Against “conservative leftism” : Why reactionary responses to neoliberalism fail

by Daphne Lawless. For Fightback’s upcoming magazine issue on neoliberalism.
UPDATE 15/3/17: A German-language version of this article by Klaus Mahrer is now available.

If you had told a socialist or a radical of a few decades ago that Marxist socialists would not only be defending the Union Jack-emblazoned New Zealand flag – a remnant of the British Empire, known as the “Butcher’s Apron” because of all the blood spilled on it, the flag of the colonialist, capitalist state – but marching behind it on demonstrations, they would undoubtedly think that you’d gone crazy. As recently as 2005, the “Defend Our Flag” movement was the preserve of conservatives like the Returned Services Association or the fascist National Front.

And yet, on the marches against the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA) signing on 4th February, Union Jacks were plentiful. On Facebook, socialists and radicals were calling supporters of Kyle Lockwood’s alternative flag, to be voted on in a referendum in March, “traitors”. How did this happen?

There’s a saying in American politics known as “Cleek’s Law”: “today’s conservatism is the opposite of whatever liberals want, updated daily”. This refers to the kneejerk opposition of Republicans to whatever the Obama regime does; to the point that wags suggest that Obama could wipe out all opposition by making a speech in favour of breathing.

In this article, I wish to introduce to the Aotearoa/New Zealand left the concept of conservative leftism. To adapt Cleek’s Law, it could be described as “conservative leftism is the opposite of whatever neoliberals want, updated daily”. Or to put it in more formal language: a reactionary, undialectical opposition to various aspects of neoliberalism. I argue that this is an extremely strong, sometimes dominant, political ideology on the Left in Aotearoa/New Zealand today.

Historically, Marxists have seen themselves as opposing “reformism” within the movements of workers and the oppressed – that is, Marxists believe that the real issue is to do away with capitalism altogether, not just to reform it. But conservative leftism is a series of ideas which may be held by “reformist”, “revolutionary” or other forces in the movement – feminists, tino rangatiratanga fighters, queer activists, or unionsts. It’s a response to both neoliberalism and to decades of defeat in the movement; and I will argue that it’s a backwards-looking, self-defeating response, to which a strong political alternative should be built.


I take the concept of “conservative leftism” from the Scottish socialist Sam Charles Hamad. He uses the phrase, in particular, to describe those segments of Left opinion in Britain – up to and including left-leaning Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn – who refuse support to the Syrian revolution, and instead support intervention in favour of the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad, sometimes as a “lesser evil” compared to the Da’esh (ISIS) sectarian terror group. The crucial point is that, whereas a right-wing conservative or a Tony Blair-style neoliberal would be in favour of British or American bombs, the conservative leftists seem to be in favour of Russian or Iranian military intervention (see more on this below). This, Hamad convincingly argues in a recent Facebook post, is a betrayal of socialism’s principles of solidarity with the struggles and uprisings of oppressed people worldwide:

The conservative left co-opt the language of struggle – their self-delusion is based on these ideas that they are almost a chosen people [and that] their struggle is the struggle. This births a socialism of the privileged. And like all privileged classes they do have an international conscience that has replaced the active radical idea of ‘internationalism’, but… they can’t envision a world that exists beyond a non-existent dichotomy of ‘good and evil’. Yet all of this is done in comfort and privilege – necessarily so. (from Facebook)

I also want to explain the words “reactionary” and “undialectical”which I use above. “Reactionary” is used not in the sense of extreme right-wing, but simply the kind of “knee-jerk, whatever they’re for I’m against it” opposition described in Cleek’s Law above. For example, the best argument made to retain the current “Union Jack” New Zealand flag – with all its history of colonial dispossession and oppression – by conservative leftists is that the conservative-neoliberal government of John Key wants a flag change.

