Marxism and the Māori Sovereignty Movement – A Māori communist perspective (Voices of Women and Gender Minorities)

Article originally published in Fightback magazine’s special issue dedicated to paid radical writing by women and gender minorities.

By Huriana Kopeke-Te Aho.

The influence of Marxist theory and particularly Marx’s theory of alienation and capitalist political economy on the Māori sovereignty movement during the 1970’s is important to examine and I would also like to consider the contemporary relevance of these ideas for Tino Rangatiratanga (Māori political autonomy). Marx clarifies the exploitative relationship underpinning the political and economic system of capitalism. The themes of subjugation, oppression and enslavement that are necessary within a capitalist political economy are common to the process of colonisation and the relationship between the coloniser and the colonised and indeed still feature in the contemporary neo-colonial struggle. The arms of colonisation reach backwards and forwards in time, creating a struggle that we as Māori are born into. Our destiny and our legacy is one of resistance rather than acceptance and passive submission.

Capitalism relies on the exploitation of labour, this then leads to alienation. Marx’s theory of alienation is anchored in the positioning of human beings as conscious creative beings. Marx called this uniquely human capacity for creation ‘species-being’. Marx distinguished us from other living beings by our ability to perform ‘conscious’ labour. Through the act of change and transformation of our environment we change ourselves in the process.  In Marx’s theory, capitalism creates and relies upon the construct of alienation. Furthermore, the invention of social class which flourishes under capitalism, relies on the creation of a working class and a ruling class or the bourgeoisie who own the means of production and the proletariat who create profit for the bourgeoisie through their labour. In this economic process, the worker is dehumanised, so much so that they become little more than a means of production, a unit of labour to be bought and sold as capital.

Marx further separated the construct of alienation into four key concepts that together, made a unified theory of labour exploitation. In the process of alienation the worker becomes firstly, alienated from his fellow workers/social relations being subverted into a singular unit of production. Secondly, the individual becomes alienated from the process of creative labour through the commodification of the outcomes of their labour and themselves in the process of creating for another.   Thirdly, the individual becomes alienated from the product of their labour as they no longer own their own creativity or the product of their work, and lastly, they become alienated from their own essential nature or “species essence” (Seeman, 1975).

However, it is important not to conceptualise exploitation as merely an unjust part of the capitalist system. In point of fact, Subjugation and the class struggle are an integral and vitally important component of the capitalist system.  The class struggle is an intrinsic and permanent feature of the political economy of capitalism, as is the use of the police and judiciary to enforce this system against resistance from the exploited and colonisation itself is built on a racist oppressive relationship that produces the alienation of indigenous peoples from themselves. The realities of colonisation and the colonial legacy which traverses generations producing contemporary impacts in the form of pervasive inequities and inequalities has fuelled and continues to fuel indigenous political activism (Fanon, 1965; Walker, 1989).  Memmi (1965) asserted that on realising their oppressed state, the colonised have two choices – rebellion or assimilation. Assimilation requires the absolute rejection and denial of themselves, their indigenous value systems, worldviews and lifeways. In order to assimilate, the colonised must enter in a willing state of self-loathing, despising everything about themselves that hinders their conversion into and emulation of, the model of the ‘coloniser’. Fanon (1965) maintains that after failed attempts to be like the coloniser, the only recourse for the colonised upon fully realising that they will never be acceptable to the coloniser is rebellion. In Fanon’s analysis, rebellion is inevitable as it is in a Marxist analysis. Marx’s theory of historical materialism further informs the indigenous struggles against the artefacts of colonisation. In a contemporary analysis the litany of theft and dispossession of land and resources throughout the indigenous world, ignites the fire of resistance and struggle with the goal being the reclaiming of the power and authority to be self-determining (Alfred, 2005; Churchill, 2002).

An extension on the scholarship of Alfred and Churchill is offered by Rata (2006) who conducts an analysis of the construction of indigenous tribal elites which can be likened to a brown bourgeoisie.  In Rata’s analysis, the resistance to tribal domination, constructs a new struggle which can be understood through Marx’s theory of alienation only this time, the struggle is to be freed from alienation from within the tribal culture and collective (Rata, 2009). This is the internalisation and application of the role of the coloniser to further disempower the colonised. More recent applications of the struggle for self-determination, places this struggle at once as a reassertion of indigenous rights as well as a shifting of the fight towards increasingly powerful Māori tribal leadership. The enemy is identified as one that which resides ‘within’. It is however important to recall the process of colonisation and the development of historical intergenerational trauma which still winds its way through the lives of indigenous peoples today creating a vulnerability that causes blindness to the real source of the struggle. In this new struggle, the capacity to hold on to the underpinning role of colonisation in the dispossession of Māori should never be lost sight of or the potency of the struggle underestimated (Churchill, 2003).

