Confronting racism is key to realising working class unity and power

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By Mike Treen 

February 9, 2017 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal — Working people need to confront racism, sexism and anti-immigrant prejudice if we are to be successful in uniting our class sufficiently to take on the huge power of the one percent – the super-rich owners of most productive wealth in society.

Workers face many challenges uniting against their common enemy – the boss class and its paid servants.

We are usually brought up to see our role in life as being nothing more than cogs in someone else’s machine. Creativity is discouraged. Aspiring for “something better” is seen as only leading to disappointment and failure. Rebellion is crushed.

Our role in life is to become a wage slave working for “the man”.

Organising collectively is the worst crime and can result in being banished from polite society as a “communist unionist”, or “haters and wreckers”.

Since humanity emerged from the stage of primitive communism 10,000 years ago all human societies have been run by those who control the wealth. The dominant ideas of those societies are the ideas that promote the interests of the ruling class. We are told that those who make up the ruling class are superior in some way. Identities we have in common to the ruling class are promoted. Those of us who provide labour and create the wealth for the rulers be that as peasants, slaves or workers are taught to think as members of a kingdom, a nation or a race rather than as members of a class.

Before class society existed there were no special forms of oppression that could be imposed. Women were equal. “Race” did not even exist as a category. However, with the development of agriculture, there was a surplus in production that was able to be monopolised by a separate class of owners. This was the first revolution in production and witnessed the subordination of women as a “second sex”. Institutionalised discrimination followed.

This was referred to as the “world-historic defeat of the female sex” by socialist pioneer Frederick Engles writing over 100 years ago.

Today the bosses use the differences that have been bequeathed to them like the oppression of women to their advantage. The second class status of women was simply institutionalised under modern capitalism into paying women less.

Racism, however, was created as a tool by capitalism at its birth to justify the degradation and super-exploitation of non-whites. Racism emerged with the development of world trade (including trade in slaves) in the sixteenth century. It became a central tool of the capitalist rulers as part of the growth of colonialism to justify the barbaric methods needed to sustain the system of rule and exploitation.

The legacy of that racism remains an important part of maintaining sections of the population of different countries in a second-class status in order to super-exploit them. It is also a key element of modern imperialism’s colonial and neo-colonial relationship between the “first” (white) and “third” (Black, yellow and brown) worlds.

Colour differences, however, are not essential. The British empire maintained a discriminatory and oppressive relationship with the Irish people for centuries and justified it through a completely different narrative.

The colonisation and oppression of the Irish in Ireland was supplemented by forcing them into a second class status within the workforce in  England itself. Lower wages, super-exploitation and super profits followed.

The ruling class is very conscious about using any differences to promote disunity whenever they are threatened by working class unity and struggle.

An instructive example is from the colonisation of North America. Initially, there was no system of slavery. Indentured labour was used instead. Approximately 250,000 English, Irish, and other impoverished white people, as well as some blacks purchased from the slave traders, were forced into “service”. They all worked together as indentured servants usually for three to seven years before gaining freedom. The ruling class created all sorts of reasons to treat these people as “filth and scum” deserving few rights. Shared misery and class exploitation prevented the rise of racism between the servants. However, all that was to change following the 1676 Bacon Rebellion in Virginia.

This was an uprising against the aristocratic landowners in which the indentured servants, runaways, landless free labourers and small farmers united. It was brutally crushed.

A conscious policy was then followed that institutionalised slavery for life for blacks while improving the conditions for the white servants. Living quarters were segregated. Whites were given better housing, work and clothing. Whipping of whites was prohibited. Anti-black racism was promoted so the whites would consider themselves superior to the slaves.

Black slavery was established as the norm for the rapidly expanding cotton industry through the southern states of the US. Anti-black racism became the ideological weapon to maintain that system. It has survived well beyond the formal abolition of slavery because it continues to serve the interests of the ruling class to super-exploit black labour directly and to prevent any unity developing between working people who are black and those who are white.

The abolition of slavery did open up that possibility occurring again. This is depicted in part in a recent film called “Free State of Jones” which is a true story of black slaves together with poor white farmers and workers joining together in the struggle against the white slave-owning confederacy in the closing days of the civil war.