Meanwhile, dialectics is a form of logic which Karl Marx developed from the German philosopher G. W. F. Hegel. The essence of dialectics is that “things” (whether ideas, living creatures or physical objects) change and develop because of their internal contradictions, and from interactions with their opposities. To say that something is “undialectical” means that it is one-sided; that it sees the world in “black-and-white”, “good and evil” terms, as Hamad notes above.

Finally, to make it clear what we’re talking about here, I am using the term “neoliberalism” in the following sense: the globally dominant current “articulation” of capitalism, based on globalization, financialisation, and privatisation. Despite rhetoric of shrinking the State, in fact the State plays a crucial role in neoliberalism – not just in the negative sense of privatising its assets and lowering barriers to globalisation and financialisation, but in actively introducing market relationships to every sector of society, smashing the resistance of workers, expropriating and enclosing the “commons” for capitalist profit, and attempting to co-opt the struggles of oppressed groups by allowing their leaders to rise in the neoliberal corporate and state hierarchies.

A history of defeats

The struggle against neoliberalism in Aotearoa/New Zealand has been going on for longer than many of the protestors on the recent TPPA marches have been alive. Generally, in Aotearoa/New Zealand, our side has had few lasting victories, meaning a generation has grown up since 1984 knowing only the neoliberal, globalized, financialised capitalist economy.

In New Zealand, neoliberalism was instituted by a Labour Government elected in 1984. It was able to get away with breathtakingly fast liberalisation of a previously highly protectionist capitalist economy partly because it co-opted many of the social movements which had come out of 1968-1981. The same Labour Government which smashed all foreign-exchange and capital controls and went on a privatisation spree also decriminalised male homosexuality, established the Waitangi Tribunal to address historical Māori grievances, and made many gestures in favour of (liberal) feminist causes.

For those university-educated women, queers and Māori who were lucky to have the skills that the new globalised/financialised economy needed, neoliberal reform was a clear improvement. Others, of course, were not so fortunate; but the result was the effective co-option of many of the mass movements which had arisen under the previous socially conservative but traditionally Keynesian government. Coming at the same time that “identity politics” (feminist, queer, ethnic/indigenous) were gaining a foothold on the global Left, at the expense of traditional forms of Marxism which saw society in terms of strictly economic class struggle, this was an extremely effective way to implement neo-liberalism.

This may go some way to explain the missing generation phenomenon on the New Zealand left. A generation of left-wing activists (socialist, feminist, union, queer, green, Māori sovereignty) came out of the global ferment of the 1968 era, and cut their teeth in the mass protests against the 1981 South African rugby tour. The more recent (“millennial”) generation of activists (the current author included), on the other hand, had their consciousness sparked by the anti-capitalist movement around the “Battle of Seattle” in 1999, and later, 9/11, the war on terror, and the Iraq invasion, and the “Occupy” movements from 2011 onwards.

There is very little in between; very few radical activists who evolved in the 1984-1999 period. On one hand, those who came to consciousness through those years had experience in the various dissident parliamentary parties (the NewLabour Party, the Greens, the Alliance), fighting an increasingly desperate rear-guard action against the inexorable neoliberal reforms instituted by both Labour and conservative governments. (NLP and Alliance leader Jim Anderton could almost be the ideal type of a “conservative leftist”.)

Meanwhile, those socialist groups which survived during the 1980s and the 1990s did so mainly by “bunkering down” – by adopting a routine of reaffirming the political lessons of the 1960s and 1970s, and waiting for “better days”. Those who saw feminism, queer theory or Māori sovereignty with suspicion tended to cling to their traditional ideas, thus sidelining themselves from the new movements; while those (mainly from the Maoist tradition) who had taken such ideas on board were gravitationally pulled towards reformist politics, NGO-style activism, the academy, or other such accomodations with the new neoliberal reality.

The net result is that overwhelmingly, the current activist movement is led (mainly by default) by older activists, whose views of the world were formed before neoliberal globalization; who often have a place on the property ladder and thus a stake in the status quo, and who tend to be uncomfortable with the new social arrangements and points of struggle thrown up by the neoliberal era.

