Social Democracy

100 Years Ago: The Murder of Rosa Luxemburg

100 Years Ago: The Murder of Rosa Luxemburg

“Today we can seriously set about destroying capitalism once and for all. No, still more; today we are not only in a position to perform this task, its performance is not only a duty toward the proletariat, but its solution offers the only means of saving human society from destruction.”

These were the words of socialist leader Rosa Luxemburg in a speech given on New Year’s Eve of 1918, just two weeks before her death. The First World War, a pointless bloodbath of nationalistic slaughter, had been ended only a month before, after four long years and the loss of around 17 million lives. The war was not ended by either the benevolence or the rationality of the rulers of the European empires which had contested it; it took the onset of the German Revolution to stop the massacre.

This was the context in which “Red Rosa” proclaimed the overthrow of capitalism to be the only means of saving human society from destruction, and rightly so: the imperialist wars we have seen in the hundred years since the First World War ended have caused unspeakable suffering. If anything, her words are even more relevant to the world of today than they were when she uttered them a century ago, with the ecological catastrophe capitalism is unleashing poised to make the very planet we live on uninhabitable — unless we can stop this mad system in the next decade.

Who Was Rosa Luxemburg?

Born in 1871 to a Jewish family living in Poland, Rosa Luxemburg became a Marxist at a very young age, and began organising workers to fight the system which exploited them as soon as she was able to. She joined the Proletarian Party in 1886, but had to flee the country three years later, aged just eighteen, after a failed attempt to lead a general strike resulted in the execution of four of the party’s leaders, and the organisation being disbanded.

After living in Switzerland and France for a few years, Luxemburg decided that she needed to base herself in the country where the socialist movement was the strongest at the time: Germany. She became a German citizen in 1897, and immediately began to immerse herself in the politics of the Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (‘Social Democratic Party of Germany’ or ‘SPD’), which at the turn of the century was the largest and most influential working class party in the world. To her alarm, however, what she quickly realised was that, instead of the SPD being the bastion of revolutionary socialism everybody believed it to be, in reality the party was becoming increasingly more conservative, watering down its programme, and focusing in practice on trying to win reforms through parliamentary elections instead of trying to build a movement to overthrow capitalism altogether and establish a socialist system in its place.

Luxemburg’s seminal work was a series of articles which became the book Social Reform or Revolution? (written in 1898-99 and updated in 1907), in which she sought to explain that, while it would be foolish for the SPD and other socialist parties to dismiss the vital importance of participating in and building on workers’ struggles to win reforms which could reduce their immediate suffering, ultimately capitalism is a system which has chaos, destruction, and the exploitation of the masses built into it; it is not a system which will ever be able to deliver lasting order or prosperity for everybody. She mounted a passionate defence of the core Marxist belief — nominally the belief of the SPD, despite attempts to “revise” and “update” what Marx and Engels argued in The Communist Manifesto (1848) — that the only way to win a society which could truly and permanently deliver a better life for all would be for the working class to conquer political power for themselves.

She stressed the importance of the fact that the capitalist class only became the ruling class in society because of their revolutionary overthrow in the 17th, 18th and 19th Centuries of both the feudal system, and the class which benefited from it. The capitalists did not settle for mere reforms within a political, social and economic framework which was never designed to function in their interests in the first place. Why should the workers’ ambitions for a better world be restricted to compromising with the capitalist system which is not designed to benefit us?

The crux of her argument as to why capitalism in the long term could not be reformed in the interests of the working class revolved around mocking the notion that the capitalist economy had managed to solve, or at least moderate, its regular crises. Arguments proposing this theory are always put forward during economic booms by capitalist ideologues, as well as by those who want to reform but not overthrow the system. Supposed “proof” that crisis was no longer a central part of the capitalist economy was presented in Rosa Luxemburg’s time by leading SPD reformist Eduard Bernstein and his followers, just as similar “original” theories to this effect were put forward during the 1920s, 1950s-60s, and, most recently, during the 1990s-2000s.

Immediately after Luxemburg published her book rejecting reformism, an economic crisis struck, as crises under capitalism always do. There have, of course, been many economic meltdowns since, all of which have proven both the capitalist and reformist conceptions of the system utterly wrong. No crises have humiliated proponents of the idea that “we have ended boom and bust” more so than the catastrophic global collapses of 1929 and 2008, both of which shook capitalism to its very core, and produced immense resistance — both socialist resistance and, unfortunately, reactionary resistance — to the powers that be. We are living through such a period of rising resistance and polarisation today.

Luxemburg — every bit as fiery a public speaker as she was a writer — addresses a crowd of workers.

In another crucial work, The Accumulation of Capital (1913), Luxemburg sought to explain the causes and consequences of these periodic economic crises. Her argument, which has caused much controversy among Marxists — especially due to her claim that Marx had made an error in Volume II of his magnum opus Capital: A Critique of Political Economy (which was published posthumously in 1885 by Marx’s life-long friend and collaborator, Engels) — was that capitalism can never truly resolve its crises, because the quantity of commodities the system produces must always be significantly greater than the market for purchasing these commodities. The explanation for why this is came from Marx’s theory of surplus value, which says that the profits which capitalists make must necessarily come directly from the capitalists paying their workers less than the value of the work they perform. In a system in which making profit is the dominant factor which drives the economy forward, no capitalist in their right mind would pay their workers more than the absolute minimum necessary at any given time. But the workers are the market. It is the vast majority of people who must consume what they have made, and by holding down the wages of the working class in order to increase the bosses’ profits, capitalism also takes away the workers’ means of consumption. In this act, the capitalist class cut away their own ability to profit from the commodities their workers have made, and the whole economy goes into a “crisis of overproduction” in which more value has been created than can ever be realised under the system.