The period of “Radical Reconstruction” following the civil war saw blacks and whites working together to carry out the promise of “40 acres and a mule” to every free man. State governments were formed of freed slaves and poor whites that began to carry out the most progressive social programmes seen in the US up to that time (or since). Crushing those governments and the emerging black-white plebian unity was accomplished by the North withdrawing the protective army and the local ruling class of former slave owners organising a massive terrorist assault through a racist militia called the Klu Klux Klan.

Blacks were effectively denied the right to vote and excluded from access to normal protections or welfare. A semi-apartheid “Jim crow” system was established. Black workers who were excluded from most unions. The new racist and right-wing state governments instituted anti-union laws that remain in place today.

The civil rights movement overthrew formal segregation in the 1950s and 60s but right through to today it remains a fact that all working people across the southern Unite States – black and white – are much poorer on average than their Northern counterparts.

The success of the ruling class in destroying working class unity across the southern united states made it much harder for workers who were white to protect their interests as workers as well.

The weakening of unions and other working class institutions in the northern states in recent decades associated with the collapse of many traditional union strong industries like auto and steel has seen the spread of anti-union laws and practices from the south as a consequence.

The failure of the union movement nationally to challenge Jim Crow and anti-black racism effectively in the southern states is now taking its revenge. The poorers wages and conditions of work are moving north. At first, this was because the union leaderships were trapped in the dead-end strategy of supporting the Democratic Party – which while seen as responsible for the New Deal policies associated with active job creation in the 1930s, dominated the South as the former slave-owning party of racist “Dixiecrats”. Ultimately the racist right-wing Dixiecrats were replaced by racist right-wing Republicans but the situation of working people remains dire.

The same is true in what is called “Northern Ireland.” As part of the British colonisation of Ireland in the 16th and 17th Century a large protestant minority transported to and installed in the north of the country. The businessmen and landowners of this group were given effective governance rights over the whole country. The peasants and workers who were Protestant were encouraged to see the Catholics as their enemy.

Eventual Irish independence which was achieved at least in part in 1921 excluded six of the 32 counties situated in the north of the island. At that time the northern statelet of about 1.2 million had a Protestant majority and more importantly most of the major industries.

The end result of decades of Protestant supremacy, including excluding Catholics from better-paying jobs, was for the working class who were protestant to be poorer on average than any other citizen of the “United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland” (except, of course, the Northern Ireland Catholics).

Genuine class consciousness is needed to fight uncompromisingly for your own rights. You have to understand that your rights as a worker are in opposition to not just your own boss but the whole class of parasites that he belongs to.  That means knowing that the class interests of your fellow worker – black, brown, yellow, Catholic, Protestant or Muslim, native born or migrant  – are much the same as your own. Allowing the bosses to use prejudice, national chauvinism, or racism to marginalise and subjugate a portion of the working class so that they are able to pay them less money and impose inferior conditions on them, will only strengthen those same bosses against you when you try to improve your situation.

Russian socialist leader Vladimir Lenin, who led the Russian revolution in 1917, said a genuine socialist leader is not a narrow trade unionist but “the tribune of the people…able to react to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression, no matter where it appears, no matter what stratum or class of the people it affects”–and they must be “able to generalize all these manifestations and produce a single picture of police violence and capitalist exploitation…in order to clarify for all and everyone the world-historic significance of the struggle for the emancipation of the proletariat.”

These words remain relevant today and a challenge to all of us wanting an end to capitalist exploitation and oppression.

Aotearoa’s experience in overcoming racist and other divisions in the workers’ movement

There is a rich history of working people in Aotearoa uniting and overcoming the divisions imposed on us.

In particular, during periods of working class upsurge, we see working people shake off the shackles of prejudice and ignorance and join hands in struggle.

In my own life, I have been witness to a number of instructive examples. I began my working life in 1970 as a meat worker in the Auckland works. I have worked in warehouses, car assembly, in a glue factory, a soap factory, and as an English language teacher.  I was an active unionist and participated in numerous strikes. These included actions to attempt to improve conditions at work or actions that had a broader target such as opposition to wage controls by the government or to protest the arrest of a fellow unionist on the picket line.

