History calls for a broad left party

By Vaughan Gunson and Grant Morgan -- March 2, 2008 -- In 2006, the neoliberal maniacs at the World Bank ranked New Zealand as No.1 in the world for doing business, out of 200 countries surveyed. And a recent government report titled Wealth Disparities in New Zealand showed that 95% of New Zealand’s net wealth is owned by half the population. The other half is left with the crumbs -- a mere 5% of the country's wealth. Two decades of neoliberal polices have seen a massive transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich, increasing the rage, frustration and alienation at the base of New Zealand society.

In recent years Socialist Worker-New Zealand (SW-NZ) has recognised that this discontent isbeing combined with signs of self-activity among grassroots people, which is causing them to be more open to alternative political ideas. The rise of a global social justice movement has been influential. There have been bursts of union militancy, along with mass movements against imperial wars, GE foods and government injustices against Maori [New Zealand’s indigenous people]. In combination this points towards a political stirring at the grassroots of New Zealand society which socialists must relate to.

It's a basic principle of Marxism that the movement of masses of people is needed to change society. The question for socialists, then, is what can we do today to help turn growing dissatisfaction at the grassroots into something far more politically coherent, organised and confident? In seeking to advance the movement we need to recognise and analyse the barriers in the way of greater working-class self-activity.

Stifling influence of the NZ Labour Party

The most important political barrier today is the stifling and lingering influence of the NZ Labour Party. Like other social democratic parties around the world, NZ Labour adapted to corporate globalisation from the early 1980s and is not fighting for any sort of grassroots alternative. The party's top leadership is committed to greasing the wheels of business profit-taking and are unwilling to do anything that seriously risks hostility from the ruling elites.

Changes in the internal composition of the party -- where the new middle class now dominates -- combined with years of partnering the capitalist class has eroded the organic links between the party and the working class that existed in decades past.

This combination of factors means it's no longer accurate to describe the Labour Party as ``social democratic’’. Instead, SW-NZ believes an apt description of Labour today is ``social liberal’’.

The Labour Party's top leadership maintains a careful balancing act between doing what big business wants (lower corporate tax, free trade agreements, Reserve Bank ``independence", harsh restrictions on workers' right to strike, etc.) and offering just enough in the way of social policies to keep grassroots people voting for them. Hence the ``Working For Families’’ package, which now provides substantial tax credits to low- and middle-income working families.

Labour, however, likes its social polices to have a pro-business component. So ``Working For Families’’ is effectively a wage subsidy for employers who continue to profit massively from paying low wages in New Zealand's high-skill economy.

s is clear from any number of government and non-government reports, the Labour Party's limited social policies have not significantly improved the lives of grassroots people. What little social wealth Labour has redirected to the bottom has only been possible because of the sustained period of growth in the New Zealand economy from 1999. Come an economic downturn, such as mainstream economists are now predicting, the Labour leadership will come under enormous pressure from business lobbyists, their media and the global market. In that situation, social policies will inevitably take a back seat to corporate profits.

Yet the Labour Party still maintains a certain hold over grassroots people because of its history, its links to the workers' movement managed by top union officials, its ability to give a social spin to neoliberal governance, and finally, the lack of any believable alternative for the majority of voters. But because Labour can never really deliver, the party's support among workers is fragile and eroding, as opinion polls are showing.

At the same time the working class is organisationally and politically weak, the result of Labour's neoliberal "Rogernomics" blitz (1984-90 – named after Labour’s then-finance minister Roger Douglas), the National Party's union bashing (1990-99) and more recently Labour Prime Minister Helen Clark's social-liberal smothering of union independence (1999-2008). Union density is low, particularly in the private sector where only 12% of workers are organised.

The leaderships of most major unions and the Council of Trade Unions (CTU – NZ’s peak trade union council) maintain links to the Labour Party. This continued political relationship dampens down the union militancy and independence needed to inspire more workers to join and be active in unions.

Breaking the hold that the NZ Labour Party has over the workers' movement will remove a crucial barrier to increasing the self-activity of grassroots people. Labour has vacated the space of social democracy at the same time as there's mass concern at the state of the world. Can this provide the opening and the means to start building a broad political alternative?

Marxism's three global responses

The factors which have combined to fundamentally change the nature of NZ Labour are not unique to Aotearoa. The world's old social democractic parties are everywhere passing over to social liberalism. This has posed questions for serious grassroots activists on every continent.
Globally, there have been three main responses by Marxists to the problem posed by social liberalism. They are: (1) a narrow ``pure’’ group, (2) a broad-narrow coalition, or (3) a broad left party.

