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New Zealand: Responding to the crisis -- Broad left unity to mobilise masses of people

By Vaughan Gunson

Unity, May 2009 -- Facing the left today are incredible challenges. The global economic meltdown, combined with the nightmare scenarios of runaway climate change and resource depletion, looms as a human disaster of an unimaginable scale.

The question we are all asking ourselves: is how can we organise ourselves and grassroots people into a movement that has the strength and vision to set the world on a different course?

Over the last decade Socialist Worker-New Zealand, a small Marxist organisation, has moved towards the realisation that we need to be building alongside other activists a broad left party which has the breadth and reach to give leadership to masses of people. And that we need to begin now, not later.

Below are 10 ideas in support of the broad left strategy. These thoughts are the product of experiences as an activist in recent years, alongside other activists who have contributed much of the thinking – in particular Grant Morgan, leading member of Socialist Worker-New Zealand and Residents Action Movement (RAM).

Crucially these ideas are informed by political practice. With RAM, a grassroots campaigning organisation which has also stood in elections, we have laid the foundations at least for a broad left party to emerge in New Zealand.

RAM has achieved visibility and respect for campaigns like rates justice, free and frequent public transport and goods and services tax (GST) off food. In the 2004 and 2007 local body elections in Greater Auckland RAM received mass votes.

Last year, RAM moved to become a nationwide broad left party that contested New Zealand’s 2008 general election. While the final electoral result was poor, there were positives, including the good reception by grassroots people to RAM’s “Ten Commandments” leaflet.

The writing of “The RAM Plan”, which brings together concrete demands and a broad left vision that attacks the whole market ethos, was another achievement that continues to attract attention. (See http://www.ram.org.nz/pdf/the_ram_plan.pdf to read “The RAM Plan”, which includes RAM’s “Ten Commandments”).

Through involvement in RAM, Socialist Worker members have learnt from activists from other political traditions, and vice versa.

So these 10 ideas have behind them some practical experience. They’re also informed by political initiatives happening in other parts of the world, where activists are coming to the same conclusion: at this historical juncture we need mass-based broad left formations.

1. Moving away from the corporate market

We have to believe that a human-centred society based on the values of equality, democracy, ecology and peace is possible. We have to stop the race for corporate profits corrupting everything else. We must put an end to obscene wealth controlled by a tiny minority while billions of people go without the basic necessities of life. And we must urgently reverse the environmental degradation that’s taken the planet to the brink of catastrophe.

To do these things we need be moving away from the corporate market. Many people, perhaps even a majority, recognise this in some way. What we have to do, however, is turn the desire for a better world into a real process of change.

2. A multiple front class war on a global scale

The global economic meltdown, which Grant Morgan has called “The Great Implosion”, has unleashed the conditions for a global class war fought on many fronts. (See ``The great implosion’’, http://unityaotearoa.blogspot.com/2009/02/great-implosion-second-and-third.html, February 27, 2009.)

Trillions and trillions of dollars of money wealth has been wiped out by the bursting of the bubble economy, leading to a massive contraction of the real economy. Combined with rapid resource depletion there’s simply less to go round, when for many scarcity was already the norm.

The crisis is so acute because workers over the previous three decades of neoliberal hegemony have already been squeezed. There’s no give in the system. Such are the conditions for an escalating conflict between the mega-rich, doing everything they can to maintain their wealth and power, and the greater humanity of people of modest means.

Bosses around the world are already reacting as the logic of corporate competition dictates. They’re laying-off workers, forcing workers to take a pay cut, or work longer hours for less pay. This is creating fear amongst workers, but also anger, which will turn into outbreaks of resistance.

Any increase in class conflict will result in quickening political and ideological polarisation. Some established political parties will try to claim that they govern in the interests of “everyone”, but as Grant Morgan has stated: “[T]his façade is bound to crack as the crisis continues. Throughout capitalist history, every major slump has forced politicians to favour either the market or the masses.” (``Protecting the people from the market crisis’’, http://unityaotearoa.blogspot.com/2008/02/feature-article-protecting-people-from.html, November 19, 2008.)