During these decades, some unions also took action against the government’s international policies such as the sending of New Zealand troops to the Vietnam War, the support given to apartheid South Africa or the welcoming of US nuclear warships to New Zealand. 

During the 1970s and 80s, there was an almost continuous rise in the class struggle – at least in terms of the number of people participating in strike action. At first, the unions were largely unfit to the tasks being demanded of them. The leaderships were overwhelmingly old, white men who had been tamed by earlier defeats in the 1950s and had lost faith in working people and their capacity to struggle.

Strengthening the ability of the unions to fight involved a process of both democratisation of the unions and involving broader and broader layers of workers in action. One elementary form of the democratisation process was to deepen the involvement of women, Maori, Pacifica and other migrant workers. Later there was a recognition of the oppression applying to LGBT workers. That also meant acknowledging the weaknesses that existed in structural terms but also a basic acknowledgement of the needs of these workers as women, Maori, and Pacifica workers. The working class was no longer – if it ever had been – a bunch of white men.

Typical of these transformations was that of the Hotel Workers Union in Auckland. A young militant Maori worker by the name of Matt McCarten led a rank and file revolt in the early 1980s that ousted the old leaders, organised militant strikes and other struggles including Hotel occupations that massively increased the membership at the same time.

As a consequence, the unions were drawn into the struggles against sex and race discrimination, in support of Maori struggles for land and language rights, protests against police violence, as well as rejecting the racist scapegoating of Pacifica workers during periods like the those when “dawn raids” were commonplace.

Unions also had to adapt to the push by women in traditionally “male” industries like the meat works to open up the more skilled and better-paid jobs to women. I was a worker at the Westfield meat works when women workers took cases to the Human Rights Commission and won the right to work as butchers. Workers at Westfield generally were not opposed to these efforts – more a case of being a bit bewildered and bemused. But as soon as women stepped-up and proved the could do the work they were usually strongly defended by their fellow workmates.

Unions supported the Maori Land March in 1975 and imposed a “Green Ban” on the sale and development of Maori land at Bastion Point in 1976. A “Working Women’s Charter” – a powerful and radical programme for women’s rights – was debated and voted on at mass meetings of workers across the country in the late 1970s before being adopted by the Federation of Labour in 1980. It included demands for equal pay, 24-hour child care, abortion rights, an end to discrimination on the basis of gender or sexual orientation.

I remember one union meeting in particular. There were 1500 members of the Northern Drivers Union filling the Auckland Town Hall. They were overwhelmingly male. I was there to support a female comrade presenting the motion to support the charter who inauspiciously was subjected to catcalls and whistles as she walked towards the stage. My friend made a strong argument that endorsing the charter would help not just women workers but all working people and their families.  After a serious debate, the charter was endorsed overwhelmingly by the workers present. This was true in meeting after meeting across the country during the years 1977-80. And it was true for so-called “male” unions as much as for those with strongly mixed membership.

Many of the Maori working class leaders emerging from struggles in those years were naturally part of more narrowly defined “union” struggles as well as leading organisations dedicated to promoting Maori rights. For example, the leaders of the Gear Meat Workers Union in Wellington were also leaders of Maori land rights groups in Wellington. It was natural then that the Gear Meat works went on strike to protest the eviction of protestors from the occupation at Bastion Point in May 1978.

In fact, the merging of union and social protests during this decade saw the ruling class retreat and adopt a new strategy to try to capture and co-opt Maori rather than end up in an endless cycle of confrontations.

Up to this point, the National Party was an openly racist party. Election adds in 1975 for example had racist caricatures of Pacific Islanders beating up people.

White South Africans were referred to as being “our kith and kin” by then Prime Minister Robert Muldoon.

Through the mid-1970s Maori and Pacifica were rounded up on the streets and asked for their passports to try and identify Pacific island “overstayers”.

When police were criticised for these random checks a National government minister justified the police action by arguing that if a Friesian cow with black and white markings was in a herd of light brown Jersey cows then it was natural for the police to check the Friesian.