1) Narrow `pure’ group
Since there are no truly mass parties of Marxists anywhere in the world, maintaining a `pure’ position essentially means keeping going as a narrow Marxist group which stresses the primacy of revolutionary ideology over mass work.

This strategy prioritises socialist propaganda and intervening in campaigns with the aim of recruiting new members to the group, rather than giving practical leadership to the struggle.
Putting their group's future above the struggles of the wider movement is sectarian, according to Karl Marx's judgement that socialists must have no interests separate from those of workers as a whole, as he wrote in the famous Communist Manifesto.

Although the leaders of any narrow group will never admit to being sectarian, they are faced with a glaring problem: Is it realistic to expect their small and isolated membership to stride to the front of the workers' movement in a period of crisis and lead a revolution? Just asking the question presents the answer. The narrow strategy is a dead end for outwards-focused Marxists who know that ``the masses make history’’.

2) Broad-narrow coalition

A broad-narrow coalition is where a Marxist group forms an alliance with other groups and individuals on the left in a bid to ``take control’’ behind the scenes. This is the substance of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) involvement in the Respect coalition in Britain.

The SWP leadership voiced the need to create broad left formations in the space vacated by the old social democratic parties. They described Respect as a ``united front of a special type’’, refusing to accept the label of ``party’’ for the new alliance of forces. This seemingly semantic rejection of one word actually concealed a world of difference.

he SWP leadership manoeuvred within Respect to determine all important matters, regardless of the coalition's own nominal democratic processes. In reality, the SWP continued to act as a narrow group within Respect, putting group interests ahead of all else because in their minds only they were the flag bearers of real political change. Such top-down control by a self-selected group is at odds with building a stable mass party based on the necessary principles of equal rights and open democracy.

Since the narrow group was more important than the broad formation, the SWP leadership never prioritised the growth of Respect. So on demonstrations and other public events they promoted SWP publications, while blocking Respect from producing its own mass outreach paper.

In an Internal Bulletin prior to the last SWP conference, a statement by the group's central committee revealed their narrow approach: ``The building of a revolutionary party is the over-arching priority for any revolutionary Marxist. All other strategic decisions are subordinate to this goal.’’

But this should never be a Marxist's top priority. Marxist organisation exists merely as a means to an end: to unite socialists so they increase their ability to reach outwards and stimulate the organised self-activity of the working class. This is as true in non-revolutionary eras as it is in revolutionary periods.

Unsurprisingly the way the SWP worked within Respect angered other socialists and activists committed to building a broad left alternative to the British Labour Party. Hence the inevitable split in the coalition and the formation of Respect Renewal, which includes the majority of the non-SWP leadership of Respect.

The ``broad-narrow’’ coalition model is as contradictory as the name suggests, inviting an early fracture between its diverging components, with one side wanting an independent mass party and the other wanting control by a group-within-the-party.

The same objections that outwards-focused Marxists have to a narrow ``pure’’ group also apply to the broad-narrow model, which impedes definitive and sustainable moves towards creating a truly broad alternative to social-liberalism.

3) Broad left party

There are moves globally to establish broad left parties that fervently oppose neoliberalism, corporate ecocide and imperial wars. This has a momentum separate from Marxists, since good activists from other traditions also realise there is the mood and the opportunity in many countries for creating a left political alternative to the social liberals.

In many countries over recent times, broad left parties are making important gains. The Left Party in Germany, which won 51 MPs and nearly 10% of the national vote, operates on the principle ``we are the resistance inside and outside the parliament’’. In Greece, the Coalition of the Radical Left won over 5% of the vote, entitling it to 14 MPs. And in Venezuela, upwards of 5 million have joined the United Socialist Party in a broad-based response to president Hugo Chavez's call for a ``socialism of the 21st century’’.

Marxists committed to a broad left party do not have the aim of gaining group control over the wider formation, as opposed to those wanting a broad-narrow coalition. The broad left party is respected as a pluralistic and diverse coalition of the left, one in which Marxists and non-Marxists participate as equals in order to build wide support for their common alliance, rather than publicising other groups to which they may also belong.

Salma Yaqoob, a leading member of Respect Renewal, says: ``The coalition model that Respect was founded upon had its merits. In the future, however, I am convinced that we need to organise much more along traditional party political lines. We need to be clear that we are building a political party, and not making some form of temporary agreement between rival interests for electoral purposes.’’

