[A contribution to Socialist Worker's Pre-Conference Bulletin, January 2012]
FIRST: THE HEADLINES
“The method of rising from the abstract to the concrete is only the way in which thought appropriates the concrete, reproduces it as the concrete in the mind.” So said Marx, in the Grundrisse of 1859.
Some sixty years later, Lukacs expanded upon this dialectical theme, of the relationship between the abstract whole and concrete parts: “Dialectics insists on the concrete unity of the whole…
“Only in this context which sees the isolated facts of social life as aspects of the historical process and integrates them in a totality, can knowledge of the facts hope to become knowledge of reality...
“All the isolated partial categories… can really only be discerned in the context of the total historical process of their relation to society as a whole...
“Thus dialectical materialism is seen to offer the only approach to reality which can give action a direction... The facts no longer appear strange when they are comprehended in their coherent reality, in the relation of all partial aspects to their inherent, but hitherto unelucidated roots in the whole: we then perceive the tendencies which strive towards the centre of reality, to what we are wont to call the ultimate goal... Because of this, to comprehend it is to recognise the direction taken (unconsciously) by events and tendencies towards the totality. It is to know the direction that determines concretely the correct course of action at any given moment.”
This is why discussion at Socialist Worker national conferences begins by considering the abstract totality, the global system as a whole.
But as events in Christchurch have reminded us, the historical movement of massive systems can be seen in isolated events at specific points along a fault line.
What specific events, on systemic fault lines, are currently revealing the movement of world history as a whole?
- 2011 was the warmest La Niña year since records began in 1850. The volume of Arctic sea ice is the lowest ever recorded.
- Oil prices remained over US$100 a barrel, despite decline at the heart of the world economy.
- The World Bank said that global inequality has reached its greatest level in human history.
- The US withdrew its last combat units from Iraq.
- Iran’s nuclear facilities came under a series of “black ops” attacks.
- NATO bombs finished Gaddafi, but could not produce a stable pro-Western Libya.
- The White House approved Taleban plans to open a diplomatic post in Qatar, paving the way for a negotiated retreat from the Afghan quagmire.
- Speculation mounted about the future integrity of a 28-member European Union.
- China launched its first aircraft carrier, while the US announced that marines are to be sent to Northern Australia.
- The inaugural summit of the 33-nation CELAC regional bloc was held in Caracas.
- Greens secured gains in some Western nations, but faith in established parties from Labour or social democratic traditions continued to ebb as they clung to neoliberalism.
- The historic erosion of Western democratic institutions continued.
- Riots swept England.
- Time magazine named their “person of the year” as “The Protester”.
- In the wake of the 2008 “kitchenware revolution”, Iceland voted to default on a € 4bn debt and an elected Assembly of citizens drafted a new Constitution.
THE WORLD WEATHER REPORT
In November, readings at Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii recorded CO2 levels of 390 parts per million – the highest on record, 11 percent above the maximum “safe” level of 350ppm set by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The effect on the climate is known.
Last month, the Washington Post’s meteorology team reported: “One of the major challenges facing climate researchers has been figuring out a way to tease out the signal of manmade climate change from the background ‘noise’ of natural climate variability… La Niña conditions have been present off and on since 2010, and this has reduce global temperatures somewhat, particularly when looked at from the perspective of lower atmospheric temperatures. But, even with a strong La Niña event, 2011 is likely to be one of the top 10 warmest years on record, as reported by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). The WMO expects 2011 to become the warmest La Niña year on record, which may demonstrate that manmade climate change is beginning to overwhelm natural factors.”
The summer volume of Arctic sea ice in 2011 was the lowest ever recorded – half what it was in the 1950s. Jennifer Kay from the US National Center for Atmospheric Research calculates that on current trends, the ice cap will be completely gone by the summer of 2060, with cataclysmic consequences.
Meanwhile, US secretary of state Hilary Clinton says she is “inclined to approve” the delayed construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, allowing extraction of vast oil reserves from Canadian tar sands. If the pipeline is built, said renowned climate scientist James Hansen, “it’s essentially game over for the planet”.
World oil output has now flattened out. But predictions about the timing of the global peak oil event, after which output enters decline, are complicated by the emergence of new technologies, including deep water drilling and hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) as well as tar sand extraction. What is clear is that the oil resource crisis remains.
Unlike the market response to the 2008 financial crisis, when oil fell from US$150 to US$40 a barrel, prices have not dropped in the wake of declining world economic growth in 2011. Liam Halligan, chief economist at Prosperity Capital Management, explains: “In mid-2008, crude markets were caught in a speculative bubble. Cheap loans were available for practically anyone who wanted to punt on oil to keep rising, which sent crude prices spiking. Today, though, the crude price is far less dependent on leveraged investment, reflecting instead the underlying demand/supply realities... Sky-high oil, it seems, is now compatible with Western recession.”
The growing use of the new, aggressive extraction methods like “fracking” is wreaking devastation on our ecology (including groundwater systems), and creating potentially catastrophic geological impacts. It is also more costly and energy-intensive, so the profits and energy return per barrel is lower. Attempts to resolve the resource crisis along this route are exacerbating ecological and profitability crises.
According to the IMF World Economic Outlook, global growth for 2011 was 4 percent. This figure, however, masks a highly uneven picture. Growth across advanced economies (Japan, North America and Europe) averaged just 1.5 percent (less than the rate of population growth, therefore representing declining GDP per capita), while emerging and developing economies grew by 6.5 percent. The BRIC bloc (Brazil, Russia, India, China) now makes up a quarter of the global economy.
The growth which is occurring is unlike the expansion seen during the post-war boom, which lasted from 1945 until the early 1970s and led to rising living standards across large parts of the world. A major OECD report titled Divided We Stand, published last month and covering the period 1985-2008, found that: “The Gini coefficient, a standard measure of income inequality that ranges from 0 (when everybody has identical incomes) to 1 (when all income goes to only one person), stood at an average of 0.29 in OECD countries in the mid-1980s. By the late 2000s, however, it had increased by almost 10% to 0.316. Significantly, it rose in 17 of the 22 OECD countries for which long-term data series are available.” The report’s authors comment that early analysis suggests a continuation of these trends since 2008.
