How revolutionaries choose their political priorities

How we choose our political priorities

How we intervene in bourgeois elections

A study guide

Workers Party platform
1. Opposition to all New Zealand and Western imperialist intervention in the Third World and all Western imperialist alliances.

2. Secure jobs for all with a living wage and a shorter working week.

3. For the unrestricted right of workers to organise and take industrial action and no limits on workers’ freedom of speech and activity.

4. For working class unity and solidarity – equality for women, Maori and other ethnic minorities and people of all sexual orientations and identities; open borders and full rights for migrant workers.

5. For a working people’s republic

I have become more and more convinced – and the thing now is to drum this conviction into the English working class – that they will never be able to do anything decisive here in England before they separate their attitude towards Ireland quite definitely from that of the ruling classes, and not only make common cause with the Irish, but even take the initiative in dissolving the Union established in 1801, and substituting a free federal relationship for it. And this must be done not out of sympathy for Ireland, but as a demand based on the interests of the English proletariat. If not, the English people will remain bound to the leading-strings of the ruling classes, because they will be forced to make a common front with them against Ireland.

- Marx to Kugelmann, November 29, 1869

The way I shall express the matter next Tuesday is: that, quite apart from all ‘international’ and ‘humane’ phrases about Justice for Ireland – which are taken for granted on the International Council – it is in the direct and absolute interests of the English working class to get rid of their present connexion with Ireland. I am fully convinced of this, for reasons that, in part, I cannot tell the English workers themselves. For a long time I believed it would be possible to overthrow the Irish regime by English working class ascendancy. I always took this viewpoint in the New-York Tribune. Deeper study has now convinced me of the opposite. The English working class will never accomplish anything before it has got rid of Ireland. The lever must be applied in Ireland. This is why the Irish question is so important for the social movement in general.

- Marx to Engels, December 10, 1969

Over 130 years ago, Marx (and Engels) made the point that the key to the British revolution was the national-revolutionary struggle in Ireland. Central to this was their idea that as long as British workers went along with their own ruling class’s policy of oppressing Ireland British workers would never reach revolutionary consciousness and never seriously threaten the dominance of the British ruling class in Britain itself no matter how splendidly organised they were in trade unions or how militant they were in demanding wage rises.

The centrality of political questions to the class struggle should be well-established by now, but it is often not well-understood on the far left. Or, where lip-service is paid to it, little is done in practice and/or the political issues which are chosen are weak in class content and don’t raise fundamental questions about the system or really open up opportunities for such questions to be raised.

One of the things that characterised the two currents which came together to form the ACA and subsequently the RWL – ie the original WP and revolution groups – was that both understood the primacy of politics and political questions over narrow economic issues and that the key political questions were those which served to raise the level of consciousness of workers to an anti-capitalist one, fostered unity of all the oppressed, sharpened class contradictions and involved key elements of the system (ie therefore opened up the possibilities of challenges to the system as a whole).

A good example of this is the question of imperialism. Imperialism is the highest stage of capitalism. The developed capitalist countries cannot be other than imperialist; imperialism is part of their life-blood. It is a necessary condition of capitalism in the most developed capitalist countries. Therefore anti-imperialism directly challenges the ability of the ruling classes in the most developed capitalist countries to function and maintain their system. Since imperialist ruling classes require the ideology of nationalism and the use of divide-and-rule – eg dividing the workers of the imperialist world from the workers of the world exploited by imperialism – it is vital to confront imperialist nationalism in countries like New Zealand. If this is not done, the workers remain trapped in a framework of supporting their own ruling class against other (more oppressed) workers – and workers who line up behind their own exploiters against other workers will never seriously challenge their own ruling classes and the system of capitalist exploitation.

Struggles over wages and conditions – while important – do not in and of themselves contain or raise an anti-capitalist consciousness. This is because struggles over wages and conditions, no matter how hard they are fought, are struggles over the terms on which exploitation shall continue – not over the existence of exploitation itself. Workers in imperialist countries can wage extremely militant struggles for pay rises or in defence of working conditions without at all becoming anti-imperialist. Male workers can be very militant around pay and conditions while maintaining all kinds of backward views about the position of women. White workers can be very militant around the same issues while maintaining all kinds of backward views in relation to workers of colour.

However, workers in the imperialist world who champion the rights of the oppressed peoples of the Third World as against the First World workers’ own rulers have begun to seriously break with a key ideological prop of the system. They are not only showing solidarity with workers abroad but they are showing that they understand – or are beginning to – that they are part of an international class with common interests rather than part of a First World nation with common interests with their own rulers.