Her argument then goes that the only way capitalism can continue to function in this context is to constantly expand into new markets through imperialism, to offload all the excess capacity in the economy. In doing so, it must — sometimes peacefully, but more often violently — bring the entire world into the system. Once it had done this, however, there would be nowhere left to go, and no more opportunities left to resolve the crises of the system — and the house of cards would collapse.

The Accumulation of Capital describes with remarkable foresight the events which have unfolded in the century after its publication. When China entered properly into the capitalist system in 1979, and when the USSR — the dictatorship which was for most of its existence in name, but not in practice, “socialist” — collapsed in 1991, capitalism had at last expanded into the remaining major economies of the world. Then the second greatest recession capitalism has ever experienced then broke out in 2008, followed by one of the weakest, if not the weakest recoveries in history — with the prospect of another, possibly even worse economic crisis on the horizon. Luxemburg’s theory is crucial as one part of (though by no means the whole of) the explanation as to why capitalism’s latest crisis is so deep and long-lasting now that the system appears to have exhausted all of the most significant avenues for imperial expansion.

War and Betrayal

But Luxemburg did not have to wait a hundred years to see her theory vindicated — a series of tragic events unfolded, and she was proved correct. Just one year after The Accumulation of Capital was published, the First World War broke out. The war was a direct result of what Luxemburg described: the capitalist powers of Europe had little room to expand their system into at that moment in time, and going to war with each other to try and redivide their existing empires was the only option which remained to them. How sadly prescient Luxemburg was. She described the war with her typical eloquence and moral outrage:

“Violated, dishonoured, wading in blood, dripping filth – there stands bourgeois society. This is it [in reality]. Not all spic and span and moral, with pretense to culture, philosophy, ethics, order, peace, and the rule of law – but the ravening beast, the witches’ sabbath of anarchy, a plague to culture and humanity. Thus it reveals itself in its true, its naked form.”

From The Junius Pamphlet, written by Luxemburg from prison in 1915 — she was locked up for opposing the war effort

Even more tragically, Luxemburg’s foresight was demonstrated in a second way: the parliamentary wing of the SPD, along with the politicians of nearly every other social democratic party in Europe (the Bolsheviks in Russia were a notable exception) voted in favour of their countries joining the First World War. Before 1914, the socialist parties of the world had all agreed upon the correct course of action if the capitalists were to try and start a military confrontation, and in doing so risk the lives of millions of working people: that the workers of all countries, realising they had far more in common with each other than they did with their capitalist masters, should unite, stop the war, and overthrow the system which tried to force them to kill each other. When the reformists in the German party, supposedly the bastion of international socialism, chose nationalism and its bloody barbarism over every principle they had previously proclaimed to uphold, Luxemburg rightly condemned the SPD as “a stinking corpse”. The social democratic so-called leaders abandoning the working class in their greatest hour of need, choosing the horrors of war over resistance and solidarity, remains to this day one of the most calamitous and murderous decisions in human history.

War Becomes Revolution, and Luxemburg Is Murdered

A rally in Berlin during the 1918 German Revolution.

The blood-letting was finally halted in November 1918, when first the sailors, then the workers and soldiers of Germany revolted against their rulers. In two short weeks, the German Revolution put an end to the war, and forced the ruler of the German Empire, the Kaiser, into resigning on November 9th. With workers’ and soldiers’ councils forming across the country, the “moderate” pro-war leader of the SPD, Friedrich Ebert, demanded to be made Chancellor. When Philipp Scheidemann, the SPD’s Deputy Leader, heard that Karl Liebknecht, a comrade of Luxemburg who had also been imprisoned for resisting the war, intended to declare Germany a “Free Socialist Republic”, Scheidemann instead grabbed the initiative and issued his own declaration of Germany becoming a republic, in a mad scramble to legitimise the SPD’s claim to government. Liebknecht’s declaration came just two hours later, two kilometers away from Scheidemann’s.

A power struggle then emerged. As had happened the previous year in the early months of the Russian Revolution, the working class looked first, once they had overthrown their capitalist rulers, to the established leaders of the labour movement — the reformists. Meanwhile, the Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands (‘Communist Party of Germany‘ or ‘KPD’), newly formed by the anti-war revolutionaries who had left the SPD in disgust, had a hasty debate as to whether or not to stand in the parliamentary elections of January 1919. Despite Luxemburg’s arguments, the majority of the KPD voted to boycott those elections — a grave error which only gave more legitimacy to the victorious reformists. Ebert and Scheidemann swiftly formed a government.

The KPD set about developing a programme for how to carry the revolution forward. Luxemburg knew, as Lenin and Trotsky had known in Russia, that the success or failure of the revolution would depend on striking at the right moment. Try to start a revolution before you have popular support, and failure will be inevitable. In Russia, this knowledge had compelled the revolutionaries to go to the factories and frantically convince the most radical elements in the working class not to start an uprising in July 1917, as the Bolshevik leadership knew that it was too early, and that they needed a majority in the workers’ and soliders’ councils. They declared the revolution only upon obtaining this majority in October, and succeeded as a result. Luxemburg knew the importance of ensuring the KPD did not move too quickly.

Unfortunately, in a meeting Luxemburg did not attend, the KPD leadership decided to call for a revolution in the first week of January. Upon Luxemburg hearing that her friend and comrade Karl Liebknecht had been among those who voted in favour, she was horrified, and wrote to colleagues that “it would no longer be possible to go on working [with him] in future.” But she also knew that it was too late to turn back, and joined the attempt to start an uprising, despite her certainty that it would have disastrous consequences.