Yesterday’s solutions

Whatever the precise causes, the overall result is that new anti-capitalist ideas and perspectives of how to transcend neo-liberalism, rather than roll it back, have not emerged in Aotearoa/New Zealand activist circles; or, at least, have not been seriously taken up by the movements. To put it in crude terms, the activist Left in the neoliberal era has not attempted to intellectually grapple with the new possibilities thrown up by globalization.

Instead, past a general opposition to continued neoliberal reforms, the activist Left has held by default to a position of trying to “put the toothpaste back in the tube” – that is to return to pre-neoliberal political and social structures. This has sabotaged the movement’s ability to deal with the new social forces created by neoliberal globalisation. Even worse – as I will explain below – it renders the movements incapable of effectively fighting right-wing anti-neoliberal forces – including xenophobia, conspiracy theory, and actual fascism.

Conservative leftism, then, essentially consists in trying to apply yesterday’s solutions to today’s problems. For example, Sam Charles Hamad convincingly argues that the lack of global solidarity for Syria is due to a kind of “inertia” in the anti-war movement. He argues that the British Left have mainly, mechanically applied the slogans and ideas of the movement against the Iraq War (an imperialist intervention from outside against an inconvenient local dictator) to the Syrian civil war (an active uprising against a dictatorship, with imperialists firstly trying to play both sides, but more recently intervening to support the dictatorship).

Crucially, the Iraq war was the last time that many of the British socialist left were relevant in mainstream politics. There is an aspect of “reliving one’s glory days” here – which can occasionally also be seen on the New Zealand left with reference to the “Springbok tour” era.

In contrast, my argument is the left should seek to build on the new social forces and ways of living that neoliberal globalisation has thrown up, to create a post-neoliberal, post-capitalist future. I am arguing, in other words, that Marx’s insight that capitalism creates its own gravediggers is still correct; but that the 21st century revolutionary classes will not look like those of the 1840s or even the 1980s.

Aspects of conservative leftism in Aotearoa/NZ

The following are the aspects of conservative-leftist thought which I find the most worrying on the current Aotearoa/NZ activist scene. The first is nationalism and campism.

I explained the concept of “campism” in a previous article1 in this way:

the metaphor that the world is divided into several military “camps”, with the largest being the Western camp led by the United States. Therefore, any government which disagrees with American foreign policy – no matter how oppressive to its own people, or however wedded to neoliberal market economics – can be supported. These governments are even called “anti-imperialist” – as if there were only one imperialism, that of the Western bloc.

This is of course part of what Sam Charles Hamad is describing when he talks about British socialists who have come to believe that the strength of the US/UK bloc is the main force for evil in the world. This is giving up the Marxist idea of imperialism as something inherent to capitalist expansion and bad on whichever side it appears, in favour of the “multipolar world” concept where nationalism and imperialist intervention are okay, even supported, when they’re on “the other side”.

Again, this partly stems from a sort of intellectual laziness on the Left during the Iraq War era. Many Leftists found support in that anti-war struggle from those bourgeois thinkers called “International Relations Realists”, who believed the best way to preserve the global capitalist order was to preserve a “balance of power” and consensus between the various big powers. High-powered thinkers like Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer opposed Bush and Blair’s imperial adventures in the Middle East and support for Israel, not out of solidarity with the people of Iraq, Palestine or Iran, but for fear that this would unbalance the whole global capitalist order. Now, the “Realists” are definitively in favour of the Arab world’s dictatorships – Syria, Egypt, Jordan – and against the uprisings known as the Arab Spring. Nothing is more destabilising than a revolution, after all. And conservative leftists, having fallen out of the habit of creating their own class-based internationalist analysis, are following them.