Similarly, workers who support full equality for women, for oppressed ethnic and national minorities (or majorities), gay people, immigrants and so on are breaking with their own exploiters and understanding that “us” doesn’t mean the company and the nation but the exploited and oppressed. The class is starting to develop an awareness of itself as a class and think and act as a class – a class for itself as against the exploiting class and the state and ideology of the exploiting class.

All of this helps explain why internationalism is the number one point in the platform of the WP and why solidarity with the oppressed within New Zealand in another key platform point (point 4).

Points 2 and 3 of our platform point to key economic issues but go beyond simple calls for wage rises and wage militancy. Capitalism today, despite all its fiddling with figures, is unable to provide full employment with wages from one regular 40-hour a week job to keep a working class family. So our demand for jobs for all with a living wage – and for us it is workers who determine what that wage is not government commissions or what employers say they can afford – challenges the system, as does our call for a shorter working week. At the same time, the simple demand for a shorter work-week probably needs amending because, as Jared pointed out some time ago, for many workers the existing work-week is actually too short and there is a lack of regular or guaranteed hours. But our fundamental point is that workers have the right to a living income and stable, guaranteed work that is less than 40 hours a week. Since capitalism today cannot guarantee this, fighting for these things does enable an anti-capitalist critique to be developed. However, it has to be consciously developed – it certainly won’t happen spontaneously. This requires a lot of careful, patient work on our part because we also cannot force the rate at which such consciousness develops.

Point three is a highly political point because it is really about class consciousness – the class acting as a class – and it is about challenging the state as well as employers. The more involved we have gotten in workers’ struggles the more we have found all kinds of restrictions on workers’ freedom of action and speech. Yet it’s impossible for class politics in the real sense of the word to develop or be developed without the maximum freedom of speech and debate among workers and without workers being able to act as a class in pursuance of their interests – whether that be solidarity strikes with other workers or political strikes in support of the oppressed here and abroad or against some state policy.

In order for workers to develop real class consciousness workers have to have their own world view – an alternative view to the capitalists on every issue from imperialist war to boy racers, from gay rights to university funding, from abortion to immigration, from drugs to smacking, from domestic violence to electoral finance. And workers have to be able to act collectively around any/all of these issues, whether the collective action be in the form of marches, occupations, strikes, street fighting with the state or whatever else.

The crowning point is the struggle for an alternative society – in the case of our five-point platform we called it “a working people’s republic”. The question of power, of which class rules, is something that we try to inject into struggles – again, not artificially, but in a timely and creative way. But it is vital that we try to raise the fundamental issue of power rather than simply end up, like much of the left, as single-issue campaigners instead of revolutionaries.

At the time we chose the phrase “working people’s republic” there was a bit of discussion occurring in NZ around the idea of NZ becoming a republic. We tried to relate to that by giving the notion of a republic a specific class content – a working class content. We counterpose a republic in which the working class rules as opposed to a republic in which the capitalists continue to rule.

Now I want to look at some more specific examples of how we would go about prioritising certain issues and how this differs from much of the rest of the left, in particular from SW and ISO who are the most serious alternatives to us on the far left within NZ (eg we can discount the Bedggood group and the IBT as irrelevant now).

ISO basically tail-ends the existing level of consciousness and does through the mechanism of single-issue campaigns. In the last elections they ran a Stop Brash propaganda campaign which, in effect, meant supporting Labour without coming out openly and saying so. SW called for a vote for the Greens, presumably on the basis that a significant section of liberal-progressive types would vote Green and they wanted to be where those people were as those people were regarded as SW’s main potential recruitment milieu. In other words, both SW and ISO, who pride themselves on ‘non-sectarianism’, took positions predicated on totally sectarian grounds – how do we recruit by putting ourselves in the same place as the greatest number of people who might be a bit left of centre?

That they should do this in the elections is no surprise, because they do it all year round anyway.

By contrast, our current – and supposedly we are ultraleft sectarians – never does anything in terms of campaigning on the basis of where the most people and the most potential recruits are.

Rather, we prioritise what we understand to be key political questions – that is, questions our class needs to get right if it is even to ever seriously challenge the ruling class let alone overthrow them and questions which go to the heart of the system (ie which are essential to the maintenance of capitalism), thereby allowing a clear class line to be drawn, one which assists the working class becoming a class for itself and challenging and overthrowing the system.

The main issue that I’ve talked about in this light is anti-imperialism, and I want us to spend most of the discussion looking at what other key questions are and why these particular questions are ones which our class needs to get right and which questions are not so key.