3. We need unity

Activists all over the world understand that we need to be united in opposition to the corporate market, especially now. They know it in their gut. That’s why there’s impatience with the fractured nature of the left in many countries.

But unity does not mean giving leadership of the struggle against the corporate market to the market liberals who control the New Zealand Labour Party, or its equivalent in other countries. There must be principled unity based on opposition to corporate control of society and government policies that help the mega-rich at the expense of the grassroots. It’s a unity of those who wish to maintain and extend public services, defend workers’ rights, and who wish to see public solutions (not market-based “non-solutions”) to global warming.

Unity based on these types of fundamentals may be very broad, especially in times of unprecedented global crisis. It may include supporters and grassroots leaders of formerly social-democratic parties, like the Labour Party. Or from other parties or organisations that have previously shown little inclination to resist the market.

This process will be helped by any move towards “unity from below”. Grassroots people moving closer together, in response to external realities created by the crisis, and through leadership given by the left, will not have in their minds the political divisions that the left is capable of erecting. Grassroots people without rigid denominations of political faith will have little patience with factional politics, academic point scoring, or any other divisive behaviour.

Uniting different political traditions in practice will require ongoing dialogue and negotiation. The extremes of the present historical moment, however, will be a powerful force for unity as people realise that something larger than themselves must be built. Otherwise we will all be swept away by more powerful forces.

4. Mobilising masses of people

The goal of unity is to build credible broad left parties or coalitions which win the respect of grassroots people. And in doing so, achieve a position of trusted leadership, where the spark of an idea, the call to take a step in this or that direction, is heard and picked up on by masses of people.

Any follower or participant of team sports knows that success breeds confidence. Right now in New Zealand, and in many other countries, confidence is low among grassroots people. Union membership is only a fraction of the total number of working people.

People have been hit hard by years of corporate punishment dished out by bosses, international moneymen and neo-liberal governments. And there’s the incipient influence of individualistic thinking that’s eaten away at traditions of solidarity and co-operation. Overcoming the thought patterns of the market and its emphasis on competition will be a struggle for all of us.

Turning it round and building a winning team will be an immense task. But we know there’s resentment towards the mega-rich and their partners in government. And now there’s deep concern at the worsening economic crisis and a simmering anger. This is the dry fuel that left activists should be working to ignite.

Last year, a small number of RAM activists launched a campaign to remove the GST tax off food. With food prices rising rapidly in New Zealand in mid-2008 removing this neoliberal tax was a concrete demand that intersected with the public mood. The campaign was able to achieve a level of mass awareness that was encouraging.

The left needs to come up with other such demands at the right moment in response to events. We have to pay close attention to what’s happening at the grassroots. What are people most angry about? What do people think is a realistic and achievable demand?

A well-chosen campaign (which contains within it the dialectic of the wider struggle for a better world), if achieved, would give a tremendous confidence boost to people.

While it won’t be easy getting masses of people moving in a general direction away from the market – and we have to acknowledge that – neither will stopping masses of people in motion. The world’s capitalist rulers know this. They know that the failure of the unrestrained market has created a crisis of legitimacy, undermining the institutions, governments and political parties that have backed the market.

That’s why, as many already understand, the unfolding economic disaster is an historic opportunity for the left. To grasp it we need to achieve the dialectical fusion of principled leadership and masses of ordinary people.

If the confidence that grassroots people have in their collective ability to influence the world grows then new opportunities and goals will be possible. Our first task, however, is to get the masses moving. No small or narrowly defined political group will be able to achieve this historical task. It calls for a united broad left.

5. Finding the right strategies and tactics

This must be the hardest part of political leadership. We know the general direction we want to go, but we also need clear strategies and tactics that are responsive to fast changing circumstances. Some say this takes political genius, which only a few people have.

