Socialism

Teachers Strike Against Government’s Self-Imposed Austerity

Teachers Strike Against Government’s Self-Imposed Austerity

Aotearoa’s education system is in crisis.  A perfect storm of underfunding, understaffing, low pay and long hours is causing people to leave the teaching profession in droves.  This exodus is demonstrated in two alarming facts: one, that between 2010 and 2016, there was a 40% drop in student teachers; two, and even worse — that nearly half of all new teachers are dropping the career in their first five working years.  Principals are feeling the pain as well: a study was released last year showing that too much work and unsafe hours are resulting in principals in primary schools experiencing dangerously high amounts of stress, burnout and sleep deprivation.

This education crisis is the direct result of a decade of chronic underfunding.  Between the 1999/2000 and 2008/09 budgets, when Helen Clark was Prime Minister, weekly spending on education adjusted for inflation and population size rose by $12.32.  By the 2017/18 budget, after nine years of National in power, real weekly spending per capita had decreased by $3.37.

Year after year, our teachers have put up with these conditions.  But no more. In August 2018, the New Zealand Education Institute (NZEI), the union for primary and intermediate school teachers and principals, went on strike; they struck again in November.  Their demands include the hiring of more staff, a 16% pay rise, a reduction in average class sizes for Years 4-8 from a ratio of 1 teacher to 29 students down to 1:25, and significantly more paid time for teachers to complete their extensive out-of-classroom responsibilities, such as marking.

It goes without saying that these demands have not yet been met.  The Ministry of Education have made weak offer after weak offer, with the latest (and, due to the pressure of the strikes, strongest) proposal involving a 3% pay rise each year for three years.  But NZEI members, sick of being underappreciated, are not backing down.

Not only are primary school teachers and principals not backing down — they are being joined by the secondary school union!  Members of both NZEI and the Post Primary Teachers’ Association (PPTA) voted earlier this month for an historic joint strike, which will include up to 50,000 workers across Aotearoa.  The two unions are entering this dispute with fighting talk, promising “the biggest strike this country has ever seen” to tackle the “unprecedented crisis in education”.

Independent polling has shown huge public support for the teachers’ struggle, and overwhelming agreement with the demands raised, with 89% of Kiwis agreeing that more funding for education should be a priority, 88-89% agreeing that there is a teacher shortage, 83% agreeing that teachers need a pay rise, 73-76% agreeing that class sizes should be reduced, 79% agreeing that teachers need more time for planning, preparation and assessment, and 91% agreeing that more support is needed for students with additional needs.

The only way to tackle the epidemic of low pay and poor conditions which scourges this country is for workers to organise, stand up, and fight back.  Primary teachers, nurses, public servants, bus drivers, fast food, cinema and retail workers, and many others led the fightback with their strikes last year. So far this year, secondary teachers, junior doctors, and still more union members — almost too many to count! — have joined them.  To all those who have created this strike wave in the last 18 months: solidarity.

The NZEI-PPTA “mega-strike” on 29 May 2019.

The Labour-led Government has had a different message to the strikers.  Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern insists that she “understands the frustration of teachers and principals”, but that her administration are “doing as much as we can right now for the education sector.”  The same line is being given to our teachers as was given to nurses last year: there is no more money, and therefore the lukewarm proposals being offered are as good as it gets.

Two responses are desperately needed to the Government’s position.  One, to highlight the blatant dishonesty of the claims Labour are making; and two, to be clear to all inside the union movement and the working class that the Labour Party refusing to meet demands for better pay and conditions does not mean we should give up hope of victory.

NZEI strike on 15 August 2018.

No More Money?

The Ministry of Education’s offer to teachers and principals constituted a package of $698 million over four years.  NZEI’s demands alone add up to $900 million over two years. So just one of the teachers’ unions are demanding nearly 30% more money, to be delivered twice as fast — that’s a lot, right?  An unreasonable request?

