Thursday, 1 January 2009
by Don Franks, Workers Party of New Zealand from UNITY Journal May 2009 In his article Responding to the crisis: Broad left unity to mobilise masses of people, Vaughan Gunson writes: Over the last decade Socialist Worker-New Zealand, a small Marxist organisation, has moved towards the realisation that we need to be building alongside other activists a broad left party which has the breadth and reach to give leadership to masses of people. And that we need to begin now, not later. Socialist Worker-New Zealand may have come to this realization over the last decade, but I don’t think they have arrived at a new political discovery. There have been many socialist attempts to build – or infiltrate – broad left parties. In New Zealand the Alliance is a recent example. At least two Marxist groups were early participants in the Alliance, the Permanent Revolution Group and the Workers Communist League. Both groups were rebuffed. The PRG, more open about their politics, were tossed out very early. WCL comrades were more used to working in united front organizations and at that stage were particularly prone to compromise their politics in the process. So remnants of the WCL hung around unhappily inside the Alliance for a while, marginalized from any positions of power as the party steadily formalized into a standard issue parliamentary machine. It was clear from the start that there was to be no accommodation of anticapitalism in the Alliance venture. The endgame saw the Alliance indelibly disgraced by its association with support for US invasion of Afghanistan. Inside the last decade, Socialist Worker-New Zealand initiated a different approach to creating a broad left party; a movement around a left magazine called Workers Charter paper. This was an attractive lively publication, heavily subsidized by its producers and mostly distributed free. It continued for a year or so but eventually failed to pick up enough support to sustain itself. Hopes of an ongoing Workers Charter organization folded with the paper’s last issue. The next Socialist Worker-New Zealand initiated attempt to make a broad left party was built around single issue campaigning. As Vaughan points out, RAM (has) achieved visibility and respect for campaigns like rates justice, free & frequent public transport, and GST off food. In the 2004 and 2007 local body elections in Greater Auckland RAM received mass votes. Last year, RAM moved to become a nationwide broad left party that contested New Zealand’s 2008 General Election. Vaughan concludes: While the final electoral result was poor, there were positives, including the good reception by grassroots people to RAM’s “Ten Commandments” leaflet.” With respect, RAM’s own, “good reception” opinion of their leaflet’s reception is a pretty slim picking to net from a huge expenditure of election effort. RAM’s broad party approach netted just 465 votes, fewer than the 932 of the Workers Party, whose candidates openly advocated socialist revolution. Vaughan proceeds to enunciate ten points for future political work. First is: “moving away from the corporate market”. Moving – to where? The corporate market, or more accurately, the capitalist system dominates the globe. It can either be accepted or opposed. It is not nitpicking semantics to charge that electing the formula “move away from” fudges the issue. Point 2 refers to a multiple front class war on a global scale. The only problem I have with this formulation is its variance from the main thrust of Vaughan’s text, which is not about class war at all, but about “credible broad left parties or coalitions which win the respect of grassroots people” (more on that later). Point 4, titled “Mobilising masses of people”, continues: The goal of unity is to build credible broad left parties or coalitions which win the respect of grassroots people. Why this need to create a nebulous, unscientific category of “grassroots people”? It is not even in particularly common usage. By “grassroots people,” do you mean employed workers, unemployed workers, retired workers, soon to be workers? If so why not just say “the working class”. If that is not the social category you mean, then what is it? Vaughan continues: Now there’s deep concern at the worsening economic crisis and a simmering anger. This is the dry fuel that left activists should be working to ignite. Really!? Have left activists not constantly been attempting to do this? Vaughan’s estimate of his group’s own attempts to ignite the dry fuel runs: Last year, a small number of RAM activists launched a campaign to remove the GST tax off food. With food prices rising rapidly in New Zealand in mid-2008 removing this neo-liberal tax was a concrete demand that intersected with the public mood. The campaign was able to achieve a level of mass awareness that was encouraging. Yes, it did, up to a point. Many people signed the petition. But then, where did it go? Labour dismissed tax off food as “a gimmick”, to no discernable mass reaction. Only a few dozen people were moved to gather for the petition presentation at parliament, most of those older already committed activists. After that action, the campaign came to an end, its goal unfulfilled. What specific conclusions are to be drawn from those facts? Apparently that: the left needs to come up with other such demands at the right moment in response to events. We have to pay close attention to what is happening at the grassroots. What are people most angry about? What do people themselves feel is a reasonable demand that is achievable and common sense? “What are people most angry about?” Various things. Some workers feel longer prison sentences is a reasonable demand. Others, that “jobs for Kiwi workers first” is reasonable