Originally delivered at Fightback forum – Grey Lynn – 7.00 – 9.00pm Friday 21 August 2015.
By Sue Bradford, Left Think Tank Project.
Kia ora koutou,
Well friends, ‘Where to for the left? really is the question of our time, with thanks to Daphne, Bronwen and Fightback for organising this forum tonight.
I still often think of it as ‘What is to be done?’ I’ve been engaging pretty seriously with this over the last four years, partly through three years of PhD research and alongside that through my daily work with Auckland Action Against Poverty, Kotare Trust and now the left think tank project. This question is for me, as it will be for all of us here I suspect, an acute conjunction of theory and praxis, of what we think theoretically should be happening, and what we are actually prepared to do, now, in Aotearoa 2015, to resist and confront neoliberal capitalism and build past it.
My research project was as much a study of the state of the NZ left between 2010 and 2013 as it was an exploration of questions around the absence of any substantive left think tank in this country. After interviewing 51 left activists and academics and maintaining a field journal of three years of my own life on the left, then carefully analysing the resulting data, I came to two major conclusions. The first was that there is a widespread call and recognition of the need for the development of left wing think tanks or think tank like groups here, for a whole range of reasons, but key amongst them simply that the left needs to think more, and more deeply about we’re doing.
The second key finding, and the one that I hadn’t been expecting when I started out, was that an even bigger absence felt by many, especially those of us on the radical left, was the lack of any organisation, party or movement that we could call home, and where we might work together to achieve a shared vision for a better world. Of course, for members of existing parties like the Greens and Mana this isn’t necessarily an issue at all, and that’s fine. However, there are many others of us, for whom the lack of a place and base which holds us together, and from which we can build, is a massive barrier to creating effective change – to building what I like to call effective radical left counter hegemony.
I’ve had the privilege of spending the last year talking in many different parts of Aotearoa about the think tank project – and about this question of the lack of a party or movement.
In every place I’ve been, there has been a real resonance among at least some of those present around this absence. From the first meetings onwards I discovered that the yearning I’d uncovered for an ideological home and organising base exists far more widely than I’d realised, even by the end of my research.
I guess that this is one of the reasons I’m so optimistic about where we go from here. There are far more of us out here on the radical left than most of us can comprehend simply based on knowledge of our own political and personal networks. And more people approach me every week, mainly to join the think tank project but often enough to also express interest in the development of a party.
In some ways helping to work through ideas around the formation of a new party has become in fact the first project of the think tank itself. While the think tank doesn’t visibly exist yet, it is already a network of some 400 people, and very soon we’ll be starting to make key decisions on things like our kaupapa, legal structure and the ever vexed question of what we should call ourselves.
We’ll also be talking about the relationship between our radical left think tank and the possible development of a party. Building a party is a much bigger project – but both are essential, and I believe – all going well – there is likely to be a symbiotic and mutually beneficial relationship between them.
Meanwhile, it’s important that in all this hope and optimism I’m sensing and expressing here, that we do pay attention to what’s happened in the past. It’s good that Daphne is doing the kind of detailed reflection outlined here tonight about some of the negatives which have bedevilled what I”ll call the sectarian left, in the past and even currently. There is no way I’d ever want to go back to that, and we do need to face our shadows and shady histories as we build forward.
At the same time, it’s critical that we go past our histories, in consciousness of them, but with a clear focus on having the courage to start taking action in the here and now, and to not be so scared of repeating the past that we are immobilised by it.
There’s another danger I’ve noticed in recent times, when working particularly with younger activists, that sometimes people want everything we organise to be perfect from beginning to end. Nothing we do, whether it’s a demo outside Sky City or a building an organisation from scratch will ever be perfect. Everything we do is us practising – but of course that practising, is in fact life itself. That’s why waiting for the revolution or waiting for utopia is such a hopeless occupation. As so many of us realise, we make our path by walking it, which means we need to give things a go, reflect on where we’ve gone right and wrong, and then do it all again – better, if we can. In the rehearsal are the seeds of the world we hope for.
Another debate that’s happening around our groups just now, and I think it’s happening in Fightback too, is around the question of who we on the radical left, however we define ourselves, see as our constituencies – and how we should work with them. I fear that this is a debate that can soak up much time without really getting anywhere if we keep focusing on ‘the people’ or ‘the workers’ – as the other.
We are the people. The people we work with and for are the people. When we’re bringing on new people as beneficiary advocates at Auckland Action Against Poverty, one of the first conversations we have with them isn’t about the intricacies of welfare law and regulation but about how we talk about the people we work with. Often our volunteers will quickly start using the word ‘client’ to describe the people who come to us for help with their issues at Work and Income. We ban that word client because we see it as creating an artificial separation, making the person we’re helping the other, a less fortunate charitable case, rather than simply a fellow human being whom we’re assisting at that moment, and who may later on become another one of our advocates or may even join us on a street action.
The next question from the desperate volunteer is often ‘well if we can’t use the word client, what on earth can I call them?’ the answer is simply ‘people’ or ‘person’. In our group we are mainly people who are or have been unemployed and/or on benefits for a long period at some time in our lives. We are just people helping other people.
I think that this principle should apply just as strongly when some of us may in the near future engage in building a radical left extra parliamentary party. It won’t work if we say – and even worse think – of groups of people as any kind of undifferentiated mass. In fact, it is other people from all different backgrounds, ages, ethniticites and sectors with whom we will work to build a common kaupapa and a shared future.
Building organisation is a long slow process which happens person by person, in context, not in some random magical way. Organising work, to be effective, takes care and time.
And we don’t only have our negative histories to look back on. In fact all sorts of good work has happened in Aotearoa in recent decades, and I”d rather spend more time learning from experiences where groups have worked together respectfully and well in a common cause than from where the sect left has torn itself apart and treated each other like enemies.
I think some of the projects I’ve been involved with like the Unemployed Rights Centre and the Auckland Peoples Centres, the Building our own Future project in 1993-1994 and the still standing Kotare Trust have useful lessons for us. There is also much to be learned from the recent and current work of groups like Unite, FIRST Union and its offshoot migrant workers’ union Unemig, and the longterm mobilisation against the TPPA. Mana has many learnings for us when we have finally the courage to discuss these together.
Beyond this, let’s lose our fear of doing things differently than they’ve been done before, and of working with people and types of people with whom we might not have worked before.
Let’s not get bogged down in infinitely split distinctions about whether it’s more important to work with this group of people or type of person than that. Everyone I know on the radical left gets intersectionality these days – we do all understand, perhaps using different language, the connections between different struggles and different oppressions – so let’s not allow those arguments to divide us, unless the differences are acute.
At the same time, false unity or seeking false unity – can be a really dangerous path down which to walk. I know damn well that there’s no point my working with people from Labour and the social democratic left to set up a pan left think tank because the fundamental kaupapa which divides us too deep.
The idea that there can be a short cut to building a strong left by pulling together disparate left forces ranging from social democrats to the far left is foolish. Such coalitions end in tears, but more importantly than that, each time a mongrelised coalition emerges it raises then dashes the hopes of another generation of activists. It’s much better to build more slowly and be inclusive of all who agree to a well thought through kaupapa than to develop something that might briefly flare up, then be unsustainable into the future.
The worst thing that the left can do right now is panic because we’ve had years of an awful National-led government, and put all our energies into replacing it with an only slightly less awful Labour-led government. Instead we should put everything we have into developing our own autonomous organisations capable of harnessing our collective energy and resources into building for a future against and beyond capitalism.