The (allegedly) independent Chief of the Employment Relations Authority (ERA), lawyer Jim Crichton — who was appointed to the ERA by Labour in 2004, and promoted to Chief in 2015 by National — certainly thinks so.  Crichton has called NZEI’s demands “totally unrealistic”, and proclaimed that the Government’s offer was “a handsome and competitive proposal in the current fiscal environment”.

On the contrary — the “current fiscal environment”, when cast into the light of day, is overwhelmingly positive.  Our Government currently has a $3.5 billion surplus, while net core Crown debt is down to 20.1% of GDP. Public debt, which has been far lower than the public debt of most OECD countries for over a decade, is projected to keep falling over the next five years.

If the Government did need extra cash — say they wanted to pay down debt and invest more in education at the same time — they could always raise more revenue by increasing taxes.  Granted, the majority of working people would be angry at a tax rise right now — and they’d be right to be angry, as making ends meet is tough enough as it is.  But the richest group of New Zealanders are not paying their fair share right now. Far from it — the top 20% of the population own nearly three times as much wealth as the bottom 80%, and even within the top 20%, over a third of the wealth is held by the top 1%.  Taxing the super-rich even a fraction more could raise the money to meet the demands of both teachers’ unions several times over — and the elite are so unfathomably wealthy that they wouldn’t feel one bit of difference.

Source: Credit Suisse Global Wealth Databook 2018. The Databook and accompanying Report are available for download here — see page 156 of the Databook, Table 6-5: Wealth shares and minimum wealth of deciles and top percentiles for regions and selected countries, 2018.

There’s no crisis in the Government budget, and there’s no lack of money to go around right now — quite the opposite, the country’s wealth is simply not shared fairly.  But even if there was barely any cash in the Treasury, that would still be no excuse to abandon teachers and principals to weather the raging storm of the education crisis.  If we can’t afford to look after those who have chosen to dedicate their careers to nurturing and educating future generations, what can we afford?  What NZEI and PPTA are asking for would be a price worth paying regardless.

Self-Imposed Austerity: Why Labour Aren’t Delivering

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, Education Minister Chris Hipkins, and representatives of NZ First and the Greens, face the NZEI rally in Wellington during last August’s strike.

“We want to attract the very best teachers, provide them with ongoing development opportunities throughout their careers, ensure they are well paid and respected, and receive all the support that they need to thrive in their roles”

This was the education policy campaigned on by the Labour Party in the 2017 election.  On paper, it aligns entirely with what NZEI and PPTA are asking for. Why, then, are Labour not even coming close to honouring their promises, and instead refusing to meet the demands of teachers who have faced over a decade of appalling treatment from the National Government?

The answer lies with another key policy Labour committed itself to, alongside the Greens, during the last election: the Budget Responsibility Rules (BRR).  These self-imposed rules chained Labour and the Greens to the logic of austerity. The two main parties of the centre-left not only promised they would run surpluses and reduce debt — which, as explained above, is largely unnecessary given how rosy the Government accounts are looking right now — but, alarmingly, they made a pledge to keep state spending at the average of the last 15 years: 30% or less.  That wasn’t just a commitment to unnecessarily prudish management of the existing pot of money. It was a promise to continue the era of small government, no matter what.

Aotearoa didn’t always have a small, fiscally conservative government.  Before 1984, we had one of the most generous welfare states in the world, alongside comparatively high taxes on the rich, and among the highest levels of union density in the OECD.  That all changed between 1984 and 1993. Right-wing governments, led first by Labour, then by National, flogged off state assets in a fire sale, slashed funding for public services, attacked the unionsended full employment while decimating welfare, and made the tax system far less progressive than it had been previously.  The top income tax rate was halved, from 66% on the highest earners down to 33%, and introduced instead was the deeply regressive Goods and Services Tax (GST), which disproportionately hits the poorest in society.