Outside the OECD, inequality is greater still. “In emerging economies”, says the report, “high levels of income inequality have risen further. Among the BRICs, only Brazil managed to reduce inequality substantially, although... it is still a far more unequal country than any of the OECD countries.”
Branko Milanovic, lead economist at the World Bank, was asked last year: “How unequal is the world, really?” His answer: “It is historically now around the peak of inequality ever”.
In 2011, the cost of fighting unwinnable wars on multiple fronts finally came home to a cash-strapped US administration struggling with the economic recession. The rethink of the Pentagon’s global imperial strategy was seen above all in the retreat from Iraq. An editorial in the US Socialist Worker newspaper explained: “Iraq was supposed to be a showpiece in Washington’s effort to remake the Middle East… the first step towards knocking out the Syrian regime and squaring off militarily against Iran, which also faced a big US military presence on its eastern border with Afghanistan. Instead, Iraq is a shaky client at best… Now the US will have to jockey with Iran for influence in Baghdad ― and it's already clear that Iran has the upper hand. That's why the Obama administration preceded its announcement of the troop pullout from Iraq with a loud but highly dubious accusation that Iranian agents were plotting to assassinate the Saudi Arabian ambassador to the US. The message: the US may be getting out of Iraq, but it will continue to ratchet up pressure on Iran.”
While Iran’s nuclear programme threatens annihilation for hundreds of millions of people across the Middle East and South Asia, for the regime in Tehran it represents an insurance policy against Western military intervention and a lever to prise apart Israel’s grip on the region. Iranian nuclear facilities were hit by a series of “unexplained” explosions late last year. Commenting on the blasts, Israeli Intelligence Minister Dan Meridor said: “There are countries who impose economic sanctions and there are countries who act in other ways in dealing with the Iranian nuclear threat”. But writing in the mainstream Israeli daily paper Ha’aretz, blogger Yossi Melman commented: “With all due respect to the success of clandestine operations, most Israeli, American, and European experts agree that secret operations will not be enough to halt Iran’s rush toward a nuclear arsenal… Thus, the only country with the ability to truly halt Iran from reaching its target is the United States.” Systemic historical forces are impelling modern civilisation towards a new doomsday scenario – nuclear brinkmanship in the world’s main oil-producing zone.
But while the US hegemon remains aggressive, it is increasingly fighting like a wounded beast. Its economic and military might continues to decline, along with the power of its crisis-wracked European allies.
Europe’s debt crisis has dominated world news in the last year. Defaults, banking collapses and political instability are certain to come. The only question is how widely the contagion will spread, whether it will lead to the break up of the EU and reignite conflicts between European powers, and to what extent it will cause the breakdown of social systems and popular revolts around the world.
The stabilising role of a superpower, presiding over a system of regional sub-imperialisms, has secured the global order of late capitalist accumulation. This order – of profit-making maintained through force and bloodshed – is now crumbling.
This was seen most clearly in Libya, where NATO bombing and arms shipments tipped the military balance in favour of the rebels. But the West has been unable to install a stable, friendly regime in the oil-rich nation. Writing in The Spectator this month, as gun battles between rival Libyan militias raged on the streets of Tripoli, Daniel Korski of the European Council on Foreign Relations commented: “The Libyan government needs to have, in the words of Max Weber, a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence, but is too weak to enforce it. In other post-war states – like Bosnia, Kosovo, and East Timor – the UN, NATO or EU troops have bridged the gap between the state’s ambitions and its means. With the Libyans rejecting a post-war, UN-mandated military presence, and with few NATO states in the mood to send one, the gap remains.”
Defeat in Afghanistan is next. Even with 130,000 NATO troops on the ground, costing US taxpayers half a trillion dollars since 2001 and killing tens of thousands of people, there is no hint of stability. In 2011, secret talks began between American and Taliban officials over the opening of the Taliban's first diplomatic post, to be situated in Qatar, in order to allow a negotiated retreat by NATO forces.
Western imperial decline is stemming not only from internal weaknesses, but from growing external threats as well. In August, China launched its first aircraft carrier. Although not due to enter active service until late 2013 at the earliest, the message was not lost on Western observers. The aircraft carrier is both instrument and symbol, par excellence, of imperial power projection.
Yet the Peoples Liberation Army Navy possesses one carrier to the US Navy’s eleven, with a further six operated by European fleets. While the rise of China is threatening the US-led hegemonic bloc, there is no sign today that it can eclipse Western power and establish a new imperial order to stabilise global capitalism.
Along with the announcement that 2,500 US marines are to be stationed in Darwin from 2016, however, China’s rise does shift the front line of imperialist conflict into our Pacific neighbourhood. “It’s possible for Australia to have an alliance relationship with the US and a comprehensive bilateral relationship with China”, said Labor defence minister Steven Smith, welcoming the US deployment. “Australia surely cannot play China for a fool”, replied China’s state-run People’s Daily. “If Australia uses its military bases to help the US harm Chinese interests, then Australia itself will be caught in the crossfire.”
In America’s own back yard, a very different kind of challenge to imperialist domination is growing. On December 2-3, Venezuela hosted the inaugural summit of the 33-member Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC). It was attended by Peru’s new left-wing president, Ollanta Humala, the latest of the “pink tide” leaders elected across Latin America. According to the BBC, “a common element of the ‘pink tide’ is a clean break with what was known at the outset of the 1990s as the ‘Washington consensus’, the mixture of open markets and privatisation pushed by the United States’. Bolivian vice-president Alvaro Garcia Linera declared that now “Latin America is the vanguard of the world in regard to ideas, in regard to transformations, in regard to proposals at the service of the people and humanity.” The name for this set of ideas, coined by Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, is “socialism for the 21st century”.
Elsewhere in the world, people went to the polls against the backdrop of economic crisis. Highlights of these elections are necessarily painted here with a broad brush. Over recent years, significant gains have been made by Green parties – such as in the 2009 Euro elections, and the Australian federal election of 2010. But in the “most significant elections” of 2011, as rated by the informative World Elections blog, not a single social democratic or Labour party was elected to lead a government. In Canada, the ruling Conservatives were returned with an increased majority. In Spain, the ruling PSOE social democrats were defeated by the Right-wing Popular Party. In Ireland, the main beneficiary of anger over the economic crisis was the centre-right Fine Gael party.