Some outwards-focused Marxists around the world take the position that a Marxist group should dissolve into the broad left party, perhaps organising as a tendency within it, but not maintaining any independent organisation. Others say that a Marxist group should continue to organise independently at the same time as doing everything possible to build a mass party of the broad left.

These are important issues for all Marxists to get to grips with. It's a concrete question for Marxists in New Zealand now that RAM (Residents Action Movement) is working towards becoming a nationwide party officially able to contest the list (proportional representation) vote in the 2008 general election, and more importantly, to form the bare bones of a future broad left party.

Only such a ``popular party’’ can achieve the critical mass needed to inspire grassroots people seeking a better life and open the way towards a cooperative society geared around the public good and ecological balance.

Reform & revolution: tensions & interconnections

To further evaluate the political and organisational options for Marxists, it's important to establish the relationship between reform and revolution. A dynamic understanding of this relationship is needed if Marxists are to help build a mass party which is both broad and progressive.

The program of SW-NZ states: ``Marxists stand for a revolutionary break with capitalism’’. For Marxists, there is a principled difference between a socialist revolution and a reformist movement which wins some social gains for the grassroots but stops short of redistributing corporate and state power to everyone in society. These are entirely different goals which leave entirely different sets of people in charge of society.

There are two key aspects to reformism as an ideology. The first is broad acceptance of actually existing capitalism, but looking to moderate its negative impacts on the majority of people or achieve some concrete benefit within the system, such as free health care or minimum wage rises. The second aspect is a belief that social change mostly comes through the election of representatives to parliament, rather than via the agency of mass movements which reshape the elite power relationships underpinning the economy, the bureaucracy and the media.

The consciousness of today's working class is, in the main, reformist. This ideology emerges from within the imprisoned class, trapped as we are in a capitalist world with its strong economic, legal and ideological powers over us. It's constantly reinforced by reformist trade union officials and "soft left" politicians whose privileges hinge on stopping the growth of a mass revolutionary consciousness and whose position is legitimised in lots of ways by the system.

So how can reformist ideas in the minds of workers best be challenged and changed?

The most important leadership role of socialists is to encourage the organised self-activity of workers and others at the grassroots. Russian Marxist Vladimir Lenin stressed that it's always a matter of growing the confidence and organisation of the masses in large enough proportions to alter the balance of class forces in their favour. When the masses do this they are expanding their class consciousness and moving towards revolutionary conclusions.

It takes a system crisis, where the old rulers cannot keep on ruling in the old ways and the masses refuse to be so ruled any longer, that a majority sentiment for revolution emerges. The other side of the coin, however, is that mass struggles for reforms can open up the path to a new society.

This can be seen in Venezuela's revolutionary process. SW-NZ's two international statements in 2007 on Venezuela stressed how the fight for key political and economic reforms has advanced the struggle for grassroots control of society, seen in the explosion of Communal Councils with growing local and regional autonomy. While the initiatives coming from Chavez and his political comrades have not been explicitly revolutionary, they have inspired millions of grassroots Venezuelans to action.

As SW-NZ wrote in July 2007:
``Many of the initiatives promoted by Chavez since his election in December 1998 have acted as 'bridges' across which the masses have moved from a lower level of struggle to a higher one, often in response to obstacles put up by opposing class forces. Each step of the way has seen the revolutionary consciousness of the masses develop.’’

There is a two-way relationship between reform and revolution. British socialist Andy Newman puts it this way: ``Reform and revolution are not counterposed. Revolution is a decisive culmination of a process of uncompromising reform.’’

The unprecedented intensity of corporate and state rivalry in today's globalised world demands a ``race to the bottom’’ for workers everywhere. Winning reforms, therefore, demands mass struggles of the magnitude that invites the questioning of late capitalism and the drawing of revolutionary conclusions.

Transitional platform + transitional mechanism

Putting forward concrete demands that strike a chord with the grassroots can be crucial in activating mass movements.

In 1936, exiled Soviet Marxist Leon Trotsky said it was ``necessary to help the masses in the process of daily struggle to find the bridge between present demands and the socialist programme of the revolution’’.
``This bridge’’, he insisted, ``should include a system of transitional demands, stemming from today's conditions and from today's consciousness of wide layers of the working class and unalterably leading to one final conclusion: the conquest of power by the proletariat.’’

Trotsky saw these transitional demands as being put forward by non-Stalinist Marxist groups, which at the time were too small to connect in sustainable ways with the working class. What he didn't theorise was the need for a ``transitional mechanism’’, a larger party uniting a broader range of activists than Marxists alone, thus providing the necessary weight and impetus to a transitional platform.