Break into pairs to discuss:

OPEN BORDERS

FIGHTING ISLAMOPHOBIA

FREE BUSES

VOTING LABOUR

PROTECTIONISM

SAVE HAPPY VALLEY

CLIMATE CHANGE

Some key questions to consider:

In the concrete context of NZ society today, is this issue of vital importance to how the ruling class rules? Is it vital to the existence of capitalism and raise the question of the maintenance of the capitalist system itself? Does it allow for class divisions to be brought out? Does the working class need to get this question right in order to fight effectively for its own interests as a class?

Broader question/s:

Given our small size how do we prioritise from among the priority issues and how do we effectively campaign around them? How does our approach differ from that of SW? From other groups on the left?

Elections

Why do we run in bourgeois elections? What issues do we highlight and why? How does our approach differ to that of RAM-SW, ISO and the Alliance? How does it differ from the left sectlets? (which by now includes ISO and SW)

- PF, 14/7/08, reworked from a Retreat 2007 study

Model Answers

Open Borders raises key political issues. Capitalists and the capitalist state require control of immigration for two key reasons – one is that their power over the movement of workers helps them dictate wages and working conditions; the other is that immigration policies encourage cross-class nationalism over class identity and thus bind workers of each nation more closely to their own exploiters. So immigration controls have economic and ideological-political functions that are fundamental to the maintenance of capitalist stability. Workers who are won to open borders are developing real class consciousness, beginning to see themselves as members of an international class rather than as primarily sharing a national identity with their exploiters. This is far more advanced than just fighting for a few cents more an hour. At the same time, how we fight around this is vital – for instance, we pose it as an issue of workers’ rights and class solidarity issue not as a humanitarian or moral issue like “No human being is illegal” or exceptionalist arguments around individual cases, which is how many on the left argue the issue.

Fighting Islamophobia is, in the concrete context of New Zealand today, engaging in shadow-boxing and mystification. The NZ ruling class is not on a big anti-Islamic campaign; indeed, multiculturalism is the dominant form of cultural politics pursued by NZ capital today. Moreover, the way to fight prejudice against Muslims and Arabs is to fight Western imperialist intervention and uncover its economic and political motivations, not mystify the process by resort to religious categories. This particular case was one where Socialist Worker wanted to tap into the “Galloway factor” to open up a big audience for them in NZ and were prepared to pretend Islamophobia was a problem, something that diverted attention away from real issues like immigration controls and imperialist invasions.

Free buses – this is something that we would support and would be worth raising in local election campaigns. To some extent it challenges the profits-first basis of capitalism, but how much it challenges the system depends on how the issue is raised and how it is fought for. For instance, a working class campaign for transport to be paid for by the capitalists would be genuinely radical, whereas trying to get together a multi-class “community” campaign, complete with big name stars, and promoting how it would be good for everyone is useless. Of course, there is no way the capitalists would fund free public transport, so it does have some potential for pointing to the need for a different kind of society.

Voting Labour is one of the measures of the lack of class consciousness in NZ. Labour is vital for the maintenance of capitalism and capitalist stability. In the imperialist world, ruling classes can afford to have two (or more) main parties and alternate between them, providing the appearance of some genuine democratic choice in the political realm. The attachment of unions to Labour historically has worked to subordinate workers’ interests to those of the capitalists and the state. Workers who see through Labour or, in the case of young workers today, have never had any attachment to Labour, are more likely to be rebellious, prepare to take industrial action and be more open to a radical alternative to the existing society. Workers still tied to Labour are still tied organisationally and ideologically to capital.

Protectionism – this is a vital issue because workers who support protectionism and other forms of economic nationalism are identifying with their own exploiters rather than with fellow workers in other parts of the world, especially the Third World which is usually on the receiving end of protectionist measures in the developed capitalist countries. Workers who can be won to opposing protectionist and other economic nationalist measures are starting to break with the very ideology that ties them to their exploiters.

Save Happy Valley is not a priority issue for revolutionaries. In fact, the publicity of the existing campaign often seems to prioritise snails over workers’ rights to jobs. While Marxists are not in favour of environmental destruction and the destruction of snail types, people who choose to campaign primarily around these types of issues often express the misanthropic ideology of capitalism. People are bad and do bad stuff like mine coal. Snails are superior. Campaigns like SHV do not in any way challenge any fundamentals of capitalism and are often more about personal satisfaction for the participants than any sort of progressive politics.

