Fightback Conference 2015: Where next for the Left? (audio + text)

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Opening session of Fightback Conference 2015.

In the wake of another crushing electoral defeat for the left, in a period with record-low strikes and record-low voter turnout, how do we begin again? Where next for the Left? A discussion facilitated by Fightback.

Daphne Lawless is an indexer, translator, editor, electronic musician and goalkeeper based in Auckland. She is a ten-year veteran of the radical left and co-editor of Fightback’s regular magazine.

Giovanni Tiso is a writer, blogger and translator based in Wellington. His main area of activism is around disability and school inclusion.

Audio recording of Giovanni’s contribution and discussion from floor:

Text of Daphne’s contribution:

1. What is the Left, anyway?

Where do we draw the line?

Sue Bradford did some work on this in her think-tank thesis, but it is a question that has a political rather than a dictionary answer. It depends on the kind of future society we want to build. On one hand, there are good arguments to be made that – for example – a populist-nationalist party which explicitly rejects Maori sovereignty like NZ First is not part of the left as the people in this room would understand it. But what happens when we´re working on the same campaigns as them, for example, on the TPPA?

On the other hand, for a lot of people “the Left” just means people like them, and what they’re used to; they are seeing the “Left” as a cultural category, rather than a political category. And that means they automatically reject any new thing as “not Left” because it didn’t come from them. To some degree, MANA got this in its early years.

For another example, when I was involved in the Residents’ Action Movement project ten years ago – which, while it ended disastrously, was a real broad radical movement at Auckland local level one point, which changed the debate on rates and got a regional councillor elected – we got that “you’re not really Left” thing all the time. I felt the real reason was that it was an excuse not to get involved, because they didn’t trust the group I was in, nor its leadership. Which was, let’s face it, a reasonable stand to take! But it’s significant that they couldn’t outright SAY that. More on that kind of passive-aggressive behaviour later.

The question of who is the Left can only be answered, for the likes of us here today, in the concrete sense of building an ALTERNATIVE: a concrete, “counterhegemonic” political, ideological and economic force to neoliberalism – which we can define as the push to extend market relationships to ALL segments of society, beyond even the traditional reach of capitalism. This definition of the Left, of course, excludes most of Labour and the Greens – anyone who accepts the logic that the market is an ideal for, or the underlying reality of, all human behaviour.

I will also want to make the argument later that a deep commitment to tino rangatiratanga in particular, and the struggle of all oppressed and exploited layers of society, is absolutely vital for a Left which has any future in Aotearoa/New Zealand. We all know that prior generations of social democrats took the white industrial worker in a heterosexual family as somehow “normative”. We can’t spare any thought to those who want to return to those days; we must put feminist, queer and trans struggles at the heart of our practice; we must deal with new forms of precarious labour, in services, in hospitality, and in information, that actually-existing working people get into.

I still think Gramsci’s analysis, building on Marx, that the solution is a “historic bloc” of all the oppressed and exploited with the organised urban working masses as its spearhead, is the best one I’ve ever heard. And the last thing we want to do is to shift the privileged subject to the “overeducated Pākehā from a middle-class background” stereotype. Speaking of which..

2. The Pākehā Left as a social milieu

Some people think I’ve become a big of a broken-record on the subject of what is wrong with what we might call the “Pakeha left” or the “Pakeha radical milieu”. Well, as the Roman said, Carthage must be destroyed, and I’m going to keep saying it over and over again until someone listens.

The short version is: my belief is that most of the radical left in the Anglophone capitalist democracies – i.e. the left which considers itself anticapitalist – has been operating on autopilot since 1975 or so, after the run of victories for Our Side that began in 1968 petered out as did the long post-war Keynesian boom. These groups adopted a lot of quite toxic behaviours to survive, which over the years become accepted as “normal”. Not only do these behaviours adversely impact our political effectiveness; they bear a heavy psychological burden on activists and discourage ordinary people from becoming involved. This is not a matter of good groups and bad groups – these behaviours are our collective legacy from the past, we have ALL adopted them to some degree of others. And, like sexist or homophobic ideas, we must consciously reject them and seek alternatives.