The uprising was crushed, and, I must confess, I started to well up a little while trying to write about what happened next. The thought of anyone — especially someone so intellectually outstanding, so passionately committed to human freedom, and so brave in the face of her enemies — being tortured to death is bad enough. The fact that it was on the orders of her own ex-comrades is devastating beyond description.

The SPD under Ebert and Scheidemann had enlisted the “Freikorps” to crush the KPD’s attempted revolution. The Freikorps were paramilitary groups of far-right WWI veterans who had returned to Germany believing that the socialists and the Jews had “stabbed the fatherland in the back”. They were all too happy to assist the reformist government in crushing the revolution.

On 15 January 1919, one hundred years ago yesterday, the social democratic government, lead by the party Rosa Luxemburg had been a passionate member of for 17 years, ordered the Freikorps to capture and kill her and Karl Leibknecht. After they were both tortured and questioned, Leibknecht was shot, and his body was delivered unnamed to the Berlin morgue. Rosa was knocked to the ground by a rifle butt, before a bullet was turned on her as well. Her body was dumped in the nearby canal.

Many of the members and leaders of the Freikorps were to later become the basis for Hitler’s SS divisions — the Nazi secret police who carried out some of the worst crimes of that horrifying regime between 1933 and 1945.

Why We Remember

It is beyond crucial that we remember the lessons of the German Revolution, and the mistakes that were made by the KPD. It is beyond crucial that we remember the treachery of the power-hungry opportunists who were willing to murder working class leaders in order to cling on to their positions in government — only to have that government overthrown by the Nazis they had empowered just 14 years later. The cowards reaped what they had sown, and helped contribute to the Second World War, the Holocaust, and the deaths of 60 million people.

And of course, we should remember Rosa Luxemburg herself. A hero of the working class, who devoted every fiber of her being, and every day of her life, to ending the capitalist nightmares of exploitation, economic crisis and war. An idealist who envisioned a society in which true freedom and democracy could reign supreme — but also a cool-headed theorist, who so many times warned of the barbarism capitalism was preparing to unleash, and of the dangers of the socialist movement taking the wrong path in its struggle to prevent such barbarism. So many times she was proven, tragically, right.

Her last published words, reflecting on the KPD’s devastating mistakes in trying to start the revolution too early, were written so powerfully and so poignantly, as if she knew her enemies would be coming to kill her, and as if to give to those of us who remember her the courage to organise and fight, and fight again, instead of mourning her loss. But then again, having only read a fraction of her writings so far myself, I have found that everything she published had this same character which was represented in her final article: eloquence and clarity in every aspect, with not a word wasted — each sentence giving wisdom and guidance to the workers to which she gave her life, and her death. Her final written paragraphs tell us precisely the way to honour her memory. Everybody who gives their energy, their passion, their mind and their muscle to the struggle for working class liberation is continuing the legacy of Rosa Luxemburg. How proud she would be of each and every person who does so.

“The leadership failed. But a new leadership can and must be created by the masses and from the masses. The masses are the crucial factor. They are the rock on which the ultimate victory of the revolution will be built. The masses were up to the challenge, and out of this “defeat” they have forged a link in the chain of historic defeats, which is the pride and strength of international socialism. That is why future victories will spring from this “defeat.”

“Order prevails in Berlin!” You foolish lackeys! Your “order” is built on sand. Tomorrow the revolution will “rise up again, clashing its weapons,” and to your horror it will proclaim with trumpets blazing:

I was, I am, I shall be!”

January 14, 1919
Karl Leibknecht and Rosa Luxemburg remembered.



This article has been republished. You can read the original here.

Elliot Crossan is a socialist writer and activist.

16 January, 2019

Posted by Elliot Crossan in History, International politics, 0 comments
We Cannot Escape the Tide of History — Nor Should We Want To: A Class Analysis of the 2017 New Zealand General Election

We Cannot Escape the Tide of History — Nor Should We Want To: A Class Analysis of the 2017 New Zealand General Election

Part 2 of 2

The world is currently experiencing its greatest moment of political upheaval since the 1980s.  The presidency of Donald Trump is normalising authoritarianism and white supremacy in the United States to an alarming extent.  Worse still, ideological fascists are on the rise across Europe.  This year, Marine Le Pen of France’s extreme nationalist party, Front National, received double the number of votes her father managed at the party’s high point in 2002.  Austria is now ruled by a coalition between hardline conservatives and the far-right.  Most chillingly of all, given historical events within living memory, Alternative für Deutschland, a neo-Nazi party, is now the third largest faction in the German parliament.

Fortunately, the polar opposite of fascist politics is resurgent too, growing in a way we have not seen in the developed world for decades.  Socialists agitating for a confrontation with “the greed and reckless behaviour of the billionaire class”, and a world that works “for the many, not the few”, are also on the rise.  They are campaigning to expand worker’s rights, the welfare state, and environmental protections, while fighting racism and authoritarianism.  From Britain’s socialist Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn to American left-wing presidential candidate Bernie Sanders; from France’s left populist Jean-Luc Mélenchon to Spain’s anti-austerity movement Podemos to Greece’s governing party SYRIZA, class politics and socialist reforms are fast becoming mainstream and popular again.  A bold message of hope and genuine change is charging back onto the field of political contention.

Britain’s Jeremy Corbyn, Spain’s Pablo Iglesias, France’s Jean-Luc Mélenchon and America’s Bernie Sanders: the generation of leftists bringing socialism back into fashion.

Calm Waters Surrounded by Titanic Storms?

