‘Practical’ Reformism: Obstacle to Socialism

Vote Matt McCarten

A by-election is being held in New Zealand to fill a vacancy created by the resignation of the Member of Parliament for Mana, a traditionally safe Labour Party constituency on the northern edge of Wellington. In addition to representatives of the governing conservative National Party and the opposition Labour and Green Parties, there is an independent candidate, Matt McCarten, who since 2003 has built the Unite union into a real force among the lowest paid workers in fast food outlets, hotels, cinemas and so on.

Matt McCarten has a simple three-point reform programme for the Mana by-election: a $15 minimum wage; abolition of the reactionary GST (Goods and Services Tax) and a public works and social services programme to create jobs for the 3000 unemployed in the constituency. It is a simple, practical-sounding programme with considerable appeal for working people in the area, and McCarten asserts that it can be expanded to cover the whole country.

In fact such ‘practical’ reforms could only be achieved through a massive social struggle that shook New Zealand capitalism to its foundation. It is sheer utopianism to imagine that this country’s rulers would be prepared to countenance such concessions unless they felt their hold on power was seriously threatened.

There’s been some criticism of McCarten because four people working on his campaign, including two members of the Workers Party, were arrested for participating in the occupation of vacant state housing in an attempt to make it available for homeless people. Whether this was tactically advisable or perhaps erred in the direction of attempting to substitute the actions of a few militants for mass working class mobilisations, we salute the willingness of the McCarten campaign to refuse to be hobbled by the bosses’ legal straightjacket. To win any serious struggles workers must be prepared to play outside the box and it is a strength rather than a weakness that this campaign is sending a signal that the interests of the oppressed masses trump observance of all legal niceties. Drop the charges and anti-democratic non-association orders against the arrested campaign workers!

We are calling for a vote to McCarten in this election, not because we consider his programme either practical or realizable, but because his candidacy presents a chance to vote against all the bosses’ parties, as well as their despicable Labour Party lackeys, If elected he is likely to advocate the sorts of measures he has campaigned on and by doing so will inevitably demonstrate the limitations of parliamentary politics as a means of advancing the interests of working people. As long as all society’s means of production, communication, transport etc. are owned and controlled by a handful of capitalists, the needs and requirements of the overwhelming mass of the population will never be met. The hard fact is that the interests of working people and the bosses are irreconcilable. That is why socialist revolution is necessary.

There should be no illusions that Matt McCarten is a revolutionary; he’s a leftish social democrat who believes in reform, and believes in mobilising the masses to get reform. The measures he is calling for will not lead to revolution, and if achieved would certainly not constitute any sort of socialism. Matt may think of himself as a revolutionary, but we well recall how as head of the New Labour Party in 1989-90 he oversaw the purge of the far left, including ourselves.

Indeed Matt has not learnt the first lesson of socialist politics: the necessity for the workers’ movement to remain completely independent from all capitalist parties, big or small. During his time as president of the New Labour Party, McCarten helped engineer mergers with the Greens, Liberals, Mana Motuhake and Social Credit/Democrats that produced the Alliance. By 2004-05 the terminally boring Alliance had become completely marginalised, and Matt decided to hop into bed with the emerging Maori Party—a bloc in which the brown bourgeoisie always called the shots.

Instead of working-class independence from the bourgeoisie, Matt has a record of brokering alliances in which the bourgeoisie wields a veto. The reason that his various cross-class political alliances have yet to produce a disaster on the scale of Franco’s victory over the popular front in Spain in the 1930s, or the liquidation of the Indonesian Communist Party by Suharto in the 1960s, or Pinochet’s triumph over Allende’s multi-class alliance in Chile in the 1970s, is simply that they never had a big enough popular following to pose even a potential threat to capitalist interests.

Matt’s spent his entire political life trying to put together some sort of leftish opposition to the right-wing Labour Party’s Rogernomics, austerity and privatisation. But he remains a social-democrat, and recently publicly proclaimed that the Labour Party is ‘going in the right direction’ but not fast enough [Dominion Post, 27 October 2010]. His public speeches are full of talk about the importance of mobilising to pressure Labour to act as it should.

McCarten and his co-thinkers (mostly in and around the leadership of Unite) make no secret of their desire to launch some sort of left-reformist socialist-talking parliamentary party. This is a realistic project given the Mixed-Member Proportional (MMP) representation system. If they succeed they might be able to pressure Labour in exchange for support in some sort of parliamentary bloc or coalition. Matt’s candidacy in this election is both a trial balloon and an attempt to mobilise interest for such a project. With the current low level of class struggle and the Labour Party shifting incrementally leftward, success in this venture is hardly guaranteed, but that is clearly the objective.

For Marxists, parliamentary politics is a sideshow, although elections can provide an opportunity to explain revolutionary ideas to a wider audience than is usually available. But parliament is a lot more than that for Matt and his friends. He’s enjoyed success both as a union builder and a party election organiser. He is pretty good at getting out the vote, but just as he tends to view mobilising his union base as a means to get chips to play at the bargaining table, he sees mobilising the vote and participating in mass struggles as a way to gain leverage for ‘realistic’ back-room wheeling and dealing.

Matt’s good at what he does; he has quite nicely sewn up the Marxoid left. The young activists from almost every tendency who are or have been employed as Unite organisers, or who would like to be employed, do not see themselves as the left-wing of the labour bureaucracy, and in truth most of these groups would support McCarten irrespective of his patronage. A leftwing analysis of his campaign might not have been expected of Socialist Worker or its offshoot Socialist Aotearoa , but from the centrist Workers Party we thought we might get something more than fawning—perhaps a bit of a criticism to leaven the praise. At least their leaflet says “If we are ever going to tackle the problem of inequality and injustice we need to look beyond the system we live under today. We need to get rid of capitalism.” Great—what’s missing is the fact that, whatever his subjective intent, Matt McCarten’s politics stand as an obstacle to getting rid of capitalism.

Yet many of the workers and militant youth who have been attracted to his campaign don’t yet understand that. They don’t have a clear idea of where things should go—but they like the direction that McCarten seems to be headed, with his ‘practical’ plans for getting rid of unemployment and boosting their wages. A groundswell of popular support for McCarten could draw dormant layers of the population into political life and potentially expand the audience for leftist ideas, including those that go far beyond the left reformism on offer in his current campaign. McCarten’s candidacy presents an opportunity to vote against the capitalist parties and their Labour satellites. But his track record makes it clear that his strategy of class collaboration is not a bridge, but rather a barrier, to the creation of the kind of workers’ combat party necessary to successfully overthrow capitalist rule once and for all. We call for a vote for Matt McCarten in an attempt to demonstrate just that.

Posted: 17 November 2010