  1. Degeneration of the small-group left

Briefly, what happened was that there was no successor to the 1968 generation in the radical groups. The long series of defeats and increasing isolation – which went along with the shift from Fordist modernist state-directed capitalism to post-modern, globalised, neoliberal capitalism worldwide – meant that what cadre were recruited in the 80s and 90s were simply not up to taking leadership over from the 68ers. So the groups were forced into a kind of “holding pattern” – if they didn’t dissolve completely.

I want to argue that the consequence was a degeneration in radical left organisation and practice over those years. However, more recently, the new wave of activists which washed up from the Battle for Seattle and the consequent anticapitalist and antiwar movements have been fighting back against this degeneration. This has led to the dissolution, splits and fusions currently endemic all over the Anglophone radical left, as the old way of doing things struggles with the new.

Karl Marx defined “sectarianism” as putting the needs of the group before the needs of the movement. But it’s crucial to remember that it’s impossible to avoid this altogether in any real group. Everyone who joins a radical political group, does so partly out of their own emotional and/or psychological needs, as well as agreement with the politics. Capitalist alienation sets up a contradiction between “common sense” (ideology) and “good sense” (real experience) which sets up psychic conflicts. Everyone who feels radical dissatisfaction with capitalism is a bit crazy, to be blunt – in other words, their internal world and their external reality don’t match up. Len Parker, my friend and a veteran Auckland comrade, says that in the 60s many mentally distressed joined the CPNZ because it was the only place they weren’t cast out of, so this is nothing new.

A good group of any description, let alone a political one, does help look after its members’ social/psychic needs. That’s called solidarity. But you can find that in a soccer club or a pigeon fancier’s guild. But the real problem comes when, under the pressure of events, scratching the psychological itches of its members becomes the only purpose of the group. This is a kind of giving up on politics itself while still using political symbols and language.

Long before the 70s, the Trotskyist movement had fallen prey to some nasty sectarian tendencies, due to its isolation and persecution from both capitalist and Stalinist forces. And of course, the mainstream communist movement – in Stalinist and Maoist formats – had totally succumbed to the Cult of Personality.

But what you had increasingly since the 1970s was an increasingly isolated radical left adapting to conditions of marginalisation. The political perspectives of the groups fell flat and a new one was not visible which didn’t contradict some of the groups’ cherished beliefs. And believe you me, “we are the vanguard of the new world order” is a pretty cherished belief. You really don’t want to give that up, especially if you’ve sunk decades into making it a reality.

This is what happens when you lose faith in the actually existing struggle of the working masses – you fall back on the psychic consolation that “the Big Other” (the great leader, or the workings of objective history, or a revolution happening somewhere else) is the only thing that can save you, and you end up with magical thinking about how to make this secular Second Coming happen by performing certain rituals and affirming certain beliefs.

The groups often justified this to themselves as “preserving the party for future days when it’ll be needed”. But political leadership doesn’t work like that. If Lenin himself was Frankensteined to life again, like Captain America, there’s no reason why his political skills would even be relevant to today’s climate. And ideologies and programmes have exactly the same problem. You can’t keep them in the freezer.

  1. Faith groups and the activist lifestyle

So the groups became their own justification, with no real connections to the outside world. There were two equal and opposite forms this could take. One is to become a kind of “political faith group”. Here’s a quote from a recent article by a Swedish comrade who was pulling out of his “left communist” group:

… once you embrace it, makes perfect sense and has an answer to an every question. On the other hand, it is a very closed and dogmatic system based upon that is increasing its hostility towards the rest of the left and every class action with every minute. It is a system that is based on ideal conceptions of everything; from ideal class action, to ideal intervention, to ideal organisation, to ideal discussion, but it offers very little experience in actual practice.