On the other hand, New Zealand’s recent general election produced a result that will leave society and politics almost entirely unchanged.  This fact is confusing given the context of international events.  The National Party’s level of support remained astoundingly high for a party in an MMP system, particularly given their nine years of office, and the fact that they had presided over and made worse an economic paradigm that works against the interests of the majority of the people.

Winston Peters may be an anti-immigration populist, but he is tame and mostly harmless compared to Donald Trump, let alone the fascist insurgents in Europe.  He is not unfamiliar to our political scene; he has dominated the headlines in New Zealand media for decades.  New Zealand First did not receive a large share of the vote, and the party has been in governments before — held them to ransom before, even — without very much effect.  His role in the new government is not demonstrative of New Zealand succumbing to international upheaval.

The social context of the election is that inequality, especially its most severe consequences in child poverty and homelessness, is at utterly unacceptable heights.  The housing crisis, precarious and low paid employment, underfunded public services, and a shockingly skimpy welfare system are making life worse for so many working class people in Aotearoa.  Mental health problems are worsening and suicide rates are escalating.  Our environment is being polluted in ways that may be beyond repair, with our rivers poisoned and our seas drilled for oil, while New Zealand’s net greenhouse emissions continue to increase.

These social and ecological crises are not just the result of National’s nine years in government — though National did make them worse.  These crises are features of the economic system we live under, and typical of international trends over the last 30-40 years of worsening inequality and environmental destruction — trends largely unaffected by whichever political party holds power.  In New Zealand, these problems have been exacerbated by the policies pursued by every government in the last 33 years — they are not nine years old.

Aotearoa’s inequality crisis is decades old — every government since 1984 is complicit. Image credit: Inequality: A New Zealand Conversation.

Do not believe their rhetoric for a second: the Labour government is committed to managing our current system as conservatively and unimaginatively as possible, and as a result we will see little to none of the change we so desperately need.

Those who have a vested interest in the status quo will celebrate the conservatism of the new government, overjoyed that they are not being confronted with political anger in ways their overseas counterparts are currently facing.  And yet they are fools if they believe that this rigged economic system can last forever.  If they do not believe that unrest will arrive on our shores, and sooner rather than later, they are sorely mistaken.  It will happen here, whether any of us like it or not.  The consequences of the storm we will surely experience shall be decided by whether a vision of hope or hatred can prevail.  Those of us who wish to see a better world must be ready to fight as hard as we can.

To understand what is happening around the world, why it will happen here, what is at stake, and what vision we must advocate, we must first explore the most recent era of world history: the neoliberal era.

The End of History

In 1992, political scientist Francis Fukuyama published ‘The End of History and the Last Man’.  The book argued that, with the advent of neoliberalism and the fall of the USSR, free market capitalism had finally triumphed over all other economic systems, and that humanity’s social evolution was at an end.  Fukuyama’s case was that the Washington Consensus of free trade and free markets was the final stage of history, and that future politics would simply revolve around the expansion of and minor adjustments to this political settlement.  Until 2008, it seemed that Fukuyama might just be right.

In the 1980s, conservative politicians around the world had aggressively implemented the free market reforms of the Washington Consensus.  US President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher were the leading  exponents of this agenda.  Their aim was to dismantle the postwar economic order, known as Keynesianism, which had dominated the capitalist world from 1945 until the economic crisis of the 1970s, and replace it with a new economic paradigm, neoliberalism.  Keynesianism had involved:

  • a generous welfare state paid for by high taxes on the rich;
  • extensive state involvement in the economy, with a mix of public ownership and heavy regulation, especially of finance;
  • strong trade unions which were able to campaign in the workplace for better wages and conditions, and in the political sphere for the continuation and expansion of worker-friendly policies.

The neoliberals dismantled Keynesianism through:

This assault on the institutions and power of the working class was arguably the most thorough and successful class war in history.

Breaking the trade unions was the most important pillar of the neoliberal project. Image credit: New Zealand Council of Trade Unions.

A Class Project

Many attempts have been made to explore the intentions of the neoliberals.  Reagan and Thatcher have been presented as moralistic true believers, who saw the government as inherently totalitarian, counterposed with capitalism, which they viewed as the ultimate expression of freedom.  They are attributed noble intentions as champions of their individualistic worldview.  Thatcher went as far as to claim that “there is no such thing as society”.  Their stated aims were to destroy socialist principles of collective struggle and provision, and to create the conditions for high economic growth, and therefore greater prosperity for everybody.

Neoliberals may or may not actually believe the narrative they espouse — it doesn’t really matter.  Whatever these people believe, their stated aims are proven to be either incorrect or flatly disingenuous by the actual results.  Neoliberal policies have, in practise, dramatically increased the wealth of the privileged few in society at the expense of the vast majority of people.  Everywhere neoliberalism has been tried, it has been unsuccessful in boosting economic growthas even the International Monetary Fund admits — and in growing the living standards of working class people.  It has not improved society by any measure that matters in people’s lives.  Neoliberalism has not smashed the state, but rather used the state as a tool for redistributing wealth upwards; it has not ended collective struggle, but instead acted to advance the collective interests of elites rather than the interests of the working class.  The only success of neoliberalism has been to further stratify society; inequality has increased in every country that has taken this route.  As a result, we have seen increasing poverty for the working class, while the capitalists have thrived.

A better explanation is needed for why neoliberalism has spread across the world so successfully.  David Harvey argues in ‘A Brief History of Neoliberalism’ that rather than being a utopian ideology of the supremacy of the market, neoliberalism is a class project by economic elites to restore and enhance their power.  Harvey demonstrates that in every instance where the supposed principles of market supremacy have come into conflict with the interests of the capitalist class, the latter have always prevailed.  As Harvey states, you can infer intent from probable outcomes.  Tax cuts for the rich alongside attacks on public spending and the unions are highly likely to redistribute wealth from working class people to the owners of capital.  Therefore, upwards wealth redistribution must have been the aim of the neoliberal project.

