Labour parties

Philip Ferguson plf13 at
Thu Sep 19 21:54:01 MDT 2002

Ben wrote:

> I'm not trying to imply anything about the ALP or NZLP "class nature". I
> think they are liberal bourgeois parties that exist, or at least did in the
> past, to systematically dupe the workers. I agree with your comments re the
> pro-Labor left groups ("loyal opposition"), and I don't think Lenin's gallows-
> pole-support is appropriate any more.

I think they have transformed from being 'bourgeois workers parties' in
Lenin's day to being bourgeois liberal parties these days.  I would say
that is quite a significant change.

I think you can put two possible dates on the transformation.  A
Mandelite friend of mine, who sometimes writes for 'revolution' and who
was here ion the 1980s when I was overseas, tends to argue that the
fourth Labour government saw the destruction of the NZ LP's social
democratic nature and its transformation into a totally bosses' party.
(Btw, in 1990, after that government, Labour only got 25 percent of the
vote here, and lost some of the most oppressed working class eats to National!)

I think his argument is credible, but mine would place it earlier.

I think it is necessary to look at Lenin's point about the contradiction
between the capitalist programmes of LPs and their working class base.
That kind of contradiction is not going to be permanent.  If we employ
dialectics, as we surely should, we might think along the lines of how
the contradiction eventually bursts out of the shell and creates
something new.  My argument would be that LPs, once they got into power,
were forced to choose decisively as to which class interests were going
to prevail.  You can't really maintain ambivalence when you're actually
administering capitalism.  So, my argument tends to be that the
contradiction between a capitalist programme and a working class social
composition and base was resolved when Labour parties began
administering capitalism.

I had already been thinking along those lines when, a couple of years
ago, I read some interesting studies done by some NZ Mandelites in 1989
and 1990.  These were actually written as honours papers in sociology
here at Canterbury.  There was quite a lot of empirical data in some of
them, and they really showed beyond a doubt that the NZLP was no longer
a 'bourgeois workers party' in the sense Lenin used that term.
Particularly interesting was that one of these papers showed that
workers began dropping out of the LP in large numbers within a few years
of the first Labour government coming to power (1935).

That Labour government was in power for 14 years and it is very
interesting to examine its record.  It is a thoroughly anti working
class record, although partly disguised through the implemenation of a
'welfare state' which subsequently became much romanticized, especially
by my parents and grandparents generation, but was actually relatively

I would say that at this stage the LP was essentially a coalition
between the liberal middle class and the trade union bureaucracy on the
political basis of capitalism with a human face but resolute opposition
to the class struggle.

By the 1960s the LP in New Zealand was a shell.  When I was sent to join
it while at high school, during one of the Socialist Action League's
occasional 'probes', I found a virtually defunct organisation in my
local area.  My area was one of the most hardcore blue collar working
class Labour seats in the country.  There was not one single working
class person under 50 in the LP in the entire constituency branch.  The
only working class people in the local constituency branch were in their
70s, plus me (a high school student).  The only other people in between
16-60 were a couple of middle class types, both of whom had joined in
order to advance personal careers in local government (one later became
a three-term mayor of Christchurch, the other a longtime city councillor).

When the LP here revived, as the Muldoon years wore on (Muldoon being
the National Party prime minister 1975-84), it was not workers who
flocked in - but the liberal middle class who were horrified by
Muldoon's social conservatism.  These middle class elements provided the
social base in the LP for 'Rogernomics', the neo-liberal economic policy
pursued by Labour from 1984 until its decimation in the 1990 elections.

The trade union bureaucracy became superfluous and socially/politically
irrelevant, and so in the 1980s the alliance between the trade union
bureaucracy and the old 'caring' middle class, as the basis of the LP,
was replaced by an alliance of the liberal-yuppie middle class and the
actual ruling class as the basis of Labour.  To the extent that the
trade union bureaucracy has any role in the LP today, it is based on the
fact that these union bureaucrats who are connected to the LP come from
the same law and commerce faculties as the LP politicians.

These days the average worker in the street would not be able to tell
you who is head of the CTU (the national trade union federation).  Half
the time I can't recall who it is myself.  He's just some yuppie lawyer
who, like a section of yuppie lawyers, simply chose the unions as a
career path.  His next job could well be on the board of a private
company or going off to lecture at law school about industrial

> However, when you have called the Labor Party a party of the yuppies, middle
> class etc I think you have to recognise that this incorporates a section of
> well-off workers. In the old days they were organised through the unions, in
> fact controlling the shocking politics of most unions, and hence the unions-
> Labor Party connection. Now I think the equivalent section of workers is no
> longer unionised/needing unions (professionals, NGO workers, etc). So labor
> has turned from unions as a social prop to "yuppies" and the middle class -
> workers and petit bourgeois both.