Climate change is a more difficult one. If human-made climate change really does threaten the safety of the planet and the existence of humanity, then it would have at least the potential to raise fundamental questions about capitalism – for instance, what is being produced and how. On the other hand, some people argue that climate change is being ‘talked up’ and this is a result of pessimistic and anti-humanist times rather than of a real threat to our existence. Another problem is that the ‘solutions’ being put forward by the climate change campaigners are generally anti-working class: they rely on cutting the consumption of workers in the developed capitalist world and constraining economic development and consumption in the rest of the world. Some on the far left have jumped on the climate change bandwagon on a greenie-type basis because they have lowest common denominator politics and just want to try to connect with large number so people on that basis. At present, then, climate change campaigns have little capacity to raise fundamental issues about capitalism and so are not a priority for us.

Given our small size how do we prioritise from among the priority issues and how do we effectively campaign around them? How does our approach differ from that of SW? From other groups on the left?

We prioritise issues that, whether they may be ‘popular’ or not at any one time are essential for developing independent working class consciousness, politics and organisation. We look at the key ways in which the ruling class hegemonises the working class and we aim to break those links because unless that is done there won’t be a serious challenge to capitalism. Even the most militant struggles for pay rises are still struggles about the conditions under which workers will continue to be exploited. And workers who struggle militantly for more pay can still hold onto backward views which work against their own class interests and the interests of other workers and oppressed sections of society. So, generally, big political issues are more important than economic issues. Precisely because of the political importance of these issues to ruling class hegemony, they will be the hardest issues to campaign around. Typically, they are issues such as anti-imperialism and hostility to NZ nationalism in all its forms, open borders, full equality for currently oppressed sections of society, anti-Labour politics.

We also have a distinct way of campaigning around these:

* we orient primarily to workers
* we don’t accept liberal single-issue politics, but argue for politics and forms of activity that challenge the system and its defenders (an example of this would be where various left forces in Wellington pursued a liberal approach around defending multiculturalism and hostility to the NF and we went into the campaign and argued that the whole ruling class agrees with that and we needed to challenge the people and system fundamental to racism and that meant that open borders should be a key slogan)

Our approach is educational, but we also try as much as possible to give our political alternative an organisational expression. In the antiwar movement, we didn’t just build the existing coalitions but were instrumental in developing an anti-imperialist pole within the wider movement.

By contrast, SW continually lowers it politics to make its appeal “wider”. In fact, by lowering its politics in this way it increasingly operates within the political-ideological framework of liberal capitalist politics, so what’s the point? Moreover, even when this adaptationism yields recruits, it is very temporary. Groups that build on sand disintegrate when things get hard and hard questions can’t be avoided.

Why do we run in bourgeois elections? What issues do we highlight and why? How does our approach differ to that of RAM-SW, ISO and the Alliance? How does it differ from the left sectlets? (Well, by now ISO and SW fit this category too!)

There are several main reasons why we run in capitalist elections.

* elections are a time of heightened political discussion and running in the elections allows us a platform and wider audience for our revolutionary ideas
* we try as much as we can to provide an organisational form for our politics; for instance, challenging Labour isn’t just a literary task, it means we have to challenge them in election campaigns as well as in our paper and everywhere else
* the specific form of electoral politics in NZ creates additional opportunities for us that were not there under the old FPP system, so it is even more important to run

Our approach differs from RAM and the Alliance because we are not trying to say things with the objective of getting elected or appealing to a mass audience. What we say may well only appeal to 1 or 2 percent of the population, or less, because we are not living in revolutionary times but in a period of mass passivity and political retreat/downturn. We identify our audience as primarily the advanced workers and we want to take them a step further although, of course, part of what we say will hopefully appeal to a wider audience. But we are not trying to move politically to where the masses are; we are trying to win whatever small section of people can be won at present to revolutionary ideas. This means we also don’t pretend that the things we stand for – even something apparently basic like Abolish GST – can be delivered by capitalism. RAM-SW and the Alliance act and speak as if current policies were simply some kind of mistake and there are alternative policies within the framework of capitalism that could work better for everyone. We argue that economic and political policies pursued by successive governments – and the wider state apparatus – do actually represent the interests of capital and they are not stupid, accidental or mistaken, but necessary expressions of the needs of capital.

The left sectlets generally do not run. Some put out leftist rhetoric and then call for a vote for Labour, ie a vote for a capitalist party. Some demonise National in such a way that it really amounts to support for Labour, although they may call for a vote for the Greens. Others play down the importance of elections, don’t run, don’t call on their members or anyone else to vote for revolutionaries like the WP – generally this expresses their own political and organisational inability to pose any alternative to the parties of capital and possibly their fear that they’d end up embracing opportunism if they intervened in bourgeois elections.

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