Doing the same thing, expecting different results: notes on revolutionaries in electoral politics

Shelly Provost | Wikimedia Commons

By DAPHNE LAWLESS. Written for Fightback’s magazine issue on Organisation. Subscribe to our magazine, or e-publication here.

See also: Electoralism and Socialist Party-Building in Aotearoa/New Zealand (discussion document by Ani White).

The infamous Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek has described “ideology” as something that you know isn’t true; and yet even so, you behave like it is.[1] That seems a pretty fair description of how revolutionary socialists seem to react to electoral politics. We know that elections under capitalism only have impact at the margins; that whoever we vote for, Wall Street wins. And yet even so, if the social democrats or the liberals lose to the Right, we’re depressed for ages.

The dust is settling on the defeat of a small and yet promising electoral project in Tāmaki Makaurau/Auckland – the mayoral campaign of former Manukau councillor Efeso Collins. Winning candidate and new Mayor Wayne Brown is effectively described in terms of Simpsons memes as “old man yells at cloud”. An embodiment of white boomer privilege and reactionary pushback against recent mild urbanist reforms, Brown – backed by his advisors, notorious Right-wing Twitter influencers Matthew Hooton and Ben Thomas – racked up huge majorities in the white, property-owning suburbs.[2]

The point here is not to criticise the Collins campaign as such, which was always pushing uphill against several factors. These include massive funding behind the Brown campaign; somewhat half-hearted support from the Labour Party from the Collins campaign; the sheer force of racism among the privileged section of Aucklanders who actually vote in local elections; and the general reactionary trend which has prevailed in politics since the ruling class lost interest in fighting the COVID pandemic.[3] The question is to ask: what exactly is the activist Left’s theory behind why we get involved in electoral politics – or even care about the results? What do we expect to get out of electoral politics – win or lose?

Against ultraleftism…

Fightback published an article two years ago, summing up the defeat of the electoral movements behind Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders. Part of our conclusion was this:

Electoral politics usually come after a downturn in the direct-action movements, and vice versa. The failure of Occupy and the Arab Spring gave rise to SYRIZA, PODEMOS, the Corbyn and Sanders movements; the failure or dead-end of these electoral movements has erupted in the current global wave of “Black Lives Matter”/anti-police uprisings.[4]

We feel our analysis in the last part of that article – under the heading “Direct Action gets the goods” – stands the test of time. This analysis stands against two symmetrical errors. We firstly reject the ultra-leftist analysis, that elections and democratic institutions and rights under capitalism don’t matter, or even worse, aren’t worth defending in the face of Right-wing populism and resurgent fascism. It’s obviously in the better interests of working people that the elected bodies of capitalist democracy be run by whichever faction is less interested in attacking working-class wages, jobs, communities, and democratic rights.

To dig a bit deeper into this, we have to materially analyse exactly what happens in elections. There is a real impact – the actual transfer of the leadership of elected bodies from one person/ideological tendency to another. Revolutionaries are right to point out that this is often a marginal change, and that the unelected bureaucracies and the capitalists and corporates who call the shots in the background are unaffected. But there are also what we might call memetic effects – what the election “means” in terms of an impact on how people think and feel, what it does to the confidence of one broad social group or another.

A significant recent example of this comes from outside electoral politics – what happened when Elon Musk finally closed the deal to buy Twitter. It provoked an orgy of racist and transphobic posting – before anything had changed in actual moderation or banning procedures – because the racists and transphobes felt that they had “won”. Similar things happen in the real world when the Right win elections, as we saw with the outcome of the Trump and Brexit votes in 2016. To return to the Auckland local body elections, one of incoming Mayor Brown’s first actions was to send Auckland Transport a letter instructing them to cut back on cycleway construction – something which he legally has no power to do; and yet, Auckland Transport’s leadership complied, presumably because that’s what they wanted to do anyway.[5]

… and against electoralism

Because bourgeois election campaigns and outcomes have real impacts on working people’s confidence and feelings of safety – and those of their fascist enemies – socialists can’t be indifferent to the outcome. A socialist electoral intervention might most often be geared to making an impact on the memetic side of things – raising issues on the campaign trail, and amplifying the voices of workers and the marginalised, at a time when people are actually paying attention.

But conversely, when socialists decide to make electoral politics a focus of their activity, they’re generally not very good at it. To put it less bluntly, the “ideological” contradictions of being involved in electoralism while knowing full well that the working class’s road to power isn’t through elections leads to several counter-productive patterns of behaviour. Here I will try to list out a number of the ways in which socialist interventions in electoral politics can go wrong – some of which contradict each other, as things can go wrong in many directions.