Beneath the radar, however, the larger story of recent elections in the West is twofold. Firstly, the rise of new forces to the left of neoliberal social democracy (strong rises in some places, such as Canada, where the New Democratic Party is now the main parliamentary opposition). These have generally involved left splits from established parties, but there are examples of electoral support for coalitions of small radical groups. This phenomenon will considered in more detail later in this contribution.
The second part of the world electoral story is about the crumbling of bourgeois democracy. In December, The Economist magazine’s Intelligence Unit published its annual Democracy Index. Although biased by in places by flawed assumptions, the big picture is accurate.
“Key developments in 2011 include:
• Popular confidence in political institutions continues to decline in many countries...
• US democracy has been adversely affected by a deepening of the polarisation of the political scene and political brinkmanship and paralysis.
• The US and the UK remain at the bottom end of the full democracy category...
• Although extremist political forces in Europe have not yet profited from economic dislocation as might have been feared, populism and anti-immigrant sentiment are on the rise.
• Eastern Europe experienced another decline in democracy in 2011.”
“The dominant pattern globally over the past five years has been backsliding on previously attained progress in democratisation...
“Confidence in national pubic institutions in western Europe – already low before 2008 in many countries – has declined further since the onset of the crisis. Less than one fifth of west Europeans trust political parties and only about one third trust their governments and parliaments... Six euro zone governments collapsed in 2011... Policy in some countries is no longer being set by national legislatures and elected politicians, but is effectively set by official creditors, the European Central Bank, the European Commission and the IMF...
“After increasing for many decades, there has been a trend of decreasing voter turnout in most established democracies since the 1960s.”
Outside of Latin America, therefore, governmental institutions across most of the world are facing an ever-deepening crisis of legitimacy.
“However”, adds the Democracy Index, “the events in MENA [Middle East/North Africa region] now raise the question of whether a new wave of democratisation might be upon us – like that in the 1970s or post-1989”.
In this way, The Economist report supports the conclusion that the global erosion capitalist democracy is creating the conditions for revolutionary movements to arise and create new popular democratic forms.
The story of the revolutionary wave which began in Tunisia at the start of 2011 is also well documented – including in the December 14 issue of Time magazine, of all places. So there is little need to dwell on it here, although a few excerpts from Time’s unusually well-written cover story are apposite:
“‘Massive and effective street protest’ was a global oxymoron until – suddenly, shockingly – starting exactly a year ago, it became the defining trope of our times. And the protester once again became a maker of history...
“In Egypt the incitements were a preposterously fraudulent 2010 national election and, as in Tunisia, a not uncommon act of unforgivable brutality by security agents. In the U.S., three acute and overlapping money crises – tanked economy, systemic financial recklessness, gigantic public debt – along with ongoing revelations of double dealing by banks, new state laws making certain public-employee-union demands illegal and the refusal of Congress to consider even slightly higher taxes on the very highest incomes mobilized Occupy Wall Street and its millions of supporters. In Russia it was the realization that another six (or 12) years of Vladimir Putin might not lead to greater prosperity and democratic normality...
“On May 15, tens of thousands marched to Madrid’s Puerta del Sol plaza, along with tens of thousands more in dozens of other cities, united by slogans like ‘We are not goods in the hands of politicians and bankers’... Spain’s one-day march turned into a months-long self-governing encampment – one of the new defining characteristics of 2011’s brand of communal resistance. Throughout the country, about 6 million out of a population of 46 million participated in Indignados protests...
“Ten days after the Madrid protests began, the contagion spread to Greece... The Greek protests continued for more than a month, until 150 young Israeli protesters started pitching tents in the median of Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv... In early September, an estimated 400,000 of the country’s 7.7 million citizens marched, chanting, ‘The people demand social justice!’...
“In early August, after police in London shot and killed a young black man they were arresting, riots broke out all over England... A new, three-month study by the Guardian and the London School of Economics concluded that these rioters were also protesters, motivated by anger about poverty, unemployment and inequality as well as overaggressive policing...
“Until late September, 99% of New Yorkers had never heard of Zuccotti Park”. By 15 October the Occupy movement had spread to 932 cities in 82 countries. And Time doesn’t even mention some other meteoric mass movements of 2011, such as the mass student protests in Chile which sparked a general strike in August and forced the resignation of the education minister.
“In short,” said Time, “2011 was unlike any year since 1989 – but more extraordinary, more global, more democratic, since in ‘89 the regime disintegrations were all the result of a single disintegration at headquarters, one big switch pulled in Moscow that cut off the power throughout the system. So 2011 was unlike any year since 1968 – but more consequential because more protesters have more skin in the game. Their protests... morphed into full-fledged rebellions, bringing down regimes and immediately changing the course of history. It was, in other words, unlike anything in any of our lifetimes, probably unlike any year since 1848.”
Despite local variations, the global revolt has targeted inequality and lack of real democracy – products of inherent, intensifying crisis tendencies in the global system. Rebellion, therefore, can also be expected to intensify. As Lukacs may have put it, this is the direction being taken by events towards the totality.
A sign of possible paths towards “what we are wont to call the ultimate goal” came in 2011 from Iceland. After that country’s three banks were privatised in 2001, they embarked on an orgy of offshore borrowing to fund speculative investment. When the “credit crunch” hit in 2008, they were unable to refinance their loans and were effectively bankrupted, leaving the government liable for debts totalling six times the country's GDP, or €160,000 for every resident on the island.
But unlike other parts of Europe, where governments have forged ahead with austerity budgets to slash people’s livelihoods and protect bankers’ profits, the largest protests ever seen in Reykjavik attacked politicians. Banging pots and pans, in what became known as the “Kitchenware Revolution”, they forced the resignation of the Right wing government. Snap elections in 2009 were won by a coalition between the democratic socialist Left-Green Movement and the centre-left Social Democratic Alliance.