This may be the case in Australia, where I think the ALP does still have
some more links to the working class than the LP here in NZ.  But I
don't think the NZ LP, while it gets the votes of sections of the
working class, has any actual organic links to the class.  It doesn't
really 'incorporate' any workers in any meaningful sense.

More generally, I might note that a section of workers *passively* vote
for Labur, without any enthusiasm at all.  But given the massive
increase in abstentionism here - a quarter of voters didn't vote and
nearly half Maori didn't vote in the general election in July - I would
say that even Labour's passive voter 'support' among workers is pretty
low these days.  Of course, you are talking about well-off workers, but
like I said above, even there, I would argue that there is very little,
if anything, in the way of any institutionalised relationship.

Then again, perhaps we need to clarify who exactly we are talking abut
when we say 'middle class' and well-off workers.  For instance, when you
say 'well-off workers' you include in brackets people like
professionals.  I'd tend to say these are middle class rather than
working class, although there is an ongoing prcoess of
proletarianisation of curse..

> Of course Labor has had links with big business too, for example Australian
> PM Bob Hawke was notoriously friendly with various capitalists like Abeles,
> Packer etc. and the party gets a lot of donations from them. The political
> interest that the ALP represents is in fact big business.

This is the fundamental class interest that Labour represents.  I would
say that in terms of composition, the NZ LP is middle class (liberal
middle class) and that it represents and administers the interests of

> I don't see this as any massive change in Labor.

I think the transformation from a burgeois workers party into a
liberal-bourgeois party is quite significant.

I would also argue that this transformation also suggests that there is
very little material basis and political space for any serious
social-democratic project these days.  The virtual annihilation of the
Alliance party in NZ is further evidence.  I would suggest this is
highly significant historically.

> But the change from
> unionised "labour aristocrats" to middle class professionals is somewhat
> significant. It certainly means that revolutionaries should abandon the
> gallows-pole-support and reach for the Kalashnikov, metaphorically speaking.
> But I wouldn't at this stage rule out a turn back to the left by the ALP
> depending on the course of the struggle (and the need for the bourgeoisie to
> buy off sections of unionised workers again).

Since I think a *qualitative* change has taken place, I don't think Lps
can simply flip back into being old-style social democratic outfits.

My view is that this is good.  It is now a much clearer/straighter fight
between revolutionaries and bourgeois parties without social democracy
getting in the way.  Of curse, the impact effect of the end of social
democracy is a disorienting one on large sections of the working class,
but historically a good thing.

> I don't know as much about the
> NZLP. (I tried to download revolution#14 but the link was broken - is your
> website all up?).

Someone else contacted me off-list about this, and I have notified our
web guy.  Hopefully he can sort it out.  It was there last time I looked
for it, a few weeks back.

> The stimulus for this is the leaner, meaner post-Cold War neoliberalism that
> has eaten into (if not destroyed) the privileges of the traditional labour
> aristocracy. That's the basis for the working class voters abandoning Labor,
> the growth of right-wing scapegoating politics (around refugees, and the
> unfortunately substantial white working class support for Hanson's One
> Nation). It's also the basis for the growth of the left, if we get our
> strategy right.

yep, I basically agree with this.

> Exactly how much of the working class, strictly defined, is still part of
> a "labour aristocracy" and part of the Labor/New Labour constituency I'm not
> sure. It's not a crucial point. But there still are workers in Labor - they
> just act like they are middle class yuppies, for the most part. They have
> wholly gone over to capitalism. Where's my Kalashnikov?

I'm actually kind of dubious about the notion of a modern labour
aristocracy.  In NZ, it would be quite hard to identify such a layer,
even 20 years ago.  If you did it on the basis of income you'd have
ended up arguing that meat workers were part of the labour aristocracy,
and yet they were largely Maori and Pacific Islanders.  There are very
few workers around these days in NZ whose conditions of life give them
the privileges that Marx and Engels noted among the labour aristocracy
in Britain in the late Victorian era.  The modern factory system has
also done away with most of the old craft skills which typified that layer.


PLEASE clip all extraneous text before replying to a message.

More information about the Marxism mailing list