The rise in inequality is not local to Aotearoa, it is global — it is the product of a class project by the international economic elite.

The Disenchantment of Politics by Economics

The public posturing of neoliberals, with their protestations about the market, freedom and “personal responsibility”, need to be seen for what they are: a thin veil for an endeavour by the top 1% to increase their own wealth and power.  However, it is vital that we pay attention to the effects of market fundamentalism on democracy.  Here, Will Davies’ definition of neoliberalism is the most accurate: “the disenchantment of politics by economics”.  He is arguing that the neoliberals seek to depoliticise the very political process itself, to reduce democratic debate to nothing but political parties campaigning on marginally different ways of managing neoliberal capitalism.

Politics is about collective decision making.  Already, we encounter a problem for neoliberals; collective decision making goes against both the ideology of individualism, and against a policy agenda which benefits only a wealthy minority.  This is why since the birth of neoliberal ideology, its principal role has been, by necessity, to try to pretend that its ideas are not an ideology at all, but in fact that capitalism is the only way society can possibly be run.  Another of Thatcher’s common refrains was “there is no alternative!”  Neoliberalism can only ever succeed if people believe there is no other conceivable way to run society.

To succeed, neoliberals must depoliticise everything and everybody, remove all silly ideas about solidarity and the collective strength of a united class from the consciousness of society, and fundamentally stop democracy in its tracks.  Recent international events represent the return of democracy — a prospect that can only spell trouble for neoliberalism.

Social Democracy: An Impossible Dream?

If neoliberalism relies on tricking the majority of people into participating in a system rigged against their own interests, how on earth did it succeed in disenchanting politics?  The neoliberals had to destroy all opposition to their ideas and to their power, by convincing the opposition to vote for leaders who agree, on either an ideological or a practical basis, with neoliberal ideology — leaders who themselves believe deeply that there is no alternative.  Neoliberalism cannot succeed without subsuming social democratic parties in their entirety.  Conversely, the left cannot succeed without breaking fully and absolutely with neoliberal leaders of social democratic parties.

The Third Way is the tendency in centre-left politics to which the leaderships of nearly every social democratic party in the world subscribed from the 1990s until very recently.  Social democracy’s leaders, who once would have campaigned for the welfare state and represented the interests of the trade unions, now accepted that with the End of History had dawned the end of their political tradition, and that they should embrace neoliberalism themselves.  Third Way means social democracy accepting low government spending and a politically powerless working class.

Third Way politicians are often called ‘Blairites’ after Tony Blair, British Prime Minister from 1997 to 2007.  In an interview with Rupert Murdoch’s UK-based tabloid, the Sun, weeks before winning the 1997 general election, Blair reassured Sun readers that once Labour took power the UK would “still have the most restrictive union laws in the Western world.”  Blair defended this statement in the Guardian: “People on the Left have got to understand the realities of the economic world. You will do more to prevent people being treated as commodities by giving them the best educational skills and opportunities, and by having an employment service that is dynamic, than you will by trying to protect the workforce with over-restrictive union legislation. Again, we are under massive attack from the Conservatives in relation to the things we are offering.”  His response touches on another crucial point — that neoliberals in conservative parties must pretend that not only do Blairites represent the most change society can ever hope for, but that the ideas Third Way politicians represent are dangerous, radical, economically damaging, and a threat to the people.  They must do this not only to preserve the illusion that there is no alternative, but to justify the mere fact that Third Way and conservative politicians operate within separate parties!

Pivotal figures who helped cement neoliberalism around the world: economist Milton Friedman, Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, Tony Blair, and David Cameron.

Elections in the neoliberal era are no more than contests of personalities.  That is a major reason why we have seen the archetypal politician in the last few decades change from the image of an elderly statesman to being young, charismatic, and attractive.  Politics?  Who cares?  Our leaders have become smiling, slick and polished for a very good reason: to hide from sight what is missing.  Trudeau, Macron, Blair, Cameron, Clinton, Obama, Turnbull, Key: they all seem so similar because they are.  They all represent the same style-over-substance approach, and exemplify the same neoliberal conceptions about the world.

Hillary Clinton’s recent book ‘What Happened?’ describes how she managed to lose an election to Donald Trump.  She used the book to blame everything but her utterly uninspiring campaign for this loss, particularly targeting Bernie Sanders.  In the book, she quotes a Facebook post which she believes demonstrates the dynamic in which she and Sanders were caught in their primary contest.

‘Bernie: “I think America should get a pony.”
Hillary: “How will you pay for the pony? Where will the pony come from? How will you get Congress to agree to the pony?”
Bernie: “Hillary thinks America doesn’t deserve a pony.”
Bernie Supporters: “Hillary hates ponies!”
Hillary: “Actually, I love ponies.”
Bernie Supporters: “She changed her position on ponies! #WhichHillary#WitchHillary”
Headline: Hillary Refuses To Give Every American a Pony.
Debate Moderator: “Hillary, how do you feel when people say you lie about ponies?”’

Bernie Sanders vs. Hillary Clinton: a primary which polarised the Democratic Party.  Image credit: Daily Dot.

In reality, all Clinton’s witty post demonstrates is the mentality of Third Way politicians.  They believe that a society run, even slightly, in the interests of the majority of people, is laughably unrealistic.  Being challenged by socialists proposing mild reforms confuses them to the point of incredulity.  They believe so strongly that there is no alternative that they mock the millions of people crying out for one.  Perhaps that is how she managed to lose to Trump.