In his book Kā Whāwhai Tonu Mātou, Walker examines the ongoing resistance of Māori to colonisation. The resistance movement took as a component of its early inspiration, Marxist theories including alienation and the exploitation of the ‘worker’ for the benefit of the ‘owner’ under capitalism. Marx provided our predecessors in the resistance movement with a way of understanding the impacts of capitalist expansionism which was a characteristic of colonisation, on the contemporary position of Māori.  The resistance to colonisation is an ongoing struggle as potent for many today as it was when the first colonisers set foot on Aotearoa in 1769.

However, much has changed in the way in which our struggle takes place today. Iwi have become the new elites (Rata 1997) and what was once a clear struggle between coloniser and colonised, has become further complicated with  the coloniser having a brown face as the economics of Treaty settlements are giving them license to look and act like capitalists and crown agents.  The illusion that we are subscribing to is that by adopting capitalism as our modus operandi in the long march towards self-determination, we can secure freedom for generations to come, changing the system from within.  Have we forgotten that capitalism with the attendant greed for land and resources, fuelled colonisation? And now that many iwi have signed ‘full and final’ treaty settlements, the danger is that hard-won resources will not last and future generations will be left with nothing. Capitalism is one of the tools of colonisation and while our ancestors were highly successful entrepreneurs, we were a collective society, whose actions were based on what was best for the collective iwi, hapu and whanau.  It was always with the collective good at the center of the uptake of new technology and ways of trading.

The contribution Marxist theory makes to indigenous struggles for freedom is rooted in Marxist discourse on historical materialism (Hokowhitu, 2010) and the ongoing contemporary effects of historically established economic and political systems which continue to feed inequities in all aspects of Māori lives today (Reid & Robson, 2007). It is the inevitability of the struggle for freedom from the shackles of the powerful that render Marx’s theory so powerful in indigenous human rights movements around the world.

Policing the colonial project of Aotearoa New Zealand (Voices of Women and Gender Minorities)

Policing the colonial project of Aotearoa New Zealand


Sandra Dickson is a Pākehā queer feminist bogan from the Hutt Valley who spends most of her time working to end gendered violence.  She is committed to working in relationships between Tangata Whenua and Tauiwi based on justice, equity and Te Tiriti o Waitangi.

In 1997 a government report[1] into police attitudes towards Māori found significant evidence of institutional racism.  Almost one in four police officers had negative attitudes towards Māori and half of the officers reporting negative behaviour said it received no reprimand from supervisors.  Māori officers were significantly more likely to believe Māori were being treated with more suspicion than other ethnicities, but overall:

  • A third of police acknowledged there was a greater tendency to suspect Māori of an offence
  • Nearly half reported police were more likely to query vehicle registration when Māori were seen driving a flash car
  • About a fifth reported police were more likely to ask Māori what they were doing in the early hours of the morning
  • At least two thirds had heard colleagues using racist language about suspects or offenders

It’s useful here to consider what institutional racism means.  It’s not about the intent of individual police officers, judges or corrections staff, though of course that may be racist.  It’s about the patterns of different treatment by an institution because of race.  It’s about differences at every stage of the criminal justice system all pointing in the same direction.  It’s about the impact of colonisation.

“As with all cultures, that of the Police imbues the individuals within it with its core values and its historic ethic. Because of that the behaviour of an individual Police Officer cannot be separated from that of the culture. If the culture is based upon the institutionalised racism of colonisation, then its members will be imbued with, and may even manifest, that racism.”[2]

Figure 1: Racism and Cultural Violence Wheel, Network Waitangi Whangarei.[3]

Figure 1: Racism and Cultural Violence Wheel, Network Waitangi Whangarei.[3]

Figure 1: Racism and Cultural Violence Wheel, Network Waitangi Whangarei.[3]

In 2007 a government report[4] about the over-representation of Māori in the criminal justice system confirmed that Māori are more likely to have police contact; be charged; lack legal representation; not be granted bail; be convicted; be sentenced to non-monetary penalties and denied release to Home Detention.  While these “small” perhaps “cumulative” kinds of racism are acknowledged, the report leaned towards concluding that Māori families are more likely to foster environments in which criminality takes place. In sixty pages the word colonisation appears just once, in a quote from another researcher.  It suggested changes were required in other areas:

“the primary domain for government intervention to address disproportionality is argued to reside in the areas of health, social support and education, in order to reduce disadvantage and the problems it confers.”


