Philip Ferguson and Don Franks
The Spark Dec 2007
Political writer Chris Trotter, in his newspaper column claiming to be “from the left”, systematically attacked the activists arrested in the “terror raids” and uncritically praised the police. He declared New Zealand to be “a beacon of freedom, equality and social justice”.
The reality of capitalist New Zealand (beyond the Labour cocktail circuit) is quite different. Establishing capitalism in New Zealand required the dispossession of Maori, and left the remaining Maori population impoverished on the political, social and economic margins of society until after 1945. Only with their urbanisation and proletarianisation after World War 2 were Maori able to force their rights onto the political agenda.
From the late 1800s onwards, successive governments practiced “White New Zealand” policies which discriminated against Asians, especially the Chinese, in every area of life from immigration controls to access to pensions. Trotter’s beloved Labour Party played an instrumental role in these racist policies.
In the late 1800s, New Zealand’s capitalist rulers attempted to grab territory in the south Pacific, and in 1914 they invaded and took over Samoa. When Samoans organised peaceful marches for independence, New Zealand armed forces shot them off the streets.
Within New Zealand, repressive legislation was regularly used against workers by all the governing parties: during the 1890 maritime dispute, at Waihi in 1913, and during WW2 when Labour used emergency legislation against waterside workers while interning anti-war activists in deplorable conditions. After the war, Labour deregistered the Carpenters’ Union and helped the National government destroy the waterside workers and other unions in the great lockout of 1951.
New Zealand actually adopted a rigid anti-abortion law in 1977 when even largely Catholic countries like France and Italy were liberalising their laws. New Zealand was also one of the last developed capitalist countries in the world to decriminalise homosexuality and still has a long way to go to catch up with countries like Canada, Spain, Belgium and the Netherlands.
We may be one of the most formally “politically correct” countries in the world, but that has nothing to do with actual equality in law, let alone equality in practice. Indeed, we don’t even have the formal, legal constitutional freedoms that exist in the United States as a result of the American revolution and its aftermath.
We can agree with Chris Trotter on just one point in his hysterical tirades, however: political salvation does not lie in the Ureweras.
You say you want a revolution…
Writing in 1915, the Russian revolutionary leader Lenin drew on historical experience to conclude there were three major symptoms of a revolutionary situation:
(1) When it is impossible for the ruling classes to maintain their rule without any change; when there is a crisis, in one form or another, among the upper classes, a crisis in the policy of the ruling class, leading to a fissure through which the discontent and indignation of the oppressed classes burst forth. For a revolution to take place, it is usually insufficient for the lower classes not to want to live in the old way; it is also necessary that the upper classes should be unable to live in the old way.
(2) When the suffering and want of the oppressed classes have grown more acute than usual;
(3) When, as a consequence of the above causes, there is a considerable increase in the activity of the masses who uncomplainingly allow themselves to be robbed in peace time, but in turbulent times are drawn both by all the circumstances of the crisis and by the upper classes themselves into independent historical action.
This list underlines rather strongly that present-day New Zealand is not ripe for revolution and no amount of posturing or dramatic actions is going to change this. Constant preoccupation with “symbolic protest”, much-beloved of many anarchists, may be exciting for the handful of individuals involved, but self-indulgent narcissism doesn’t, and can’t, change anything.
Revolution is not about fulfilling individual activists’ requirement for fun and excitement in their lives. Revolution’s about encouraging the organisation of the mass of the working class and oppressed to get rid of the system of exploitation and oppression and create a new world of material abundance and human freedom.
The reality today
The harsh reality is that we are currently in a period of protracted political downturn. This requires preparing for a long-haul struggle with capitalism, a protracted struggle that is sometimes excruciatingly slow and dull. People who ignore reality and run around as if the revolution is just a symbolic protest away find their energy is soon dissipated. Over-optimism is often followed by withdrawal from activism in a state of confusion and exhaustion.
The protracted nature of the current downturn doesn’t mean that we just sit things out and wait for conditions to change. Rather, the Workers Party places emphasis on two things.
One is taking advantage of the downturn to spend more time on internal education so that as the situation changes we have politically-sussed members who can really make a difference. A small group of politically well-educated members is much more capable of seizing the moment when conditions change. A small politically well-educated group can also expand their organisation dramatically in a period of upturn, without losing their bearings.
The other thing the Workers Party emphases is being involved in whatever possibilities for struggle there are, especially among workers. We are always seeking to help take struggles forward and raise the consciousness of workers about the system as a whole. We’re also seeking to ensure our activists learn from workers’ struggles and combine practice with theory.
New Zealand is a highly-developed capitalist country and a junior imperialist in its own right. The big majority of the population are workers. Workers are exploited because they produce goods and services to a greater value than what they are paid.
Workers thus have a vested interested in ending capitalism. And they have the social power to create a new society because workers produce all the goods and services which make the world go round. No other section of society occupies this position or has this potential social power.
Moreover, capitalism regularly goes into crisis, and the way the bosses try to solve the crisis is always at the expense of workers. For instance, they attempt to drive down wages, they try to make workers work longer and harder, they lay off workers, they cut back on public services. They attack workers’ basic defence organisations, the trade unions. All these processes have been seen in New Zealand over the last 30-plus years since the post-war economic boom ended around 1973-74.
In New Zealand the fact that the biggest attack on workers since the Depression came under a Labour government had a demoralising and confusing effect on many workers and much of the left, as they had illusions that the Labour Party was some kind of workers’ party. In fact, the Labour Party in New Zealand had already been the saviour of capitalism in the 1930s, and it should have been no surprise that it would play this role again in the 1980s when the capitalist economy was in meltdown.
Today, few workers have any strong belief in Labour. The old union movement, which sought to manage conflict between workers and bosses rather than resolve conflict by fighting for the victory of the workers over the bosses and their system, is much weaker. These facts mean that, as struggles increase, some of the major obstacles to workers’ progress are going to be less able to deflect and destroy workers’ struggles. It will be possible for revolutionaries to have a greater impact within the wider class. Class conflict between bosses and workers can be more direct and not so mediated by the influence of Labour and trade union apparatuses that stymied struggle in the past.
There are already openings for establishing the skeleton of a network of militant worker-activists and developing the basics of a class-struggle platform which can be enriched and expanded in the course of developing class struggle in the future.
Anyone serious about social change needs to be involved now in this work, preparing for the big class battles to come, battles that contain within them the possibility of establishing a new society free from exploitation and oppression.