Spoil your ballot on 17 September

Election 2005: Rogernomics or Rogernomics?

During the run-up to the 1996 elections, the state Electoral Commission campaigned to get people to the polling booths on the slogan “If you don’t vote, don’t complain.” Wellington anarchists responded with their own slogan—“If you vote, don’t complain.” It was a nice reply, but in fact neither of these perspectives offers ordinary working people a way to take control of their lives and of this society.

Those who operate the levers of bourgeois-liberal democracy—the capitalist class and its political representatives—would have us believe that fundamental social and political issues are settled through general elections. In fact the choices are always narrow, and in New Zealand over these last 20 years particularly so. The biggest problem for the two main players, Labour and National, is how to convince voters that there are substantial differences between them, for both are thoroughly dedicated to maintaining capitalism, and specifically a free-market brand of capitalism. The question of which of these parties will be the core of the next government is really rather mundane.

But at the same time it’s a mistake to think—as anarchists tend to—that capitalist elections are always irrelevant to working people.

Anarchists think all government is bad, and therefore elections for governments must also be bad. But on the contrary, the working class needs a government of its own—a revolutionary government committed to a programme that consistently advances the interests of the oppressed and exploited. In fact the single most important need of the working class is political debate on the left to clarify that programme—that is, to clarify the government measures that would serve workers’ interests. That process of clarification is inseparable from the task of building a party that embodies and furthers that programme.

So while there is no way any significant change will come out of contests like the one on 17 September, bourgeois elections can contribute something valuable to revolutionary politics. As occasions of national political discussion, elections can be used to put forward a revolutionary Marxist programme, through revolutionaries intervening in the debates and, where practicable, standing candidates.

For a party that is against the bosses!

What is needed above all else is a party standing for the interests of the working class. That idea is fundamental to Marxism. Socialism can be built, and can only be built, by the working class conscious of its political interests as a class and organised to advance those interests. And that consciousness and organisation must necessarily be embodied in and expressed through a party, the future mass revolutionary party of the working class.

Clearly nothing like such a party is on offer in the current election, but this is the yardstick by which revolutionaries assess the options that are on offer. Marxists often give “critical support” and call for a vote to those parties that, even though they fall short of what is needed, nevertheless advance workers in the class struggle by expressing some significant part of their interests. For example, in the early years of the Communist International, Lenin and Trotsky advocated critical support for mass social-democratic parties of the working class (such as the British Labour Party) against the open parties of the bourgeoisie (such as the Liberals and Conservatives).

The quality that the British Labour Party offered and revolutionaries could genuinely support was precisely that by standing as a workers party—however inconsistently and unreliably—it organised the mass of the class against the openly capitalist parties. The policies it stood for were entirely inadequate, and it was bound to betray even those, but vast layers of the working class believed in Labour, and saw it as representing them as a class. Critical support for Labour in elections was a way in which revolutionaries could stand with Labour’s working-class base, warn of the sell-outs to come, and get a hearing for revolutionary politics.

The Fourth Labour Government dismantles the welfare state

Neither the New Zealand IBT nor its forerunner, the Permanent Revolution Group, existed in 1984, but in retrospect Marxists could have given critical support to David Lange’s Labour Party against Robert Muldoon’s National Government in the elections in July that year. While the class-consciousness represented by the Labour Party by that time was already a pathetic shadow of its wholly inadequate past, Labour still sought to appeal to its traditional working-class, trade union base. Workers backed Labour in 1984 because they saw it as the party of working people generally.

Critical support for Labour in 1984 would have included a prominent warning about the betrayal to come—and of course the Fourth Labour Government did sell workers out. Indeed it sold them out much more spectacularly than anyone imagined possible. Under the rubric of neo-Liberal Rogernomics, the Lange-Douglas Government laid waste to the concessions wrested from the capitalists through half a century of class struggle.

Since then Labour has changed. It has shed its far right to ACT, and its left to the Alliance via New Labour. It seems that the rabid right-wing ACT may at last fall below the threshold of parliamentary presence, while the Alliance—far, far below that threshold—hangs on as left social democrats, advertising an illusionary political destination part-way between capitalism and socialism. The Alliance’s objectives might be a little more radical than Labour’s, but the method of getting to them is precisely the same—parliamentary reforms.

Government by coalition: Allying with the class enemy

Helen Clark’s party, trimmed for the Fifth Labour Government, has been less actively brutal than Lange’s Fourth, but has done nothing to restore the gains dismantled at that time. And in the new environment of proportional representation it has become accustomed to governing with a minority in parliament, wheeling and dealing its way through a shifting corridor coalition in which United Future, the Greens, New Zealand First, the Māori Party and even National are played off against each other.

It might look like a disparate mélange of parties, but Labours kaleidoscopic array of allies have something in common. Every one of them aspires to a cross-class base. Every one of them is committed to the capitalist order. Every one would serve to moderate any pressure from the base of the Labour Party to take strong pro-worker measures.

Even Labour’s most recent and most radical friends, the Greens, are a bourgeois party. It’s true that they are perhaps the most left-wing of the significant Green parties around the world, and that in Sue Bradford and Keith Locke they have the two MPs with the most left-wing personal histories. The Greens also garner the votes of leftists who want to see a Labour Government without taking responsibility for voting directly for it (like the Socialist Workers Organisation in the 2002 elections). But the NZ Greens have clearly not staked out ground for themselves as a party of the working class or of socialism; they represent the interests of particular sections of the national-protectionist wing of the NZ capitalist class and petty bourgeoisie.

So in 2005 there can be no illusion that Labour represents the working class as a class against the parties of the capitalist order. Its mode of rule is through alliances with the parties of the bourgeoisie, and it uses these alliances as an excuse for dismissing as wildly impractical any measure that would substantially alter the social balance in favour of workers.

Labour—Nothing to vote for

Today, nobody thinks Labour stands for the idea that workers need their own party against those of the bosses. Labour is campaigning merely on the claim that it can provide a slightly kinder government than Brash’s alternative.

This is something the comrades of the Auckland-based Communist Workers Group (CWG) have difficulty grasping. They are calling on workers to “Vote Labour Now to Smash Capitalism Later”. They argue:

“As communists we harbour no illusions that Labour can deliver socialism for workers but it is important to give it tactical support while most workers see their policies as able to meet the interests of their class.”
(Class Struggle, n 62, July-August 2005)

Of course large layers of workers will vote for Labour, but entirely without enthusiasm, optimism or a sense that it represents their interests against those of the bosses. Instead, votes for Labour will be on the basis that it is an evil lesser than National. The CWG’s position in fact represents its own reluctance to break cleanly with the Labour betrayers. “Communists” who cannot make such a political break now can have no hope of leading workers in “smashing capitalism later”.

New Zealand workers clearly do not have the illusions in Labour that the CWG attributes to them. But the notion that Clark is a lesser evil to Brash is also largely an illusion. The difference between National and Labour is essentially cosmetic, and revolutionaries should speak that truth openly to the working class and expose Labour’s fraudulent PR. Opening her 2005 election campaign, Clark attacked National’s policies as “representing the last throw of the dice for the people who brought us Rogernomics and Ruthanasia” (Dominion Post, 22 August). But of course “the people” she’s referring to include her and her cronies, Goff, Cullen and so on, for they were themselves sitting around the cabinet table as junior ministers in the Fourth Labour Government.

When it came to the crunch in the mid-80s it was not a National administration but Labour that presided over the most massive cuts in the welfare state, and there is not the slightest doubt that Labour would do the same again if that were what the capitalist class needed. Labour is responsible for constructing in the eighties, and for maintaining today, an economic structure that makes the NZ bosses smile when they wake up each morning. Of course they’d like lower company tax rates and so on, but when the NZ capitalist class look at Clark’s Government, they know they’re looking at family.

Promoting oppression, at home and away

Clark’s Labour has regularly demonstrated that it is a force for oppression, not against it. Taking its lead from Bush Jr’s US administration in the post-September 11 climate, Labour has cracked down on civil liberties, locking up Ahmed Zaoui for two years without trial, even though his genuine refugee status has been officially recognised and meticulously documented by the Refugee Status Appeals Authority. More recently Labour confirmed its reactionary colours when under its leadership Parliament’s Justice and Electoral Committee rejected a petition for a royal commission into the Peter Ellis injustice.

Those positions fit well with Labour’s consistently rabid policies on “crime”. In the last 10 years, the likes of Phil Goff have frothed at the mouth over law and order, trying to outdo National and NZ First as the “toughest”. This year we see again the usual obscene bidding war in which the parties compete about which is going to put more cops on the streets. Labour has promised another 250 “community police” to go with the 265 new cops already announced in this year’s Budget.

In industrial relations, on a good day Labour projects itself as a liberal mediator between unions and employers, but in practice it’s mostly an outright supporter of the bosses. Its 2000 reform of National’s labour law left in place every obstacle to strikes and other forms of working-class struggle. Sympathy strikes and political strikes remain illegal. And earlier this year when the Council of Trade Unions campaigned pathetically for a measly five percent wage rise, Labour tried to put a damper on even that.

Labour’s policies are reactionary abroad as well as at home. They have had some success in portraying their foreign policy as humanitarian and progressive—but they are in fact consistent continuators of the New Zealand tradition of junior imperialism, which has supported every significant imperialist action from the Boer War onwards. Clark’s Labour has fully supported the extension of American power into the Middle East under the colour of the “war against terror”—it has sent crack SAS troops to Afghanistan, military engineers to Iraq, and warships to the Persian Gulf.

