Preserving Aotearoa/NZ’s revolutionary literature


Radical Aotearoa Digital Archive (or RADAR) is a project to preserve the publications and media of the radical left in New Zealand. This archive is intended to serve as the central hub for efforts to digitise the many print publications of the radical left in New Zealand produced over the years – from the major newspapers & magazines, to individual pamphlets or leaflets, and eventually perhaps even rare books. Daphne Lawless, member of the Fightback editorial group and former editor of Socialist Worker Monthly Review and UNITY (2005-2011), was invited to give a talk to the launch of RADAR in Dunedin, New Zealand, on 2 February – the following message was read out.

Revolutionary greetings to comrades and friends at the launch of RADAR. I would have liked to be there, but travel expenses with a wife and toddler in tow were prohibitive.

For my sins, one of the many tasks with which I have burdened myself is cataloguing and sorting the Red Kiwi Library – the books and periodicals collection of the Communist Party of New Zealand and its successor, Socialist Worker, of which I was a leading member. To some extent, for me this has been similar to sorting through the effects of a deceased relative. Nostalgia, combined with occasional delight of discovery, and sadness for what might have been.

I caught myself wondering on several occasions – is this what nearly 100 years of revolutionary socialist activism in Aotearoa/New Zealand amounts to? A hundred or so boxes of paper, much of it nothing but trash, most of the rest only of interest to sad obsessives like… well, like the people who’ve made it here today?

“Publishing the revolutionary paper” has been a nostrum of Lenin’s school of revolutionary politics since its beginning. The idea was not only the question of getting The Truth (or, in the Russian, pravda) into the working class’s hands, but that writing, producing, distributing and financing the paper were the “scaffolding” around which a revolutionary party might be built that would seize state power.

Far too often, though, The Paper (and revolutionary publishing in general) became not a tool for building the party; rather, the party becomes a mechanism for keeping The Paper alive, and thus giving a few committed socialist writers/editors something to do with their spare time. You’ve got to wonder: what is the point of a “revolutionary paper” which is funded by the revolutionaries themselves, rather than by the audience they hope to reach? The financial question is a political one.

I was part of the last major attempt at a mass socialist paper in this country, Workers’ Charter. I personally believe it was an excellent broad-left paper. But the working masses who read it clearly did not think it was vital enough to support it financially – and we quickly ran out of our own resources.

Clearly basing our activity around a paper publication would be woefully insufficient in the Internet era. (Workers’ Charter didn’t even have a website!) Gone are the days when we could sneer at social media and websites as “petty bourgeois”, the kind of thing that REAL WORKERS don’t waste their time with. Workers under 30 are digital natives. And workers over 30 are increasingly having to catch up with them. (One interesting tangent is how the online growth of conspiracy theory can be traced to people who grew up pre-Internet getting online late in life – without having developed the ability to recognize trolling, scamming and disinformation.)

To be frank, these days a Facebook post will probably reach as many workers as standing on a street corner selling a newspaper – and it takes less time, effort and expense. So is revolutionary publishing dead? Well, as I see it, it’s a lot like the music industry, and not just because it seems to rely in practice on exploiting the labour of the young and enthusiastic. No, it’s because it requires alternative revenue streams to function. Crowdfunding, Patreon and similar online initiatives are one possible solution to this. But there’s also the issue that it’s hard to get people to pay money for a non-physical good. So, the link between support for the content and handing over some capitalist currency so it can keep being produced needs to be re-established.

I would also say that one advantage that paper has over electrons is permanence. Electronic publications can be reproduced infinitely at no cost. But storage and bandwidth do cost, and are impermanent. On my office desk now are CPNZ publications going back to 1934. They sat in various offices for 85 years, gathering dust but otherwise intact. Can we be sure that the YouTube videos and podcasts which are now the cutting edge of leftist media outreach will even be still available in 10 years, let alone 85? The impermanence of the online medium is actually considered a benefit for people who don’t want to have their teenage Xena: Warrior Princess fan-fiction following them around as adults. But that’s the opposite of what socialist publishing needs.

Because there is another major problem in the actually existing socialist movement, and that is the lack of continuity. Over the last 10 years in New Zealand politics, all but one of the major revolutionary socialist groups collapsed. To make a broad summary: the “baby boom” generation who’d been carrying these organisations on their backs for 50 years were not able to continue, and the “Millennial” generation weren’t interested in carrying on in the old ways. (And there weren’t nearly enough of the in-between sort, like myself.)