1. The Red-Brown temptation

This is probably the greatest danger in the current environment where Right-populism and even fascism are ascendant on a global level. The sad reality is that the public health initiatives which were necessary to slow down the spread of COVID-19 have also delivered an angry and fearful mass audience to the entrepreneurs of fascist-style conspiracy theories, as revealed (in this country) by the occupation of Parliament grounds in February this year. The temptation here is to see a real mass movement rising up against the Leftish wing of neoliberalism, but to not understand (or not care) that a fascist mobilisation against bourgeois liberalism is not only different, but actively poisonous, to working-class communities. This despair and wishful thinking, leading to a desire to jump on the bandwagon of those who wish us dead, is the root of what I’ve previously termed “the Red-Brown Zombie Plague”.[6]

The United States, with its lack of recent experience of independent workers’ organisation, is “Ground Zero” for this kind of politics. The Green Party of the USA and the newer “Movement for a People’s Party” run electoral campaigns which centre the principle, hard to challenge on the US left, that it is impermissible to ever give electoral support to Democrats/liberals. But to do this in the current climate, they have to soft-pedal or deny the threat to democracy and the lives of minorities posed by the contemporary Republican Party, controlled by Donald Trump’s fascistic “Make America Great Again” movement. Worse still, the most “mask-off” of this Red-Brown current actively paint MAGA as a “working class” movement with which socialists must unify.[7]

With regard to the recent Brazilian presidential election, an American socialist on Twitter recently commented:

…I worry the US left is falling into a pattern: 1) our international bodies and magazines uncritically cheer a left or center-left candidate. 2) they ignore contradictions and fail to educate our members or provide analysis 3) we get blindsided when we lose[8]

This uncritical cheerleading of Left-flavoured electoral alternatives is the flipside of the self-righteous refusal to support centrist politicians as “lesser evils” against extremist conservatives or fascists. It is fundamentally dishonest in that it refuses to admit that the difference between – say – Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders is one of degree, not kind. They are both capitalist politicians, one of which has a better programme from a socialist point of view. And yet, both are supportable options if actual fascism is on the line. To prioritise bashing the centrist mainstream over a sober electoral calculus of how workers and marginalised communities would be impacted by the victory of the Right is not voting based on a class line, and it is not building an “electoral alternative” if it will have nothing but a spoiler effect. It is reducing politics to a simple “insider/outsider” or “elites/people” duality, which either ignores the very clear and present danger of Right-populism and fascism, or takes the Red-Brown path to welcoming it as an ally.

2. Program fetishism

A less dangerous, but still counter-productive, tendency in socialist electoralism is the presumption that electoral success comes from a sufficiently Left-wing programme – that is, one of strong social democratic reforms. To begin with, this is a paradox, since such a programme is significantly to the “Right” of what revolutionaries actually want to happen. The essential flaw of this strategy is the assumption that “real” Leftist social democracy would be popular enough to win; but actual social democrats won’t do it, so revolutionaries have to substitute for them.

One amusing example of this came about in the 2017 election in New Zealand. The Labour Party came well back in second place in terms of votes; one socialist website (which no longer exists)[9] took the opportunity to explain that Jacinda Ardern had lost because of her party’s inadequately left-wing programme. Of course, two weeks later, Ardern put together the coalition numbers to become the new Prime Minister. In contrast to this, we can see what happened to the British Labour Party in 2019 – a strongly supportable Left-wing manifesto went down to humiliating defeat at the hands of the clownish and corrupt Boris Johnson. (Arguments about the biased media are beside the point – there is no electoral road to socialist reforms which will face a supportive or even neutral media.)

If working people are just waiting for a sufficiently Left-wing manifesto to turn away from the establishment parties and from apathy, then if the mainstream centre-Left parties choose not to run such a manifesto, it must be because they don’t really want to win – a conspiracy theory which, like all others, thrives on defeat and is therefore particularly popular in the United States. This is an essentially moralistic rather than materialist view of politics, that the system can be made to function for working people if the right comrades take control of the electoral parties, and consequently the State. But as Marxists and revolutionaries have always pointed out, controlling a capitalist state, in a global capitalist economy, means your options are limited to what capital can tolerate. When “staunch socialists” do manage to replace discredited social democrats at elections, they are forced by the realities of living with capitalism to adopt essentially the same politics – as was shown in Greece, where the PASOK party was replaced by their left-wing rivals of SYRIZA and not much changed at all.[10]

To paraphrase a famous internet meme, if elections could be won by turning a big dial marked SOCIALISM, and looking back at the audience for approval, our job would be so much simpler. Even worse – when the radical Right win by appealing to a mass audience’s fear of change with appeals to bigotry and authoritarianism, that can prove disastrous for socialists who see their role in politics as “giving the people what they really want”. See The Red-Brown Temptation, above.

3. Doing it right is expensive

The logic of electoralism requires building the biggest possible support base among those who’re not politically active or interested at most times of the year. Outside of a revolutionary situation, revolutionaries are a minority; the logic of electoralism requires building a much broader coalition than a consistent anti-capitalist politics can sustain.

The inescapable fact about mass politics under capitalism is that success means funding; and it means media coverage. Funding means appealing to people with money; that is, a sufficiently large swathe of the middle and upper-middle classes, or perhaps one or two renegade “left millionaires”. Media coverage means “playing the game” as set out by the political economy of the mass media, and the agendas and preferences of leading journalists and opinion makers – who, inevitably, themselves reflect the agendas and worldviews of the property-owning middle classes.

Now, this isn’t a moralist argument that any support (financial or mediatic) from the big or little bourgeoisie instantly disqualifies a Leftist project. Lenin’s return to Russia to lead the Bolshevik Revolution was made possible by a free train ride from the German imperialists.[11] And we reject the “campist” argument that funding from the agencies of the US state, or from billionaires such as George Soros, instantly disqualifies any popular uprising in non-Western authoritarian regimes. But any such support introduces contradictions into the movement. It inherently imposes limits on what the movement can possibly achieve; limits which have to be justified in themselves. In this country, the “Internet-MANA” electoral project of 2014 failed despite having the backing of a “radical billionaire” – and given that that particular billionaire is now an outspoken supporter of Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, we may well feel that we “dodged a bullet”.[12]

4. The Rasputin temptation

A final pitfall that is often seen when socialists get involved in electoral politics is a similar shortcut to the “programme fetishism” trap, in that it requires a kind of “top-down manipulation” which is counterposed to what we claim to believe in. Simply put, this is the attempt to steer the movement in a “Left” direction by gaining influence over the existing leadership of the movement – often by just being the “best activists” for whatever the leadership were planning to do anyway, or even worse, the leadership’s most devoted partisans within the movement.