Transitional demands need a transitional mechanism. This unity of politics and organisation can be achieved by a broad left party.

Marxists in a broad left party will be working with conscious reformists who want to achieve goals of immediate benefit to the grassroots, such as free public transport to counter climate warming, but who shy away from sharply drawn revolutionary conclusions.

Others who enter a broad left party will not have a sophisticated reformist ideology, particularly young dissenters and new activists. They are simply joining an organisation that offers hope of a more equitable and ecological future. They have not been dumb-trodden by the corporate orthodoxy, in stark contrast to many official leaders of the workers' movement.

A reformist consciousness may well be a stop on the road to somewhere else. The key thing is bringing people together in an inclusive party that's constantly campaigning on the side of the victimised, the voiceless and our natural and social habitats.

At the same time, a broad left party must also contest elections. Believing that parliament has the power to change things for better or worse, grassroots people in New Zealand turn out to vote in large numbers. So standing candidates in general elections is important in building a broad left party.


In Greater Auckland, New Zealand's main population centre with 1.4 million residents, impressive votes have been gained by RAM in the last two council elections. RAM's anti-corporate platform attracted 87,000 votes in the 2004 Auckland Regional Council poll, with one councillor elected, and 100,000 votes in 2007's local body elections.

RAM now wants to grow from an Auckland-only council-centred broad left ticket into a nationwide broad left party eligible to stand for the list vote in general elections. That will require RAM to sign up a paid membership of 500. RAM's decision to go nationwide has important implications for outwards-focused Marxists in Aotearoa.

While the RAM Executive has no illusions about any easy breakthrough against the Labour-National stranglehold on parliamentary politics, it may be possible for RAM to gather sufficient votes in general elections to boost the party's name recognition and supporter base around the country. Combining parliamentary with community campaigning will establish RAM's reputation as a party that is serious about organising an all-sided, broad-based challenge to corporate domination.

RAM's strategic goal, unanimously agreed by the RAM Executive this year, is to become the natural rallying point for mass resistance to attempts by the ruling class to shove the burdens of looming economic and ecological crises onto the backs of grassroots people. When crisis breaks, RAM aims to have built the nationwide structure, the name recognition and the broad credibility to give political leadership to the resistance from below. This would start to undermine the Labour-National duopoly, thereby opening up new horizons for the workers' movement.

Marxists inside a broad left party

The prospect of Marxists participating alongside activists from other traditions within a broad left party is an exciting one. It opens up an opportunity for common political work that can advance the cause of the grassroots at a time of neoliberal hegemony and threatening global catastrophes.

A Marxist analysis of the class struggle and the need for socialism will continue to inform the political practice of Marxists within RAM. Other activists in RAM will bring their own ideas about what policies should be prioritised and how best to engage a mass audience. This lively and democratic cross-fertilisation of ideas is likely to produce both a set of transitional demands and a type of transitional mechanism most in tune with the grassroots.

Marxist ideas brought to a broad left party will, if accepted by the wider membership, be tested in mass practice. Both Marxists and non-Marxists will then be able to gauge their impact on wider society. If the results are bad, then Marxists will have to change their approach. If the results are good, then the possibility arises of non-Marxists reshaping their political horizons, bringing them closer to a Marxist world view. This is a powerful way of attracting people to Marxism, far more so than through ``narrow’’ socialist propaganda alone or a managerial relationship with others in a broad-narrow coalition.

A broad left party opens up a broader space for Marxists to operate, while conversely activists from other traditions have a direct influence on how Marxism develops within their country. While this political reciprocity will bring its own tensions, it also has the capacity to add strength, versatility and innovation to the broad left project.

This does not mean Marxists dissolving into a broad left party. It remains important for Marxists to debate important questions independently as Marxists and, where appropriate, to reflect those opinions directly into wider society. What it does mean is Marxists working as much as possible as committed members of the broad left party, with the aim of building that party as an independent political force in close alliance with non-Marxist members.

SW-NZ produces a quarterly journal titled UNITY which is Aotearoa's premier Marxist publication. We have our own website called UNITYblogNZ.com. We publish a monthly Operational E-Zine for SW-NZ members. We hold branch meetings and national conferences to debate Marxist strategies and tactics, and to elect people to positions of local and national responsibility. We are a Marxist group which can act independently for specific political reasons. Such things will continue in the aftermath of the unanimous decision by the February 2008 SW-NZ national conference to support RAM's plan to go nationwide.