New organisations and media projects have arisen. But there’s no organisational continuity. The “tacit knowledge” that literature on education in organisations talks about hasn’t been passed down. And most of the “explicit knowledge” contained in publications isn’t read by the younger generation. They don’t think they need it. It’s almost like 1969 again – “never trust anyone over 30” (and also, all the people who were anarchist hippies yesterday seem to be turning into Marxist-Leninists!) We seem to be re-inventing the wheel in some cases.

Which is where RADAR comes in, by at least providing some kind of permanence to electronic revolutionary publications in Aotearoa/New Zealand over the last 25 years. I hope that there will be synergy between this project and my own of making the “Red Kiwi Library” available to the movements once again. There’s a hell of a lot of dusty old polemics sitting in my office that could use scanning. Since the revolutionary groups have either collapsed or ossified, it seems to be left to us (amateur) historians and archivists to keep the ideas of the past alive.

A website of ancient blog posts, or a bunch of dusty old boxes of books, might not be a great legacy, but they are what we have. And you know what they say about people who forget the past.

The struggle continues.

Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will: Gramsci’s relevance today

gramsci red

by Ian Anderson, Fightback.

In Aotearoa/NZ in 2013, revolutionary socialism seems impossible. Many believe that exploitation, ecological destruction, and greed are inevitable; as Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek puts it, “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.”

Capitalism is ‘hegemonic,’ dominant throughout society, even in the ideas of people who want to see social change. In this context the theory of ideological hegemony, developed by Antonio Gramsci in the early 20th century, still has relevance nearly a century later.

Antonio Gramsci was an Italian revolutionary socialist who lived from 1891 to 1937, and became active in socialist politics from 1916. Along with VI Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg and others, Gramsci broke with the Second International – at that time the dominant international organisation of socialists.

Leaders of the Second International had opted to support the imperialist slaughter of World War I. Rather than fighting for socialist, internationalist politics here and now, these leaders argued that economic struggle would inevitably lead to socialism at some point in the future.

Responding to the 1917 Russian revolution, Gramsci praised Lenin and the Bolsheviks for breaking with this lifeless orthodoxy in favour of meaningful social practice;

[The Bolsheviks] are not ‘Marxists’, that’s what it comes down to: they have not used the Master’s works to draw up a superficial interpretation, dictatorial statements which cannot be disputed. They live out Marxist thought… In this kind of thinking the main determinant of history is not lifeless economics, but man; [sic] societies made up of men, men who have something in common, who get along together, and because of this civility they develop a collective social will.

Gramsci participated in the 1921 formation of a new Italian Communist Party, and was active in the Communist Party until his imprisonment by Mussolini’s fascist regime in 1926. His most famous and influential writings were written in prison, now known simply as the ‘Prison Notebooks.’

Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks explored Italian cultural and social history, but the goal was more expansive. Whereas many of Gramsci’s journalistic writings outside prison by his admission “were written with the day and were supposed to die with the day,” his Prison Notebooks were intended as a more general historical exploration, even an “absolute historicism.” This absolute historicism is a toolbox to be adapted to changing circumstances and historical conditions, with the unifying aim of overthrowing ruling-class power.

Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks developed his theory of hegemony, his most influential theoretical contribution. This was a development of Marx and Engels’ theory of the state, which held that the state ultimately serves the ruling class, by stabilising capitalism. Even by recognising demands such as the eight hour work day, the state prevents the capitalist system from collapsing through its own internal contradictions. As Engels argues in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State:

As the state arose from the need to hold class antagonisms in check… it is as a rule the state of the powerful, economically dominant class.

Although Gramsci was a Leninist, his theory of hegemony has distinct observations from Lenin’s theory of state and revolution, dealing more extensively with ideological and cultural struggles in non-revolutionary conditions.

Russia’s Tsarist regime relied heavily on direct repression; massacres of workers and peasants who fought back. However, more developed capitalist states (particularly in the imperialist world) have a more sophisticated system for maintaining hegemony.