Tony Blair made similarly revealing remarks about Jeremy Corbyn during the 2015 Labour leadership election.  “Let me make my position clear: I wouldn’t want to win on an old-fashioned leftist platform.  Even if I thought it was the route to victory, I wouldn’t take it.”

The Return of Politics

History has a funny way of making fools out of arrogant intellectuals who try to proclaim its end.  The War on Terror saw the Washington Consensus begin to fracture and fragment; all was not well in Fukuyama’s paradise.  When the 2008 Global Financial Crisis hit, the hegemony of neoliberalism was ended overnight.  The crisis flipped every claim of neoliberalism on its head.  What was supposed to be the perfect economic system, bound to perpetually grow and create great prosperity for all, immune to boom and bust cycles, had produced the greatest crisis capitalism had seen since the Great Depression 80 years earlier.  After that, it was only a matter of time before the clash of different ideas about how to run society started returning to the world; it became a race to see who could re-enchant politics with their ideas first.

The Global Financial Crisis caused the worst recession since the 1930s, and even the recovery resulted in the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer.  No wonder working class people are so angry.  Image credit: Pavlina Tcherneva/Levy Economics Institute.

For the working class, 30 years of stagnating wages, jobs heading offshore, increasingly dilapidated and inadequate public services and infrastructure, skyrocketing house prices, increased indebtedness just to survive, and a lost sense of social cohesion, was more than enough, even before the Financial Crisis.  The giant tax cuts for the rich were revealed for what they were: a simple act of class war.  To add insult to injury, the debt that governments had accrued when they bailed out the banks was passed on to taxpayers in the form of even harsher austerity measures.  This explains why people are so profoundly angry that they are willing to vote for anybody who offers a different approach.Working class people no longer believe that there is no alternative; they want an alternative, no matter what.

Unfortunately, the far-right got a head start.  Paul Mason gave a speech at the 2017 Socialists Together conference, a meeting of social democratic leaders from across Europe.  He quoted Will Davies’ assessment of neoliberalism, adding: “The far-right and the nationalists have re-enchanted politics through nationalism, race, and violent misogyny.”  The void filled by the depoliticisation of society is fast being filled by this terrifying politics, which can only lead to the fascism, racism, totalitarianism and world war of the 1940s.

The left must now offer a more compelling alternative to both neoliberalism and fascism.  The stakes are too high for us not to succeed.  Fortunately, the Corbyn movement is in the process of showing us the perfect example of how to do so.  Mason, a Corbyn supporter and volunteer, went on to say, “what happened is that we got 12 million people to vote for us, because we offered an alternative to neoliberalism, and a narrative of hope.  […] Shortly after we published the manifesto, crowds started to be real, they started to be spontaneous.  You can look at what the manifesto contained — basically, it was a massive fiscal redistribution programme, which said, we will spend money in these blighted towns.”

“Crowds started to be real, they started to be spontaneous.”  Image credit: Oli Scarff/AFP/Getty Images.

The Biggest Threat to the New Zealand Left

In 2014, when I was 16 years old, I paid attention to the New Zealand general election properly for the first time.  When John Key won, I shared the emotions of every other supporter of the left in the country: depression.  National had won and Labour had lost.

Three years later, my politics have evolved somewhat.  I trembled at the election of Jacinda Ardern as deputy Labour leader; I was horrified when Andrew Little resigned and Ardern took over as Leader of the Opposition, and when Winston declared he was going into coalition with Labour and that Ardern would be Prime Minister, I was every bit as depressed as I had been in 2014.  If you’re only just tuning in, er, no, I didn’t become a Young Nat in the intervening period, I, er… maybe you should read this essay from the beginning…

I struggled to write this follow-up to my original essay for three months, because I was trying desperately to work out how I could communicate my reasoning and emotions to those same people who groaned with me in 2014 — those who now celebrate ecstatically the election of a ‘progressive’ government — without alienating anybody who might read my work.  The thousands of words of extensive exposition leading up to the conclusions I am about to draw are my best attempt to communicate my reasons for this rational and emotional disconnect.

For the last year, I have been saying that Jacinda Ardern is the biggest threat to the New Zealand left — to any of us who want real change.  I ask you now, please, don’t celebrate.  Prepare to fight!  This new government is a Third Way coup de grâce.  They are as committed to managing neoliberalism as every other government we have had in the last 33 years.  Ardern represents everything we oppose.  She has moved any chance of systemic change down the agenda, possibly for years, and we do not have that much time to waste.

New Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern with her Finance Minister Grant Robertson.  Image credit: Marty Melville/AFP/Getty Images.

Style-Over-Substance Politics are Dangerous

Ardern represents a stunning victory for style-over-substance political culture.  Those who view Ardern in a more positive light than Andrew Little, ask yourselves: why?  Because she is more charismatic and therefore more electable?  All that demonstrates is that the new government’s mandate is built on sand.  If the centre-left is going to succeed or fail based on the popularity of its leaders, then as soon as a more charismatic National Party leader comes along, all Labour’s policies will be reversed.  Were we not right to despise the fact that John Key was popular for no reason other than his (inexplicable) personal appeal?  What Key represented could happen again; we have no choice but to reject personality politics and instead offer a substantive vision for society.

Many in the media are celebrating this bright new era, and the great change it will bring, just as they celebrated Blair, Clinton, Macron.  The corporate media exist to perpetuate the interests of the establishment; they cannot believe their luck that Labour are in power while tied to steadfast commitments against systemic change.