35 years after this assault began, and we still live in the long shadow of ‘trickle down’ economics, otherwise known as neoliberalism.  No government since 1984 has even begun to challenge this framework.  Labour and the Greens proved with BRR that they have no intention of doing so either.  But the strike wave of the last 18 months has presented the challenge to the Government: if you won’t end austerity, we’ll fight you until you do.  For the demands of the 50,000 angry teachers cannot be met until and unless the Budget Responsibility Rules are cast into the dustbin of history.

Where Austerity Comes From

But why?  Why would the Labour Party, which came from the union movement and has always claimed to represent workers and the poor, hold to a economic doctrine which prioritises low taxes, small government and prosperity for the top 10% over the interests of teachers, nurses, and the rest of the working class?

Such a question can only be answered by understanding the very heart of our economic, political and social system: capitalism.  It is capitalism which creates a structural separation between those who create all the world’s wealth, the working class, and those who profit from it: the bosses, shareholders, landlords and bankers.  The capitalist class, the tiny minority at the top of society, hoard extraordinary wealth to themselves, while everybody else carries the cost, suffering under the crushing weight of unspeakable inequality.

Austerity is endemic to this capitalist system.  The welfare state, which provided free basic health and education services to the working class, and insured against unemployment and old age, was a victory won by the workers through huge industrial and political struggle in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries.  It always endured in spite of the capitalist class.  The capitalists got their revenge, however, as they set about dismantling the welfare state as soon as they possibly could.  They made sure to break the power of the trade unions in the process. That’s why public health and education are always under attack by the capitalist class — and it’s why our governments, whatever their intentions, are always held to ransom by those who truly control the economic and political levers of power.

Ardern, Robertson, their Labour colleagues and their Green allies, may very well want to deal with the crises which have emerged in health and education in the past 35 years.  They may well want to solve the housing crisis and end poverty, as they claim. It’s not necessarily the case that their intentions are bad, or that they are dishonest — we have no real way of knowing whether or not they are.  But ultimately, that’s not what matters. What matters is that in practice, Labour and the Greens cannot solve our problems for us — they do not have the power to do anything about the capitalist system as a whole. But that is not for a second to say that we should give up hope of a better system.  The people with the power to make the world a better place are the very workers who have been on strike in 2018 and 2019.

Socialist Politics Is Needed To End Austerity

The strikes of the last 18 months have shown exactly how we can fight back against this rigged system, and exactly how we can win.  When workers go on strike, it’s not just another protest or demonstration. It demonstrates, in a microcosm at first, greater truths about the system we live under: that workers are the ones who really allow society to function; that we can shut down capitalism if we have the will to do so; and, ultimately, that we can take over and run the world in a far better way ourselves than the way the ruling class so desperately want us to.

The struggle being fought by teachers, nurses, junior doctors, public servants, bus drivers, fast food, cinema and retail workers, and so many others, is not just a collection of different struggles aiming for better pay and conditions within a range of different workplaces.  It’s a struggle for a better world for everybody, being fought on many different fronts, with currently separate goals, but with the potential to change everything. It’s a struggle that’s also being fought through school strikes, not just by teachers, but also by the students they are teaching, who have so far struck twice for climate action, and intend to do so again.

Low wages, long hours, underfunding and understaffing of services, precarious contracts, the housing crisisthe mental health crisis, and even the climate crisis, can all be defeated — if the missing piece in the jigsaw puzzle is found.  That missing piece is socialist politics. Socialist politics is what is needed to connect the dots, make the links between disparate struggles, and bring people together from industrial and social movements, putting forward common sense demands which come from a vision of life beyond capitalism.

Free, high-quality housing, healthcare, education and public transport for all; higher wages across the board; the end of poverty and involuntary unemployment; the abolition of taxes on working class people; the rapid and just transition away from fossil fuels and towards renewable energy — these should not be far-off, crazy-sounding pipe dreams.  These ideas can and should become reality, if we are willing to stand together and fight for them. The people and the planet should always come before profit.