As we discussed this in our analysis of the Corbyn and Sanders movements, this cynical move might reap results in the rhetoric or the programme which the leadership issues; and certainly in terms of material benefit for the activists who get themselves paid gigs as “researchers” or “advisers”. But to maintain these positions of power requires preserving the power and influence of the leadership – generally by squashing challenges from within the movement’s base. It also requires the kind of trade-off where revolutionaries are expected to put a “Left” face on some horrible, sell-out policy if they want to keep their precious influence.

There is also a general problem that when Left activists get embedded in the leadership of a mass electoral movement, they bring with them particular political “obsessions” of their subculture of origin which end up being poison when introduced to mass politics. The classic example of this, as we explored in 2020, was the influence of Communist Party of Britain veterans over the Corbyn leadership’s foreign policy, leading to not only electorally poisonous pro-Putin, pro-Assad positions, but also turning a blind eye to an antisemitic fringe – a more potent weapon in the hands of Tories is impossible to imagine. As with the question of funding explored above, the gap between the politics of ideological bubbles or sects, and the politics of mobilising people at the scale which can shift elections, is something which canny revolutionaries often seem convinced they can jump. They haven’t been proved right so far.

Build worker and community power

It’s worth repeating that electoral politics are not a bad thing in themselves, and may deliver gains for working people and their communities. But to be able to intervene effectively, the radical Left have to admit to ourselves that this is not our core competency. To centre electoral politics or movements in themselves, rather than building the self-organisation of the masses, is Hal Draper’s “socialism from above”.[13]

Fightback’s alternative is based on the fundamental Marxist insight that workers’ power at the point of production – and community power through self-activism and self-organisation on the ground – is the only power which can refute and subvert the power of capital and the power of the capitalist state. It is of course the only path to an actual revolution, that is, the only form of social organisation which could take over. But it is also the only weapon that workers and their communities have that can put effective pressure on capitalists and their State – including winning the kind of electoral victories which “stick” and make lasting changes for the better.

Through winning victories in the workplaces and communities through direct action, such a movement will build both real and memetic power; meaning that, even where it might not be strong enough to make changes directly, mainstream politicians will see in it a possible ally, and amend their programmes and strategies directly. When the union movement in Western countries was strong in the 1950s, even the conservative parties had to pay lip-service to working class demands.

Part of revolutionary politics is not to tell lies to the working class, and to politically campaign with a message that the current system is the way it is because the current crop of politicians is rotten or feckless – thereby implying that “good” politicians could fix things – is not only untrue. It opens the field to fascist organisers, who can tell a much more exciting and compelling story with villains such as “Globo-Homo” or “the International Jew”. It also fosters dangerous illusions in how much power a nation-state government has to accomplish a serious break with international capitalism – a mistake which led many British socialists to support Brexit from a “Left-nationalist” point of view, again, playing directly into the hands of the radical Right.

In contrast, understanding that elections are important, but not central, allows revolutionaries to, at the same time, advocate electoral support for social democrats or liberals where the alternative would be disastrous for people’s rights and safety; or alternatively to support or even help build a “more Left” electoral formation where the calculus allows for it (for example, the Greens or Te Pāti Māori in Aotearoa). But this must go along with prioritising the building of a political movement independent of all electoral, systemic forces, capable of direct action to win material gains, which may in turn influence electoral politics. Attempts by Left-wing pundits to attempt to “shame” Labour politicians into being more radical through essays and Twitter posts won’t cut it.

Similarly, if revolutionaries decide to get involved in an electoral campaign for the sake of “building the movement”, then we need a strategy that will mean that the movement will keep going after the election night celebrations (or, much more likely, drowning of sorrows). It will be interesting to see what happens to what’s left of the Efeso Collins coalition in Auckland.

As the quotation above from our 2020 article might indicate, Left-wing electoral movements usually come into existence as a consequence of defeat of direct-action mass movements – and vice-versa, in an endless cycle. Could it be that the way forward is through a synthesis of these two opposing paths:to build organisations of workers’ and community power which can wield real influence on electoral politics, while always remembering that the electoral struggle can never be central to our goal of emancipation?







[7] For some examples, see


[9] The site of the short-lived “Socialist Voice” group.





What is the base of right-wing populism?

Image via BBC.

This article was written for Fightback’s magazine issue on the far right. To subscribe to the magazine, click here.

By Ani White.

Given the global surge of the populist right in recent decades, it’s worth investigating the demographic base of this political phenomenon. Probably the most prominent example of right-wing populism, largely due to prominence of the United States in general, is Donald Trump’s former presidency. This article will therefore examine Trump’s base, before moving on to international comparisons.