In non-revolutionary conditions, such as Aotearoa/NZ in the 21st century, the ruling class ensures hegemony through a combination of coercion and consent. Consent operates by meeting some needs, and through ideology; a system of ideas that justifies continued exploitation and oppression. While civil society ensures consent, political society applies coercion, or in Gramsci’s words:

State = political society + civil society, in other words hegemony protected by the armour of coercion.

This is a carrot and stick approach; consent is the carrot, coercion is the stick. The army and the police force apply direct coercion where necessary; using guns, batons, pepper spray, tasers, prison cells when workers and the oppressed get out of hand. However much of the time, guns are unnecessary, as the system relies on consent, through an ideological system that justifies capitalist rule.

Capitalism is hegemonic within trade unions, political parties, churches, media institutions and other civil society bodies. Particularly in non-revolutionary times, the dominant forces within most of these organisations lead towards collaboration with the state to ensure consent, to direct discontent into appropriate channels.

This may sound like a conspiracy theory, but any sustained engagement with civil society bodies, such as trade unions and community sector organisations, will show their limitations. Queer support organisations rely on state funding and grants, limiting their ability to openly challenge government policy, let alone the ruling order which leads many queer/trans* youth to suicide or homelessness. Trade unions must compromise with employers to settle disputes, for example the Public Sector Association agreeing to redundancies in exchange for defeating a wage freeze attempted in late 2009.

To counter these pressures, Gramsci argues for a long-term war of position, a protracted cultural struggle in preparation for the war of manoeuvre, a revolution or frontal assault on the state. Gramsci notes that while frontal assault on the state was appropriate for Russia in 1917, “war of position… was the only form possible in the West,” because civil society is more developed.

In waging a war of position, socialists must develop a counter-hegemony. Hegemony operates through ideology, and through meeting needs, in ways that justify the prevailing system. Counter-hegemonic projects seek to construct a new hegemony, by formulating ideas and meeting needs in ways that sustain an oppositional culture.

This encompassing cultural struggle is the point of departure for ‘Gramscian’ approaches, particularly popular in academia. These approaches note Gramsci’s “anti-economism,” and emphasis on encompassing ideological struggle, as points of departure for a Gramscian approach, suggesting that “wherever power exists, opposition to it will emerge.”

For example, in her essay “Ideology, Hegemony and Inequality” published in Studies in New Zealand Social Problems (1990), Allanah Ryan notes the importance in a Gramscian approach of not simply seeking “narrow interests,” but incorporating “popular views” of various groups. Working in early 1990s Aotearoa/NZ, Ryan suggests “women’s rights and peace issues” as subjects that any meaningful counter-hegemonic bloc must address.

Gramsci’s ideas have been widely abused and taken out of context. In his 1977 article Gramsci versus Eurocommunism, International Socialist Chris Harman suggested that while Gramsci died in prison after years of ill treatment, “he has suffered more misfortune since his death from the distortion of his ideas by those who have nothing in common with his revolutionary principles.”

Harman details the role of Stalinism in distorting Gramsci’s ideas. When the Italian Communist Party got hold of the Prison Notebooks, they were not published for ten years. When the Communist Party finally published the Prison Notebooks, they were heavily censored, in Harman’s words, “to present Gramsci as the loyal Stalinist par excellence.”

In reality, Gramsci had become increasingly critical of the Stalinist turn in the world communist movement, particularly the ‘Third Period’ which saw a sectarian turn against reformists in the working class movement. Gramsci had returned to the idea of tactical unity with other working-class forces while retaining an independent communist organisation, recommended by Lenin in 1921. However, the Italian Communist Party sought to use Gramsci’s name in death to shore up their sectarianism.

In the early 1960s, the Italian Communist Party published Gramsci’s full works uncensored. After Stalin’s death, many Western Communist Parties took a sharp turn away from the sectarianism of the Third Period towards accommodation with ruling Western regimes. At this point the Italian Communist Party used Gramsci’s work, particularly his criticism of the Stalinist Third Period, to justify their ‘historic compromise’ with the ruling regime in Italy.

This laid the basis for what became known as Eurocommunism, defined by compromise with dominant political order. Eurocommunists came to defend the existing Social Contract, rallying to the defence of existing democratic institutions tied to capitalism.