Community organising by grassroots movements, meanwhile, led to a National Forum of citizens, whose inaugural meeting of 1,500 people was streamed live across the island. The movement wrested the power from government to draft a new constitution. In 2010, a citizens referendum voted overwhelmingly to reject repayment of Iceland's foreign debt. Despite this, the government proceeded to negotiate a new plan to repay its international creditors. The Icelandic president refused to sign the law, and a second referendum again voted for a debt default.
The situation in Iceland has been compared to the French Revolution of 1789 by professor Robert Wade of the London School of Economics. It is also akin to the situation in Russia in 1917, described by Lenin as “dual power”. A left government, brought to power through a spontaneous uprising, is incapable of compromising with capitalism due to the strength of the organised populace.
The new Constitution, drafted by citizens in public over the internet, contains novel and radical measures such as internet access for every citizen, and making all of Iceland’s rich natural resources public property. It awaits ratification by legislators. European imperial powers are circling – threatening legal action (in the fist instance) – although military clashes have taken place between the UK and Iceland within living memory, during the “Cod Wars” of the 1970s. The struggle in Iceland between popular power and capitalism is unfinished.
FORECAST: CAPITALIST COLLAPSE
The 2010 National Conference of Socialist Worker, held in Auckland on February 6-7, passed a resolution endorsing the thrust of the analysis contained in Grant Morgan’s essay, “Beware! The End is Nigh!: Why global capitalism is tipping towards collapse, and how we can organise for a decent future”. (The ramifications of this decision will be examined later in this pre-Conference Bulletin contribution).
That essay declared: “Today, for the first time since its birth 500 years ago, global capitalism is facing the convergence of five system-level crises embracing nature as well as society:
• Profitability crisis.
• Ecological crisis.
• Resource crisis.
• Imperial crisis.
• Legitimacy crisis.
As these five crises converge into a perfect storm they will tip global capitalism towards collapse amidst international revolutions and counter-revolutions.”
The unfolding of world history, in its totality – as revealed in specific, isolated movements along systemic fault lines in 2011 – is confirming the startling accuracy of this analysis.
While the five global crises have been outlined above discretely, for the purpose of exposition, it is important to stress that they are not separate, but interact as component parts of a dialectical system. This interaction is not like the collision of billiard balls, which bounce off one another but do not alter each other’s nature. The interaction of the five crisis tendencies occurs through their interrelation and interpenetration, which further develops each one.
The extensive discussion (above) of the world as a whole now allows us to summarily “appropriate the concrete”, isolated events in New Zealand, as Marx prescribed, in light of the total global system. All of the trends outlined above can be seen here over the past year, albeit in a less developed form.
Media commentators have observed the rising incidence of extreme weather events over the last 12 months. Some have drawn the link to climate change. Meanwhile, the National government’s new energy strategy re-prioritises fossil fuels, through the opening up vast offshore areas to deep sea oil drilling. A massive new open cast coal mine, which will crush local endangered species under bulldozer tracks as it fuels the atmospheric CO2 rise, was approved on the first working day after the election. Even the window dressing of climate action – the Emissions Trading Scheme – is being dismantled.
The consequences of a possible repeat of the ecological catastrophe caused by the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico were brought home to many last year by the grounding of the MV Rena off the coast of Tauranga. Under Gerry Brownlie, energy and resources minister in the last National government, permits have also been granted allowing the use of “fracking”, including in the geologically unstable Canterbury Plains, Akaroa Peninsula and the Canterbury Bight.
John Key has announced the end of New Zealand’s ten year SAS involvement in Afghanistan. But as Nicky Hager’s latest book, Other People's Wars, explains, the New Zealand military is entrenched in the forces of the US-led Western imperial bloc. The approach of inter-imperial military conflict to our geopolitical neighbourhood has already been noted.
The linkage of the New Zealand economy to Australia and China, meanwhile, has so far shielded us from the harshest effects of the global crisis. But as the crisis threatens to spread beyond the Northern Hemisphere it's a matter of when, not if, New Zealand slides into recession.
Lenin’s half-mocking description of New Zealand as “the paradise of the Second International” did allude to facts such as our historically small gap between rich and poor and very high participation in elections.
But no longer. The Divided We Stand report from the OECD ranked New Zealand first in the world for the growth in inequality since the mid-1980s. In 2011, the NBR Rich List said that New Zealand’s richest 150 people had increased their wealth by a massive $7 billion over the previous 12 months, to a new record of $45.2 billion. The government’s response to looming economic crisis has now reverted to a conventional neoliberal approach which will further widen the gap between rich and poor – one of the issues motivating thousands of people to take part in our own Occupy movement. As Hone Harawira told the closing of parliament, “When 150 people can make $7 billion while 250,000 of our kids are living in poverty, then we need to say stop - not just for a cup of tea break, not for a pause, but to turn this bloody bus around before people start dying of starvation and our kids start rioting!”
And the turnout in the 2011 general election (74% of registered voters, or around 68% of the total eligible to enrol and vote) was the lowest since 1887. On November 26, John Key was just shy of what would have been the first outright majority in parliament under MMP. But National received just 1,058,636 party votes (32%) from an estimated 3.3 million people eligible to be electors. As Nicky Hager commented four days after the election, “The news declared that the National Party had had a ‘historic’ election victory on Saturday but, if that was true, National Party people would be looking happier”. In reality they know, as they embark on a policy offensive which is an anathema to most New Zealanders, that they have a growing problem of legitimacy on their hands.
Labour’s leftward tack, without a break from neoliberalism, failed to lure voters. Their vote collapsed to its lowest level since 1928. The (weak) global trend of rising support for Green parties, however, was reflected and reinforced. The Greens picked up around 100,000 new supporters, compared to 2008, giving the party a record 14 MPs. In the midst of the enthusiasm, however, it is important to remember the goal of party, as expressed by co-leader Russel Norman at the launch of their landmark Green New Deal plan in 2009: “Just as the social democrats, labourists and new dealers of the 1930s and 1940s had to save capitalism from its own destructive tendencies, so now the Green Parties of the world find ourselves in possibly a similar position… We will quite possibly save the market system.”