Another world is possible, and the striking teachers are showing the way to get there.



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

Elliot Crossan is a socialist writer and activist.

31 May, 2019

Posted by Elliot Crossan in New Zealand Labour Party, New Zealand politics, 0 comments
Taxing the Richardson Will Not Be Enough

Taxing the Richardson Will Not Be Enough

A shrill screeching sound has been echoing around Aotearoa in the last couple of weeks.  From Cape Reinga to Stewart Island, the deafening screams of the rich — terrified at the idea that they might have to pay a little more tax — have been reverberating across the country, reaching every corner of the land.

This ear-splitting pitch has been induced by the Government’s Tax Working Group, who have finally, after sixteen months of deliberation, released their report exploring ideas of how to adjust the country’s taxation system.  This report has the audacity to suggest that the Labour-NZ First Coalition should bring in a tax on capital gains at a similar rate to how ordinary income is currently taxed — a radical, far-left proposal which is found in the communist dictatorships of… the United States, Japan, Australia, and no less than 18 other OECD countries.

Leader of the Opposition Simon Bridges has condemned this suggestion, issuing an outraged warning that a Capital Gains Tax (CGT) would be “an assault on the Kiwi way of life”.  Ever-outspoken and ambitious National Party frontbencher Judith Collins has proclaimed that Labour going ahead with a tax on capital gains “would make Simon Bridges Prime Minister” — something she must be even more worried about than everybody else in the country right now, given that her hopes of successfully challenging Bridges for the leadership of their party are currently looking rosier than ever!  Meanwhile, Business Central have called the proposed CGT “fatally flawed”, while the Taxpayers Union have complained that it would be “aggressive and unfair”, and the architect of our current free market economy, Sir Roger Douglas himself, has labelled the suggested policy “a joke”.

From page 33 of the Tax Working Group’s final report.

Take a glance at the anticipated effects of a CGT, which are outlined at length in the Working Group’s report, and you will instantly see why the richest people in Aotearoa and their political representatives in the National Party are so angry and upset.  Page 33 of the report shows the spread of total net worth for each fifth (or ‘quintile’) of New Zealanders, excluding owner-occupied family homes, which would not be taxed by CGT — something Business Central actually object to.  The bottom two-fifths of households combined have a net worth of around $28.9 billion — meaning 40% of the country own roughly 4% of the total net worth above and beyond people’s personal houses. The next 40% own $159 billion, or 20% of that wealth.  Then there’s the top fifth of the country. They own $602 billion, as well as the homes they live in; that means that the top 20% own 76%, more than three times what the other 80% of us do.  The kind of wealth which a Capital Gains Tax would apply to is concentrated in the hands of those at the very top of society.  The vast majority of the country hold very little of the wealth which CGT would affect — it’s far from “an assault on the Kiwi way of life” for ordinary people.

The reasons why the rich are so scared of a CGT are further illuminated by the statistics provided on page 62 of the Working Group’s findings.  The bottom 30% of the country would have around 0.13% of their current disposable income taken by the proposed tax. How much would taxes go up for hard working middle New Zealand?  Well, an average of 0.5% of what the middle 40% of households are earning right now, after existing taxes, would be paid to the government through this new tax. It’s not even that bad for the upper middle class!  Deciles 8 and 9, the group richer than the bottom 70% but poorer than the top 10%, would have approximately 1.65% of their current disposable income taxed.

From page 62 of the Tax Working Group’s final report.

It’s only the top 10% who would be hit hard.  7.7% of their current disposable income would be paid to the state if the Government decided to accept the Working Group’s proposal of a CGT.  Even if you include owner-occupied housing, the five hundred thousand New Zealanders who make up decile 10 currently own significantly more total wealth than deciles 1 through 9 — the other four-and-a-half million of us — put together.  The wealthiest citizens in the land would still be ridiculously well-off even if the CGT was implemented — in fact, they would still be far, far richer than everybody else combined.