Trump and the ‘white working-class’

It’s a commonplace claim that Trump appeals to the “white working class.” This is almost too commonplace to need a source, but an article in UK conservative rag The Times typifies the claim:

Trump was elected for a reason. He spoke to a downwardly mobile, mostly white working class that had been forgotten by the elites raking in money from the global economy. By re-engaging these outcasts with the political system, he…turned politics upside down.

It’s worth teasing out what is meant by ‘white working-class’ here. According to a Marxist definition, workers are those who do not control the means of production, and must work for a wage. This definition includes educated white-collar workers, among other groups not commonly stereotyped in the term ‘working-class.’ By this definition, any successful candidate in a mass electoral system will have a majority of working-class supporters, regardless of their other demographic features. But the Times‘ claim is more specific: that Trump appeals to an economically insecure section of the working-class, a section of the working class that has been left behind, those affected by increasing inequality.

Yet this notion of Trump voters as economically left-behind is not borne out by the numbers. According to exit polls in both the 2016 and 2020 elections, Trump appealed to higher-income households, while Democrats appealed to lower-income households:

Voters from wealthy households swung further towards Mr Trump in 2020. Just over half of those whose family income was more than $100,000 a year supported the president, compared with 45 per cent in 2016.

By contrast, those making family incomes of less than $50,000 voted Democratic by an 11.5-point margin (55 to 43), compared to an 8.2-point Democratic margin in 2016 (50 to 42)1

These numbers do not measure class in the Marxist sense (unfortunately exit polls do not gather data on voters’ relation to production) but they do undermine the thesis that Trump’s base is the most economically left-behind of the working-class. The average Trump voter is economically better-off than the average Democrat voter, and better-off than the average American. This played out prominently when participants in the January 6 Capitol coup attempt checked in at five-star hotels such as the Grand Hyatt,2 Wealthy racists support wealthy racists.

Trump’s base is substantially petit bourgeois: small-business owners. A poll of small-business owners in the US in 2016 found that the majority supported Trump3, and this majority only increased in 2020.4 Admittedly, Trump lost support from big business in the 2020 election5, but the point remains that Trump’s base is substantially petit bourgeois (this is also the classical base of fascism).

A common mistake conflates geography with class. Red States are portrayed as working-class, obscuring that lower-income voters, particularly people of colour, still largely do not vote Republican – with many suppressed from voting at all. Many commentators highlighted the segment of Wisconsin voters that swung from Obama to Trump, with the apparent assumption that everybody in Wisconsin is a factory worker. But the demographic makeup of Trump support in Wisconsin was much the same as it was nationwide, with the Democrats attracting lower-income voters and Trump attracting higher-income voters.6,7 The focus on Wisconsin, as a swing state, also reflects the narrow electoralist logic of the US system, which both encourages parties to chase ‘the middle’ (a common feature of liberal electoral systems), and gives certain states disproportionate weight (a more distinctive feature of the US Electoral College). Focusing so heavily on ‘swing voters’ is a recipe for rightward drift.

Another argument maps education on to class. An article on popular academic non-profit blog The Conversation, with the headline “Who exactly is Trump’s ‘base’? Why white, working-class voters could be key to the US election”8, quotes political scientists Noam Lupu and Nicholas Carnes defining working-class as “those who do not hold a college degree and report annual household incomes below the median”,9 and explicitly goes on to say that small-business owners may be included in this category. However, while education does factor into economic access, to define working-class status based on education assumes that workers are uneducated and lets reactionary petit bourgeois off the hook. Additionally, even by Lupu & Carnes’ cultural definition of the “white working-class” as those on low incomes without higher education, only a minority of Trump’s base qualifies.10

So, what are the defining features of the populist right’s base, if not working-class status? Trump’s base is primarily white and wealthy,11 and more consciously motivated by cultural than economic factors: nationalism, race, and religion.12 Even if we were to argue that economics are self-evidently more important than culture, we would still be left with the point that Trump’s base is substantially petit bourgeois (though also drawing in the more reactionary and privileged sections of the working-class). This petit bourgeois, culturally conservative character of right voters has international parallels.

Right-wing populism in Europe and Australasia

Before moving on to international examples beyond Trump, it’s worth defining a term: right-wing populism. Populism in general can be defined as a contentious politics that polarises the field between a broad “people” and a “narrow elite”’13 – this has both left and right variants, but the question of left-populism will be set aside for now. Right-wing populism tends to define its “people” in national rather than class terms, and its “elites” in cultural terms – not necessarily the rich, so much as the liberal or cosmopolitan. Nazism is the far end of right-wing populism, with Jewish people defined as the “elites” that must be purged from the nation. My analysis of right populism is focused on the ‘imperialist core’ countries – the Anglosphere and Northern Europe, as centres of white supremacy – but similar dynamics can play out in the majority world, as with India’s Hindutva movement.