1982 saw Samoans stripped of citizenship rights granted by the Courts to those born in Samoa during the period of New Zealand’s colonial rule. This was done in a late night session of parliament with both the Labour and National parties working together.

The Labour Party was the traditional party for Maori workers to vote for. Maori remembered the fact that it was the 1935-49 Labour Government that had given them the same access to welfare as other citizens. Labour was also credited with creating full employment and providing state housing.

There was almost a total absence of a Maori professional or middle class except for a small number of relatively affluent farmers. When I went to Auckland University in the early-1970s fewer than 100 Maori attended.

The election of the Labour Government in 1984 allowed for a change in course from direct racism towards opening up spaces for some Maori to advance. This was especially true for professionals in health, education and other public services. For most Maori, this government was actually a disaster as tens of thousands of jobs were being slashed in the Railways, the Ministry of Works and other state enterprises where many Maori worked as they were corporatised in preparation for eventual privatisation.

The 1984-90  Labour government had an extreme free-market economic policy dubbed “neoliberal” which was normally associated with reactionary right-wing and racist governments like those in the UK under Margaret Thatcher and the US under Ronald Reagan from the same period.

In New Zealand however, the government was able to use concessions that would appeal to the liberal left on issues around sex and race discrimination, together with some foreign policy actions like expelling the South African Ambassador and banning nuclear ships, to blunt the opposition to the economic reforms. At least in terms of many middle-class leaders (including trade union ones) who could be bought off with perks and appointments that was partially successful.

The Waitangi Tribunal was also allowed to investigate claims from before 1975 – the year it was established. This opened the way to a series of compensation recommendations that involved the transfer of some money and land to tribal entities. Both Labour and National have deliberately done this in a manner to promote a professional middle class of corporate-minded tribal leaders who can be used to negotiate and mediate problems away without the mass confrontations of the past.

The National government from 1990 to 1999 oversaw the deepest and longest recession in New Zealand history since the 1930s. Overall official unemployment figures topped 10 percent. For Maori and Pacifica families, however, it was the equivalent of the Great Depression with official unemployment rates hitting 25%.

Using the weapon of high unemployment, the bosses were able to push their agenda forward even more strongly. Real wages were driven down. Protective measures like overtime rates after eight hours or penal rates on weekends were eliminated. Health and Safety laws were degraded. Deregulation was the order of the day. The trade union movement collapsed across the private sector. The neoliberal counter-revolution begun by the 1984-90 Labour government was continued and completed.

A large part of the responsibility for the collapse in union strength during that period was that much of the central union leadership simply refused to fight.

The union bureaucracy’s retreat began with a dirty deal done with the previous Labour government to accept a ban on strikes during the contract period in return for a state-led forced merger of the smaller unions into bigger ones. This was accompanied by the merger of the more militant and democratic Federation of Labour made up mostly of private-sector unions with the more bureaucratic state sector union body to create the Council of Trade Unions in 1987. All local autonomy and power was eliminated in the process. The CTU leaders, of course, got promised lots of gravy-train “consultation” on government policy and appointments to various boards.

The only fight launched by the CTU leadership following its formation was a fight to the death against proposals for a general strike when the National Party government elected in 1990 introduced the Employment Contracts Act. A number of central leaders of the CTU had been members of the Socialist Unity Party trained in a bureaucratic variety of pro-Moscow Stalinism so the collapse of the Stalinist states in Eastern Europe and Russia at that time simply added justifications to their rightward leap to openly praising the so-called virtues of free market capitalism.

As a consequence of the huge working class defeats during these years action by working people collapsed to near zero and has largely remained there ever since. As a consequence large numbers of working people have simply had very few opportunities to fight together. This undermines the confidence and consciousness of the working class.

What came to be dubbed “Identity Politics” – that is a political approach that prioritised one’s identity over one’s class – became dominant in middle-class liberal-left circles. Class was dismissed as no longer relevant or important.  This included a number of Labour Party MP’s and functionaries.

This was an inevitable consequence of the retreat of the working class.

In an odd reversal of cause and effect, some left-wing commentators like Chris Trotter seem to blame the working class retreat on the rise of identity politics rather than the other way around.