“Massive and effective street protest”, as a “maker of history”, is yet to arrive on our shores. As yet, there is also no sign of left split in the Labour camp. Nor has a regroupment of New Zealand’s tiny Marxist left occurred. In the absence of concrete embodiment of these tendencies, the main beneficiary of disillusionment with establishment political parties last year was NZ First.
But the global trend of emerging new forces to the left of Labour can still been seen, refracted through an indigenous lens. The split in the Maori Party led to the creation of Mana, which Hone Harawira called a party of “te pani me te rawakore” (the poor and dispossessed) in his state of the nation address. The party has also shown its broad openness, welcoming Marxists as well as reaching out to disillusioned Labour Party supporters.
Despite its modest electoral success, and its failure to date to break into a significant Pakeha support base, it remains committed to the broad founding kaupapa under new interim president Annette Sykes. As candidate Sue Bradford explained to the NZ Herald before the election: “This country and the rest of the world are still in a recession caused by dodgy bankers who speculated against the best interests of most people... The Greens are definitely not a spent political force – they are simply moving into a part of the political spectrum occupied by most other Green Parties around the world – ie an environmentally focused, socially liberal middle class party which is comfortable with greening capitalism... We face the economic and environmental crises with realism... I believe we’re a party for the future”. While influenced by electoralism, the Mana Movement (as it calls itself) has shown itself capable of relating to, and even initiating, grassroots mass action – from the Occupy movement to housing protests, to the solidarity campaign for locked out meatworkers – and steering these actions towards conscious working class demands.
The formation of the Mana Party, in short, is the most significant contemporary development for socialists in Aotearoa today.
WHAT IS TO BE DONE?
Precisely because world developments are tending to confirm the accuracy of the new collapse analysis, socialists in Aotearoa are left without a template for answering Lenin’s question, “What is to be done?”. Following Lukacs, new answers emerge through seeing the tendencies inherent in the facts, perceived in their coherent reality.
As we grapple with Lenin's question, however, it will be useful first to consider, “what has been tried?”.
The Socialist Workers Organisation was formed in 1995, with a statement on “Where We Stand” which was shaped by the inheritance of the Communist Party of NZ (CPNZ) and the British SWP. It declared: “To achieve socialism the most militant sections of the working class have to be organised into a mass revolutionary socialist party. We are in the early stages of building such a party through involvement in the day-to-day struggles of workers and the oppressed. The Socialist Workers Organisation must grow in size and influence to provide leadership in the struggle for working class self-emancipation... If you like our ideas and want to fight for socialism, then join us.”
This conception was always coupled with the principle of “learning from the class”, and “testing theory in practice”. After 1999, our position was increasingly challenged by practice in the global anti-capitalist and anti-war movements. Masses of people were radicalised and took action against the system around the world, but were not drawn to join “mass revolutionary socialist parties”, as understood by organisations such as ours at the time.
At the face-to-face meeting held on 7-8 June 2003, the SWO national committee passed a resolution expressing a developing understanding of the new kinds of political organisation needed to achieve socialism. It explicitly addressed the “Broad Left” school of thought. The attitude to the “Broad Party approach” was one of “sympathy”, but the resolution affirmed “united fronts as the big answer to mobilising masses of workers against world capitalism”. These new views were published in the landmark Radical Handbook. The earlier conception of growing the SWO into a mass revolutionary party through progressive recruitment came to be seen by some members as “toy Bolshevism”.
The name of our leading body was also changed to “central committee”. This was, in part, to reflect a strengthened role for Socialist Worker as “an organising centre” in campaigns for peace and justice, in the wake of mass mobilisations against the invasion of Iraq.
From the viewpoint of 2012, it can be seen in hindsight that the SWO’s 1995 founding statement was based on a vision of the Russian Bolshevik Party, seen through the eyes of the CPNZ and SWP. Our forebears and international comrades were operating on the basis of their understanding at the time, shaped by earlier twentieth century debates and struggles. This led to some mistakes like those described last year by John Riddell, former coeditor of Canada’s Socialist Voice: “The Bolshevik organizational model implemented by revolutionary groups today actually differs radically from the Bolsheviks in decisive ways, for example: The Bolsheviks encompassed a broad spectrum of revolutionary fighters; today’s revolutionary group embraces only one ideological current. The Bolsheviks were political heterogeneous; today’s revolutionary group can encompass only one font of political authority. An enduring difference between two central leaders usually leads to a split. The Bolsheviks held their discussions in public, before the working class; today’s revolutionary group discusses in private. The discipline of the Bolsheviks was directed primarily against the ruling class; the discipline of today’s revolutionary groups is directed primarily against each other. And so on.”
By the time of the February 2005 Special Conference of Socialist Worker, the hint of ambivalence over the “Broad Party” contained in the Radical Handbook was resolved. As the pre-conference issue of Socialist Worker Monthly Review argued, “The radical left has been moving in the direction of more cohesive and coordinated work for sometime. It now seems... right to take this to the next level – a Broad Left party or coalition”.
In 2007, the Socialist Worker National Conference adopted a new Programme, completely replacing the original “Where We Stand” document. In place of the “mass revolutionary party”, the Programme now aimed at “creating a Broad Left alternative to social-liberalism”. “When a new workers party arises and starts to win seats in parliament”, it explained, “this electoral legitimacy will give a huge boost to people’s movements against corporate rule” and help to create the conditions for “a revolutionary break with capitalism”. The Programme also formalised our orientation towards the “socialism for the 21st century” being built in Venezuela.
THE THREE PATHS
Socialist Worker’s new perspectives were cemented in our 2008 statement, “History calls for a Broad Left party”. This clarified “Marxism’s three global responses to social liberalism”: the “Narrow (Pure) Party” (which stresses the primacy of revolutionary ideology over mass work); the “Broad-Narrow Coalition” (where a Marxist group forms an alliance with other groups and individuals on the left in a bid to “take control” behind the scenes); and the “Broad Left party” (a pluralistic and diverse coalition of the left, one in which Marxists and non-Marxists participate as equals in order to build wide support for their common alliance).