Conservative-left nationalism was seen clearly in the recent TPPA demonstrations. Flying the current, Union Jack-emblazoned New Zealand flag wasn’t just defiance of John Key’s flag change initiative; the same idea was expressed by other protest banners which depicted John Key as a puppet of Barack Obama or “Uncle Sam”. In other words, the argument made by those protestors was that the problem with the TPPA was US domination of New Zealand, rather than the domination of multinational capitalism over the peoples of the world, their democratic rights and their commons.2

This kind of “left-wing nationalism” ignores that the New Zealand state is a deeply racist, colonial enterprise, which even at its most “benevolent” (during the 1935-1984 welfare state era) was based on the alienation of natural resources from Māori and the forcible suppression of class struggle. The “No Pride in Prisons” campaign3 – which struggles against uniformed cops and prison guards being allowed to march in the LGBT pride parades – gives a very good account of how racist the New Zealand state continues to be, even in the era of the Waitangi Tribunal.

Being a parliamentary regime, of course, the New Zealand state is susceptible to public pressure in a way that an American-based multinational is not. But a defence of democracy (even in its weak capitalist form) and a defence of New Zealand’s natural resources from enclosure and extractivism has to be carried out against the New Zealand state, not just against foreign states or multinationals. Waving the flag of the State which expropriated Māori, forcibly suppresses strikes and joins in imperialist interventions in Afghanistan and elsewhere is a short-cut to popularity which disarms us in the face of right-wing nationalism, like that expressed by the NZ First party or fascists.

In the New Zealand context, with our large emphasis on agriculture, tourism and other rural-based activities, and our strong Green movement, localism/parochialism (only worrying about your own “patch”) has also become common sense on the conservative left. Localism is the obvious reactionary counter-position to globalisation; not only throwing up borders around “Fortress New Zealand” but supporting “local autonomy” whereever it arises. The idea is that small communities are more democratic, or even more “natural”, than big cities or the global civilisation which capitalism continues to (destructively and inefficiently) bring into existence.

Thus, conservative leftists opposed the amalgamation of Auckland’s various feuding local bodies into a single “Super City”, on general principle. But in practice, the Super City has been a net positive. The working-class masses of South and Western Auckland overrode the central and North Shore privileged classes to elect a centre-left Mayor and Council, who – while far from consistently pro-worker – have prioritised public transport and urban amenities, and begun to make tentative moves against the endless, unsustainable suburban sprawl enabled by motorway madness. There is nothing left wing about – for example – fighting for the right of privileged enclaves like Devonport or Howick to reject public transport and affordable housing.

Curiously – given that even most conservative leftists accept the Green case against suburban sprawl – there is also a real anti-urban sentiment. A speaker at a recent MANA Movement AGM actively encouraged Māori to abandon the cities and build eco-villages on their ancestral lands – strangely coincident with the recent interest shown by our conservative Government in “resettling” the Pasifika communities of South Auckland in small South Island towns4. Veteran activist John Minto, when I interviewed him for this magazine in 20135, came out in principle against high-density housing (apartments, townhouses) in favour of traditionally-structured suburbs such as Glen Innes.

But as I’ve previous argued in this magazine6, high-density housing is much more environmentally sustainable than single-dwelling based suburbs, which are reliant on fossil-fuel burning car transport and encroach on productive farm land. This is an issue which has simply not been taken up to date by the activist Left in Aotearoa/New Zealand, who are happy – for example – to fight for the rights of the far-flung working-class suburbs of South Auckland or outer Wellington, but do not question whether they are even sustainable under conditions of climate change and resource crunch.

Crucially, anti-urbanism is a dead-end because it neglects the new constituency of precarious urban white-collar workers thrown up by neoliberalism7. The radical-urban-planning blog Transportblog8 has gone into a lot of detail about the economic benefits of “agglomeration”, and shown research that young people increasingly do not own cars and appreciate the benefits of high-density living and good quality public transport.

By promoting traditional suburban, provincial and rural life and reacting with suspicion to urbanisation and centralisation, the conservative left simply cuts itself off from this growing, economically important constituency, if they even notice that it exists. It should also be noted that historically, ethnic and sexual minorities have not fared well in small towns or rural areas.