A disappointing aspect of the retreat was the fact that union officials seemed to be focused on protecting their own positions and high salaries through bureaucratic mergers over organising the unorganised. Many unions seemed to turn the groups inside the unions which had been formed to empower workers from oppressed groups into inwardly focussed talking shops rather than organising centres.

Many of the new middle-class Maori leaders incorporated into the state, corporate and iwi bodies also seemed to simply ape the excessive salaries, bad taste and extravagance of their Pakeha “colleagues’.

It was a principal of the socialist movement that workers representatives, whether they are in parliament, on local bodies or employed by unions should only receive the pay of an average skilled worker. Maybe it is time to revive that rule and look at applying it to other voluntary and co-operative organisations as well as elected tribal bodies.

While many union officials and middle-class Maori were focussed on protecting themselves from the consequences of the social crisis during the 1990s, the big majority of working people – including and especially Maori  – emerged in a far worse state than they entered.

The 1990-1999 National government, however, continued the process of settling Waitangi Tribunal claims. The “liberal” face of New Zealand capitalism continued as before. The Tory prime Minister Jenny Shipley attended the 1999 Gay Pride parade.

National also largely gave up on overt racism as an electoral tool except for the 2005 campaign run by the then leader Don Brash. Brash’s campaign did increase the National Party’s share of the vote from the historic lows of 2002 under the then leader Bill English but not enough to secure a majority.

It probably shocked many that racist sentiments were as deep and widespread as they were. The problem for National is that under a proportional system of election, and given the demographic changes being produced by migration to new Zealand with 25 percent of the country’s population not born here, it is difficult maintaining a majority with such overtly racist policies. Brash was forced to resign after a book exposing his methods was published. This included the fact that the use of racist dog-whistles like “Iwi or Kiwi” was entirely cynical and manipulative.

Following John Key’s election as leader in November 2006, he moved to the centre again on these issues and was able to form coalition governments with the Maori Party from 2008 until today.

The Maori Party now explicitly represents a pro-capitalist upper-class layer in Maori society that is happy to compete for contracts from the state. For the government, this has the added advantage of furthering the privatisation agenda into the realm of education, welfare and housing by claiming the state has failed Maori in these areas – which, of course, is true. But the solutions being implemented will inevitably end up in a dead end for the big majority of Maori again.

The Mana Movement’s establishment in 2011 represented a progressive split from this orientation. The founding leader Hone Harawira, who had in the past been closely identified with more narrow nationalist arguments around asserting Maori rights became an articulate advocate of a class-based approach to fighting poverty and inequality. He openly acknowledged that the majority of poor people in this country were white – without, of course, ignoring the fact that the unequal impact of those social diseases on Maori in Aotearoa today means that a significantly larger proportion of Maori are poor than their Pakeha compatriots.  

I believe it was correct for socialists and working class militants to embrace this political development. It provided a basis for a fighting alliance of Maori who wanted to struggle “by any means necessary” for the liberation of their people and working class activists who are white who wanted a class struggle oriented labour movement. That initial effort appears to have also run into a roadblock with no clear way forward. Again it is mainly objective obstacles that exist as a consequence of the very low level of broader working class struggle. We can only hope that the lessons that are there to be learnt can be absorbed and acted on in the future as new struggles emerge among Maori and the broader working class.

Twin errors on left in dealing with racism – ignoring class or race

Racism, chauvinism, bigotry, anti-immigrant demagogy, all remain tools to be used by some people – especially those on the right or far right of the political spectrum – to deflect people away from the real cause of the social ills that exist in society. This is especially true when so-called centre-left governments have had a period in office and failed to fix the grotesque inequality that exists or implement measures that can overcome the social and economic crisis that faces working people today.

These crises appear to be worsening for working people over recent decades. The global recessions have become more severe whilst the recoveries are significantly weaker. Whole regions in advanced capitalist countries have become industrial wastelands. We seem to be in a declining stage of capitalism’s existence.

Many working class families are desperate. A generation of young people is facing a future without hope. Anger is growing.

