A critical review by John Moore
From The Spark November 2007
A class-centred historical analysis is a rare thing in New Zealand today. The clash of classes that dominated much of this young nation’s 20th-century political landscape seems to have been discarded by most contemporary political commentators and academics to the dustbin of history. Chris Trotter is therefore to be commended for trying to do justice to the history of the working class movement in this country with his tome, No Left Turn. But he is also to be challenged for his defence of the new “distorters of history”.
The overriding theme of Trotter’s book is spelt out within a splash of symbolic blood on the front cover: The Distortion of New Zealand’s History by Greed, Bigotry and Right-Wing Politics. Throughout No Left Turn’s chapters, the author points out in vivid detail the efforts used by the New Zealand ruling capitalist class, the state (especially its coercive arm, the police and the army), quasi-fascistic private groups and the media to thwart any attempts at making a turn to the left in New Zealand society.
A closer read, however, uncovers a revealing subtext — a defence by a Labour Party supporter of a moderate version of reformist social democracy. Trotter has always wavered between left-wing and right-wing social democracy. In No Left Turn he firmly places himself within the moderate — which in reality means the right-wing — camp of the political wing of the labour movement.
Trotter does this centrally through attacking and dismissing the left-wing critiques of the First Labour Government by working-class leaders such as John A Lee and Jock Barnes, and those of left-wing commentator and public servant W B Sutch.
Trotter goes to some pains to defend the legacy of New Zealand Labour Party leaders Michael Joseph Savage, Walter Nash and Peter Fraser, whom he believes have been prosecuted by left-wing critics of “historical crimes of which they are entirely innocent”. He accuses Lee, Sutch and, by implication, more contemporary critics of the Labour Party of failing to understand the limits placed on social democratic governments.
In regard to his heroes of the First Labour Government, Trotter, in typical melodramatic fashion, lectures the reader: “Did they become the scapegoats of a left wing that never fully understood the power and tenacity of the forces arrayed against the First Labour Government?”
Trotter clumsily alludes to the historical possibility of vicious right-wing reprisals for any truly radical agenda by the First Labour Government when he continues his argument: “Forces which, at other times and in other places, would demonstrate that any social-democratic regime reckless enough to ride the radical wave that brought them to power would be met with obstruction, destabilisation and, if necessary, murderous force.”
Marxist critiques of reformism and social democracy square with Trotter’s analysis of the severe limits placed on working-class movements in capitalist societies. All reforming “working-class” governments, such as the First Labour Government in New Zealand, undoubtedly have limitations placed on them, and so more often than not, they curtail their reforming agendas.
(For an in-depth Marxist critique of reformism, a good starting point is to read Lenin’s The State and Revolution which provides a very readable and revolutionary critique of social democracy.)
For Trotter, these limitations facing reforming parties are used as a convenient defence of moderate Labour governments. While a Marxist approach would also highlight the array of limitations placed on reforming Labour/social democratic governments, in contrast it would point out that the logical conclusion of this is the need to smash the capitalist state as a prerequisite for any radical transformation of society in the interests of workers and oppressed groups.
In the concluding chapter of No Left Turn, Trotter attempts a half-hearted defence of the current Fifth Labour Government. Perhaps not being brave enough to make a passionate defence of Clark and company’s “no reform” agenda, Trotter is asking us to forgive this “do nothing” government when he explains how its very moderate reforming agenda was challenged very early on by the New Zealand bourgeoisie who waged “a clandestine war against the Labour-Alliance coalition government”.
For Trotter, the threat of an “investment strike” with the coming to power of the Clark-led government justifies a “make haste slowly” approach. In his more recent newspaper columns Trotter seems lost for any rationalisation to defend a Labour government that has given up any pretence of progressive reform. Trotter has even given up attempts to paint National as some semi-fascistic monster as a last-ditch reason for sticking with Labour.
Chris Trotter has made a good attempt to detail and record the distortion of New Zealand politics by business interests, farmers and the other right-wing forces. However, what he has deliberately failed to do is to critique the resistance of radical agendas by leaders within the labour movement itself. Sadly, Trotter has decided to rally to the defence of these less obvious “distorters of history.”