So, the poorest households in Aotearoa would have to pay as little as 13 cents out of every hundred dollars earned, while the average working family would only have to pay 50 cents, and even the upper middle class would be charged just $1.65 out of every $100.  The top 10% would have to rummage around in their oversized bank accounts and hand over just $7.70 out of every $100 they make. They can more than afford that, many times over. Taxing capital gains is common sense. It would help reduce the speculation in the housing market which has caused the price of buying a home to skyrocket in the last few decades, and it would raise a solid amount of money for the Government to spend — the Working Group have proposed to spend that money on income tax cuts of around $15 per person per week, but the money could also be spent on public services, or on building the new houses which we so desperately need.  Either way, it would reduce the obscene levels of inequality this country currently experiences by a small fraction. What’s not to like?

A Door Opens — Only to Be Slammed Back in Our Faces

It is most amusing to see the richest citizens of this country freak out at the idea of a minor increase in their taxes.  Unfortunately, amongst the panicked screams of greedy landlords and corporate fat cats terrified of a small reduction in their vast hoarded wealth, there lies a sinister pledge to take revenge if this CGT goes through.

It’s a pledge which perfectly demonstrates why merely tinkering around the edges of the existing economic framework — raising taxes on the rich and redistributing that money to working class people, but ultimately leaving the fundamentals of the system unchallenged — is always going to be entirely inadequate.  The unpleasant truth is that the wealthiest people in Aotearoa hold the real power in society. Their power is derived from their control over the economy — meaning they can hold the government to ransom if the elected representatives of the people dare to even think about going against the interests of the wealthy.  They can make day-to-day life very hard for ordinary people, because they own our workplaces, and they even own many of our homes.  They are determined to get their way, no matter the cost.

Enter ageing ex-cricketer Mark Richardson.  Richardson is a pundit on the AM Show — he is officially their sports presenter, but he also uses his platform on the popular radio program to give voice to his mean-spirited, increasingly brazen political views.  Last year, Richardson expressed exasperation at the media’s “unfair” treatment of Donald Trump, telling people to “give the guy a shot” in response to his co-presenter Amanda Gillies calling the US President racist.

Image from Newshub.

After Labour’s 2018 Budget a couple of months earlier, he had been complaining that “I’m going to be left out of pocket by this Budget […] I’m running a business here, you know!”.  He announced live on air, without even telling the people affected beforehand, that because of the rising costs the Budget would give him, he would be increasing rent for the tenants in the properties he owns.

The latest of Richardson’s angry right-wing rants came last week.  He insisted to AM Show listeners that “there is no housing crisis in this country, there is an accommodation crisis.  That’s very different!”  He elaborated by saying “I don’t give a rat’s arse if you can’t afford a house!  What I care about is if you can’t afford to rent a nice place to stay.”

Here are a few facts about the housing crisis which Richardson denies the existence of:

Never mind all that though — as he says, Richardson couldn’t give a rat’s arse about the colossal crisis in home ownership.  So surely, as he points out, everything is fine, and people are able to get by renting lovely accommodation to live in.

How utterly out-of-touch he is with the real lives of working class people.  Rents have also been skyrocketing in the past few decades, well outstripping wage growth.  The 600,000 households who rent are up to their ears in outrageously high bills from landlords, and it shows — housing costs for the bottom fifth of New Zealanders nearly doubled between 1990 and 2015, going from an average of 30% of their incomes to a staggering 54%.

Source: The State of New Zealand Housing, The House Site.

As for “a nice place to live”?!  Don’t make me laugh! The appalling conditions which so many renters have to put up with every day have been thoroughly documented.  Cold, damp, mouldy flats — it’s a story which scarcely needs repeating.  I know myself and too many of my friends have suffered symptoms such as disgusting skin conditions and shortness of breath in the winter — the situation is even more horrible for children who have to grow up in this environment.  Aotearoa is a developed country. It is positively criminal that serious health problems which were thought to have been eradicated are returning to the poorest and most vulnerable of our communities, while the wealthiest citizens of the nation enjoy such extreme affluence.