Political forces to protect the billionaire class that controls our societies are desperate to prevent that anger being directed at them. Yet it is precisely their policies that have lead to this dead end.

We have seen this in Europe with a proliferation of far-right parties gaining ground. Trumps’ presidential bid in the US also used language filled with xenophobia, racism, misogyny and hate.

These radical right wing political views would not get a hearing if the Centre-Left had been able to address the social crises we face.

Capitalism can’t deliver a fair or equal society

If everyone has a job then you can’t blame the immigrant. If everyone had access to quality public transport, education, or health care then the argument that someone -(Maori, refugee, migrant, beneficiary, “undeserving” poor, Muslim,  Catholic, Jew – pick one to look down on and blame) has access to these things when you or your family cannot get access will find no echo. These arguments can only seem to have weight because capitalism can’t deliver a fair and equal society and those who manage capitalism without challenging its direction can only manage its decline.

The liberal Black US president Obama oversaw one of the greatest destruction of black wealth in US history as a consequence of the 2007-2009 Great Recession and its associated housing loan crisis. At the same time, he rescued the plutocrats that owned and controlled the banks and other major corporations that created the financial crisis in the first place with $14 trillion in public money! From his class perspective, he could do little else.

The liberal wing of establishment politics in the advanced capitalist countries adopts policies that give lip service to opposing racism and other forms of discrimination by introducing measures that at best treat symptoms rather than causes. Often these are associated with symbolic gestures of acknowledgement rather than going to the root of the problem.

Usually, this involves treating racism as an individual failure to be corrected by behavioural control rather than an entrenched system of wealth and power with institutionalised forms of discrimination and inequality backed up by police and military violence when necessary.

The Human Rights Commission in New Zealand is almost all about correcting individual behaviour rather than challenging institutionalised discrimination by the state or big business. The wealthy and powerful in society are generally immune from serious scrutiny. Their “behaviour” has a real impact on people’s lives because they have the power and wealth that can be used to discriminate and oppress in a meaningful way.

The flip side of this is to attempt to convince Maori and other oppressed groups to see their “failure” as an individual one that can be “fixed” if you get a “better education” and “work harder”. Funding is made available to corporate-minded Maori to supply the “training” and “motivation” that is seen to be lacking.

"Consulting” Maori on how to oppress them

In New Zealand we get the awful spectacle of  the government or private corporations happily “consulting” Maori – with appropriate fees for the service received – on the building of new prisons, for example, rather than adopt measures needed to close down the disgraceful racist system of incarceration where half the prison population is Maori despite being just 15% of New Zealand’s population. This is actually a worse ratio than that of the US proportionately. Blacks make up 13 percent of the US population and 35% of the prison population. But the US imprisons a larger percentage in absolute terms.

The right-wing uses these “tokenist” measures of the liberals to try to paint the Left as being “politically correct” social engineers trying to change the behaviour of people rather than doing anything of substance. Remember the manufactured reaction against plans under the last Labour government to force everyone to use more eco-friendly light bulbs. I don’t believe this idea would have been a problem if the bulbs were made significantly cheaper and readily available – and their introduction was part of a meaningful programme to combat climate change that we had discussed and agreed to. As it was, it was simply a token measure that threatened to make life more expensive and have no meaningful effect when big business continued to be given free reign to pollute and warm the globe.

The right, of course, has its own form of political correctness – a “patriotic”, nationalistic, pro-war, pro-cop, anti-immigrant and racist narrative they try to force on society through their ownership and control of almost all media.

A working class movement that wants to go to the root of the problem needs to put forward a political programme that challenged all forms of oppression and inequality.

Need to confront institutionalised racism

Running away from the debate needed of how to confront institutionalised racism in all its forms will not help our class get a government willing to make the radical changes needed to overcome capitalism and its crises. The more the right is successful in driving wedges between us the less likely we are able to unite and fight together. We need to do that through our unions, parties and other social institutions outside of parliament as well as through electing members to parliament to represent those views.

That is why working class leaders should help lead the struggle against all forms or discrimination and oppression. We have a duty to help educate the most backwards layers of our class what their genuine interests are.

