The massacre of 50 Muslims in two Christchurch mosques on Friday 15 March 2019 shattered illusions that New Zealand is somehow immune to terrorism and fascism. On the contrary, like any other imperialist country, New Zealand generates its own far right. Paul Spoonley, an academic specialist on the extreme right, notes that Christchurch, with a more rigid class structure than other cities, is the home base for many fascists (stuff.co.nz, 13 May 2011). Overtly fascist former National Front leader Kyle Chapman has stood for the Christchurch mayoralty on three occasions, garnering a disturbingly high number of votes, and in 2012 it was the venue of the largest ever white supremacist rally in the country.
However, the perpetrator of this heinous crime did not come from the local fascist milieu but from New South Wales, Australia. For the past couple of years, he had lived in Dunedin, a few hours south of Christchurch, buying military-style semi-automatic weapons, joining a gun club and participating in online far-right chat groups without drawing suspicion from the authorities – not something that can be said of activists for peace or against open-cast mining.
This terrorist streamed a body-cam video of his bloody killings live on social media and distributed an openly fascist 74-page manifesto entitled “The Great Replacement”, which is banned in New Zealand but available around the world and is necessary to understanding his gruesome ideas and plans. Describing himself as an “ethno-nationalist ecofascist”, he claims: “the environment is being destroyed by over population, we Europeans are one of the groups that are not over populating the world. The invaders are the ones over populating the world. Kill the invaders, kill the overpopulation and by doing so save the environment.”
Although the killer seems to have acted alone, the influence of various white supremacists is clear, most notably the 1930s British fascist Oswald Mosley and “Knight Justiciar [Anders] Breivik”, the fascist perpetrator of the 2011 Norwegian massacre of social-democratic youth. He also claims to have drawn strength from the rise of Donald Trump as a sign of “renewed white identity and common purpose” and was comforted by a belief of being supported in his ideas by elements in the military and law enforcement agencies.
Most white New Zealanders have traditionally viewed the country as a sort of safe harbour from the evils of the world. The massive public outpourings in reaction to this outrage – huge vigils, gatherings outside mosques, prayer meetings, solidarity demonstrations – are, in part, expressions of grief for the loss of this illusion of security. From a shattered sense of security, the popular mood has somehow morphed into excessive self-congratulations – encouraged by local politicians with ample support from liberals around the world – over the supposedly enlightened way we have faced the tragedy.
From the 19th century wars in which the white settlers defeated the Māori and expropriated their land, monoculturalism has dominated in New Zealand, but this fašade began to crack after the Second World War with the migration of large numbers of Māori into the cities. Significant racial tensions developed, and from the 1980s, the country began to reinvent itself as bicultural via the mechanism of “honouring” the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi between Māori tribes and the British crown. This process handed some resources over to a small emerging Māori bourgeoisie and significantly increased the presence of Māori language and culture in public life, although Māori remain heavily concentrated in the working class.
As this bicultural ethos was being established over the past few decades, there has also been considerable immigration from the Pacific, Asia, Africa and Europe, with a quarter of all people now living in New Zealand born overseas. This has been accompanied by a growth of prejudice against various racial groups, with complaints about Muslim and Chinese immigration becoming a feature on talkback radio and other media, as well as occasional expressions of white supremacy and open fascism.
As an integrated component of the imperialist world order, New Zealand breeds racist bigotry that is exploited relentlessly by politicians of all parties. For instance, in 2015, Labour’s housing spokesperson insinuated that Chinese buyers were driving up house prices in Auckland. But more than any other mainstream politician it is Winston Peters, the current deputy prime minister and leader of Labour’s coalition partner New Zealand First, who has pandered to popular racist and anti-immigrant sentiments with Islamophobic and Sinophobic rhetoric. In 2017, after terrorist attacks in London, he openly pointed his finger at Muslims:
“What is happening is that family, friends and confidants are choosing to turn the other cheek, are choosing silence, rather than to turn these monsters in. That may be the culture of Damascus, but it is not ours. It may be acceptable in Tripoli, but it most certainly is not acceptable in New Zealand. While the Islamic community must clean house by turning these monsters in, it starts with their own families.”
—NZ Parliament transcript, 6 June 2017
The results of the 2017 general election gave Peters the role of kingmaker: he chose a centre-left coalition with Labour rather than a centre-right coalition with the National Party. On the whole he has been accommodating to Labour’s (distinctly unambitious) agenda, but until 15 March there was a sense in which he owned the government. Meanwhile Labour, the supposed representative of the working class, was held back by the need to keep its capitalist bloc partners on side.
After the Christchurch attacks, this changed. Labour prime minister Jacinda Ardern has clearly taken command, showing great empathy for the victims and a nation in shock, but crystallising the spontaneous wave of revulsion into something of a political movement designed to serve the current interests of the New Zealand ruling class.
