Labour (further)

Jurriaan Bendien J.Bendien at
Sun Sep 22 18:18:55 MDT 2002

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Phil, you wrote:

My argument is more nuanced than this.  It is that the left too often
divorces the fight for this or that reform from the struggle against
capitalism.  It assumes that people will spontaneously draw
revolutionary conclusions from struggles for reform and that the role of
revolutionaries is merely to be the 'best builders' of movements for reform.

Okay, I see your point. All I am really saying is that what is needed is the
type of campaign in which workers can actually win something, which actually
makes a difference to people's lives, where people can see that their
political input can actually change something, that you can actually make a
real difference. In itself, that might actually be only a small change (a
"reform"), but it would show people that collective effort can turn things
around in some way. This is pretty simple, elementary stuff, but then in New
Zealand a century-old tradition of the labour movement has been more or less
wiped out, so you're almost back at the beginning. Perhaps a bit like Lenin
and Plekhanov's Emancipation of Labour group in Russia.

Here in Amsterdam recently the Socialist Party (which now has 30,000 members
and is still growing) got quite involved in a campaign to stop the staged
privatisation of the urban tramways and metro, about which there was a
referendum. In fact, the privatisation did not go ahead, so the Left won
it. Okay, you can say that a simple matter such as stopping the trams from
being privatised doesn't overthrow capitalism. Nevertheless, a lot of people
could see that such a campaign can be won, that they could have an effect, and
that again gives the SP more political credit - it spreads the idea that there
is an alternative, and that you can win things. So people will join on that

I had a NZ trade unionist write to me recently, he seemed a bit perplexed and
was asking for studies of cases where left-wingers and trade unions had
actually successfully won something for groups of workers, defended their jobs
successfully and so on. This was in reference to difficult situations in NZ,
where it seems almost impossible to stop local factories cutting wages or
closing down when confronted by cheaper imports, within the framework of the
free trade regime. Not only has unionisation declined drastically in NZ, but
the trade unions that remain have very little leverage as such. That is how
bad it is there. A lot of trade unionists are actually scratching their heads
and thinking "well what can we do, so we can actually win something". If it's
difficult to win even simple bread-and-butter issues, then that makes a
socialist politics extraordinarily difficult to get off the ground.

In your "anti-capitalist coalition", you invited voters to make a stand on
some basic radical demands. Nothing ipso facto wrong with that, but you don't
have any realistic chance to win any of those points on your platform, so it
is still a bit abstract; you don't even get many votes. What I would do is
pick some issue or theme where you can, through working at it collectively,
actually be successful and win something, achieve a practical change, so that
people can actually see "these guys can actually change things, they can
change something effectively, they have a real answer". In my experience, far
left groups most often make political proposals about issues which they cannot
possibly win, and that is why they stay small, because although people will
sympathise with the ideas perhaps, they don't think they are realistic,
winnable, or have any practical effect.

With your comments on Labourism I have no real dispute. I was somewhat
critical though of Shane's and Bruce's historical articles because I felt they
wanted to rewrite history, in the light of the historic betrayal of
Rogernomics, in order to show that the NZ Labour Party had been selling out
the working class since the foundation of the party, and that seemed to me to
be lacking in nuance.

Point is that today the NZ Labour Party is operating within a legal, political
and economic framework of Hayekian capitalism which does not even permit any
progressive social reforms beyond the tiniest bit of tinkering, even if it
wanted to introduce them (if I recall correctly, when Helen Clark became prime
minister, the Greens proposed that she would modestly raise the unemployment
benefit to an acceptable level, but she flatly refused even the very
idea). Sure, many workers will still vote for the Labour Party, but this is
more for lack of any better alternative, and to keep the other guys out - not
because the party is actually doing anything much at all to improve their lot.

Most left-thinking people I have had contact with in NZ are dissatisfied with
all the parties in government, they just reason that some are less bad than
others, which is a pretty dismal "lesser evil" logic. They will vote for the
Greens, for Labour or the Alliance, but not because they genuinely believe
those parties have an answer, it is just that they are preferable to the other
lot. A real political alternative has yet to be created - I take my hat off to
you for trying.


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