There is nothing more terrifying to the media than a genuine left-wing politician.  A study of the UK media’s attitude towards Jeremy Corbyn demonstrates that 75% of coverage in his first two months as Labour leader (usually the honeymoon period) was negative.  Meanwhile, during the US primaries, Trump received twenty-three times more coverage than Sanders, despite the fact that Sanders was consistently far ahead of Trump in head-to-head polling.  If the corporate media are celebrating, that is because neoliberalism has won the day!

Media coverage of Jeremy Corbyn: how the establishment treats threats to its wealth and power.  The fact that Ardern has not been treated in this way demonstrates that the establishment are not scared of the new government.  Image credit: Media Reform Coalition.

Austerity and Xenophobia?  Let’s Not Do This

The Ardern government is embarking on an unambitious political project which amounts to tiny increases to social spending in a broader context of continued austerity and privatisation, alongside xenophobia, and a punitive response to climate change.  It is a Third Way project which buys into every neoliberal narrative about society — and will end up entrenching neoliberalism in a way that National could never get away with.  For the same reasons, under Helen Clark’s Third Way government, the bottom 10% of New Zealanders got poorer, while house prices doubled and emissions rose.  Third Way politics destroy any hope of even the most modest attempt to run the economy in the interests of the majority.

The Budget Responsibility Rules, a set of goals for the new government’s budgeting process which include running surpluses, reducing debt, and limiting new government spending, serve the role of solidifying the neoliberal narrative.  The most significant of these rules states that Labour will not spend more than an arbitrary target of 30% of GDP, meaning that small government is a permanent fixture of New Zealand’s economy which not just National, but Labour as well, are committed to.  So committed is new Finance Minister Grant Robertson to this austerity framework, that he has already announced that there may have to be spending cuts in order to make room for the small increases in spending in health and education that the government intends to make.

Buying into the idea that governments can either pursue this spending programme or that programme, but not both, because it would be too expensive, is just an excuse for Robertson to reassure the capitalist class that the government will not even dream of breaking with neoliberal orthodoxy and, say, raise taxes on the rich to increase spending and deal with our social, economic and environmental crises.

But it gets worse.  Robertson has also signalled that the government is prepared to pursue public-private partnerships in order to meet its social targets.  This is privatisation by stealth.  Public-private partnerships have long been used to partially privatise state assets, and to bankrupt areas of the public service so that neoliberal governments, whether Third Way or conservative, have an excuse to sell them off.

Ardern demonstrated how eager she was to shy away from even the most modest of tax rises on the rich when she ruled out raising the top tax rate near the beginning of her short election campaign.  Ardern and Robertson could not be clearer if they tried: they believe, as Blair, Clinton and Clark did before them, that there is no alternative to a neoliberal approach.  Meanwhile, if you are wondering how the National Party are trying to differentiate themselves from a neoliberal Labour government, how they are trying to not only make Third Way politics look separate from conservative politics, but portray this Blairite administration as dangerous and radical, look no further than the brave champion of the people, David Bennett.  In his speech decrying the evils of Ardern’s programme, he used the word “socialism” 26 times.  Comrade Bennett, as a socialist myself, how I wish this government was giving us even the most moderate social democratic reforms!

Another example of this government’s neoliberalism is the Auckland regional fuel tax.  It is a punitive response to climate change.  Rather than taxing large corporations, or stopping new mining, fracking and oil drilling projects, the government is going to tax working class Aucklanders to pay for a transition away from fossil fuels.  This is one of the great concerns of the climate justice movement, a concern championed by the trade unions’ Just Transition campaign — that neoliberal politicians will act to save us from climate change, but will pass the cost onto working class people rather than the wealthy in the process.  It is a climate policy for the few.  Workers are right to oppose the fuel tax, and the left of the environmentalist movement, and of the Green Party, should stand with trade unions in demanding a Just Transition away from fossil fuels.

“System change not climate change”, the demand of the union-led Just Transition movement, is not being lived up to by the government’s climate policies, which push the costs of pollution onto the poor instead of the rich.  Image credit: Sentro.

Finally, the government’s immigration policies are simply unacceptable.  The goal of cutting net migration by 20,000-30,000 is scapegoating migrants of colour for our social problems.  Make no mistake — when people hear “migrants,” they think “people of colour”.  I know I do, and I moved here from England when I was four.  This puts people of colour in danger.  By inferring that migrants are to blame for low wages and the strain on housing and public infrastructure, and then pursuing policies that supposedly deal with these problems by stopping people coming to Aotearoa, the government gives license to xenophobes to spread anti-migrant hate.  After Britain voted to leave the European Union, a vote seen as a protest against high levels of immigration, hate crimes against minorities surged by 29%, the highest increase on record.  The same xenophobia could take root here.

The left must be loud and clear.  Migrants are not to blame for our problems, capitalism is.  Low wages, a housing crisis, strained public services?  These are the direct result of the implementation of neoliberal policy, and of the greed of bosses and landlords.  Austerity has undermined our living standards.  Shifting the blame for falling living standards from the rich to people of colour not only puts ethnic minorities in serious danger, it allows the wealthy and their allies in government and the media to get away with what they have done!  We must oppose the government’s xenophobic immigration policies, and say loudly and clearly, as Corbyn and Sanders have consistently done: do not give in to racism, do not blame some of the most targeted and vulnerable people in society for our problems.  Blame the greed and reckless behaviour of the capitalist class, and strive to build a society that works for everybody, regardless of ethnicity, migration status, and all other factors.