Even worse, nationalism and localism under stress often reveal themselves in xenophobia and racism. Much of the anti-urban (in particular, anti-Auckland) rhetoric common among the activist Green and Left movements boils down to insecurity about immigration. A cry often heard from those trying to call for a halt to immigration (or at least the forcible re-directing of immigrants from New Zealand’s only real global city, Auckland) is that “we don’t want Auckland to become Shanghai”. Anyone who’s actually been to Shanghai might ask: why not?

One example of conservative-leftist attempts to leverage “Yellow Peril” xenophobia was Labour Party Auckland affairs spokesman Phil Twyford trying to blame the Auckland housing bubble on investors who happened to have Chinese names9. Of course, this something we’ve seen in neoliberal economies worldwide – a deliberate decision to let house prices inflate to compensate for stagnant wages, enabling a massive consumption boom among the property-owning classes. It wasn’t Chinese investors who, for example, made the US or Irish property markets crash and burn in 2007/08. But several activist Leftists – especially in the MANA Movement – backed Twyford up.

The most disturbing example of conservative-leftist resistance to capitalist globalisation turning into racism has been recent outbursts of anti-Semitism in the movement. Distressingly, John Key’s Jewish ancestry combined with his previous career as a merchant banker has been increasingly raised as an issue in activist Leftist circles. But this ties in with the second major facet of conservative leftism – conspiracy theory, since almost all conspiracy theories began as “International Jew” theories, before the outcome of World War II made explicit anti-semitism unfashionable.

Asher Goldman has defined conspiracy theory as “a theory based in supposition, one that flies in the face of evidence or science, often one that claims its correctness can be shown by the paucity of evidence in favour of it”10. To put it another way, conspiracy theory seems like it should be true, since it confirms broad cultural narratives. Closely related to conspiracy theory is “legal woo” – crank theories with no basis in reality such as “Freeman on the Land”11, or beliefs that removing the Union Jack from the New Zealand flag will somehow magically abolish Te Tiriti o Waitangi or even the authority of the New Zealand Government altogether12.

However, conspiracy theory is a subset of a more fundamental problem on the conservative left – anti-intellectualism, or even outright anti-science. As a reaction to decades of neoliberal or corporate-funded academics justifying more attacks on the poor, some of those who fight capitalism and oppression have begun rejecting the idea of “expert opinion” altogether. Radical Left discussion forums in Aotearoa/New Zealand resound with not only political conspiracy theories, but theories that deny the physical sciences, such as anti-vaccination or anti-flouridation rhetoric. Some even join with the Right in denying climate change.

Recently, when I made some arguments based on Transportblog‘s analysis of Auckland’s need for the City Rail Link, another Marxist dismissively replied that he trusted what “ordinary people” were telling him rather than any putative experts – in this case, that resources should be poured into more buses (to get caught up in traffic?), rather than into the “missing link” in Auckland’s transport infrastructure.

Conspiracy theory and other anti-intellectualism offers a way of understanding the world based on folk wisdom or “common sense”. Sixties radical hippies used to say that “common sense is what tells you the earth is flat.” The Italian revolutionary Antonio Gramsci made a more subtle decision between “common sense” (what workers and the oppressed absorb from ruling-class ideology) and “good sense” (what they learn from the factual conditions of their existence). For radicals to trust “the wisdom of the people” over expert opinion as a default is to fly in the face of this fundamental insight. There is no guarantee that “common sense” or “what the people are saying” under capitalism will be right about anything. The existence of racism among the working class is only the most obvious example of that. It is the job of revolutionaries to challenge the prejudices of “common sense” – using the insights of science – and to build on the insights of “good sense”.

The manifestations of anti-intellectualism on the conservative Left may also include dogmatic versions of Marxism. One strand of opinion involves opposition to “identity politics“, which – under the guise of a Marxist assertion of the class struggle as the motive force of history – instead makes its appeal to an idealised version of the working class which, by excluding gender, sexual and ethnic issues, makes the cisgendered-heterosexual -white male worker with no particular attachment to tikanga Maori the “norm”.

