dark satanic mills" of capitalism and scientific rationality; is what lies at the heart of nearly all First World social movements to conserve the natural environment. Even today, when science has turned upon its capitalist master, its is the redemptive aspects of environmentalism which generate the largest part of its political energy.

The quest for redemption remains a constant feature of bourgeois radical reform movements. Once a revolutionary social force, the bourgeoisie abandoned the poor and the dispossessed the moment its own political ambitions were fulfilled. Worse still, when the lower orders – taking as their text the bourgeois gospel of liberty, equality, fraternity – attempted to extend the blessings of democracy downwards, the bourgeoisie slaughtered them in their thousands. It is this terrible legacy of bad faith and betrayal that bourgeois radical reformers have striven to expunge. From the Romantic Poets to the reformist Greens, the demand has always been for the bourgeoisie to live up to its own ideals.

In no other aspect of modern New Zealand life is the radical bourgeois quest for redemption made more manifest than in its embrace of the Maori nationalist struggle for tino rangatiratanga.

The Treaty of Waitangi, in which Christian abolitionism, with its slogan "Am I not a man and a brother?" combined with romantic notions of "the noble savage" to produce the politically explosive concept of "Maori sovereignty", has become the key talisman of this redemptive project. It has fatally masked the true character of New Zealand’s colonial history, which is unique only to the extent of its indigenous people’s recovery from the "fatal impact" of European settlement. Not surprisingly, elite Maori have seized upon this politically privileged need of Pakeha middle-class radicals to be forgiven for the sins of their colonial fathers, to reclaim as much of their patrimony as possible. But, it is a dangerous game they play. The New Zealand State was founded, first and foremost, on the strength of the colonists’ racial solidarity. If left with no other choices, it will be defended by the same.

Pablo’s "Left" turns out, therefore, to be a will-o-the-wisp. The rattling husks of the old Marxist parties offer no way forward, while the ageing social movements, the Greens, and the supporters of tino rangatiratanga stand revealed as the rebellious offspring of a bourgeois liberal project mired in bad faith, betrayal and greedy self-interest.

Poor material out of which to fashion a revolution, if I may make so bold.

Which brings us to that other party – the one Pablo condemns for no longer being a "genuine Left party".

In Labour, all of the above tendencies have found a political refuge (not least bourgeois bad-faith and betrayal). But these tendencies do not have the party all to themselves. Alongside the bourgeois radical reformers, the environmentalists and the Maori Sovereigntists are a substantial – indeed still a majority – of solid working-class Maori and Pakeha New Zealanders. And Labour is the only mass political party in this country that can still make such a boast.

Which is why, on this occasion, I must concur with Kiwipolitico "Lew’s" response to Pablo’s posting: "I think the major thrust of activity should be toward reforming the Labour Party as the core of the moderate political wing of the movement. How possible that may be is a very open question."

And the subject of a future posting.


Olwyn said...

I went to hear Michael Cullen speak at Mt Roskill a couple of weeks ago, and his thesis seemed to be that it was necessary for Labour to move toward the centre in order to be electable - he said that this was as true of the 1935 party as of the party in its present form. At the same time, he semed to endorse the idea of a party to the left of Labour under MMP, such as the Alliance were before they imploded. I guess the Alliance was in part fuelled by the rage induced by the nineties, which no longer maintains the same force. If something else were to emerge from the ashes, Unite looks the most capable of building a political momentum.

Anonymous said...

Gays and lesbians are still shackled you twit. They're not allowed to get married.

Pablo said...

Thanks Chris, for the critique. The post was designed to be food for thought rather than an absolute template, but I still think that the idea of trying to establish some common ground between the political Left and the social movement progressive/Left is worth considering in spite of the flaws that you outline in my argument. I am not, however, as sanguine as you about Labour continuing to be the flagship political representative of Left/progressives, simply because I do not think that it can be until it distinctly separates itself from the market-driven model and offers a genuine social democratic alternative. I do not see that happening anytime soon.

I do agree that Left/progressive disunity and parochialism (to say nothing of ideological diffusion) continue to relegate it to the sidelines of NZ political discourse. That, again, was a motive for the post.

Anonymous said...

"The parties and organisations of the Marxist Left have become a row of empty seed-pods, mournfully rattling in the dry neoliberal wind."
Gee, quite poetic there. If a little ungenerous and over hastily dismissive.
Like the man said, the answer is blowing in the wind.

Anonymous said...

The SUP numbered 400 tops, not 500. Their unappetising paper mostly piled up in union officies, unread. For two or three years SUP leading lights got a few pro soviet resolutions passed at FoL conferences- to what practical effect? The SUP mostly stayed out of the radical movement, because they were not radical. They shaped the direction of union officialdom for a while, both for good and ill, mostly ill. Like Muldoon, you inflate the real weight of the SUP.

Tiger Mountain said...

“Smouldering embers” I would suggest Chris, as a substitute for your ‘husk’ label of the small NZ hard left sects. They unarguably have a low organizational capacity at present. The social democratic (LP) “holy grail” of somehow arranging class peace, getting bosses to behave “reasonably” likewise remains beyond reach at this time.

Disproportionate emphasis on international matters has generally been implicated in difficulties for NZ communists most significantly the 50s/60s Sino Soviet schism. Left social democrats too. The Alliance, which had helped produce useful pro working class reforms, effectively squandered it’s parliamentary influence over Afghanistan deployments.*1 As a pleasantly dogmatic leftist, I know there is no getting around the fact that the current NZ marxist groups are the offspring of splits of splits, ideological DNA diluted, one ideologue or several minors maybe at the helm of each if they are lucky. Several veteran CPNZ members told me they felt the ‘rot’, in terms of a seriously skewed relationship between specific New Zealand and international revolutionary requirements, set in around the late 50s at certain party educational forums. Documents from which, I have sighted. The usefulness of the Marxist Leninist analysis is undimmed as hundreds of writers worldwide confirm daily. Just when socialism is declared moribund for the thousandth time some indigenous Maoist led struggle flares up, May Day gets celebrated in obscure locations, and the red flag comes out even on Queen Street. Wish away the socialist consciousness which exists if you want to.

Pablos’s previous illumination on the ‘atomization’ of communities into groups of competing, unorganised individuals, has relevance here. The subjective societal factor has long been the bane of the Marxists and social democrats. Many people are so plugged into the ‘matrix’ via finance capital-jobs, mortgages, credit, and commodity fever, that the underlying private ownership structure of society lies unobserved or unquestioned.

Capitalism in general terms has massively failed in many terms bar those of money bags and exploiters personal gains. As for ‘general progress’ I maintain science and technology, funding not withstanding, tends to proceed somewhat regardless of prevailing political superstructures. Capitalism has failed to feed millions, failed to protect our only planet and needs to be ended. Tipping points will continue to occur with rapidity. Bourgeois strategists had to use taxpayers dough to bail out the major capitalist economies over the last two years.

So why have the socialists not achieved ascendancy in the political ‘market place’ as KiwiPolitico’s Lew might contend? Why do not Maori nationalists run this country? Well because of the objective strength of the class forces opposed. Standing armies, enforcement of property rights (violently if required) interlocked systems of education, religion, surveillance and mass media tilt the playing field to cliff like angles (at this time).

My caveat to the Marxists is sort out your attitude to reforms as opposed to reformism. This issue is primary to advancing hard left progress. The Marxists have to give qualified support to the social democrats not stand off or proclaim them the main enemy. Work with and struggle against.

*1: knowledgeable comments on why Laila Harre never delivered J. Andertons bugger off letter to the speaker would still be of interest.

Skyler said...

You may be interested in some of the discussion over on this blog post: