Facing hard reality, but not giving in to pessimism

In January this website published a talk I had given at the ISO annual conference in November 2015. The subject was an assessment of the current political situation in Aotearoa. It was a dour, sober account of unchanged weakness of the unions, Labour and the left and the corresponding strength of the Key government and its gradual programme of neo-liberal advance, underpinned by modest economic growth.

A recognition of unpalatable reality is not the same as pessimism. You often hear ordinary people express the idea that Aotearoa is conservative and rightwing dominance permanent. People extrapolate the existing situation into the future, unable to see things differently. Marxism, however, is a philosophy that explains development through the outcome of conflict between forces. Neither human society nor the natural world is static, but in flux. The capitalist economy is inherently unstable; classes stand in opposition to each other; the ruling capitalist class is “a hostile band of warring brothers” in competition with each other economically, militarily and diplomatically. The capitalist system is a complex, dynamic world where when change comes it can be in cathartic explosions.

While it is possible to hold a general perspective of where the capitalist economy is heading and where the fractures of the capitalist system lie, even Marxism cannot foretell exactly how and when leftwing irruptions of mass consciousness and/or activity will manifest themselves. Mass psychology is by definition concealed in the minds of people. Yet Marxists understand that at the psychological level the working class works through the conflict between its experiences and received bourgeois ideas. Mass changes of thought are unpredictable in periods of working class quiescence where, without mass participation in unions or workers’ parties, there is no means to trace the evolution of workers’ thinking. History affords many examples of unpredicted leftwing irruptions coming out of the blue. In recent times who could have predicted the rise of Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain, or that the leftwing fringe MP Jeremy Corbyn would become the leader of the British Labour Party? And what about the tidal wave of support for Bernie Sanders in “the heart of the beast”? Marxists can claim that they knew these leftwing turns would happen, only not where, when or how!

Aotearoa is not immune from the possibility of a sudden leftwing change. It could happen any time. Aotearoa is not irredeemably conservative. Although the country was once a by-word for conservatism and has run with the neoliberal experiment the most, it has also oscillated to the left to produce a reforming Labour government from 1935 to 1949 and an upsurge of workers’ struggles in the 1970’s. Are there any straws in the wind that can give us a clue to when and how the Aotearoa working class will turn left? I stand by the unpredictability theory and would have to answer no. There is no harm, however, in making some observations.

The Marxist left, in the Anglophone world at least, has tended to chart the decline of the working class movement in terms of industrial struggles and union decline. This is fair enough; after all the unions are the basic defence organisations of the working class and the strike is the weapon that demonstrates workers’ collective power. We have tended to assume that the revival of our fortunes will be the reverse of the same form, i.e. an upturn of industrial action and trade unionism, which will in turn translate into political consciousness. Perhaps we have been a little stuck in the way of thinking of the late 60’s and 1970’s. However, even in that era of massive strike movements it is worth recalling that the catalyst in France was the students’ protests and in the USA the left surged forward on resisting imperialist war abroad and fighting racism at home.

The recent international experience is that the leftwing revivals have been essentially political and have not yet translated into anything like thunderous gains in the workplaces. In Scotland, for example, the left revival took the form of a radical independence movement in the 2014 referendum, to be followed in the British 2015 general election by the obliteration of the Labour Party by the Scottish National Party standing to its left. Similarly political has been the mass support for Corbyn, Sanders, Syriza (until its betrayal) and Podemos. One could also speak of the rise of leftist governments in Latin America in the first decade of the 21st century. To think that workers must attain trade union consciousness before they can move forward to political consciousness is plain wrong.  Whilst the experience of strikes is extremely educational politically, capitalism is an all-embracing social system that is multi-faceted. Workers are as likely to be moved to action over an international issue (such a British workers’ support for Polish independence in Karl Marx’s day) as on bread and butter terms of employment. The divide between the political sphere and the union sphere is an artificial one that belongs to reformist politics. Under reformist principles workers must not use their industrial power for political ends, and industrial disputes must not be politicised.

There are two sub-observations to make on the leftwing revival internationally. Firstly, it has been disproportionally young people who have swung to the left. Secondly, the revival has taken the form of support for reformist social-democratic politics against neoliberalism. The regeneration of reformism is understandable. It is so long since the last upturn of the workers’ movement that young people are not acquainted with the lessons of the past. Continuity has been broken. Yet I suspect that what took 100 years to learn previously will take only 10 in future.

The next observation is on the disarray of rightwing parties internationally, or at least in the Anglophone area. The right are not as cocky and confident as they were when neo-liberalism was sweeping all before it, dragging reformism in tow. Since the 2008 Global Financial Crisis the world economy has spluttered and the global dominance of the US has been increasingly challenged by the rise of China. In country after country the right parties seems not to have a clear strategy for its capitalist sponsors.

The right’s difficulties are on display in the US primaries. The Republicans are at sixes and sevens and look to have little chance of winning the Presidency. In the Democrat Party race Sanders’ campaign is pushing Hillary Clinton to pose left, not that it will mean anything if she becomes President, but it is hardly pleasing for the US ruling class that inequality has become a top issue.

In Britain, the Tory Party, which had already suffered from UKIP taking over the rightwing populism franchise, is now bitterly divided over the upcoming June referendum on membership of the EU. The Cabinet is split. Hearing the Tories at each other’s throats is a joy, but the serious point is the loss of the Tories’ grip on behalf of UK capitalism. Big capital is pro-EU. Opinion polling shows the No and Yes sides neck-and-neck.

On a minor scale, even in Aotearoa the right is showing symptoms of internal problems. Our enemies are not as well organised as might be thought. The Auckland Mayoralty is by far the most important election this year, but the right just cannot get its act together. So far there are about 5 declared rightwing candidates. It looks like a walk in the park for Phil Goff at the moment.

A turn to the left must come to Aotearoa, but who knows when or in what guise? Socialists must prepare by study and building our ranks on campuses, ready to greet new opportunities as and when.