British socialist Richard Seymour has often pointed out that identity struggles are deeply implicated in class struggle, rather than separate from it. For example:

The tendency of capitalism is to multiply the number of lines of antagonism. And if certain identities are goaded into being, or take on a politicised edge, because the system is attacking people then it is clear that ‘identity politics’ is not a distraction, or an optional bonus. The fact is that ‘identities’ have a material basis in the processes of capitalism. And just because they are constructed (from that material basis) doesn’t mean that they are simply voluntary responses to the life situation they arise in, which can be modified or dropped at will. Thus, it is not realistic to tell people – “you have the wrong identity; you should think of yourself as a worker instead”.13.

The fact remains that – while strikes and other traditional forms of workers’ struggle are at an all-time low – uprisings “from below” are not only continuing, but becoming more intense, under the guise of “identity politics”. In New Zealand, apart from the ongoing Tino Rangatira struggle, we’ve seen a revived feminist movement push back against rape culture and police connivance in it. Meanwhile, “No Pride In Prisons” bring issues of race, sexuality and gender to the fore against the New Zealand capitalist state. Both these struggle put the role of the capitalist state into sharp focus. Meanwhile, conservative leftism ignores actual uprisings and protests which don’t fit into traditional categories.

A left disarmed

In summary, this article has identified three major elements of conservative leftism in Aotearoa/New Zealand, which blend into each other:

  1. Opposition to globalisation which has taken the forms of nationalism, localism and parochialism, leading to xenophobia and even forms of racism;
  2. Opposition to the social changes induced by neoliberalism, in the Aotearoa/New Zealand context shading into anti-urbanism, suburbanism, ruralism and otherwise clinging to traditional ways of living and working;
  3. Opposition to “expert opinion” as justifying neoliberal globalisation, which manifests itself as anti-intellectualism, rejection of science, conspiracy theory and other dogmatic beliefs.

This is in addition to a “campist” sympathy for non-US/UK forms of imperialism, which could arguably be seen as a displaced form of nationalism. As I have tried to argue, this is an essentially backwards-looking political worldview, which seeks to return to earlier, simpler, more nationally-contained forms of capitalist or traditional society. It has nothing to say to new class forces, new ways of living or new identities which have been thrown up by neoliberal changes, but which cannot attain their full development under neoliberalism.

For example, a precarious freelancer, working from home, who enjoys their control over their conditions of work but not the uncertainty of their livelihood, is not going to react well to a conservative leftist offering them the alternative of a 9-5 state sector office job. A radical response, on the other hand, would be to explore ways in which flexible or freelance work (which might involve cross-border clientele) could be made less precarious and stressful – perhaps through a Universal Basic Income, or by expanding the “commons” of goods and services which are available outside the market economy

So conservative leftism will increasingly be left behind, as new forms of living, working and identifying under neoliberalism evolve. However, an even worse danger is that conservative leftism has no way of defending against fascist or “red-brown” ideas.

Red-brown” politics (also known as Third Position or Strasserism) is basically fascism with a social-justice veneer. Whereas an out-and-out fascist will talk in terms of “race” or “honour”, a “red-brown” will talk about social justice and the evils of multinational capitalism – but will cunningly offer xenophobic or racist solutions: strengthening national borders, supporting “Kiwi bosses”, aggressively rejecting refugees and immigrants, or persecuting “foreign” cultures or religions such as Islam.

Red-brown politics, like fascism, also tends to reject logic and science, promoting traditional/pre-capitalist ways of living and working, including traditional gender roles and sometimes “back-to-the-land” rejection of technology. Red-brown politics is therefore nationalist/localist, traditionalist/backwards-looking and anti-intellectual. These are precisely the elements we have identified as being essential to conservative leftism in Aotearoa/New Zealand.