Exactly how SW-NZ maintains this independence of thought and action must, of course, be framed by our broad left strategy, along with other happenings in wider society. A priority must be creating an environment of open democracy and mutual trust within RAM which will empower all members, regardless of what political tradition they come from. That requires a high degree of tactical sophistication.

Political debates should be as public as possible, so that all members of a broad left party and beyond are witnesses to the exchange of ideas and can contribute their own opinions.

A Marxist group cannot impose decisions on a broad left party, or vice versa. Both are independent, though interlinked, organisations. Thus Marxists should not caucus before meetings of the broad left party with the intention of sticking to a pre-decided line, nor should adherents of any other tendency. How could any pre-decided political, tactical or organisational line be open to modification as a consequence of free-flowing debate? Such practices could only result in mistrust and disunity which would imperil the broad left party.

Rather, all members of a Marxist group who have agreed to help build a broad left party must retain the maximum tactical flexibility and the right to publicly disagree among themselves about the ever-changing issues thrown up by the actual process of building the broad left party. While open debates among and between Marxists and non-Marxists may be messy, such grassroots democracy can also empower both participants and observers.

But is public dissension between Marxists and radical changes in their political organisation in step with the practices of Karl Marx and of Lenin's Bolsheviks? Well, yes. Marx famously advised his political co-workers to question everything, including what he said.

And Lenin's attitude to party building evolved according to the demands of history. In the early years he promoted a narrow underground group of ``professional revolutionaries’’ to counter the impacts of extreme secret police oppression. After a grassroots revolt against Russia's Tsar exploded in 1905, Lenin opposed his own ``professional revolutionaries’’ in order to broaden the party to include ``every striker’’ across the country. When the rebellion faltered and imperial reaction set in, he advocated a coalition between the pro-party Bolshevik ``hard left’’ and the Menshevik ``soft left’’. In the years afterwards he advocated a series of other fundamental shifts in party building as the Bolsheviks adapted to changing circumstances. Lenin's dictum was, in short, ``the party is dead, long live the party!’’.

All strategies carry consequences, both negative and positive, but not necessarily of the same order of magnitude. So members of a narrow ``pure’’ group retain their homogenous belief in their own sectarian version of Marxism, but at the suffocating cost of near total irrelevance in the struggles of the masses. Marxists who try to face both ways by promoting a broad-narrow coalition may temporarily expand their peripheral influence over other activists, but soon face the discontents flowing from a majority of ``outsiders’’ being bossed around by a self-selected cadre of ``insiders’’. Outwards-focused Marxists committed to a broad left project often suffer a loss of organisational cohesion, yet find their ability to influence a mass audience exponentially expanded.

One way or another, there's a price to be paid for every choice. In the opinion of SW-NZ, any organisational negatives we face will be worth it to help create a mass alternative to social liberalism. And we believe that such organisational downsides can be offset by stepping up ideological work around our UNITY journal, UNITY blog, Operational E-Zine, Marxist forums and other avenues of socialist information and debate.

Moving the masses

It's often said that effective socialist leadership can only be one step ahead of the masses. This, however, presupposes that we're actually reaching the masses. There is no point in having ``correct’’ ideas that hardly anyone hears. Helping to build a broad left party while retaining our Marxist identity makes us worthy successors of Lenin, that greatest of socialism's tradition-breaking strategists.

In the current era, faced with the task of breaking the stranglehold of social liberalism, the broad left party can provide a transitional mechanism that links Marxists and non-Marxists around a transitional program offering hope to society's majority: the disappointed, the downtrodden and the dispossessed.

RAM's impressive votes in two council elections indicates that a sizeable constituency is willing to support an in-your-face pro-grassroots, pro-ecology, pro-democracy challenge to the corporate elites running Greater Auckland. While it will be harder to undermine the Labour-National duopoly in national parliamentary elections, RAM going nationwide is a serious bid to build a broad left party that moves the masses.

RAM's success or failure will hinge on the degree of buy-in from grassroots activists around New Zealand. But even failure would be only a temporary set-back, since history is crying out for a broad left breakthrough against the ruling elites who ignore our needs and crush our spirit and ruin our habitat. Act on the call of history!

[Vaughan Gunson is on the national executive of Socialist Worker-New Zealand. Grant Morgan is on the central committee of SW-NZ and is chair of RAM. To contact RAM, email grantmorgan@paradise.net.nz or txt/call Grant 021 2544 515.]