One immediate reaction has been to strengthen the state apparatus. The police can suddenly be seen everywhere with arms, as never before. The security police are clearly to be better resourced – and the historical experience is that it will be the left rather than the right that is their primary target. Similarly, the censorship of the shooter’s “manifesto” sets a precedent that could also be used against any left-wing documents deemed “extremist”.
Within a month of the Christchurch massacre, NZ’s gun laws were comprehensively rewritten to ban ownership of automatic and semi-automatic weapons on the grounds that there can be no legitimate civilian use for such firearms. Marxists oppose this legislation as it gives the state a monopoly of armed force and denies self-defence to the workers’ movement and minorities. Again, such laws have historically been used against the left, while the right have had little difficulty in obtaining weapons.
More fundamentally, Ardern has used the moment to reshape national ideology. In response to the increasing ethnic diversity of the country, the ruling class – with Ardern as the facilitator – has opted to incorporate elites of immigrant groups into the national framework. Speaking in the inevitably extraordinary session of parliament following the shooting, which opened with a mullah chanting Islamic prayers, she continued the theme of her press conferences after the massacre, attempting to re-mould existing bicultural values into the beginning of a multicultural philosophy for New Zealand society: “They were New Zealanders. They are us.… We are a nation of 200 ethnicities, 160 languages. We open our doors to others and say welcome. The only thing which must change after the events of Friday is that we must close our door to those who espouse hate and fear.” (NZ Parliament transcript, 19 March 2019)
With his support base eroded overnight, Winston Peters could only look on and acknowledge: “the calm and comforting leadership of the Prime Minister during this moment of national tragedy; her clarity, empathy and unifying leadership is helping to guide the country through this massive test of our resolve.” (Ibid.)
Armed with a considerably augmented store of political capital, Ardern finds herself in a position of strength – though in this lies her dilemma. No longer answerable to Peters, Labour will struggle to find an excuse not to do more to address poverty, unemployment, poor working conditions, and lack of opportunity, which as products of capitalism provide the soil from which racism and fascism sprout. Without this, the talk of multiculturalism offers little more than empty rhetoric to working-class immigrants and racial minorities.
Labour’s leadership is above all loyal to the ruling class and its socio-economic system. While Ardern preaches against Islamophobia at home, the government supports imperialist wars abroad, helping to unleash terror against Muslim communities throughout the Middle East and Central Asia. Working people cannot rely on Labour to do anything to make life better for the mass of the population or to eliminate the threat from fascism.
What is needed is a united front to mobilise the working class and broader layers in massive actions to oppose fascism and defend the targets of far-right violence. We need multi-ethnic anti-fascist defence guards linked to the trade unions, that can, for instance, escort walking buses to schools or guard mosques, synagogues and marae.
With shock and grief at their peak, there have been some enormous actions and meetings around New Zealand, but they have typically been organised with little attempt at coalition building or drawing together the various organisations of the left and the workers’ movement. A particularly unfortunate lost opportunity was the effort of Poneke Antifascist Action (PAFA) in Wellington, which called a meeting with an excellent turnout of about 300 mostly young people on the Monday after the attacks. Organised on intersectionalist assumptions that required the majority of the people there to spend most of the time in a Pākehā (white) caucus rather than engaging in collective discussion of concrete measures that all communities could take together, at least a third went home early, and few have been seen since. It was a disaster.
PAFA and others like them, ironically claiming to embody the most up-to-date political thought, echo failed strategies from the past. They disregard existing organisations with more or less extensive roots in the left and workers’ movement, and instead attempt to go directly to the unorganised masses – leaving themselves as the originators to take the leadership role. Numerous opportunities to deal significant blows to the fascists in the past have been wasted, most notably in response to Hitler’s rise to power. All proportions guarded, PAFA’s squandering of today’s anti-fascist energy is reminiscent of the disastrous “united front from below” strategy pursued by the Communist Party in Germany in the early 1930s which sought to exclude the leadership of existing organisations in the workers’ movement and go straight to their membership.
Instead, a successful united front is between organisations, not imposed by one organisation that thinks it is superior. There must be give and take about the objectives of the united front, and the demands must be limited quite strictly to the needs of the situation, in order to bring in a wide range of organised and unorganised workers who agree with the objectives. Some groups will not want to participate, but there must be a genuine attempt to build unity in the left and workers’ movement against fascism.
Within the united front, all organisations have the right to argue their own views while also adhering to the agreed upon basis of unity. The IBT stands for far more than unity against fascism – we have a programme that runs the gamut from immigrant rights and sanctuary for refugees to a workers’ government, and we know these things will not come directly out of an anti-fascist united front. The united front is the first step towards an effective response to fascist terror, one which addresses the immediate needs of the moment, and provides a forum for the political ideas of different organisations to be tested and debated in practice. A successful anti-fascist united front would represent a significant step towards building the mass revolutionary party that is necessary to defeat fascism, racism and the other ills of capitalism in New Zealand and around the world.