No Fires Thanks, We're Kiwis: For the moment, in those close-to-home places where revolutions are born, there may be tetchiness and resentment, frustration and complaint, but nowhere is anybody uttering the cry that will bring a New Zealand revolution into being: “We have found the way to make tomorrow better than today!”
WHERE DO REVOLUTIONS begin? The answer, invariably, is “close to home”. Where demonstrable public need meets unresponsive public authority. Where collective outrage invites violent repression. Where injustice spawns indignation and indignation demands action. Where popular action generates governmental reaction. That’s where revolutions are born.
Once begun, what makes a revolution successful? It is tempting to respond with the purely historical observation that revolutions succeed where they are able to muster sufficient armed force to overwhelm those dedicated to their failure. People with guns allow revolutions to succeed. But is mere armed force enough? Surely, before people are willing to wage war on the Revolution’s behalf, they must first believe its objectives to be both desirable and achievable.
The need for guns, and the willingness to use them, almost always arises when the authorities announce their intention to thwart the people’s intentions. When real change, desperately needed, and now within the people’s grasp, is suddenly faced with the prospect of being halted and/or reversed by forces loyal to the status-quo. That is when people start looking for the means to preserve the imminence of change.
Historically, the people’s determination to preserve the imminence of change is soon extended to ensure the preservation of those who have made them believe that change is imminent. Fearing that the authorities are coming for their leaders, people typically resolve to impede their progress: peacefully if possible; by force if necessary. The leaders themselves, realising that the revolution’s failure will more than likely lead to their demise, are left with little choice but to keep pushing it forward as hard and as far as they can. The revolution’s survival, and their own, become welded together.
The French Revolution of 1789, for example, was kicked-off by the fear that the King’s troops were about to visit retribution upon the revolutionary crowds of Paris. The latter rushed to the Bastille, hated symbol of royal power, because they were convinced that within the fortress-prison’s walls they would find the muskets, cannons and gunpowder they needed to resist the King’s soldiers.
The storming of the Bastille, 14 July 1789.
In the Russian capital, Petrograd, in February-March 1917, the soldiers who had refused to fire on the crowds of women demanding bread for their starving families knew that the Czar would immediately dispatch troops to disarm and punish them as mutineers. If their revolt was not extended, then many of them would die. Accordingly, they reached out to radical left-wing politicians and to their working-class supporters in the factories. By joining forces with the political enemies of the hated Czarist regime, and offering them the protection of their rifles and machine-guns, they helped to turn what had started-out as a protest against bread shortages into a full-scale revolution.
But, the events in Petrograd unfolded more than a hundred years ago. Is there a plausible scenario for revolution in New Zealand in 2020? The short answer is “No.” Nothing has occurred for decades in New Zealand that matches in any way the cultural, intellectual, and political preparations that preceded the French and Russian revolutions.
In Eighteenth Century Europe, for example, the cultural supremacy of the Catholic Church and the political doctrine of Absolute Monarchy had been profoundly weakened by what came to be known as “The Enlightenment” or “The Age of Reason”. Breakthroughs in moral and political philosophy, together with the rapid expansion of science, called into question the existence of the Judeo-Christian God and, thus, the “divine right of kings”. Within the ruling classes doubt grew, and from these doubts ordinary people drew confidence that their own ideas and priorities were as worthy of serious consideration as their lords’ and masters’.
Crucially, in the shape of an elected parliamentary assembly, the people had also identified a mechanism capable of supplanting the autocratic rule of the monarch. The self-evidently desirable objectives of “liberty, equality fraternity” were thus made achievable. In the people’s “deputies”, gathered together in the revolutionary “National Constituent Assembly”, the people’s will had finally found its political vector.
In Petrograd, 128 years later, the critical political vector of the “nation” had been replaced by Karl Marx’s “proletariat”. Likewise, the revolutionary mechanism ceased to be a parliament filled with elected representatives, and became, instead, a multitude of workers’ councils (soviets) filled with instantly recallable delegates elected in the factories and regiments. Replacing the Enlightenment and its philosophers was the revolutionary Marxist party – whose ruthless and highly disciplined “cadres” were determined to inspire and guide the soviets of workers and soldiers.
Other determinants of success were also at work in 1789 and 1917.
Bankrupt of both the ideas and the funds required to address the multiple crises afflicting his subjects, the French king, Louis XVI, set in motion a massive, kingdom-wide effort to identify and collate the grievances of the French people. These Cahiers de doléances provided the core agenda of the Estates General – the feudal body charged with advising the Crown, which had not been called together for 175 years! Thus equipped, the people’s representatives possessed a clear idea of what they had to do.
In 1917, also, the Russian people’s priorities were clear. Czar Nicolas II had led them into a disastrous war with the Austro-Hungarian and German empires. Millions of conscripted peasant-soldiers had been killed, the Russian economy was in ruins, and the Russian people were starving. Their lords and masters had failed utterly to protect them and were either unable or unwilling to feed them. When the leader of the revolutionary workers’ party, Vladimir Lenin, arrived at Petrograd’s Finland Station, his speech to the workers’ and soldiers’ delegates was short and to the point: “Peace! Bread! Land! All power to the soviets!” With these simple but highly effective promises, Lenin’s party ruthlessly blew away the political fog engulfing the ineffectual Russian parliament and set in motion the world’s first socialist revolution.
Lenin promises "Peace! Bread! Land!" at the Finland Station, Petrograd 1917.
It should be clear by now that New Zealand’s cultural, economic and political situation bears no comparison with the two great Western revolutions. Neither Maori nor Pakeha culture offers anything to compare with the devastating ideological critiques which the Enlightenment and Marxism brought to bear on the political regimes of France and Russia. Animism with corporate clip-ons is no more a revolutionary doctrine than post-modernism incongruously blended with the politics of identity.
Nor is New Zealand trapped in the sort of intractable economic and military crises that brought down the Bourbon and Romanov dynasties. In fact, it presents itself as a highly successful neoliberal capitalist economy. Which is not to say that poverty has been eliminated, or homelessness overcome, merely that the levels of inequality and social injustice which beset all but a handful of western states is not dramatically worse in New Zealand than it is in other comparable countries. Certainly, the grave challenge of Climate Change looms over New Zealand’s future but, once again, that is a problem to which the entire world has yet to find a workable solution.
Most importantly, the New Zealand ruling-class retains sufficient faith in its ability to manage the nation’s affairs to render any challenge to its dominance ineffective. No mass movement with a practical programme of revolutionary change exists in this country. Nor does it contain a disciplined revolutionary party dedicated to creating one. Those who proclaim themselves champions of change and fighters against injustice are currently more willing to go to war with each other than with neoliberal capitalism. Indeed, it is possible to argue that identity politics, far from being a revolutionary phenomenon, has become the paradoxical vector for neoliberal consolidation. The ever-more-strident calls to recognise every new construction thrown up by the social kaleidoscope have a way of drowning out the truly revolutionary demands for a radical redistribution of the economic pie.
For the moment, in those close-to-home places where revolutions are born, there may be tetchiness and resentment, frustration and complaint, but nowhere is anybody uttering the cry that will bring a New Zealand revolution into being:
“We have found the way to make tomorrow better than today!”
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 21 January 2020.