A socialist group which has become more like a religious group, or a bad role-playing game (the two are similar), than politics, isn’t necessarily a cult like Scientology or the LaRouche movement (although the latter did start as a socialist group). But “cultism” is a spectrum, like autism. I think every single group existing today – including Fightback – can be put along a spectrum based on how it operates politically, and to how much it relies on dogma or on a cult of personality – those being the two warning signs of that a political group is becoming faith-based rather than politics based.

Rosa Luxemburg talked about “bringing workers and science together”, but the groups I’m thinking of tend to act like missionaries. Replace Marx with Christ or Capital with the Qur’an, and if the discourse still makes sense it IS a religious one. As is the attitude of prioritising learning the details of “our politics” (read: our beliefs, or our dogma) over getting involved in the here-and-now. Because for these groups politics is a set of “We believe…”s which must be defended and passed on to the kids, or at least the first-year students .

I remember talking to a socialist once about a rival group which was attempting to find a new audience. His dismissive comment was “they’re liquidating their politics”. But, I enquired, you OPPOSE their politics! Isn’t that a good thing? What he was really saying that while their what a socialist group should be doing. And that group was spoiling things by making the role-playing-game universe of tadpole-sized political faith groups smaller.

But as the Swedish comrade said, there is no point in being right against the real world. A British socialist on Facebook said this about the people who are criticising Greece’s SYRIZA government from the left: “The reality is that those who are formally correct on this have no social base at all.” If you don’t have skin in the game, you can’t win.

The other kind of distorted left group would be what I would call an “activist lifestyle group”. This is the opposite of the political faith group – the group is based on activity above all else, and quite often has a contempt for theory, and leadership tends to be based on a “dictatorship of the doers”, rather than the academic selection you get in the political faith groups. “Activism” as a good in itself, rather than as a means to an end. It’s all fun and games until someone loses their ability to deal with the real world.

I remember hearing a comrade talking about “wanting to get into activism” – as if it were a lifestyle choice. Some French libertarian communists in the 1970s called “militancy” of this nature “the highest form of alienation” – and, in practice, groups which are all activism might look down on the theory-based political faith groups, but they are but two sides of the same coin. The group and its activities (theoretical or on the streets) is all – actual work to building a political counter-hegemony is nothing.

  1. Politics as ritual

These two kinds of distorted group actually have a lot in common. For example, they tend to act in a ritualistic manner – we do this (paper sales, demos, organising campaigns) because “that’s what we do”, that it “gives the group a routine”. They don’t EXPECT results any more. They don’t expect other groups, let alone the broad movement, to read and debate their paper. The paper is made for the benefit of the group itself, and maybe for a bit of funding.

Any group which becomes its own end, rather than a means to an end, is a dead end. A small group of alienated intellectuals can’t bear the flame of revolutionary practice – only a mass movement can do that. So why do people keep getting involved in such groups? As we mentioned above: for psychological or psychic, rather than political, ends.

Simply, on one level, this kind of thing is FUN. It gives you something to do, and for some people that’s better than doing nothing, whatever it is. It allows you to play make-believe – by misapplying Lenin and Luxemburg’s advice for revolutionary workers to organise separately, either a political faith group or an activist-lifestyle group can separate off as “the revolutionaries” organisationally from other and hence lesser activists, puffing itself up with bloated rhetoric about its own historical uniqueness and mission. It’s a kind of 1917 cosplay.

But on another, more toxic level, the personalised politics of the radical left milieu become a psychic substitute for class conflict, a way for us to “scratch our itches” by taking it out on one another.

What we have had increasingly in the Anglophone far left is that increasingly, for the members of far-left groups – struggling with an increasingly out-of-control environment for which their political ideas or ritual activities serve as an “opiate”, or painkiller, rather than a tool for action – the group itself, and the radical left milieu, becomes a kind of stage or arena for playing out psychic conflicts in a kind of “Live Action Psychodrama” with other people. If you can’t actually fight global capitalism, you can fight that guy over there. I’ll talk more about this later.