However, socialism cannot come through defence of declining democratic institutions, through voting Labour or joining your union. Although engagement with institutions is necessary, the system is ultimately broken. Socialism can only come through sustained independent opposition in every sector; in the electoral, workplace, campus, community sectors; and the formation of a historic bloc bringing these struggles together in unified opposition to the ruling order.

Gramsci’s revolutionary work was centred on the Turin factory council movement, democratic bodies of workers which sought control over production. In the 21st century West, the Occupy movement has offered a glimpse of what this direct democracy could look like, particularly Occupy Oakland’s combination of a radical, democratic commune with militant industrial tactics in the port.

The Italian Communist Party in Gramsci’s period also contested elections, with the intention in his words “to rip the democratic mask from the double face of the bourgeois dictatorship and show it in all its horror and its repugnant ugliness.” In non-revolutionary conditions, counter-hegemonic engagement in official politics such as elections must always be oppositional. There are no short-cuts, and by entering into capitalist governments, we run the risk of sacrificing long-term strategy. Community-based organisation can both win concrete reforms, and lay the basis for winning peoples’ power.

Today many ‘Gramscians’ have no meaningful connection with attempts to develop a new communist practice, instead using the notion of a protracted cultural struggle, a “march through the institutions,” to justify their turn away from revolutionary politics. While the first generation of Eurocommunists had used Gramsci to justify a ‘historic compromise’ with liberal democracy, many current Gramscians abandon even the superficial trappings of openly communist politics.

In a particularly revolting UK example, “social entrepreneurs” The B Group grouped around capitalist Richard Branson appropriate Gramsci’s call for cultural struggle, without any notion of abolishing private property and exploitation. Subtler examples abound throughout academia, with liberal academics speaking of “hegemony” and “counter-hegemony” totally divorced from anti-capitalism.

This confirms one of Gramsci’s key ideas; most intellectuals operate as functionaries, mechanically serving the ruling order. Stalinist politicos, academics, “social entrepreneurs” and others have claimed Gramsci’s argument for a protracted cultural struggle, while divorcing it from anti-capitalist politics.

In his Prison Notebooks, Gramsci referred to revolutionary socialism as the “philosophy of praxis.” Praxis is the combination of theory with practice; ideas tested through action, action developed through reflection. In The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire defines praxis this way:

Reflection without action = verbalism
Action without reflection = activism
Action + reflection = praxis

Criticising establishment intellectuals, Gramsci argued the need for the fusing of revolutionary intellectual work with popular philosophy. Organic intellectuals, thinkers from within the working class and oppressed groups, must play a key role in forging this new revolutionary consciousness; or to use a more contemporary slogan, “nothing about us without us.”

Gramsci himself was an organic intellectual, a worker from a poor background – unlike Marx, Engels, Lenin and other revolutionary leaders who had betrayed their privileged class origins and committed themselves to revolution. Although it is not enough, lived experience of oppression is crucial to the collective process of developing revolutionary consciousness.

Gramscian cultural approaches contrast with the ‘mechanical materialism’ often associated with vulgar Marxism. ‘Mechanical materialism’ denies lived experience of oppression, and the complex relationship between culture and lived experience, in favour of lifeless economic determinism.

Revolutionary consciousness must be rooted in local conditions, in the memory of the class. We must study our own environment, our own history, our own place in society. An encompassing cultural struggle must draw lessons and knowledge from intersecting struggles; worker, student, queer, feminist, indigenous, anti-imperialist and ecological struggles among others.

Ultimately, Gramsci argued, social forces must be brought together in the ‘Modern Prince,’ a new collective revolutionary vanguard, or communist party. While this organisation immerses itself in the immediate struggles of the workplace, and the wider community, it maintains its independent opposition to the existing state structure. As phrased by US group INCITE! Women of Colour Against Violence, “the revolution will not be funded.”

The possibility of a new communist vanguard seems remote today in Aotearoa/NZ, just as the Bolsheviks did not predict the generalised strike action that led to the 1917 Russian revolution. However, we can only forge an egalitarian society through meaningful commitment to the praxis of revolutionary socialism.

Paraphrasing Gramsci, we need pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.

Witness to a revolution

Russia 1917

Russia 1917

Michael Kyriazopoulos, Fightback (Auckland).