Where is Labour going?

Today NZ Labour is dancing on the farthest edges of social democracy. Although Labour parties have always been about maintaining and promoting capitalism, they have also had within them a contradiction that the open parties of the capitalist class do not have—a contradiction between their procapitalist policies and their working-class base. But for the last 20 years, that contradiction has been effectively suspended in the NZ Labour Party. Like Blair’s New Labour in Britain, Clark’s Labour is flirting with being simply a liberal-bourgeois party.

But the story has not yet played itself out. Social democracy has an important role in maintaining capitalism, by channelling workers’ struggles down less threatening paths. In a time of rising class struggle, the job of Clark, Cullen and Co would be to rekindle their pro-worker rhetoric and to invite the working class to express its political anger through the Labour Party—and then choke it. That’s a role that Brash and National cannot hope to play for the NZ capitalist class. The only other social democrats who might be considered candidates for that role, the tired rump of the old Alliance, have hardly got the weight.

Māori and NZ politics

The characteristic question that distinguishes New Zealand history, contemporary politics and revolutionary perspectives is that of the Māori people. Its a question posed with particular sharpness in the current election. The origin of the Pākehā New Zealand capitalist class lies in the primitive accumulation of capital through the 19th century expropriation of Māori land, and the origin of the Pākehā New Zealand state lies in the 19th century wars against the Māori. Subsequently, the successes of New Zealand capitalism must be attributed to the labour power that has fuelled it—a substantial part of which has also been Māori.

Māori are an oppressed people, but although they were militarily defeated by the end of the 1870s, they were not overwhelmed and marginalised like the Australian Aborigines, and have continued to be an important factor in New Zealand social and political life. In the last half-century they have also been a powerful force in the class struggle, leading strikes from Māngere to Kawerau and beyond.

Today Māori constitute perhaps 18 percent of the population. Overwhelmingly concentrated in the working class, Māori have higher unemployment than Pākehā, lower median income, and shorter life expectancy. All the social indicators show them to be among the most oppressed in New Zealand society, and, for example, Māori use of professional health care is less than Pākehā, even compared to Pākehā of similar incomes. Socially Māori are rather well integrated with Pākehā, with a high rate of intermarriage, and by default they vote for the Labour Party. But they also have an historically repetitive tendency to express their political interests through separatist organisations.

The current expression of Māori separatism arises out of a 2003 Court of Appeal ruling that in some cases Māori may be able to establish legal property rights to sections of the foreshore and seabed. Responding to a white backlash, the Labour Government legislated to extinguish those rights—a blatant 21st century racist land grab, which, considering the militancy of the previous generation of Māori against the old historical land confiscations, was a move of extraordinary stupidity.

In the subsequent political crisis Tariana Turia, a junior minister in the Government, resigned from the Labour Party and from Parliament, founded the Māori Party and was re-elected in the subsequent by-election. Appealing to completely justified grievances against Labour, the Māori Party does not in fact offer a real alternative but presents itself as a socially conservative, moderate, cross-class organisation.

Its success indicates the importance of the land question. Revolutionaries stand for reasonable compensation for the thievery and gangsterism that ripped off Māori land in the 19th—and 20th and 21st—centuries. The process for getting compensation for violations of the Treaty of Waitangi has forged a well-heeled Māori elite, but it's making very little difference to the real material lives of ordinary Māori. While the Treaty claims process is wholly inadequate as means of achieving Māori equality, we oppose the competing Māori-bashing proposals of the various parties to cut short the process.

If there is to be a New Zealand socialist revolution it must embrace the struggles of Māori, both as workers and as Māori. It must fight for legitimate Māori special interests, such as compensation for the stolen land. It must fight for things that specially affect Māori, such as the right of everyone to be educated in the language of their choice. And it must fight for those interests that Māori share with Pākehā, Pacific Islanders, Asians and other workers—for jobs, for free housing, free education, health care and so on.

Just as the future of socialist revolution in NZ depends on its ability to mobilise Māori workers, so does the liberation of Māori as a people depend on joint struggle with workers of all nationalities against capitalism. The separatist, multi-class strategy offered by Turia, Pita Sharples and the Māori Party is a dead end, for it calls on ordinary Māori to unite with the new Māori capitalist and petty-capitalist elite that has emerged from the Treaty claims process. These comfortable layers now have very different social interests from ordinary Māori battling unemployment, poverty and ill health. Ultimately, Māori liberation hinges on Māori workers taking sides with their Pākehā, Pacific Island and Asian workmates, against their exploiters of all nationalities.