In response to the proposed Capital Gains Tax, Richardson decided that he needed to add yet more injury to his insulting attitude towards working people.  He once again proclaimed live on the AM Show that, if Labour’s planned CGT and accompanying $15 per week income tax cuts are implemented, he will take back whatever he loses by raising rents for his tenants.

“These tax cuts, alright?  I’m sorry — I went through how much people stand to make in tax cuts if it comes in, about $575 a year — I’m sorry, that might make a small difference to those right down the bottom, but that makes diddly-squat difference to the people who will be hurt by this tax, which is the middle class, who are trying desperately to get ahead, not to be a burden on the system when they retire, trying to get their kids ahead — they’re the ones who will take a proportionally greater hit!”

He continued:

“If they don’t own something, what are they doing, they are renting.  Well I will take that fifteen bucks a week back within the next couple of years, thank you very much!”

The sheer ignorance.  Richardson is genuinely convinced that the “middle class” are as wealthy as he is, and that people who don’t own investments, rental properties and businesses are a small group at the bottom of society.  He couldn’t be more wrong if he tried. The class who will “take a proportionally greater hit” are the top 10%. They’re the ruling class. They are the only group who will see a tax increase of 7.7% from CGT; they’re the group who between them own more wealth than the bottom 90% of us combined; they are the greedy profiteers, the leeches on society who live off the backs of the hard work everybody else does.  Yes, a $15 a week tax cut would make a difference to ordinary middle New Zealand — that is, if you didn’t raise rents and take that cash straight back for yourself, you elitist bully-boy.

The absolutely revolting hypocrisy.  Within a week of saying he will raise the rents of his tenants to make up for a modest tax increase on his massive wealth, to proclaim that there isn’t a housing crisis in Aotearoa!  To act as though it’s fine because people who don’t own anything can afford to rent “nice places”!  How Richardson can make these two statements within just a week of each other without the blindingly obvious contradictions causing his brain to explode simply baffles me.

A Useful Idiot

It’s infuriating that this man can espouse such ignorant, selfish and hypocritical views with such a mind-numbing lack of self-awareness.  However, on the other hand, I would argue that it is actually very useful that Richardson is being so honest. He is not only exposing to the rest of us, with absolute clarity, the odious position he occupies in society.  He is in the same breath illustrating the odious nature of his class. He is revealing for all to see the utter disregard for fellow humans which landlords embody; he is displaying the mental contortions they must necessarily exercise in order to avoid feeling guilty for their actions; he is demonstrating that himself and people like him either simply cannot understand the realities of life for the vast majority of working class people who exist around them — or even worse: if they do understand, they do not care.

Above all, he is shouting to the world, more sharply and concisely than a thousand of my wordy articles ever could, the exact reason why capitalism as an economic system and a political power structure must be overthrown.  Yes, it is possible to elect a Labour Government, and yes, if pressure from below is applied, that government will have to concede reforms to the majority of people in order to reduce extreme inequality and the daily suffering it causes the working class.  But reformist governments will always be powerless to actually change things on the scale necessary to truly end that suffering — precisely because a reformist government, even one led by the most brave and radical of people, will never hold any true power in society.

Housing Action Now march.

The power Mark Richardson is expressing when he tells AM Show listeners that he is going to raise rents for his tenants is the power which is the source of the crisis of inequality Aotearoa faces today.  We have a housing crisis because of the all-consuming greed of property speculators and landlords. It’s not a technical hiccup in an otherwise functioning system. It’s a problem which will always exist when the small group at the top of society control the vast majority of the wealth and power.  It’s a problem which will always exist under capitalism.