As I approach the end of my life due to Motor Neurone Disease I have been reading the fragments of memoirs recorded by my maternal grandmother in the final years of her life. Virtually all of what she wrote centred on her experiences as a refugee in Russia, which clearly left a deep impression on her.

On wintry days I remember my mother looking intently at the crystal formations on the window panes. Slowly and carefully she would translate these delicate patterns into fine crochet work – fragile and intricate as spiderwebs. Mother was a person who combined her fine gifts with practicality, this would get us through the harsh days that were to shatter our beautiful world. Yes, my early childhood was filled with warmth, love and comfort.

So it begins. My gran was born Mary Blumenstock in 1907 in Tukums, Latvia. Her Jewish family enjoyed a comfortable lifestyle, keeping a maid and a summer house. Mary’s father was a successful timber merchant, but one day everything changed forever with the outbreak of the First World War. Her father and brother joined the Imperial Army and Mary and her mother went to live in a refugee settlement near Syzran. Although the language was foreign to her, Mary quickly picked up Russian and before long had won the school essay writing competition. She received a bag of sweets as a prize which she shared with her classmates and teachers. Her story was adapted as a school play which raised money to buy shoes and clothes for refugee children.

Mary helped her mother rolling cigarettes from which they eked out a meagre livelihood. Two and a half years after coming to Russia with the war still raging the situation was bleak:

Milk was now becoming scarce and the bread tasted dry as wood shavings. We could not buy kerosene for our lanterns, nor candles or soap. Our school meals usually consisted of two potatoes in their jackets and a small piece of herring. We also had a mug of black coffee without sugar, which I would give to another child. One of my potatoes I slipped into my pocket to take home to mama. [Read more…]

The Russian Revolution and National Freedom: How the early Soviet government led the struggle for liberation of Russia’s oppressed peoples

The following article, published on November 1, 2006, was written by John Riddell, then a co-editor of the now ceased Socialist Voicewhich was produced in Canada. We are publishing it in two parts. Part one, here, appeared in the July issue of The Spark and part two will appear in the August issue.

When Bolivian President Evo Morales formally opened his country’s Constituent Assembly on August 6, 2006,

Russian Bolshevik leader V.I Lenin, in 1919

he highlighted the aspirations of Bolivia’s indigenous majority as the central challenge before the gathering. The convening of the Assembly, he said, represented a “historic moment to refound our dearly beloved homeland Bolivia.” When Bolivia was created, in 1825-26, “the originary indigenous movements” who had fought for independence “were excluded,” and subsequently were discriminated against and looked down upon. But the “great day has arrived today … for the originary indigenous peoples.” (, Aug. 14, 2006)

During the preceding weeks, indigenous organizations had proposed sweeping measures to assure their rights, including guarantees for their languages, autonomy for indigenous regions, and respect for indigenous culture and political traditions.

This movement extends far beyond Bolivia. Massive struggles based on indigenous peoples have shaken Ecuador and Peru, and the reverberations are felt across the Western Hemisphere. Measures to empower indigenous minorities are among the most prestigious achievements of the Bolivarian movement in Venezuela.

At first glance, these indigenous struggles bear characteristic features of national movements, aimed at combating oppression, securing control of national communities, and protecting national culture. Yet indigenous peoples in Bolivia and elsewhere may not meet many of the objective criteria Marxists have often used to define a nation, such as a common language and a national territory, and they are not demanding a separate state. [Read more…]


A talk by Don Franks, Marxism 2010 conference, Wellington 5 June  2010

This is obviously a big subject, which could be approached in a number of ways.  In the small time we have this morning, my aim will be to introduce basic points and hopefully arouse some ongoing interest.

There are various contending definitions of ‘Marxism”. The one I’m tempted to offer today is that Marxism is a set of sharp political tools, which New Zealand leftists tend to leave in the box. Later on in this talk I’ll consider why that has been so frequently the case.

As a more general definition to introduce Marxism, I’ll add that it’s a theory named for its main architect and can be understood as the theory of dialectical materialism based on communist practice. The expression ‘dialectical materialism’ has a forbidding sound and is not common currency in the day-to-day life of most people. Here I see a huge contradiction, because dialectical materialism is a thoroughly practical method of understanding human society and the universe in which we’re placed. Dialectical materialism is also a philosophy which by its nature takes sides with the oppressed. [Read more…]