That does not mean that there are no real material interests that are being used to promote the divisions in the class. Men on average still do less housework than women. As an old white guy, I know I don’t have to prepay for petrol at the garage. I probably have a better chance of getting a flat than a refugee. Two hundred years ago there was a genuine material difference between being whipped as a black slave and not being whipped if you were an Irish indentured servant in the North American colonies.

But I do myself a disservice allowing these “privileges” to blind me in ignorance and unable to see that this capitalist society is holding me and all working people down. The reality I need to wake up to and see is that we live in a class-divided society where ownership or not of productive wealth is the fundamental determinant of who actually controls the society. I must open my eyes to the truth of why poverty is growing, why housing is unaffordable, why unemployment remains a social blight, why health care is being priced or rationed out of existence for many. That fact that access to many of these necessities of life is a bit harder for someone else does not actually make my access fair or reasonable.

Some on the centre-left today, as reflected in the campaign of Hillary Clinton for US President, have started to rely solely on the fact they are not a misogynist, racist, bigoted movement to justify people voting for them. This is because they have no answers on the big economic and social questions. In the face of a strong campaign from a Bernie Sanders, who describes himself as a “democratic socialist”, the Clinton campaign started attacking his more left-wing economic programme by claiming that adopting these measures would not end racism or sexism.

“Not everything is about an economic theory, right?” Clinton said, kicking off a long, interactive riff with the crowd at a union hall this afternoon.

“If we broke up the big banks tomorrow—and I will if they deserve it, if they pose a systemic risk, I will—would that end racism?”

“No!” the audience yelled back.

Clinton continued to list scenarios, asking: “Would that end sexism? Would that end discrimination against the LGBT community? Would that make people feel more welcoming to immigrants overnight?”

The problem with Clinton’s approach is two-fold. Firstly it alienates working-class voters for whom economic issues are very important by seeming to dismiss their concerns.

A working class programme for emancipation

Secondly, a strong socialist economic programme is essential to ending racism, sexism and anti-immigrant prejudices. Attacking economic inequality, providing jobs for all, lifting the minimum wage significantly, providing free public health care and education, will all benefit those at the bottom disproportionately. These measures are actually a necessary part of ending racism and inequality in general. But they are not enough. We also need affirmative action in many jobs and professions. We need an end to institutionalised racism in the police and justice systems. Migrant workers must have full legal employment protections. We need to recognise the rights of indigenous peoples to their land and languages.

These policies are all part of a working class programme for emancipation.

Australian journalist John Pilger ripped the Clinton campaign stance apart.

Today, false symbolism is all. “Identity’”is all. In 2016, Hillary Clinton stigmatised millions of voters as ‘” basket of deplorables, racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic – you name it’” Her abuse was handed out at an LGBT rally as part of her cynical campaign to win over minorities by abusing a white mostly working-class majority. Divide and rule, this is called; or identity politics in which race and gender conceal class, and allow the waging of class war.  Trump understood this.

Some commentators like James Moore who writes for the Liberation blogsite and claims to be left wing argue in a manner that is the opposite of Clinton but equally wrong and damaging. In New Zealand, Moore claims, because capitalism can accommodate a few Maori at the top table then the fight against racism is a diversion from the real struggle that is needed against social inequality. He also argues that capitalism can adapt to no longer need racism as a tool at all.

This is a fundamentally wrong approach. Capitalists have a very material interest in maintaining racial and other inequalities. They are able to profit directly from the lower wages they are able to pay as a consequence of all forms of discrimination. All wage systems are built from the bottom up so pushing one section of the class down drags us all down.

Divide and Rule is a basic tenet of capitalism

Capitalism will also never abandon methods that have proved so successful and profitable for so long in imposing divisions among working people. “Divide and Rule” is a basic tenant of a system of exploitation that the 1% want to protect at all costs. As a consequence, institutional racism exists and will continue to exist so long as it serves capitalism’s interests.

Treating racism as only a byproduct of economic inequality ignores the fact that racism has an independent social force in society that imposes a brutal regime of oppression and exploitation. Trying to downplay the importance of this social reality is to be completely ignorant of the lived reality working people face who are Maori and Pacifica in this country.