Both the strengths and limitations of this statement must be appreciated. Its value lies in diagnosing main trends in Marxist organisations locally and internationally, circa 2008. But as Lenin observed, “Theory, my friend, is grey, but green is the eternal tree of life”. The statement is not, and cannot be, a template for categorising all the groups which make up the diverse, living world socialist movement.
Socialist Worker’s first attempt to implement the Broad Left strategy, and the theme of our 2005 Special Conference, was “building a party around a paper” – the Workers Charter. Despite some initial success, a Workers Charter organisation did not take off for two fundamental reasons. Firstly, because of hostility from Labour-aligned union leaders, and secondly because the radicalisation of grassroots activists was weaker than we believed, and insufficient to counter official conservatism. In addition, some Workers Charter leaders were unconvinced about the need, desirability and/or viability of a new Broad Left party. Also, some core Workers Charter activists have since argued that overt hostility to Labour alienated the party’s more left wing members and supporters. Winning over this group would have been necessary to build a mass alternative.
Following the demise of the Workers Charter, Socialist Worker made a second attempt to implement the Broad Left strategy by supporting RAM’s decision to register as a political party for the 2008 general election. Elections are almost always the least favourable terrain for socialists to fight on. RAM’s attempt to leverage support in Auckland local body elections to catapult it nationwide failed, for this reason and also for the same reasons which sank Workers Charter. The party’s election result demonstrated that it was not a viable ongoing proposition. Subsequent Broad Left initiatives have not risen to this level again.
Also contesting the 2008 election, chasing the party vote for the first time, was the Workers Party. The Workers Party was formed in 2002 as an archetypal “Narrow Party” group, stressing the purity of its ideology over any attempt to win broad support. But the decision to recruit the 500 members needed to register in 2008, along with the movement of a number of activists into organising roles with Unite Union, brought the party into contact with a broader cross-section of the working class. It evolved into a more open organisation.
This move brought the Workers Party modest success, not only gaining the members and resources needed to stand for election, but recruiting a number of established community and left activists as well. A poor 2008 election result (on a par with RAM) and internal wrangles saw many of them drift away from active membership for the time being. But the party retained sufficient outwards-focused activists to play an important role in Matt McCarten’s 2010 by-election campaign.
In 2011, the inherent tensions between those wanting to build broader support for Marxist ideas and the “Narrow Party” purists came to a head, with the latter group splitting from the party. Those remaining have continued their evolution this year towards “building wider support”, notably through backing (and joining) the Mana Party and organising successful mass action on campuses, in the LGBTI community and in the Occupy movement. The diversity of the Workers Party and Socialist Worker in 2012 is such that an overlap has been created. In this overlap, although significant theoretical differences remain, there is now little difference in practice.
The final trend on the Marxist Left is the New Left Party, most clearly identified with Socialist Aotearoa. Drawing initially on the overseas example of the New Anti-Capitalist Party in France (discussed below), SA activists advanced the idea locally during Matt McCarten’s campaign as an “independent” in the 2010 by-election.
The New Left Party idea represented an attempt to form a “Broad-Narrow Coalition”, where “a Marxist group forms an alliance with other groups and individuals on the left in a bid to ‘take control’ behind the scenes”. Early last year, SA tried to resurrect the idea by calling for Hone Harawira to “join” this New Left Party. But McCarten’s poor showing in the by-election, and the failure of the political session at the subsequent Unite Union conference, had meanwhile ended the attempt before it really began.
SA has since tried to graft the concept onto Mana. Based on selected quotes from Hone Harawira, taken out of context, SA has even claimed that Mana stands for “revolution”. (The reference to “revolution” in Hone’s beautifully crafted state of the nation speech was in the context of reaching out to both radicals, church members and Labour supporters by invoking the “revolution” of “Ratana and [Michael Joseph] Savage” in 1935 – a masterful application of Broad Left tactics). Outside the faithful few surrounding what John Riddell called the “one font of political authority”, however, this line has little traction.
The evolution of Socialist Worker from 1999-2008 and of other local Marxist groups, outlined above, has been shaped by global socialist debates and initiatives. At the start of 2012, it is timely to update our knowledge in this area.
The history of the British Socialist Workers Party (SWP), at first responding positively to anti-capitalism and anti-war radicalisation by helping to found the Socialist Alliance and RESPECT, before collapsing into sectarianism, factionalism and irrelevance on the world socialist stage, is well documented. Its trajectory since 2008 has confirmed its place as the pre-eminent example of the failure of the “Broad-Narrow Coalition” model, and the natural tendency to subsequently revert to the “Narrow Party” form.
We also examined developments from other Trotskyist currents – particularly in the leading section of the Fourth International, the French Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (LCR).
In January 2009, amidst heightened interest and optimism (including interest from Socialist Aotearoa), the LCR dissolved into the New Anti-Capitalist Party (NPA). This decision was based on an analysis by the LCR that a “new historical cycle” had begun after the collapse of “official Communism”, represented by the French Communist Party (PCF). The NPA proclaimed itself “a socialism for the 21st century”. Forming on an explicitly anti-capitalist basis, as a revolutionary party, it ruled out electoral arrangements in the 2009 Euro elections with the PCF and Parti de Gauche (or PdG, a left split from the neoliberal Socialist Party) and decided to “go it alone”. Its popular figurehead, Olivier Bescancenot, and theoretician Daniel Bensaid made claims that the NPA was the “sole alternative” to the Right and to the social liberal PS.
Initial enthusiasm propelled the NPA, but it failed to reach the 5% threshold needed to win a seat in the European Parliament in 2009. In the 2010 regional elections, despite mass radicalisation which drew millions into protests and strikes against pension reform, the NPA’s share of the vote fell. At the February 2011 Party Congress, it admitted that membership had halved to 4,500. Despite its aim to be a new, broad Marxist party, the LCR continued to provide the NPA’s “spinal column”.
In other words, like RESPECT in Britain, the NPA failed to break out of the “Broad-Narrow Coalition” model.