common sense. Others, probably at this stage a small minority, believe in fighting for every worker’s job irrespective of existing national borders. In my opinion that position is the one which is principled and consistent and should be publicly advocated, however many people are currently opposed to it. The history of progressive social change is not an endorsement of populism. The women’s suffrage movement, the anti-apartheid movement and the anti-Vietnam war movement all began very small. Tiny groups and scattered individuals went against an apparently invincible tide to struggle for the principles they knew were right. When these few activists won arguments and made converts, they were building their movement on sure foundations, which could eventually turn back the strongest counter tide. I think Vaughan’s argument for beginning with “what people are most angry about” is made from the best of motives, but is actually the opposite of what is required. Point 5 searches for “the right strategies and tactics”, suggesting: It’s the grassroots masses themselves who have the power to effect real and lasting change; We understand that the prospects for advancing the struggle towards a human centred society are not infinite. There are strategies which have the objective possibility of success, and those that will not fly and will fail. Pursuing a wrong strategy or the wrong campaign that does not “grip the masses” is a possibility; Fear of getting it wrong can’t overwhelm the need for action, of trying something that attempts to push the button of mass consciousness; We study with open minds the political conditions at any one time and we grasp the multiple forces at work. Understanding the world as correctly as we can will minimise political mistakes; We learn from our mistakes. A cliché perhaps, but true nevertheless; We learn from struggles going on in other countries. As well as learning from and updating the strategies and tactics of historical political leaders who have understood that the transformation of society is the act of the grassroots themselves; All of the above are common truisms. They are also completely abstract. Concrete specifics are what count. Which particular overseas struggles can we best learn from, and what, specifically, do we try to learn? Vaughan continues: We tell ourselves again and again, and then another time, that we must be in dialogue with the grassroots majority. They can and will teach the leaders. This “grassroots majority” appears to be some sort of exotic race apart, like a recently encountered tribe with an entirely different language and culture. In my perception the workers I communicate with daily are basically pretty much the same as myself, the difference in most cases being the possession of a different set of political ideas. Further along, Vaughan declares: Freedom of will and action can only come from an absence of any hierarchies of power. Our cards are laid on the table. There is no backroom decision making and factional organising, both of which can only lead to destabilisation and the likely implosion of a broad left formation. That is a glowing self description of an organization. Those having experienced a close association with Socialist Worker will have their own assessment of its validity. Finally Vaughan says: The vast majority of people today are not going to be won to joining the movement away from the corporate market by first being won to the idea of socialism or revolution. To build a political vehicle capable of engaging with and giving leadership to masses of people Marxists need to be working alongside other leftists. That is an artificial construct. I don’t know of and have never met any Marxist who insists on acceptance of socialism or revolution as a prerequsite for participation in anticapitalist struggle. All the Marxists I’ve ever known have recognized the necessity of working alongside other leftists and other people generally. This has not always been done well, but it has always been attempted. Vaughan adds: The Marxist tradition does maintain some core principles that define it as a lasting political tradition. I’d argue that Marxism defines itself as dialectical materialism in the service of working class liberation. The practical application of that requires the painstaking creation and development of a Marxist party. In a capitalist society such a party will necessarily be relatively small up until a period of revolutionary upsurge. Because of that, it is imperative that Marxist parties reach out widely and creatively to engage in struggle alongside the largest possible number of non party workers. A Marxist party can arrive at considerable cooperation on various issues with social democrats and non Marxist radicals. Sometimes there can be temporary unity on specific issues with capitalist parties like the Greens. On a number of key issues Marxist parties will find no accommodation whatsoever with capitalist parties, particularly when it comes to matters of bourgeois law, ‘business confidentiality’ and imperialist war. Independent working class revival requires breaking from the vain hope of real change inside the present social structure. It means building our own vision of a world run for and by workers. It requires questioning, rejecting and actively working to replace the capitalist system. Over the last few decades society has become manifestly more unequal. The old methods of redress haven’t brought real improvement for the mass of workers. That’s why we need to seriously put revolution on the agenda. Impatient attempts to hurry the process of revolutionary change by attempting the creation of revolutionary/reformist parties inevitably founder and dismember on the rocks of opposing class interests.