We do not argue that conservative leftism is the same as “red-brown” politics. What we argue is that it offers no intellectual defence against it. The argument is that “red-brown” politics (and its cousin, outright fascism) have increasingly gotten a foothold in activist movements worldwide precisely because conservative leftism has no way of arguing against it. For example, conservative leftists in Aotearoa/New Zealand happily publish memes originating from far-right factions in the United States or Britain, because they have no way to tell the difference between radical and reactionary anti-globalisation.

On the international scale, red-browns and conservative leftists join together in cheerleading the Russian bombing of Syria and the strangling of its revolution in the name of “fighting Islamist terror”, and the belief that Russian bombs are somehow better than American bombs. Similarly, conservative leftist Islamophobia (including, sadly, the Revolutionary Socialists of Egypt) supported General al-Sisi’s military coup against the democratically elected Islamist-backed Morsi government in Egypt in 2012.

For a new radical leftism

So what is the alternative? The late British Marxist Tony Cliff explained the ideas of “opportunism” and “sectarianism” like this.

Say you’re on a picket line, waiting for the cops to come. The worker next to you starts making racist comments about immigrants taking our jobs. The sectarian response is: you walk off the picket line, refusing to have solidarity with a racist. The opportunist response is: you pretend you don’t hear, you just change the subject. Whereas Cliff argued that the correct revolutionary response is: you argue with the racist ideas, firmly, telling the worker expressing them that immigrants are welcome and those ideas will bring down the movement. But, when the police comes, you link arms against them with everyone on the picket line.

In Aotearoa/New Zealand activist circles at the moment, my contention is that the organised Marxist left has increasingly taken an opportunist approach to conservative leftism. Even for those of us who do not agree with nationalism and xenophobia, back-to-the-land/anti-urban ideas, anti-science or conspiracy theory, there has not been enough effort to confront these ideas. Senior members of the MANA movement, for example, have refused to deal with anti-Semitic hatred posted on their Facebook pages, even when this was pointed out to them.

The logic is clear – of wanting to build a broad movement, of not wanting to be cut off from the movement. Conservative leftism is not a terrible disease, like fascism or even red-brown politics. It’s not something we have to separate ourselves from. But it is something we have to fight, intellectually and politically, within the movements. Otherwise the movements are doomed to irrelevance, shrinking, and increasingly becoming infected by actual fascism.

What I am calling for in this article is for radical leftists to make a commitment to the struggle for a new understanding of the possibilities for revolution and uprisings in 21st century globalised neoliberal capitalism. This not only means supporting radical left-wing websites, journals, think-tanks and groups which are attempting to create new ways forward rather than to use yesterday’s solution. It means struggle within the movement.

It means – regardless of what we think of John Key’s flag-change push – that a movement for real democracy and against the TPPA and other neoliberal international agreements can’t be built by an appeal to the Kiwi colonial state and the Union Jack which stands for it. It means arguing hard that anti-Semitism cannot be tolerated, is not justified by the crimes of the apartheid State of Israel, and that global capitalism is not run solely for the benefit of the Rothschild family.

It means understanding that young workers not only have increasingly diverse gender/sexual identities which must be respected, but that they have decreasing interest in the suburban 9-5 working-class lifestyle of the 1960s – which wasn’t that great anyway for women or other oppressed groups. It means supporting urbanisation, the growth of multicultural cities in Aotearoa/New Zealand, while fighting hard for them to be built on sustainable, high-density principles, and demanding Māori be granted tino rangatiratanga over natural resources.

It means quickly refuting Internet memes which promote anti-science ideas such as vaccination denial or global warming denial, or crank monetary theories about fractional reserve banking. Finally, it means separating political criticism from personal attacks – to rediscover the fact that we can fight each others’ ideas without driving each other out of the movement. This may be increasingly hard, as conservative leftists tend to react aggressively and personally to their ideas being challenged.

Conservative leftism is an ideology in the Marxist sense: a consolation and a way to explain the world which in fact makes it impossible to change it, because it does not look at the seeds that neoliberalism itself has planted which will undermine it one day. The point is not to expunge it from the movement, but to build an alternative to it and argue for that alternative.