Other former leaders of the LCR who did not accept the “new historical cycle” analysis, and who did not join the NPA, are now grouped in the Left Front, a “Broad Left” coalition led by PCF and PdG. Christien Piquet (ex-LCR, Left Front) has criticised his former comrades as follows: “Instead, then, of being a stage towards remaking the left, by uniting new forces, and developing different strategies together, the NPA was overwhelmed by its own voluntarism”. It stood in its corner while change was happening where they had ruled it out: from the “old” Socialist and Communist left. Since then, Olivier Bescancenot has announced he will not stand again in the 2012 presidential election. The new (narrowly endorsed) NPA candidate is currently polling less than the margin of error, while the Left Front is at 6%. By late last year, left commentators in France were describing the NPA as “close to implosion”.
From these and other examples, it can be observed that parties clinging to a Trotskyist identity have generally failed the tests of responding to social liberalism in the 21st century.
By contrast, those socialists who have already committed to a recognisably “Broad Left party” perspective are faring better.
The Left Party in Germany has also been a reference point in Socialist Worker’s evolution. Formed in 2007 (following a left split from the neoliberal Social Democratic Party), it found success through uniting a broad range of unionists, social movement activists and Marxists against neoliberalism. In 2011, the Left Party completed a tortuous internal process for agreeing on a new manifesto, involving 1400 proposed amendments, at their October Congress. Although dropping a degree of electoral support in 2011 Berlin state elections (chiefly to the young techno-libertarian Pirate Party), the Left Party has succeeded in consolidating unity among the diverse currents, including a “Socialist Left” platform embracing revolutionary socialists. It is well placed to create alternatives as capitalism's intersecting crises intensify.
Another reference point for Socialist Worker has been the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV). The PSUV was formed in 2007 following a call by Hugo Chavez for all left-wing parties, or parties that supported him, to dissolve themselves and unite into one socialist party. Around 7 million Venezuelans joined.
Unsurprisingly, support and active membership of the PSUV has not continued to grow inexorably. Fundamentally, there has been a waning of revolutionary ferment in Venezuela. As Chavez told the 2011 PSUV national meeting, “there are people who are dispersed, who have stopped believing”.
In preparation for the October 2012 presidential elections, however, the PSUV has restructured. Acknowledging weaknesses in the party, PSUV legislator Jesus Farias said the idea was to “relaunch the project that the PSUV represents, in unity with other political organisations and social groups”. Although it remains (in Chavez’s words) “the primary political force in the country and fundamental arm of the revolution”, the PSUV will now serve as a socialist current in a Broad Left “Patriotic Pole”. The PSUV's five key strategies over the next year are the “politicisation of society and popular protagonism, social inclusion, progressive advancement in the satisfying of human needs, the increased consciousness of our people, and the great achievement of the re-conquest of national independence”.
We have already seen that New Zealand is lagging global trends in a number of respects, while at the same time being part of and reflecting the combined and uneven development of the world system. The Broad Left trend is another indicator of this. The failure of RAM is proving to be an exception, rather than the rule, regarding the Broad Left path for socialists.
In addition to these primary overseas examples, there are also other socialist initiatives worth noting, including the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), the Kasama Project and the Irish United Left Alliance.
Having led an armed uprising which toppled the Nepalese monarchy, the UCPN(M) secured a strong position in the elected Constituent Assembly from 2007. At the start of 2010, Socialist Worker co-organised a speaking tour with the Workers Party, in support of the Nepalese revolution. The UCPN(M) has since maintained its strength through a series of struggles in various civil society and state structures. In recent days, the party has renewed extra-parliamentary action, through its role in leading a successful general strike and mass protests demanding the resignation of the prime minister.
The leading socialist voice of international support for the Nepalese revolution (and opinion-shaper for Workers Party comrades in New Zealand) is the Kasama Project. Kasama is a US-based web and community network, established in 2008. Their founding documents state: “We believe like the famous closing words of the Communist Manifesto: “The Communists disdain to conceal their views and aims. They openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the overthrow of all existing oppressive social conditions’. We are building Kasama to serve as a catalyst. We seek to build a clear communist and internationalist pole within a larger revolutionary movement”. Respected socialist blogger Louis Proyect supports the Kasama Project as “an attempt to break with sectarianism by comrades from the Maoist tradition”.
Formed in November 2010, as a radical coalition between the Socialist Party, the SWP-backed People Before Profit Alliance and the Tipperary-based Workers and Unemployed Action Group, the Irish United Left Alliance won five seats in the dail (parliamentary) elections in 2011. Its constituent parts have also won 20 seats on local councils and one in the European Parliament. Unsurprisingly, given personality as well as political considerations, it is now a major influence for Socialist Aotearoa.
However, it remains to be seen whether tensions between the coalition partners, until recently adherents of the “Narrow Party” and “broad-narrow” lines, can be resolved in a unified Broad Left party. Reporting from Dublin for Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal, Dick Nichols commented that the opening session of the ULA’s inaugural National Forum in June “opened the lid, perhaps unintentionally, on the dominant debate... what program should the ULA have? Should it be explicitly socialist? Driven by the different perspectives of the SWP [opposing] and SP [supporting], this discussion ran through the whole day, even surfacing in workshop sessions on other topics”. Very similar tensions, in a similar pressure-cooker environment at Holyrood, tore apart the high-flying Scottish Socialist Party.
Finally, there is the Australian Socialist Alliance (SA). The SA was formed in 2001 between the Democratic Socialist Party (DSP) and seven other Marxist groups, including the Australian International Socialist Organisation (ISO). Soon after its formation, the Socialist Alliance grew to a point where most of its members were not members of any of the affiliate organisations. Two years later, the DSP reorganised itself as the Democratic Socialist Perspective, as a step towards turning the SA into a “multi-tendency socialist party”. The Socialist Worker national conference in 2005 passed a resolution stating that we would “work closely with all Australian socialists, no matter what group they belong to, who want to strengthen trans-Tasman Marxist unity around the Broad Party strategy”. As the minutes record, this meant “in practice, Socialist Worker’s central committee now sees the DSP as our main Marxist partner across The Ditch”. Since then, the SA has been the weightiest overseas touchstone in shaping Socialist Worker’s evolution.