It’s not just a problem found in housing.  Workers experienced a huge reduction in our real median wages in the 1980s and early 1990s, aided by the policy of full employment being endedstate-owned industries being privatised, and unions being smashed.  Real median wages have been stagnant ever since this reduction.  Just as the housing market has been driven into crisis by speculators and landlords pursuing ever-higher profits, bosses have held down wages in order to achieve the same goal — cut the share of income going to workers so they can hoard that cash for themselves.

It is why inequality has soared in the last 35 years, to a point where the top tenth of the country own more than the bottom nine-tenths, and the two men at the very top — the richest men in the country, Graeme Hart and Richard Chandler — own more wealth between them than the bottom 1.4 million people.  It’s a class war which has been waged against the working class of Aotearoa by the bosses, landlords, bankers and investors.  It’s a war which has been fought by their representatives in government, both under National Party and under Labour Party rule.  And it’s a war which cannot be fixed even if Labour are prepared to tax the rich a bit more and redistribute the wealth — because the landlords can just make rents even higher, the bosses can just push wages even lower, and the banks can just raise interest rates.  They will get their way under this exploitative economic order.

Capitalism isn’t working.

Another World Is Possible

It’s time to fight back.  Mark Richardson has shown us why, as do all the statistics about the housing crisis, wage suppression and inequality.  We don’t even need those statistics to understand; most New Zealanders, especially young New Zealanders, can feel that something is deeply wrong.  We can feel the unbearable pressure we are under as we see house prices, rents and debts soar through the roof while wages are stuck on the floor; and we can see clearly that the super-rich are the only ones benefiting from this state of affairs.  The mental health crisis amongst the youth of today is largely caused by the hopelessness and stress produced as an inevitable result of capitalism.  Again, my personal experience, and the experiences of my friends, make the statistics on this issue strike far too close to home.

We’re ready to fight back.  That’s why National were kicked out of power after the nine long years of misery they gave us.  That’s why 2018 saw the biggest strikes in decades, with tens of thousands of nurses, midwives, teachers and public servants taking industrial action against the Labour-NZ First Government, demanding a better deal — these workers know that nothing is going to happen if we wait in vain for Labour to deliver, and that we have to take matters into our own hands.

The fight against obscene inequality is happening across the world, not just in Aotearoa.  Young people in the United States of America — of all places! — prefer the idea of socialism to capitalism.  Not only that, but in Britain and Germany, a majority of the total population have a favourable view of socialism and a net unfavourable view of capitalism.  Working class people, especially amongst the youth, are rejecting tired old status quo politics in favour of unashamed left-wing reformists who are willing to call out the rigged economic system for what it is, and promise meaningful changes which will make a genuine difference in people’s daily lives.  That’s why in the last few years, out of the political wilderness and into the centre stage have sprung self-proclaimed socialists such as Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in America, Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell in Britain, Jean-Luc Mélenchon and his La France Insoumise movement in France, Die Linke in Germany, Pablo Iglesias and the Podemos party in Spain, People Before Profit in Ireland, and SYRIZA in Greece, just to name a few examples.  Their political messages all contain a common theme: as Jeremy Corbyn’s iconic slogan states, they stand “for the many, not the few”.

There is no question that we need a new political party in Aotearoa which will fight without compromise for the interests of the bottom 90% of New Zealand — the workers, renters and debtors who deserve a better deal — and against the bosses, landlords and bankers who exploit us for their own gain.  There is no question that such a workers’ party would be popular — the number of people desperate for change is massive. The only questions are of detail: who, when, and most importantly, how?

I, for one, can’t wait to see the look on Mark Richardson’s face when his beloved ‘middle New Zealand’ turns out to be a complete myth; when the real majority in this land turns out to be the exploited and righteously angry working class; and when that working class turns out to be ready to stand up, fight back, put Mark and his rich mates in their place, and build an Aotearoa which works in the interests of everybody.



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

Elliot Crossan is a socialist writer and activist.

6 March, 2019

Posted by Elliot Crossan in New Zealand Labour Party, New Zealand politics, 0 comments
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