It is not the National Party that stops any chance of real change in Aotearoa.  It is both National and Labour — as well as New Zealand First, ACT and elements within the Greens, for that matter.  There is no question that if we want to change society, we have to first dismantle these organs of capitalist politics and build an alternative for the many, not the few.  We have to destroy the Third Way narrative, and to do so we have to oppose Jacinda Ardern and the Labour Party.  So, to misappropriate Tony Blair’s attack on Corbyn: “let me make my position clear.  I wouldn’t want to win on a Third Way neoliberal platform.  Even if I thought it was the route to victory, I wouldn’t take it.”  Incidentally, now that the majority of people are desperate for an alternative to the crushing weight of the status quo, class politics and socialist reforms are more popular than neoliberalism and are more likely to win.  When presented with an alternative, working class voters will turn out!



Author’s note: I ended part one of this series by posing questions which I have not fully answered: “What, then, is to be done?  What can the left do now to beat National and marginalise the racist voice of Winston Peters in the next general election, in 2020?  Was Metiria’s sacrifice for nothing?”  After events changed and my thinking developed — after the special votes, the conclusion many drew on election night that we were in for a National-NZ First coalition suddenly became less likely, and indeed, Labour-NZ First took power with support from the Greens — I had to revise my concept for part two significantly. This essay is the result.

Elliot Crossan is a socialist writer and activist. At time of writing, he was Co-Convenor of the Young Greens of Aotearoa New Zealand.

1 January, 2018

Posted by Elliot Crossan in 2017 New Zealand general election, Green Party of Aotearoa New Zealand, New Zealand Labour Party, New Zealand National Party, New Zealand politics, 0 comments
We Must Not Stop Challenging Power — Our Fight Has Barely Begun

We Must Not Stop Challenging Power — Our Fight Has Barely Begun

The Green Party exists to challenge power.  Our Charter principles are impossible to implement without a sustained assault on wealthy interests.  We must defy every premise of the capitalist system whose existence relies on colonisation, unlimited material growth, fossil fuel extraction, and the concentration of wealth in the hands of the few.

The government has just changed to a supposedly friendly, socially-conscious Labour administration, and the Greens have a Confidence and Supply deal and Ministers for the first time. But I worry that any arguments for structural change in Aotearoa that our Party has been (or should be) making will be suppressed in favour of acting to prop up the new face of the status quo.  This instinct, if followed, will lead to the dying away of the Greens as a genuine alternative — a catastrophe for any hope of real action in the coming years on any of the issues and values we care about.

We may have portfolios and a deal with the Labour Government, but we must not for one second make the mistake of believing that the Greens have power.  We are exactly where the Labour Party wants us to be — small, weak, unable to seriously challenge them, and unable to position ourselves clearly as a more progressive alternative to them.  We have only what power the Prime Minister and Finance Minister will allow us to exercise — able to make minor tweaks in the areas we have been given control over, but no ability to do anything at all that would threaten the capitalist, extractivist system that is harming people and planet.

Just look at what isn’t in our deal with Labour.  There is no mandatory Te Reo in schools, no carbon tax, no capital gains tax, no higher taxes on the rich at all, and no increase in core benefits, or systemic changes to the culture of WINZ and its sanctioning regime.  This constitutes a frail imitation of basic and vitally necessary changes to New Zealand’s benefit system — changes so bravely championed by Metiria.  There is not even a guarantee that there will be an end to new mining, fracking, or deep sea oil and gas drilling projects.  Fairly moderate policies that would have seen a more just and sustainable society were taken off the table by Labour before the Government had even begun.  Fossil fuel extraction will continue, everyday colonisation will go on as before, and the particularly savage model of capitalism we live under — neoliberalism, with the vast level of inequality it creates — will continue entirely unchanged.

When it comes to immigration, Labour and New Zealand First intend to be xenophobic and nasty.  Labour decided during its third term in opposition that trying to campaign in even a moderately social democratic way is too hard, and that it would make migrants the scapegoats for social problems instead.  Underfunded public services and infrastructure are the result of austerity, not migrants.  Low wages are the result of union busting and a low minimum wage, not migrants.  Inequality is the result of neoliberalism, not migrants.  In challenging power, it cannot be more crucial for the Greens to stand up to the xenophobic and factually untrue narrative that any of our problems are either caused or exacerbated by our already fairly restrictive immigration system.  We cannot call ourselves a party that believes in social responsibility unless we stand up to the xenophobia of this Government and say loudly and clearly that migrants and refugees are welcome here.

Over the next three years, in the next election and beyond, we need not only to continue challenging power as much as we can despite our compromised position, but we need to rethink the current direction of the Green Party and begin to fight a more bold, coherent and all-encompassing battle for the soul of Aotearoa.  We fought this election on a platform of fairly limited changes — our fiscal policy was restricted by the neoliberal straightjacket of the Budget Responsibility Rules, and we were not advocating truly systemic changes to the economy.  A bigger government will be necessary to urgently tackle climate change and inequality, and to grant serious reparations for colonisation.  Next election, we need to campaign on a platform of raising taxes on the rich in order to pay for bringing the essentials of life back under public, democratic control, spending more on services to benefit everybody, and implementing a Green New Deal that will shift New Zealand towards becoming a carbon neutral economy, fast.

A better world is possible — not with the current government, but with a new, radical vision for the future of Aotearoa.



This article was originally written on behalf of the Young Greens of Aotearoa New Zealand and published in issue 56 of Te Awa, the Green Party magazine. It has been republished with the kind permission of the editor.

Elliot Crossan is a socialist writer and activist. At time of writing, he was Co-Convenor of the Young Greens.

5 December, 2017

Posted by Elliot Crossan in 2017 New Zealand general election, Green Party of Aotearoa New Zealand, New Zealand Labour Party, New Zealand politics, 0 comments