Of course, the struggle against racism intersects again and again with that against economic inequality, but it is also a response to the often brutal forms of marginalisation, control and oppression that are imposed by a racist social and economic system. It includes an education system that pushes out generation after generation of Maori and Pacifica children. It includes racial profiling, police violence and mass incarceration. Racial bias applies at every step of the criminal justice system. It includes the being excluded from home ownsership and the creation of housing segregation along the lines of race as well as class. It includes understanding why Maori suffer twice the rate of coronary heart disease as the rest of the population but receive half the rate of surgical interventions.

These “left” commentators will never understand the daily abuse and humiliation inflicted by racist bosses, landlords, state bureaucrats, police and the courts. And they will never understand why that reality can be a powerful motivator to join the struggle for freedom and social liberation that will take them on a road that leads way beyond the fight against racism alone. 

That is also why Maori, Pacifica and other oppressed groups are often more class conscious than workers who are Pakeha and therefore more ready to join unions, more experienced in social struggles, and therefore more able to help lead the rest of their class in the fights that are needed. That truth we have learnt day in and day out organising and recruiting at Unite Union.

Even worse, this form of fake “leftism” feeds the racist and class prejudice in society that wants us to blame anyone being at the bottom of the heap on their own individual failures not to be seen as victims of a social system. Their “failure” is a personal, not social failure. After all, if some Maori can make it and capitalism is supposedly evolving in a non-racist manner then they can only blame themselves for their second class status.

Lecturing Maori to forget their “identity” as Maori in favour of a broader social struggle against inequality is using the language of class to subordinate and disempower Maori and their struggle against racist oppression. Working people who are Maori, because of their history of struggle against both racist oppression and class exploitation, have played a dynamic and often leading role in the broader struggle. This is a strength not a weakness of the class struggle in this country.

The stronger the fight by Maori and other oppressed groups for their rights the more ignorance and predjudice declines. Periods when the broader class struggle is on the rise also sees a decline of racist and other predjudices in the working class. No meaningful advance for Maori or working people generally is possible if one tries to subordinate one struggle to the other.

A socialist perspective

Socialist leaders of the working class struggle have actually been advancing this viewpoint since the days of the founders of modern socialism Karl Marx and Frederich Engles in the 19th century.

Karl Marx drafted resolutions for the International Working Men’s Association in support of the Irish struggle for independence. He thought the advance of this struggle was vital to liberating English workers from their backwards attachment to their own rulers. He also drew parallels with the situation of workers in the United States in relation to blacks there. In a letter to some comrades on April 9, 1870, Marx commented:

And most important of all! Every industrial and commercial centre in England possesses a working class divided into two hostile camps, English proletarians and Irish proletarians. The ordinary English worker hates the Irish worker as a competitor who lowers his standard of life. In relation to the Irish worker he feels himself a member of the ruling nation and so turns himself into a tool of the aristocrats and capitalists of his country against Ireland, thus strengthening their domination over himself. He cherishes religious, social, and national prejudices against the Irish worker. His attitude towards him is much the same as that of the ‘poor whites’ to the ‘niggers’ in the former slave states of the USA. The Irishman pays him back with interest in his own money. He sees in the English worker at once the accomplice and stupid tool of the English rule in Ireland. This antagonism is artificially kept alive and intensified by the press, the pulpit, the comic papers, in short by all the means at the disposal of the ruling classes. This antagonism is the secret of the impotence of the English working class, despite its organisation. It is the secret by which the capitalist class maintains its power. And that class is fully aware of it.

The letter powerfully explains the roots of all divisions as being the economic competition between workers that is exploited by the ruling class. That is reinforced by the creation of a racist belief that the white (or “English”) worker is the member of a ruling nation. The way forward for Marx wasn’t to adapt to this prejudice and pretend it didn’t exist but it was to confront it openly and powerfully and demand that working class leaders campaign for Irish emancipation and against slavery. Only on that road would they find the way to their own liberation.

Our duty remains the same today. By following that example we will find our way to the fighting unity that will be necessary to overthrow the class of capitalist leeches that exploits, and oppresses us all – even if not equally.