This article was first written for internal circulation. We publish it now in light of public discussions among Socialist Worker comrades, partly regarding the party question (Goodbye Lenin? and Towards Ecosocialism.)
On February the 4th 2011, in the lead-up to our partys’ first internal conference of the year, a cross-section of leading comrades posted a statement resigning from the Workers Party. This statement argued that communist ‘party-building’ is impossible in the present conditions. As this statement raises important questions of political line that confront many communist and radical groups, it is necessary to engage with it; ultimately, to justify the very existence of communist organisations.
As the statement asserts that our comrades’ resignations are driven by “bigger and deeper” problems, we will not go into the sordid details of the lead-up to this development. Rather, we will engage directly with the content of their statement, available here.
In short, our comrades assert that given the lack of a mass workers’ movement in New Zealand today, communist party-building is futile. In particular, this affects recruitment:
“Those conditions meant that recruiting workers and progressives into the organisation has been very difficult.”
This assertion partly reflects the reality that until a qualitative leap occurs, quantitative development can be slow and arduous. However, as necessarily slow but steady recruitment was always stated as a conscious aspect of Workers Party strategy, there must be more to this statement than that. Our comrades are commenting on the nature, and quality, of recruits: the difficulty of recruiting “workers and progressives.”
It would seem strange to argue that WP recruits are not politically progressive: all have signed up to an explicitly anti-imperialist, pro-women’s liberation, Marxist political group. The majority continue to organise political actions, and produce or distribute political propaganda, to further progressive politics ranging from pro-choice to anti-war. Rather, our resigned comrades must have intended to comment on the class nature of recruits. Specifically, a perceived absence of rank-and-file workers in the movement: “The history of Western Marxism is a history of the absence of the proletariat.”
The most substantial growth of the WPNZ has occurred in Wellington, particularly through campus work. It is true that at this stage of development, students are easier to recruit than rank-and-file workers. However, our comrades’ misgivings about recruitment are based on two false premises: that the workers’ movement does not truly recruit workers, and that recruitment from other strata is undesirable.
Workers’ movement without workers
As evidence for their assertions about the workers’ movement generally, our comrades state:
“Unite union’s goal of building a new political movement and developing an activist base among workers has been similarly unsuccessful. Instead, Unite has relied heavily on activists from far left groups to fill the void.”
In part, this statement is undeniable: Unite does rely on radical activists, some of whom have never worked in the industries they organise. However, it is incorrect to state that the union has not recruited new layers.
Activists recruited from the shop-floor assisted in the Matt for Mana electoral campaign, launched by Unite National Secretary Matt McCarten. In more recent elections to the Unite Executive, 11 of the 16 successful candidates were new to the exec. These include a rank-and-file worker, recruited as a delegate through a protracted battle with her employer, who was elected as Vice-President. Unite Union is clearly developing a layer of rank-and-file activists.
Comrades may justifiably criticise the limitations of trade unionism, and indeed that is a debate the New Zealand left needs to have. However, claims that there are no worker-activists in the workers’ movement are false, masking wearied abstentionism. If we want organised workers to transcend trade union politics, we must first engage.
The ‘purely proletarian’ party
Our comrades also perpetuate false notions about the ‘revolutionary party.’ These notions idealise the party’s organic relationship to the proletariat in some distant revolutionary upsurge, essentially denying the need for long-term education across a broad strata. Georg Lukacs identified these limitations in his critique of Rosa Luxemburg, in his piece Towards a Methodology of the Problem of Organisation:
Any revolution will not be a purely proletarian affair; it will not be solely and clearly be a conflict between Capitalism and the Working Class. A revolution is a swirling grey affair, populated with clashing strata from all across the framework of society. Within that confusion many other ideologies will inhabit the same space as our revolutionary Marxism. At that point when the heat is on, we can’t be spending our time educating our newfound allies, we need to have done the work beforehand, it is too late to be trying to collect our hand when the hand needs to be played (emphasis mine.)
For all its limitations and flaws, the Workers Party is doing all sorts of important preparatory work. It has involved members from many strata: trade union officials, students, factory workers, university staff, and the casualised workers who proliferate under neoliberalism. Most of these people would not have any real chance to study Marxism if it weren’t for organisations like the Workers Party – in the absence of Progress Publishers, trade union libraries, and an academy actively engaging with Marx, organisations like this one are more important than ever.
It is clearly true that the Workers Party does not currently live up to its name. It is not a mass workers’ party, but a propaganda group. Its roots are shallow not only in industry, but also areas such as the movement for Maori liberation. Recognising these limitations does not justify dissolving the group, rather we must sharpen our perspective and improve our practice.
In essence, the statement by our resigned comrades rejects a strategy of recruiting and training new revolutionaries. In politically trying times, a strategy of organised growth and education is something we can’t afford to lose.