By 2007, after the withdrawal of all of the original partners, the SA found itself, against its will, as a kind of “Broad-Narrow Coalition”, with DSP comrades providing the “spine”. But the danger of slipping back into a “Narrow Party” model was averted in 2008 by a DSP split which removed the minority most clearly identifiable with this school of thought. With Australia lagging global systemic trends over recent years in a similar way to New Zealand, the SA has been operating in a environment unfavourable to the growth of a Broad Left Party. Nonetheless, SA comrades have continued to pursue a vision recognisable as “a diverse coalition of the left, one in which Marxists and non-Marxists participate as equals in order to build wide support for their common alliance”. They are currently debating whether to adopt the label “ecosocialist”.
ONE STEP BACK, TWO STEPS FORWARD
Addressing the “Climate Change, Social Change” Conference in Melbourne in October, Climate & Capitalism editor Ian Angus posed the question, “What is ecosocialism?”
“There is no copyright on the word ecosocialism”, he said, “and those who call themselves ecosocialists don’t agree about everything”.
But he referenced a recent article in Monthly Review, which states: “The system of world capitalism is clearly unsustainable in: (1) its quest for never ending accumulation of capital leading to production that must continually expand to provide profits; (2) its agriculture and food system that pollutes the environment and still does not allow universal access to a sufficient quantity and quality of food; (3) its rampant destruction of the environment; (4) its continually recreating and enhancing of the stratification of wealth within and between countries; and (5) its search for technological magic bullets as a way of avoiding the growing social and ecological problems arising from its own operations.”
Angus further explained, “We could… summarise the central goal of the ecosocialist movement today: ‘A revolutionary administration whose definite and conscious aim will be to prepare and further, in all available ways, human life for an ecological civilisation’.” And he cited revolutionary changes in Venezuela and Bolivia as examples pointing towards the kind of revolutionary administration ecosocialists aim for.
It appears self-evident to me that the capitalist collapse analysis and orientation towards socialist struggles in Latin America, which Socialist Worker has arrived at independently and collectively endorsed, places our organisation clearly in the orbit of International Ecosocialism.
But it also appears that the ramifications of this political position have not yet been expressed in organisational form. In many respects, the major task of Socialist Worker National Conference 2012 is to formalise the organisational structure needed for Socialist Worker members to advance our ecosocialism today.
It would appear sensible to consider, at the outset, the proposals of other ecosocialists for achieving this.
The title of Ian Angus’ talk in Melbourne was “How to Make an Ecosocialist Revolution”. It contained a number of proposals for “what is to be done”:
“1. Ecosocialists will extend and apply ecosocialism’s analysis and program. This might seem obvious, but it’s very important. In the past century, many Marxists tried to freeze Marxism. After the death of Marx, or Engels, or Lenin, or Trotsky, or Mao – each group had its own cut-off point – their Marxism stopped developing... A key task for ecosocialists everywhere is to take the beginning points that ecosocialism offers today, and to build on them using the method of Marxism, the best scientific work of our time, and the lessons we learn in struggles for change. Then we must apply our new understanding in a wide variety of places and circumstances. This hard to do, because it requires us to think, to understand our situations and respond appropriately and creatively, not just repeat the same old slogans.”
“2. Ecosocialists will be pluralist and open. Another lesson we can learn from the 20th century is that monolithic socialist grouplets do not turn into mass movements. They stagnate and decay, they argue and they split, but they don’t change the world. So I want to emphasize that I am not urging you to rush out and found yet another sect. Ecosocialism is not a separate organisation, it is a movement to win existing red and green groups and individuals to an ecosocialist perspective”
“3. Ecosocialists will be internationalist and anti-imperialist...
“4. Finally, and most important, ecosocialists must be activists...”
This pre-conference contribution is an attempt to implement the first proposal – to extend and apply our ecosocialist analysis. It has implicitly espoused rejection of a label frozen in the last century – Trotskyism.
Secondly, we must link up with other ecosocialists internationally. Thirdly, we must be activists, but not as part of a separate organisation. Rather, our activism should occur as part of existing red and green groups (and Maori movements, trade unions, etc.) – in fact anywhere there is sufficient overlap in practice to allow us to raise our ecosocialist ideas.
This does not imply dissolution into these other groups. Extending and applying ecosocialism's analysis, to arrive at new understanding, requires the ability of ecosocialist activists to share the lessons of practice, and collectively discuss our theory. But it does imply that ecosocialists have no need of a “central committee” to act as an “organising centre” for action. Nor do we need a “membership organisation”, bound by democratic centralism, to implement central committee decisions, conduct “interventions” or “carry a party line” inside the movement.
So what do we need? In August 2011, Socialist Worker issued a statement: “The crises of global capitalism, coupled with catastrophic climate change and peak resources, is going to bring about profound social, ecological and political upheavals... Across the New Zealand’s existing left parties and socialist groups there are people who broadly share a common political perspective... An eco-socialist network would complement other positive developments on the left, particularly the emergence of the Mana Party... Socialist Worker believes that building a broad eco-socialist network in the short term will be one practical ‘here-and-now’ foundation for a mass-based broad left movement in the future... We think it’s necessary, and possible, to cohere and grow the network of eco-socialists in New Zealand.”
It is time for us to walk the talk.
Based on the foregoing analysis, I propose four resolutions:
1) That the current Socialist Worker central committee is rolled over.
2) That the Socialist Worker central committee drafts a statement formally announcing our withdrawal from the Trotskyist International Socialist Tendency, and outlining our reasons.
3) That Socialist Worker then ceases public political activity, and continues to exist only through its associated legal structures.
4) That Socialist Worker members are encouraged to campaign politically as ecosocialists, and work for the creation of an internationally-linked Ecosocialist Network in Aotearoa, through non-sectarian participation in, and support for, existing red, green and other groups.
(As a footnote, I do not propose any “endorsement” of this contribution as a whole – even of its “general thrust”. The kind of organisation I’m proposing just doesn’t do that sort of thing. And the last thing we need is a Great Fucking Leader handing down complete, pre-packed, ready-to-eat perspectives from the throne).
Grant suggests that comrades also read the following articles:
• How to make an ecosocialist revolution by Ian Angus (7 October, 2011).
• Occupy and the tasks of socialists (14 December 2011) by Pham Binh.