Well, in the absence of genius, normal brains can only do what they can, but perhaps we can keep in mind these principles:

  • It’s the grassroots masses themselves who have the power to effect real and lasting change;
  • We understand that the prospects for advancing the struggle towards a human-centred society are not infinite. There are strategies which have the objective possibility of success, and those that will not fly and will fail. Pursuing a wrong strategy or the wrong campaign that does not “grip the masses” is a possibility;
  • Fear of getting it wrong can’t overwhelm the need for action, of trying something that attempts to push the button of mass consciousness;
  • We study with open minds the political conditions at any one time and we grasp the multiple forces at work. Understanding the world as correctly as we can will minimise political mistakes;
  • We learn from our mistakes. A cliché perhaps, but true nevertheless;
  • We learn from struggles going on in other countries. As well as learning from and updating the strategies and tactics of historical political leaders who have understood that the transformation of society is the act of the grassroots themselves;
  • Our campaigns and slogans seek to undermine the market, but are always realistic in the eyes of grassroots people;
  • We tell ourselves again and again, and then another time, that we must be in dialogue with the grassroots majority. They can and will teach the leaders. We do nothing that is not ultimately aimed at reaching masses of people.

6. Everyone an activist

Mass leaflets, hardcopy and internet publications, social networking internet sites, poster campaigns, media campaigns – we need to be reaching people through all the available tools of mass outreach.

This emphasis on mass outreach will encourage a culture of doing, not just talking. We see what works, reflect and discuss, and then do some more. Getting it wrong sometimes, but always with the same shared goal: how to encourage masses of people to get behind an idea. So that they start a conversation in the workplace, pass on a leaflet, letterbox their neighbourhood, forward an email – all modest measures, but when done by thousands, hundreds of thousands, or millions, becomes of a qualitatively different character.

We need a redefinition of activism to include small acts by ordinary people. Just as the political traditions of members of a broad left party will be, and must be diverse, so must the criteria by which we judge activism.

The broad left party should fight for a broad-based activism of people fed up and angry with the market, who are encouraged and inspired, in the first instance, to take small steps to do things which effect the people around them. From this mass force will come the impetus for people to join a protest march or take part in a political strike.

Ultimately, a broad left party must aim to be a mass organisation, which in the New Zealand context might include tens of thousands of members and supporters. Only that way will a critical mass of people be brought together, reaching into the heart of grassroots communities.

If an organising apparatus consisting of a core of committed broad left activists can play an activating role in these communities, then real, substantial and lasting change can be achieved.

7. A broad left party contests elections

There’s a general consensus across the left that we need to stand in elections. A broad left party or coalition should contest elections with these factors in mind:

  • We use electoral contests to raise concrete demands which have the potential to become mass campaigns;
  • Grassroots people will get a big lift of confidence from a broad left party or coalition that achieves electoral success;
  • We aim to win parliamentary seats or other elected positions. Over time we work towards the goal of a broad left party forming or being part of a government, or a majority on a regional or local body council. At the national level and local level there are important leverages of power that a broad left party can use strategically and tactically to advance the mass movement;
  • We look at how leftists in other countries have used electoral contests and governorship to advance their struggle. Of particular relevance are the governments of Bolivia and Venezuela, which are using various constitutional and organisational means to roll back the market with the backing of the majority of the population.
  • Any broad left party or coalition that contests elections must never get sucked into the parliamentary bubble. We remain mass activists focused on mobilising ordinary people to take action.
  • If a broad left party maintains a grassroots campaigning style, and has within its ranks grassroots people who are willing to stand up and take leadership roles, then the masses will evaluate honest mistakes and dishonest attacks from the corporate media fairly. A broad left party, if it’s truly of and for the people, will not be bound by the rules that the media and “spin makers” would like to dictate.

8. Comrades in the struggle

People from different political traditions (ecological, anarchist, Marxist, social democratic, etc.) who are genuine in their attempts to relate to grassroots people, to talk with them, to listen to them, and who understand that the movement of masses of people will protect us in the current crisis, are comrades in the struggle.