The Anti-Capitalist Alliance—Reformism plus a workers republic

While for electoral purposes Marxists judge larger organisations on the extent to which they organise the working class against the capitalists’ parties, smaller organisations that do not have that capacity must be judged on the extent to which their programme represents the objective interests of the working class. One such group standing candidates in 2005 is the Anti-Capitalist Alliance, a vehicle of the Revolutionary Workers League, which is a product of the fusion of the Christchurch group around revolution magazine and the Maoist Workers Party. The RWL’s paper, The Spark, notes that the organisation “has as its foundation the works of Marx, Engels and Lenin” but

“… also recognises the contributions of other Marxists. It accepts there are different interpretations of the history of the international communist movement and does not think these differences should prevent revolutionary unity.”

Let’s be plain about it. The different interpretations in question here are the differences between Stalin and Mao on the one hand (the Workers Party) and some species of anti-Stalinism on the other (the revolution group). The former represented the thuggish and politically corrupt bureaucracies that ran the USSR and still run the Chinese deformed workers’ state. The most coherent critic of Stalin and Mao’s type of national-bureaucratic “Marxism” was Leon Trotsky. He stood for working-class political revolution against the Stalinists at home and a revolutionary perspective internationally, and was bitterly opposed to the Stalinist popular-frontist programme of coalitions with bourgeois parties. And he advocated a transitional programme of demands designed to lead the working class beyond the struggle for immediate day-to-day concerns to challenge the whole existence of the capitalist order.

It is this conception of a transitional programme that is most sorely missing from the campaign of the Anti-Capitalist Alliance. Instead their platform echoes the classical two-tier programme of the international social-democratic movement before the First World War—the minimum programme of reforms we need right now, and a maximum, socialist programme for the far-off future. It is what an organisation has to offer in the vast political space between those two programmes that really counts—that is, how it proposes to link the immediate struggles of today to the necessity for social revolution. The task of Marxists is to build a bridge from the struggle for today’s felt needs to the struggle for workers’ state power.

The ACA’s objective is great—the “overthrow of the capitalist system and its replacement by a new truly socialist society”. But to expect class-conscious workers to place a vote of political confidence in them, the ACA needs to say something—something at least—about how to achieve that objective. But this they do not do. They have the subjective intention and perhaps even the will to fight for that objective—but they lack even the beginnings of a political programme capable of achieving it.

Programmes—Minimum, maximum and transitional

For example, in their five-point election platform the ACA include a perfectly good minimum demand for “Jobs for all with a living wage and shorter working week”, but they do not set that demand in its place as a tool of revolutionary mobilisation. The demand for a shorter work week with no loss in pay meets the needs of workers and is counterposed to the interests of capital; it can be an inspiration for a fundamentally more rational arrangement of production and a tool for mobilising workplaces in anti-capitalist struggle. But no demand does that automatically or on its own. Trotsky’s Transitional Program of 1938 explains not only the need to fight for a sliding scale of hours (reducing the work week to the level that eliminates unemployment) and a sliding scale of wages (indexing pay to inflation), but also the means of fighting for them.

The fight for these demands and the arguments in favour of them start to pose the necessity for a different, socialist order. This cannot be achieved by electoral-parliamentary activity, but only through hard class struggle in which workers’ organisations use strikes, pickets and organised defence guards, culminating in the imposition of workers power.

The basic weapon of workers is the strike—the withdrawal of the labour power that capitalist profits depend on. A serious fight to win a sliding scale of wages and hours across all industries and trades would very likely involve the most centralised and most effective form of strike—the general strike. By withdrawing labour across the board and stopping capitalism’s economic machinery, a general strike inevitably poses the question of who rules this society and in whose interests. It implicitly puts the seizure of power by the working class on the agenda as a possibility, thus raising the spectre of a workers’ government, based on a workers’ army, the core of which would be the labour movement’s defence organisations.

The sliding scale of wages and hours is a central plank, but only one, of a transitional programme for socialists to mobilise workers for revolutionary struggle. Such a programme must address the entire range of workers’ needs, such as quality health care, 24-hour crèches, education, housing and public transport—all of which must be free. In addressing these issues such a programme must also pose the necessity for a social system in which production is organised for the purpose of meeting human needs, rather than maximising private profit.

The programme of a revolutionary party—a programme for workers to take power—must also appeal beyond those who see themselves as workers, beyond even those massive layers who are workers but not yet conscious of it, to the wider strata of the oppressed. The programme must defend the rights of all immigrants, Māori, women, and sexual minorities, whether or not part of the working class, for all oppression and all inequality and privilege are contrary to the interests of the proletariat.

We of the International Bolshevik Tendency are committed to building a party, rooted in the mass organisations of the proletariat, to fight on such a programme for the leadership of working and oppressed people.

Posted: 10 September 2005