3. Cheap Holidays in Other People’s Oppression

So, how do we break out of this? How can we reject toxic behaviour patterns which have been part of the very definition of what it means to be the radical left for decades? Here are my half-baked suggestions.

a) Self-radicalisation

One distressing legacy of the 1968 generation’s model of activism is that the struggle is always something happening to someone else, somewhere else. Socially privileged (Pākehā) activists making a big noise on behalf of the oppressed, the downtrodden, the “working classes” where we imagine them living in Mangere, Addington or Athens. This leads to a kind of distressing “missionary” culture in some portions of the Left, which feeds into activist lifestylism. If someone gives up building their own life within capitalism to work for the less fortunate, what does that make them? There are no such thing as declassed, “enlightened” people who’ve taken the red pill. Bourgeois ideology has no outside and we can’t just opt out of it – we have to fight within it, starting from our own subjective base. Anyone who thinks otherwise is playing out a fantasy scenario and calling it politics.

For me, the essence of Marxism is that of the self-activity of the working masses; not on privileged people giving the grateful working masses the leadership they crave. That in itself leads to a toxic group culture, as we see ourselves as do-gooders, social workers or secular priests, and we begin to worry about defending our own self-proclaimed superiority or purity. What happens within our small circle of Chosen Ones becomes more interesting than dealing with common human beings from the real world.

The flipside of this is that increasingly, the overeducated Pākehā left milieu are becoming part of working masses! Maybe some older comrades made wise real estate decisions before the bubble hit and are quite comfy. But most of us are in precarious or low-paid work – sometimes in stuff we are actually qualified for, sometimes just whatever retail or hospo trade will take us. Even a postgraduate degree won’t get you a middle-class lifestyle any more, let alone your own house. Historically, the leading role in the workers’ movement has always been taken by the relatively privileged (and actually, under Marxist economics, more exploited) skilled workers. That is increasingly us now, in the post-modern globalised advanced capitalist countries.

We have to learn how to analyse our own situation and work for our own liberation. This applies to questions of what creative work or information work means in the era of the Internet, of zero-cost reproduction of digital goods, of a publishing house in every laptop. It means figuring out ways to organise casualised, precarious workers through social media technology, which Unite has made great strides in. It also particularly applies to issues of sex and gender oppression, which arise in all social layers. Only at that point can we offer effective solidarity to other groups of workers and oppressed groups. Plus, when it’s our own liberation on the line in the work – not abstract mutterings about global revolution or faction-fighting against other groups – then we might take it more seriously than as a role-playing game.

b) Less personalism, more politics

The idea of socialist groups as little havens of the enlightened who must bring the light of truth to the befuddled masses also encourages a kind of personalised politics – what Lacan might call “imaginary” relationships, where other people are seen as either Good Comrades/Leaders or emblems of everything bad in the world which must be Cast Out. Class enemies within the workers movement! Or misogynist shitlords on my Tumblr! Weaklings who are ruining my brilliant plan to fight the cops! Or anyone else otherwise ruining your private Lenin cosplay fantasy. Political struggle of this kind is not political at all, but based on a kind of Freudian “projection” onto other individuals – activists or public figures – of what we despise in society as a whole.

Political debate always becomes personalised when what’s important is not what works, but the personal satisfactions of “holding the right political line”, or alternatively, going along with the Exciting New Turn that group leaders are going for. Other human beings become images of all the big psychic forces that we can’t fight directly.

In such an environment, there is no such thing as political debate. What would be the point? It would be like Methodists debating Baptists. No-one’s going to change their mind and anyone who does shift camps will be doing so for personal reasons rather than a conversion experience. We go to each other’s events to be polite, not to push forward the theoretical dialectic.

In fact, when political debate DOES arise – even at the lowest level, when one group or a member thereof does something so awful that the matter has to be fought about as elementary political hygiene – there are so many people who are angry that “the Left is fighting amongst itself rather than uniting against the common enemy”. The survival and cohesion of our private universe where we play out our dramas becomes more important than communist morality and its substrate, elementary human decency. But I refer you to my previous comments about who the Left really is. If we can’t say, no, those kinds of politics are not part of our future, then the Left is nothing. We can’t even summon up the energy to chase actual Nazis away from our demonstrations.