The base of populism in Europe correlates with the base of populism in the US. Political scientists Ronald F. Inglehart and Pippa Norris conducted a meta-analysis of the voters most likely to support populist parties in Europe, and their motivations. Comparing the cultural backlash thesis (“support can be explained as a retro reaction by once-predominant sectors of the population to progressive value change”) and the economic insecurity thesis (emphasising the impact of neoliberalism on working-class voters), they found more support for the cultural backlash thesis. Conservative cultural attitudes were the strongest predictor of support for populist parties, to a much greater degree than economic insecurity. Unsurprisingly, populist support was strongest among “the older generation, men, the less educated, ethnic majority populations, and the religious”. Moreover, support for populists was strongest among the petit bourgeoisie, not among workers or unemployed.14

Australia has also seen a surge of support for minor populist parties. In the 2016 federal election, more voted for minor parties than at any other point since the Second World War. Unusually, the Australian minor party vote increased most strongly during periods of wage and income growth15 (this contrasts with an international pattern, measured over 140 years across 20 developed countries, whereby political polarisation increases most after financial crises16). In Australia, as elsewhere, support for populist parties was most correlated with conservative anxieties about cultural change.17 Australia has also been ahead of the curve with the mainstreaming of racial populism, with its Mandatory Detention policy for refugees initially emerging as exceptional for the OECD, but increasingly echoed internationally (as with Trump’s detention camps).

In Aotearoa/New Zealand, 2020’s General Election saw newly-formed populist parties roundly defeated.18 Labour PM Jacinda Ardern was able to sell herself as a competent crisis manager, winning over a broad swathe of the electorate including many traditional right voters.19 Ardern was successful where Corbyn in the UK and Sanders in the US were not, despite the dreams of some on their populist-left flank20: win over the base of the right. In doing so, she demonstrated why this is not a viable left strategy: Labour is unwilling to alienate their new friends with any radical measures, or even moderate measures such as property taxes to address the housing crisis, which would cut into the wealth of the property-owning middle-class.21 22 23 Although Ardern’s strategy is centrist rather than populist, it demonstrates a central danger in appealing to the right’s base: the danger of successfully becoming the sort of party right-wingers want to vote for.

What does this mean for left strategy?

The simplest strategic point to draw from all this is the following: the left should not build a strategy on appealing to the most culturally conservative, economically wealthy section of the electorate. While this point may seem blindingly obvious to some, it’s apparently not obvious to ‘left’ commentators such as Glenn Greenwald, who recently commented that he considered (millionaire right-wing Fox anchor) Tucker Carlson and (Trump strategist) Steve Bannon to be ‘socialists’, explaining that “you have this kind of right wing populism, which really is socialism.”24 Although this statement may be patently absurd, it’s also reflective of the mindset that the far-right are potential allies of the left.

Although there are conservatives that can be won over, this should not be our primary orientation. Moreover, those that can be won over should be won through a politics of solidarity, rather than pandering.

The claim that the populist right’s base is primarily “white working-class” is both misleading, and inherently beneficial to the right. The claim gives conservatives a stamp of authenticity, given their discrediting association with business interests, and generally unpopular social policies. The circulation of this claim among leftists and liberals is an own-goal at best, and a gateway to reactionary politics at worst. The outsize focus on the “white working-class” also obscures that the working-class are disproportionately people of colour.

The good news is that we don’t need to win over the base of the right to win. In the US, crudely rounding the numbers, Republican voters make up about 25% of the population, with about 25% voting Democrat, and about 50% not participating in elections (the actually left-behind). A strategy appealing to that 75% working-class majority, rather than the wealthiest and most reactionary 25%, has more transformative potential. And beyond the USA, the global working-class are mostly people of colour.

1 Zhang, Christine; Burn-Murdoch, John. “By numbers: how the US voted in 2020.” Financial Times, November 8, 2020 ( Web. Accessed 17/02/2021.

2 Bradley, Diana. “Hyatt faces backlash for ‘harboring domestic terrorists’ following Capitol riots.” PR Week, 7 January 2021 ( Web. Accessed 17/02/2021.

3 Ioannou, Lori. “Small business says Trump is their pick for president.” CNBC, 5 October 2016 ( Web. Accessed 17/02/2021.

4 De Leon, Riley. “President Trump’s approval rating among small business owners hits all-time high of 64%, survey reveals.” CNBC, 20 February 2020 ( Web. Accessed 17/02/2021.

5 Edgecliffe-Johnson, Andrew. “Business breaks up with Trump.” Financial Review, 1 November 2020 ( Web. Accessed 17/02/2021.

6 CNN. “Exit Polls: Wisconsin Presidential Election 2016”. CNN, last updated 9 November 2016 ( Web. Accessed 17/02/2021.

7 CNN. “Exit Polls: Wisconsin Presidential Election 2020”. CNN, n.d. 2020 ( Web. Accessed 17/02/2021.

8 Ketchell, Misha. “Who exactly is Trump’s ‘base’? Why white, working-class voters could be key to the US election.” The Conversation, 29 October 2020 ( Web. Accessed 18/02/2021.

9 Carnes, Nicholas; Lupu, Noam. “The White Working-Class and the 2016 Election.” Perspectives on Politics, First View, pp. 1-18, 2020. American Political Science Association.

10 Carnes et al. “The White Working-class…” Perspectives on Politics, 2020.

11 Carnes, Nicholas; Lupu, Noam. “It’s time to bust the myth: Most Trump voters were not working class.” Washington Post June 5, 2017 ( ). Accessed 22/04/2018.

12 Rubin, Jennifer. “Trump’s voters were more motivated by nationalism than economic hardship.” Chicago Tribune June 19, 2017 ( ). Accessed 22/04/2018.

13 Laclau, Ernesto. On Populist Reason. Verso. 2005.

14 Inglehart, Ronald. The Silent Revolution: Changing Values and Political Styles Among Western Publics. Princeton Legacy Library. 1977.

15 Wood, Danielle; Daley, John; Chivers, Carmela. “Australia Demonstrates the Rise of Populism is About More than Economics.” The Australian Economic Review, vol. 51, no. 3, pp. 399-410, 2018.

16 Funke, Manuel; Schularick, Moritz; Trebesch, Christoph. “Going to extremes: Politics after financial crises, 1870-2014.” European Economic Review, vol 88, pp. 227-260, 2016.

17 Wood et al. “Australia Demonstrates…” Australian Economic Review, 2018.

18 Clark, Byron. “Conspiracy theorists big losers in NZ election.” Fightback, 5 December 2020 ( Web. Accessed 18/02/2021.

19 Malpass, Luke. “Forget left and right, Jacinda Ardern’s in the middle.” Financial Review, 23 October 2020 ( Web. Accessed 18/02/2021.

20 Lawless, Daphne. “Left Populism at the dead end: where to after Corbyn and Sanders?” Fightback, 25 August 2020 ( Web. Accessed 18/02/2021.

21 Sachs, Justine. “Jacinda Ardern Is Not Your Friend.” Jacobin, 12 February 2021 ( Web. Accessed 18/02/2021.

22 White, Ani. “’Lawmakers, not lawbreakers’”: Jacindamania as a bastion of the Third Way.” Fightback, 1 September 2020 ( Web. Accessed 18/02/2021.

23 Green Left Radio. “New Zealand Elections: Left Response.” Green Left Radio, 24 October 2020 ( Web. Accessed 18/02/2021.

24 Richardson, Reed. “Glenn Greenwald Describes Tucker Carlson, Bannon and 2016-era Trump as Right Wing ‘Socialists’, Mediaite, 4 March 2021 ( Web. Accessed 05/03/2021.

Fightback Conference talks online now

In January 2021, Fightback hosted a series of online public talks as a part of our annual conference. Recordings of these talks are now all online at the Where’s My Jetpack podcast:

Unfortunately, the audio files from our most popular session on union and workplace struggle were corrupted. However, you can find interviews with the two speakers on our blog here:

Zombie Stalinism: 25 years later, who wants the Berlin Wall back?


This piece was originally printed on the IS Network (UK) website on the 18th November 2014.

We reprint it in light of the lapsing of that original post, aswell as our own convergence with the analysis of Stalinism and ‘campism’ (see for example Daphne Lawless’ Against Campism: What makes some leftists support Putin?).

Twenty-five years on, how has the fall of the Berlin Wall affected our analysis of Soviet Russia? How has what we have learnt changed our analysis of post-’89 Eastern Europe, Russia and the current situation in Ukraine?

The deepest discussions in the international workers’ movement about the relationship between dictatorship and democracy happened in the years after 1917 and either side of the fall of the Berlin Wall. In the 1980s, revolutionary Marxists faced a growing crisis of Stalinist power in the East, and of the Stalinist parties in the West. Unlike the 1930s or 1940s, the failure of the Stalinist states to deliver democratic rights was more visible to many workers than capitalism’s failings. That, coupled with the low level of class consciousness, meant that many aspirations of working people and our allies could easily be channelled into social democracy and other pro-capitalist avenues. The way that the USSR and the other Stalinist states misrepresented the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ meant that workers rejected it both East and West.

In the 1980s, working people around the world were looking for alternatives to the dogmas of Stalinism. Stalinism was the root of elitist schemes in which a paternalist and monolithic party excluded workers from power, on the premise that freedom of discussion opened up the possibilities for counter-revolutionary ideas. Because it reflected the common sense of the post-war imperialism, this notion spread beyond the Stalinist parties and into parts of the social democratic and revolutionary Marxist movements.

The search for alternatives took place largely outside these parties and flowed into the social movements. In the East and the West, class consciousness was deeply stratified and uneven. Struggles spilled out in many directions, picking up the movements and leaderships to hand, like flood waters flowing down the path of least resistance.

The paucity of open, democratic and accessible organisations on the left had two results. First, the anti-Stalinist movements had to find direction independently, much as early feminist movements rejected by the western Communist parties found their ways into the social movements: the Stalinist narrative saw independent movements only as counter-revolutionary. Second, the left could not learn from those movements if it failed to recruit from them.

Schemas and dogmas, however, were not the sole preserve of Stalinists. Many revolutionary Marxists equated socialism with states that used nationalisation to deprive imperialism of a toehold, regardless of the concrete power of the working class. That blind spot meant that some socialists found themselves quite adrift. Some ended up supporting state-capitalist enterprises that operated in order to intensify the profit system. Many found themselves disoriented when working class movements confronted states that opposed a larger imperialism or defended nationalised property. They focused attention on the crimes of imperialism, but failed to make solidarity with the masses when they confronted governments which simultaneously excluded imperialism and the people from power. This acquiescence to the repressive secret-police apparatus of the Stalinist states meant that some socialists underestimated the degree to which the Stalinist co-option of socialist rhetoric would channel working class struggles into trade union, church and democratic movements.

Some comrades found themselves caught in the political dead-end that Ernest Mandel, the pre-eminent leader of the post-war Fourth International, called “campism”. Writing in 1983, Mandel criticised those who subordinated the interests of the working class and the revolution to the interests of defending the camp of states that opposed Western imperialism. He pointed out that the bureaucratic leaderships of these states were often mortal enemies of national liberation movements and working class struggles.

This campist viewpoint was widespead in the Trotskyist movement, notably in the English-speaking countries, as well as in the social democratic and Communist parties. In 1986, for example, the US SWP wrote that the progressive character of the Russian states was “a far more weighty factor for the world revolution than the obstacles represented by the Stalinist bureaucracies”. Mandel’s position was the opposite: “The counter-revolutionary role of the Soviet bureaucracy weighs more heavily on world history than the objective positive effects.”

These dogmas made much of the left unable to understand the developments of the anti-Stalinist movements, and the reality of the new movements’ fragile foundations led many on the left into quite disoriented positions.

The fall of the Berlin Wall remains a useful yardstick for revolutionaries. The working class moves imperfectly, and works with the ideas and the leaders it has to hand. The left must celebrate and learn from its imperfect legacies, from the NHS to the unfinished struggle for equality and unity in Germany.

On the 20th anniversary Gareth Dale wrote in the International Socialism journal to remind us of  the revolutionary nature of the movement for unification in East Germany. Those struggles are outlined well in his trio of books on the end of the DDR. However, Dale showed an appreciation of his readers when he wrote, “Readers of this journal are unlikely to be participating in the twentieth anniversary celebrations of the ‘transition to capitalism’ in Central and Eastern Europe and it’s easy to see why.”

Ironically it is Gregor Gysi, spokesperson of Germany’s ex-Stalinist party, who struck a more useful note on the 25th anniversary. Speaking last week, he reminded the Bundestag that the fall of the Wall was a victory for the masses: they confronted a dictatorship and defeated it in order to fight for democracy.

The challenge for the left is to celebrate the fall of the Wall as a progressive, revolutionary accomplishment of the German working class. The East German masses took up the ideas they had to hand: pacifism and trade unionism. The peace movement provided the initial core for the New Forum, a movement eventually backed by 200,000 East Germans. It argued for participatory democracy to reshape society but, partly because the trade unions were state organs, it mobilised workers through a grassroots movement rather than through the workplace.

That said, trade union militancy has deep roots in Germany, which had been warped by the DDR to meet the needs of the state. With the movements for democracy came new labour struggles and the foundation of independent trade unions, starting in East Berlin, encouraged by the positive experience of the independent Solidarity union in Poland. There were also unsuccessful attempts to move the New Forum into the workplaces by demanding a general strike, as Linda Fuller mentions in her book Where Was the Working Class? Mathieu Denis and Gareth Dale have also written convincingly about the role of workers in the movement: something removed from pro-capitalist and campist narratives about reunification. We should not deny the mass, revolutionary nature of these movements because of the later failure to defend and extend the social state, or because of the collapse of heavy industry on both sides of the former border. The ‘counter-revolution’ in East Germany did not happen in 1989, but before the establishment of the DDR itself. The creation of the DDR, far from creating socialism, had replaced one brutal, repressive dictatorship with another.

Nor, as John Rees does, should we view the outcome of reunification primarily as a matter of shifting walls between camps of states. In Rees’s opinion, the mass movement in 1989 was doomed because of the absence of socialist ideas. On the Counterfire website, he writes, “When Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev abandoned his East German satellite there was no social force that could resist the embrace of right wing West German chancellor Helmut Kohl. German unification would be a Western annexation, not the beginning of a social revolution…  The neoliberal offensive that took a huge step forward in Germany in 1989 has created a wall between the rich and the poor that is higher than ever, and more difficult to cross.”

This view is mistaken. Echoing Dale’s 2009 article in International Socialism, the revolutionary struggle in East Germany is discounted because of the prior absence of the ideal social force: a working class with revolutionary socialist ideas. The outcome is measured only in the partial attenuation of inequality between West and East, and the geopolitical defeat of Russia. For Rees, it seems, the development, success and memory of mass movements that ended the Stalinist dictatorships are nothing when weighed up against the expansion of NATO.

The same must be said of other struggles. Campism is alive and well, most clearly in relation to Ukraine and Syria. Some socialists have cultivated the absurdity of seeing Putin, leader of the Russian plutocracy that has used IMF diktats to suck wealth out of Russia, and his allies as governing an anti-imperialist bloc of states. The revolutionary struggles of the Syrian workers and peasants against the Syrian dictatorship are discounted by these comrades because US imperialism finds it expedient to oppose dictators who are independent of its sphere of control. In Ukraine, with a different constellation, some comrades are championing reactionary ultra-nationalists in the Donbass against a mass democratic movement. The nationwide Maidan movement took the path of demanding democratic rights and legal protections against corruption and oligarchical power. Because that movement mistakenly believed that an association with the EU was the most effective path towards those victories, some socialists discount the positive nature of the mass movements because one faction of imperialists benefits.

The reality is that mass movements do not always arise in the form of a working class acting consciously for itself. Whatever the level of class consciousness, factions of imperialism will try to co-opt, channel the course of and benefit from progressive movements. Transforming these capitalist factions into blocs whose interests outweigh progressive working class movements leads us to not celebrate the masses’ victories, but eventually to see them as counterproductive struggles which should be subordinated to the interests of neoliberal elites in Russia, Syria and elsewhere.

Socialists must learn different lessons from the fall of the Berlin Wall. The working class and its allies will never have perfect self-consciousness. Our task is to support its forward movement, preparing for the reality of the uneven and unknown path ahead, and never to mourn partial victories.

Ernest Mandel on state campism:

What lies today behind the argument of the ‘international relationship of forces’ is in reality the strategy of ‘state campism’, which tends to subordinate the interests of the working class and the revolution in a given country to the interests of defending this or that workers’ state, or the so-called ‘socialist camp’ of states in its totality. We do not accept that subordination in any shape or form – again not for ‘dogmatic’ reasons, but because history has proven again and again that any victorious spread of revolution strengthens the international situation of any and all workers’ states, because it weakens imperialism and international capitalism. Reciprocally, the defeat of revolution in any country, whatever may have been its origins or the pretexts for which it was sacrificed, weakens the international situation of the workers’ states and the working class.

So in reality, those who defend revolutionary self-restraint and self-limitation (including in Poland) do not defend the interests of the working class, the workers’ states, world socialism or world peace. They defend the interests and material privileges of the labour bureaucracy, even if this defence finds its ideological roots in the ‘dialectic of partial conquests’. In the bureaucratised workers’ states, these layers have become a monstrous ossified caste which rules despotically over society and oppresses the great majority of the working class. In open conflicts with that working class, they do not defend the workers’ state. They defend their privileges and their monopoly in the exercise of power, which are barriers on the way forward towards socialism. Likewise, when they oppose the international extension of the revolution, including with ‘pacifist’ arguments of the type ‘We do not want to provoke imperialism into launching war’ or ‘Destabilisation undermines peace’, they do not serve the interests of the workers’ state, of world socialism or of world peace. They serve the particular, conservative, anti-socialist interests of the bureaucracy. So there is no reason whatsoever to yield to these reactionary strategies and arguments.


Dale, Gareth, ‘A short autumn of utopia: The East German revolution of 1989’, International Socialism 124 (autumn 2009),

Denis, Mathieu, ‘Labor in the Collapse of the GDR and Reunification: A Crucial, Yet Overlooked Actor’, doctoral dissertation,

Fuller, Linda, Where Was the Working Class?, University of Illinois Press, 1999

Mandel, Ernest, ‘The Threat of Nuclear War and the Struggle for Socialism’, New Left Review

Rees, John, ‘Berlin: the wall that came down and the walls that went up’,

Fightback’s Pre-History in the New Zealand Left

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Since Fightback’s analysis and articles have been getting more attention from international comrades, we regularly get questions asking what “tradition” or organisational pedigree we belong to – are we Trotskyists, Marxist-Leninists, left-communists, or what? This very brief historical sketch aims to show how messy and complicated our background is. We feel, though, that this is a source of pride rather than embarrassment – in intellectual tendencies as with animals, hybridity often leads to vigour, while a “pure” pedigree is another word for inbreeding!

Fightback traces most of its ancestry back to the original Communist Party of New Zealand, founded in 1921. During the splits between the various Communist-led states of the 1950s-1970s, the CPNZ distinguished itself by being the only CP in an advanced capitalist country to side with China against the Soviet Union; and was even more unique in siding with Enver Hoxha’s Albania after its split with China in the late 1970s.

The paradox of taking such a hard-line “Stalinist”/”anti-revisionist” line was that the CPNZ’s brand of “Hoxhaism” was forthright in condemning both the USSR and China as imperialist countries, not dissimilar in their global role to the US-led bloc. After Hoxhaist Albania surrendered to liberal democracy in 1991, after a period of confusion, the CPNZ produced an analysis (not dissimilar to that of another ex-Hoxhaist party in the US, the Communist Voice Organization) that all the so-called Communist countries had in fact been state-capitalist bureaucratic dictatorships since the time of Stalin.

This formerly super-Stalinist party had therefore came to the same conclusion as several tendencies coming out of the Trotskyist tradition. In a huge historical irony, after decades of strident anti-Trotskyism, in 1995 the former CPNZ, now known as the Socialist Workers Organisation, formally adopted the analysis of one of these state-capitalist tendencies with roots in Trotsky’s analysis – the International Socialist tendency, led by the British Socialist Workers Party. However, the SWO was always something of a “black sheep” within that tendency, in that it steered a very independent course from the London “mothership”, and at various times included members openly identifying with different Marxist trends, including from an “orthodox” Fourth Internationalist background.

Meanwhile, in 1990 CPNZ veteran Ray Nunes – who had split over his old party’s Albanian turn – formed the Workers’ Party of New Zealand, which described itself as “Marxist-Leninist, pro-Mao but not Maoist”. Over the years it continued CPNZ tradition by railing against their former comrades in the SWO for their capitulation to Trotskyism… Until in the 2000s, in another historical irony, the WPNZ fused with a “pro-Trotsky but not Trotskyist” group around the magazine revolution. (Some documents from the WPNZ before and after its fusion with revolution can be found on the Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism Online.)

Both parties reached a crisis in 2011-2012. Socialist Worker had broken with the authority of the British SWP, but could not come to a consensus on a new political line and strategy, and decided to wind itself up in 2012. Meanwhile, the former leading group of the Workers Party – from both “Mao-ish” and “Trotsky-ish” tendencies – had decided that building a Leninist party in New Zealand’s contemporary conditions was impossible, and had quit in 2011.

At that point, after decades of hostility, several former members of Socialist Worker realised that they had a lot in common with the remaining Workers Party members – in particular commitment to a non-dogmatic revolutionary socialism, which combined activists coming from several different Marxist traditions and sought an analysis unique to Aotearoa/NZ’s conditions. The combined organisation renamed itself Fightback in 2013.