The acknowledgment from the state that people take up criminal behaviour because disadvantage and poverty are awful and therefore we should be interested in social and material contexts is welcome.  However, it is not acceptable for the criminal justice system to fail to address its own institutional racism by palming off government interventions elsewhere.  We cannot understand the over-representation of Māori in the criminal justice system outside the context of colonisation.


In the Aotearoa New Zealand colonial project, Māori have been “in the way”, obstacles for the police to overcome, rebels threatening the colonising process.  As colonisation embedded racism into the institutions and processes governing New Zealand, Māori were dispossessed.  This is not about individual police officers, but the systemic, endemic culture of policing in a colonised land.

New Zealand Police are the state enforcers, the sharp end of the colonial project in Aotearoa.  They invade when colonisation calls, arrest when the state needs.  We cannot make sense of a police killing in Taranaki today without the context of the Police invasion of Parihaka and illegal detention of Te Whiti-o-Rongomai (Taranaki and Te Ātiawa) and Tohu Kākahi (Taranaki and Ngāti Ruanui).

We cannot make sense of the impact of an invasion of Te Urewera in 2007 without understanding the police killing of Tūhoe leader Rua Kēnana’s son during his arrest nearly a century earlier.


The 2007 report into Māori over-representation in the criminal justice system did not examine deaths in custody, taser use or police shootings.  What happens at the sharpest end of the colonial project, when the police use severe or lethal violence?

A recent ten year review by the Independent Police Complaints Authority (IPCA) of deaths in custody found just under half the deaths were of Māori prisoners.  The review argued that processes earlier in the criminal justice system was responsible for the disproportionate number of Māori deaths – that there was no additional (my emphasis) institutional racism.

“The disproportionate number of Māori deaths in police custody reflects the over-representation of Māori in the criminal justice system generally. The causes of this over-representation were not within the scope of the review.”[5]


The New Zealand Police Association actively campaigned for the introduction and national roll-out of tasers to increase the force at their disposal in the early 2000s. [6]

“A Taser is a hand-held, electro-muscular disruption device that is capable of incapacitating a person and causing pain through the application of an electrical current. For example, Tasers could be used by police to temporarily incapacitate a violent or combative person during arrest.  It can be used as an immobilisation device or simply as a device for inflicting pain on a person.”[7]

Police figures show that taser use has become increasingly heavily raced in the three years since initial trial, when there was little difference in taser use across ethnicity.  The data is based on rates per 10,000 apprehensions, which controls for earlier institutional racism.



Table 1: Ethnicity and Taser Use per 10,000 Apprehensions

Ethnicity Rate of taser use per 10,000 apprehensions[8][9]
1 December 2008 to 21 March 2010 22 March 2010 to 30 June 2012 1 January to 31 December 2013
NZ European 17 23 50
Māori 16 31 74
Pacific Peoples 18 39 91
Other 20

New Zealand Police are now tasering NZ Europeans three times as often as the introductory period; but for Māori and Pacifica people the rates are about five times as often as when tasers were first introduced.  It’s seems clear that as there is less scrutiny, the police are using tasers more often in general, but also that they feel more able to treat suspects differently based on ethnicity.  Additional institutional racism compounds earlier discrimination for Māori and Pacifica.

ethnicity and taser use

It should be noted that taser use is also heavily gendered.  In the trial period, men were three times more likely to be tasered than women; in the latest period this increased to four times more likely.  Men are eight times as likely to be tasered in the later time period than the early time period.[10]  Although there is no intersectional data combining ethnicity and gender, from these two data sets it’s clear that the police “immobilise or inflict pain” vastly more often on Māori and Pacifica men.