On an inter-group level, sometimes this is conducted in passive-aggressive sniping and gossip behind each other’s backs over beer. Other times, petty differences are blown up into what Freud would call hysterical demands: “Trotsky’s programme!” “veganism!” “complete abolition of gender!” “9/11 truth!” Such people don’t actually think they will win the argument, let alone the war against capitalism, they are appealing to an imaginary audience (history? the ghost of Marx?) who will tell them they are the eternal Good Guys. The point is not to reach a higher stage of truth. The point is to have a fight, because fights are exciting, and to feel good about yourself for winning in this completely artificial arena.

As for struggle within groups, it’s a very tempting short-cut to just destroy someone emotionally if they’re an obstacle to you getting your way within the group, by expressing the “wrong” ideas or not being enthusiastic enough about the “activism” proposed. By the process of natural selection, this means that the people who survive longest in the Left groups are those who are the best at bullying, manipulation, and other big-fish-small-pond tactics.

Let me quote from Byron, our friend in Christchurch, who’s been on the receiving end of this:

…recently a young woman I know though Occupy got on the wrong side of some activists and after blocking them on social media told me she isn’t going to call herself a feminist anymore because she didn’t want to be associated with people like that. I don’t think this occurrence brought the world any closer to human liberation, it just made a young woman feel awful about herself and alienated from feminism/the left.

I’ve been watching this sort of thing go on for two or three years now and frankly it’s sickening, as I’ve said before I’ve seen no other community where treating each other this way is acceptable, yet on the left it is encouraged and rewarded.”

This “imaginary” politics locates the bad in individual people and their evil deeds. But it’s wrong. The enemy is not the capitalist class, the bourgeoisie, their hangers on. It’s certainly not individual evil people like John Key, that guy in your group who’s always grumpy about the majority decisions, those “sectarians” who “ruin” your activities just by turning up, or, God help us, the Rothschilds.

The enemy is a SOCIAL RELATION which is inherent in EVERYTHING WE DO under capitalism, in our very SOULS to wax dramatic for a moment. And that enemy is AMONG US at every moment when we treat real human beings as stand-in for social forces; when we smile at each other while cutting each other down in private, when we make excuses for abusers because they’re “good comrades”, when we burn comrades as fuel towards our grand but useless schemes, when we act like small dairy owners trying to drive each other out of business or religious groups proclaiming mutual anathemas. THAT is what we must destroy; not each other personally, and not the ruling class personally.

But I think it’s vital that we need a combination of more kindness to each other personally, and more real political debate based on our experiences in the movement, rather than siloing and hypocritical “comradeship”. It is vital that we refuse the temptation to take personal short-cuts to political problems – of protecting our buddies or of ostracising or bullying people we’re having problems with. Only by clearly separating political ideas from the people who might be proposing them can we get a culture of healthy debate.

4. So what, then?

The fact is: the existing radical left is not healthy, it has got into a lot of bad habits, there is too much ego masquerading as political principle, too many tactics or old ways of acting elevated into principles or ways of life. For me, to pretend that there is a happy club called “the Left” is dishonest and soul-tarnishing. Trotsky was wrong about a hell of a lot, but he was right when he said that looking reality squarely in the face and calling things by their real names was job #1 of a revolutionary.

I get a bit unpopular when I talk like this. But I’m not alone. To quote the British communist blogger Richard Seymour: “The far left’s difficulties will not be overcome until the far left starts to think, and stops allowing its ancient and transparently unavailing dogma to do its thinking for it.” The Left has to be a new way of doing things, of relating to one another, of action to create change, not just the Red Team vs the Blue Team playing the log-rolling, meme-spreading, bandwagoning, click-farming game among passive, docile media consumers. We can’t demolish the Master’s house with the master’s tools.

