On February 4th upwards of 20,000 people descended on central Auckland to protest against the signing of the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement. Big sections of that crowd actively participated in blockades, shutting down the central city. It was an exciting and powerful display of popular power- as well as an active challenge to those wanting to drive radical change in Aotearoa. This massive exercise in popular power showed what is possible, the question facing radical leftists now is how can this energy be harnessed to bring forward a new generation of organisers?
However, not everyone sees it this way. In the aftermath of this rally, Fightback published an article by Daphne Lawless titled “Against Conservative Leftism”, which began with a decidedly pessimistic view of these rallies. The article begins with the rally- but rather than being upbeat at the unprecedented protest – it polemicized against its participants. Supposedly, too many people carried the national flag. According to the article the question arising from the 4th is not of exciting possibilities, but a dangerous crossroads- and it goes on to argue against the threat of a “conservative leftism”.
Conservative Leftism- not a useful framework
Lawless initially describes this “ideological” trend as the impulse of those who will automatically react against the neoliberal policies of government. Rather than leftists coming up with a proactive political platform of their own, they adopt a conservative leftism that is just “the opposite of whatever neoliberals want.”
Reacting against the evils of neoliberalism as it drives down wages and increases inequality is now apparently a problem. Supposedly, this reactive impulse at best leaves “conservative leftists” out of touch with the realities of workers today, and at worst develops into xenophobic nationalist tendencies.
As Marxists a theory is judged by how it measures up against reality. This materialism is the basis of a marxist political approach. While “Conservative leftism” is a thought provoking concept, it doesn’t measure up in reality as a coherent ideological perspective.
“Against Conservative Leftism” lists a range of examples of political positions that derive from its ideological perspective. These including but are not limited too opposition to local council amalgamations, opposition to intensive housing developments, legal crank such as ‘freemen’ theories, backing the Assad dictatorship, anti-semitism, homeownership and opposition to the NZ flag referendum.
This just doesn’t fit together. It doesn’t makes sense to suggest that a person who opposes intensive housing developments is more likely to be an anti-semite or conspiracy theorist. It doesnt make sense to put leftist homeowners, and the not very often homeowning ‘freemen’ into the same ideological tendency just doesn’t make sense.
Concretely the article describes former Labour minister Jim Anderton as the ‘Ideal’ conservative leftist, but later also includes John Minto as a partisan of this politics. The two have and are actively pulling in different political directions- Anderton has made peace with the neoliberal labour party, Minto has been actively organising all his life- principally around internationalist issues.
For “Conservative Leftism” to be “ideology in the Marxist sense” as the article claims, there needs to be clear links and common positions among its partisans, and this just doesn’t exist.
It is undeniable that there is a lot of political confusion on the left and within the working class. There are many people grouping for a way forward, looking for a new way to take social struggle to a new level. This confusion means that a wide range of ideas are bubbling up in response to the reality of neoliberalism and experiences of occupy and the arab spring. While some of them are very interesting, and some of them are conspiratorial and insane. I do not suggest that this confusion isn’t real, but it is not useful to try to tie all these ideas together into a coherent political position- this doesn’t exist.
Why this is a problem
“Against Conservative Leftism” lends itself to a dangerous political perspective. A Marxist understanding of politics has to have the participation of ordinary people at the center of its perspective. “Against Conservative Leftism” starts with the massive rally against the TPPA on the 4th of February, but rather than seeing it as a positive that 20,000 largely working class people shut down the city, the participation of regular people becomes a problem that must be overcome.
Rather than being an exciting possibility for building a revolutionary politics, Lawless spends time warning that the participants of this movement could be latent fascists (“red-browns”) that marxists need to fight against.
For an effective left to exist- it needs to have greater confidence in working people that that.
Further, to win the debates within the TPPA, (against xenophobia etc), it is actually imperative that we involve more of these people in the movement. Within the TPPA movement there are ongoing and important strategic debates- specifically revolving around what strategy to beat the TPPA.
The liberal response seeks to convince the state and ruling class to change its mind on the trade deal by having the right arguments, and through moral pressure.
The radical response seeks to build power and confidence through working people to a point where it can challenge society.
The liberal response is suspicious of involving regular people- they can be unpredictable and not very photogenic, especially if they get angry and run riot. The liberal response accommodates to “local businesses” who they try to win over in the national interest.
The radical response seeks to build the participation of ordinary people into the movement- people who have less skin in the game of protecting the powers that be.
This is not to say that we don’t argue against bad ideas- but when someone comes to a rally for the first time and they bring with them a whole bag of ideological baggage- it is a good problem for the left to have, and it is those people who are the basis for pushing the politics of a movement in a healthier direction.
If Marxists want to build a strong, internationalist, anti-racist movement in Aotearoa/New Zealand- we need to have a strong, broad and confident movement. This means aiming our political interventions in the direction of taking movements forward, not lecturing from the sidelines.
The one concrete suggestion that “Against Conservative Leftism” makes is that Marxists should be; “…quickly refuting Internet memes which promote anti-science ideas such as vaccination denial or global warming denial, or crank monetary theories about fractional reserve banking.“ Arguing against wingnuts on Facebook is worse than useless. Arguing against conspiracy nuts on the internet will not convince anyone, and wastes your time.
Instead, building and organising, and participating in real debates in existing movements can ground debates and build confidence in new organisers. And those new organisers are the ones that we need to work with to build a new, confident radical politics.