Comrades talk to each other, they listen, they conduct debates in a way that’s open and constructive. They work to ensure that decisions are democratic. Our cards are laid on the table and every effort is made to achieve an atmosphere of trust. There’s no backroom decision making and factional organising, both of which can only lead to destabilisation and the implosion of a broad left formation.

Building a particular broad left formation in the current context must be the political priority of all members.

9. Transitioning together away from the market

A vision of a new society has to remain fresh and exciting. It should be evolving, while keeping in sight core principles like equality, democracy, ecology and peace. People need to feel that they have a stake in determining what the end goal is. That way they will be more motivated to join the struggle.

For a broad left formation to work it must agree that the path lies away from the corporate market, without forcing any agreement on what exactly a future society may look like, which is impossible anyway.

The minutes to RAM’s 2009 national conference refer to activists from different traditions on the left all embracing a common philosophy, which is that “we are transitionists”. (See RAM’s 2009 national conference minutes at http://unityaotearoa.blogspot.com/2009/04/minutes-of-rams-2009-conference.html.)

In the end how far a movement advances and which direction it takes will be determined by grassroots people.

10. Marxists at the heart of the movement

Change, even revolutionary change, is a process. And change, even revolutionary change, is the action of masses of people. From these two truths, which history would show to be correct, it’s apparent that political leaders cannot be anywhere else than with the grassroots masses. It’s they who must push forward the process of change.

Right now the struggle for a better world requires a “transitional mechanism” that’s far broader than a narrow Marxist organisation. The vast majority of people today are not going to be won to joining the movement away from the corporate market by first being won to the idea of socialism or revolution. To build a political vehicle capable of engaging with and giving leadership to masses of people Marxists need to be working alongside other leftists.

Marxism, with its emphasis on material realities, class struggle, and understanding events in their complex totality, has an enormous amount to offer the movement. Marxists can provide a well of ideas for other activists to use and consider. And Marxists, of course, must be active learners. The Marxist tradition will only remain vibrant and relevant through engaging in an outwards focused political practice that connects with workers and other grassroots people.

No one can ever lose sight that ideas convince people when they match with their own experiences of the world. Accepting ideas as true is a process of learning. All new learning bridges what we already know and believe with a new understanding. Ideas have no compulsion.

The global economic crisis and its political aftermath will radicalise and energise, testing the ideas of everyone. All participants in a democratic broad left formation will share in the co-ownership of new ideas, and the adaptation of old ones that best meet the known and unknown political problems in front of us. And we will see what works in practice.

It’s a basic principle of Marxism that people change their situation and themselves though collective action. In new situations, new mass realities, political discussion will take place at a higher level. And Marxists and socialists from a variety of backgrounds and traditions will have plenty to say as part of a mass democratic debate.

You only have to look at what’s happening in Venezuela to see what might be possible when a mass movement has chalked up some serious victories against the market. There’s a truly mass discussion happening under the umbrella of “socialism for the 21st century” between activists and masses of people. It’s a discussion that’s informed by the history of struggle from below and people’s own experience of struggle in Venezuela today. It’s an incredibly exciting dynamic, which is helping reinvigorate socialist ideas.

Grant Morgan has written: “The structures of a tiny minority can triumph over the values of the vast majority only so long as the majority remain divided, uncertain and disorganised.” (``Protecting the people from the market crisis’’, http://unityaotearoa.blogspot.com/2008/02/feature-article-protecting-people-from.html, November 19, 2008.)

The urgent and monumental task of the left today is to provide the leadership and organisation that prepares the way for a mass movement demanding, organising and fighting for a human centred society. Only mass-based broad left formations will be able to achieve this task.

All who wish to fight in a principled and consistent manner against the market are needed. In moving forward together we can best breach the outer perimeter of the crumbling corporate castle and usher into the world a political alternative.

[This article first appeared in the May 2009 edition of Unity, journal of Socialist Worker-New Zealand. It has been posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with permission. To download the entire issue, click HERE.]

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