Table 2:  Gender and Taser Use per 10,000 Apprehensions

Gender Rate of taser use per 10,000 apprehensions
1 December 2008 to 21 March 2010 22 March 2010 to 30 June 2012 1 January to 31 December 2013
Male 19 32 162
Female 6 9 42


Examining patterns around lethal shootings by New Zealand Police is more difficult.  Unlike taser use or deaths in custody, there are no public reports with ethnicity routinely recorded.  The best source of data after 1995 is the IPCA reports of deaths involving the police.  Before 1995 the sole information on fatal police shootings is a New Zealand Herald article with one sentence synopses of the 13 killings since 1941.[11]  This article does not include the lethal shootings of 11 Samoans by New Zealand Police shipped to Apia in 1929 during a peaceful demonstration.[12]  It is only possible to determine the ethnicity of four of the 13 the article names through cross-referencing with media and historical records online.  All four are Māori.

Because of these information limitations, I am going to focus on police lethal shootings in the period the IPCA reports cover, from 1995 – 2015.[13]  There were 16 killings, 15 of which have completed IPCA reports. The IPCA is more likely to find no problems with police procedures than to identify concerns, let alone recommend any changes in procedures.  Racism or colonisation is not addressed in any report as a causative factor.[14]

Ethnicity is not identified in IPCA reports or media coverage for four of the 16 people.  This may indicate the people concerned are Pākehā, but there is no certainty.  Ethnicity is noted in passing in several IPCA reports rather than because it is a requirement.  Media coverage sometimes includes ethnicity, most often when family members of the person killed have concerns of racism.  Given these limitations, I could identify twelve of the sixteen shooting victims as men of colour. The fact that finding this information requires trawling through media coverage and reports is significant in itself.

Table 3: Ethnicity of Victims of Lethal Police Killings – 1995 -2015


Ethnicity of Victim Number Percentage
Māori 9 56%
Unknown 4 25%
Iraqi 1 6%
Samoan 1 6%
Tongan 1 6%



Including the use of force and lethal force by New Zealand Police strengthens the case for institutional racism beyond the “small, cumulative” acts already well-documented.  Even if deaths in custody may not provide evidence of additional institutional racism, the use of tasers and police shootings certainly do, particularly when men of colour are seen as a group.  Knowledge of institutional racism and its location in police use of severe and lethal force needs to inform all liberatory political agendas seeking to be intersectional – whether that be discussions of how to respond to gendered violence, attempts to address the criminalisation of people living in poverty or resistance to queer people’s experiences of homophobia, biphobia and transphobia.  It also makes clear that any attempts to provide New Zealand Police with increased access to firearms – which continues to be on the agenda of NZPA spokesperson Greg O’Connor – should be resisted by those calling themselves anti-racist.  I hope the information gathered here contributes to further discussion and action.

Dedicated to those targeted by police racism, including family, whānau and communities who have lost loved ones due to lethal violence.

[1] Maxwell G. and Smith C., (1998), Police Perceptions of Māori: A report to the New Zealand Police and Te Puni Kōkiri, Victoria Link Ltd.

[2] Jackson, M., (2000), Steven Wallace: An Analysis of the Police Report, Peace Movement Aotearoa.

[3] This is an adaptation of the Power and Control wheel, developed to contextualise the ways in which domestic violence is experienced by victims.  Sourced from Came, H., (2012), Institutional Racism and the Dynamics

of Privilege in Public Health, University of Waikato.

[4] Department of Corrections, (2007), Over-representation of Māori in the criminal justice system: An exploratory report.

[5] Independent Police Conduct Authority, (2012), Thematic Report: Deaths in Custody, A Ten Year Review.

[6] Buttle, J., (2010), The Case Against Arming the New Zealand Police Force, Department of Criminology, AUT.

[7] Crime and Misconduct Commission, (2008), Facts About Tasers, Brisbane, Australia.

[8] The first two columns are Ministry of Justice figures, accessed at

[9] New Zealand Police, (2014), New Zealand Police Annual Taser Report Number Two.

[10] Figures from sources above.

[11] New Zealand Herald, Oct 23 2008, Chronology of fatal shootings by NZ Police.

[12]   New Zealand Police used a machine gun to disperse the demonstration; in addition to the 11 Samoans killed, another 50 people were injured by gunshots and police batons on “Black Saturday”, 28 December, 1929.

[13] All reports from

[14] These limitations have been addressed in some depth for the IPCA report on the killing of Steven Wallace in Jackson, M., (2000), Steven Wallace: An Analysis of the Police Report, Peace Movement Aotearoa.