2 Note of course that I am not including the Tino Rangatiratanga struggle in the “nationalism” which I am critiquing. Māori sovereignty is qualitatively opposed to Union Jack-waving “Kiwi” nationalism, most obviously because the Union Jack flew over the dispossession of the tangata whenua and still stands for their subservience. The Tino Rangatiratanga flag stands for a popular resistance to imperialism which the New Zealand ensign never can. Strangely, some Tino activists wave the Union Jack flag as a symbol of Te Tiriti and denial of the sovereignty of the settler government – the opposite purpose for which Pākehā “Kiwi nationalists” wave it

CHCH Fightback Reading Group #6: The Limits of Utopia

limits of utopia

This week our reading is a piece by fantasy author and marxian socialist China Miéville – “The Limits of Utopia.”

If you prefer listening to reading, the piece is based on this speech.

The piece discusses on the one hand, the need for utopian thinking in an era of ecological devastation – but also the dangers of environmentalism that can empower those who profit from the exploitation of the planet’s resources. Miéville’s language is a bit verbose, but in a creative rather than technical way so hopefully people will enjoy some of the more bombastic passages.

“The stench and blare of poisoned cities, lugubrious underground bunkers, ash landscapes… Worseness is the bad conscience of betterness, dystopias rebukes integral to the utopian tradition. We hanker and warn, our best dreams and our worst standing together against our waking.

Fuck this up, and it’s a desiccated, flooded, cold, hot, dead Earth. Get it right? There are lifetimes-worth of pre-dreams of New Edens, from le Guin and Piercy and innumerable others, going right back, visions of what, nearly two millennia ago, the Church Father Lactantius, in The Divine Institutes, called the ‘Renewed World’.”

We thought this reading would be beneficial in as it’s a couple days before the People’s Climate Parade in Christchurch which Fightback is supporting. The need for anti-capitalist analysis of the climate crisis is essential, especially while the vast majority of Enviro orgs rush to court the middle ground – and are unwilling to challenge the structural causes of ecological degradation.

-Koha appreciated
-Food provided
-All welcome
-Reading beforehand encouraged but not required

6:30pm, Thursday 26th November
59 Gloucester Street, Workers Educational Association, Christchurch
[Facebook event]

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.

21st Century Stalinism and Anti-Stalinism

“Anti-Stalinism, by itself, is no program for common struggle. It is too broad a term, and it means different things to different people.”

-James P Cannon, American Stalinism and Anti-Stalinism

Recent shifts in our organisation are renewing historical questions. At Workers Power 2011, comrades from the International Socialist Organisation and Socialist Aotearoa noted that our organisation was revising its position on tino rangitaratanga, and advocated we also revise our position (or more accurately come to a position) on “Stalinism.” Over the last year Mike Kay has contributed Discussion Bulletins on the subject, noting continued disorientation in the wake of Stalinism. His latest IDB argues, “In 2012 we must begin the discussion on Stalinism in earnest. We also need to address why it is that comrades have not been forthcoming with substantial written replies to the IDBs tabled so far.”

In this spirit I take up the discussion of Stalinism.

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The Fighting Propaganda Group

Continuation of our discussion about communist organisation (On The Party Question and Demoralisation or Disorientation?)

Only he [sic] who can keep his heart strong and his will as sharp as a sword when the general disillusionment is at its worst can be regarded as a fighter for the working class or called a revolutionary.

Gramsci, Avanti, Piedmont edition, 24 September 1920

 At the last Retreat, I raised the concept of the fighting (or “combat”) propaganda group as an appropriate model for the WP in current conditions. Whilst the idea seemed to meet with general approval, I haven’t had the chance to expand on it until now.

The WP now, and for the foreseeable future, needs to be a “fighting propaganda group”: an organisation whose chief concern is propaganda, but which conducts its propaganda while always immersing itself in and responding to the class struggle, and while always seizing every real opening for genuine agitation.

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