Sue Bradford’s think-tank project is a way to attempt to get out of that trap on a theoretical level – though people keep trying to drag us back in. Someone on the LTT FB group, for example, tried to get us all to declare our allegiances in advance – Leninist, Maoist, democratic socialist, social democrat, etc… Deciding to divide into petty groupuscles right off the bat almost guarantees that the Left will remain a playground for overeducated Pakeha with delusions of grandeur to engage in recreational warfare on one another. And of course be irrelevant to the broader struggle.

The line of fire rotates 360 degrees here, comrade. These are not issues to which Fightback is immune, let alone to me personally. I know that I am suspicious, that I bear grudges against other activists, that sometimes I act out of egotistic reasons. But in the name of all that we believe in, we all do. And we’ve got to stop acting like that. We need real political debate tied intimately to political praxis on the ground. I fully believe the old model of left politics which we’ve had, not just since 68 but since Stalinisation took hold in the USSR and the Comintern, AT LEAST, has outlived its usefulness. These organisational habits are now PARASITIC on our lives and on our movement.

Fightback is attempting to bring reflexivity to our practice to try to find our own blind spots and publish our findings to help the left. And the biggest step in that must be an attempt to reach out from the current small-group left landscape, and try to bring Rosa Luxemburg’s vision to life: by making Marxist politics relevant, not to an imaginary “proletariat” which hasn’t existed in decades, but to those social forces that are currently in action right now. I’ll quote from the recent decisions of our summer conference in January:

Fightback is based on a political programme, which is not only a set of goals for social change but a plan of action to bring them around. Fightback seeks alliances with other progressive forces and organisations of the oppressed and working class, to develop and enact this programme. The purpose of Fightback is putting our programme into action in political activism, amending it in line with experience, and training its membership in Marxist theory and practice.”

Our 10-point programme, which you can read on our membership forms which are about the place, is a “first draft” of pushing forward to a concrete answer to the question: what is possible in radical change in the here and now in Aotearoa? And the linked question of: who will be the key segments of the working class and oppressed populations who will lead that struggle? This is the reason why – unlike some other leftists – we have committed to continuing our work within the MANA Movement, which is, despite its election failure, still not only the strongest political movement for tino rangatiratanga, but the strongest political movement of the working class in this country.

I would add that, in the New Zealand case, a basic identification with the struggle for tino rangatiratanga is vital for a successful left. We can think of Lenin’s advice that the revolutionary has to be the tribune of the people for all the oppressed; we can think of Frantz Fanon, a black man from the West Indies, allying himself with the “wretched of the earth”, the Algerian peasantry fighting the French Republic. Of all the oppressed and exploited peoples of Aotearoa, the tangata whenua are the master signifier, the basic “original sin” upon which the rest of the colonial-capitalist state of exploitation and oppression is built.

Another those forces is the feminist or women’s liberation movement, which has leapt to new prominence with the struggles against rape culture, child abuse, and the kind of gender policing which leaves trans women to be abused in men’s prison. As I said before, there is no “outside” to bourgeois culture, the “activist community” is not culturally autonomous, and it really shows in the way in which misogynistic attitudes and outright abuse continue to exist in our organisations. Thus, Fightback has a Safer Spaces policy and a Socialist-Feminist caucus. Within MANA, we have been involved from the begining in the MANA Wahine caucus which aims to set women and gender policies within the kaupapa of MANA.

We have also have reached out with our upcoming “crowdfunded” women/gender minorities issue of our magazine. We have an old saying on the left – the financial question is a political question – or, to put it another way, if you can find your audience your audience can fund you. Our success with gaining the resources required to pay our contributors to this issue from a support base much broader than the usual radical left suspects offers, we imagine, a way forward for left-wing journalism in Aotearoa, and we expect to be able to experiment more with this approach to create a true dialogue between Marxist theory and the actually existing struggle in Aotearoa/NZ.

May we all be brave enough to carry that process to its completion, in a new movement to bring capitalism to an end. Fightback is only a small group which wants to help bring this process around. We can’t do it yourself; but if you agree with our ideas, please join us; and if you don’t agree, please debate with us.

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