Expanding the Parameters of the Possible: The Left’s Mission in 2014.



WRY FACIAL EXPRESSIONS, rather than sage nods of agreement, are the usual response to left-wing calls for unity and tolerance. The left-wing world is a disputatious place where the intensity of the arguments, while not unexpected, can still prove quite jarring to the uninitiated. But even if the experience of so much political passion may leave people shaken, it also leaves them stirred. Which is, surely, the point. Changing the world should be stirring stuff.

What changing the world should never be about is a process of ruthlessly prioritised and carefully calibrated political engagement. The most invidious aspect of Vladimir Lenin’s legacy as a revolutionary leader was his insistence that the military-style implementation of a tiny “vanguard of professional revolutionaries’” strategic and tactical orders constituted any sort of viable decision-making model for the Left.

Lenin and his Bolsheviks looked at the miraculous spring of February 1917: when the Cossacks finally learned that they had more in common with the seekers of bread than the wielders of whips; when the workers in the factories realised that their judgements were as good (if not better) than their masters’; when Russian women claimed not only the right to vote, but the right to child-care, birth control and abortion; and they scowled.

With the forces of reaction knocking at the new democratic Russian Republic’s gates, Lenin and his comrades seized the great rollicking puppy that was the people’s revolution, and in the snows of November 1917 snapped the collar of “Democratic Centralism” around its too trusting neck.

But if the Bolsheviks “won”, what did they win? And at what cost?

When the Soviet Union was teetering on the brink of destruction in August 1991, which sections of Russian society came rushing to its defence? Was it the workers? The peasants? Women? The LGBTI community? Ethnic minorities? Students? Did anybody at all lift a finger to save Lenin’s Union of Soviet Socialist Republics?

Top-down revolution; democratic centralism; the careful calibration and ruthless prioritising of political effort: all of these options have been weighed in the scales of history and found wanting.

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Never again should the Left allow itself to be turned into an army. Because the purpose of the Left is not to lead the fight: its job is to explain and expose the sources and purposes of oppression, and to hasten the day when the oppressed themselves are ready to take the fight to their oppressors.

Eugene Victor Debs (1855-1926) the great American trade unionist and the Socialist Party’s 1904 candidate for President of the United States, put it best when he said:

“I am not a Labor Leader; I do not want you to follow me or anyone else; if you are looking for a Moses to lead you out of this capitalist wilderness, you will stay right where you are. I would not lead you into the promised land, even if I could, because if I led you in, someone else would lead you out. You must use your heads as well as your hands, and get yourself out of your present condition; as it is now, the capitalists use your heads and your hands.”

If we rely upon the Labour Party, the Greens, Mana or any other party to calibrate and prioritise our needs, then we profoundly misunderstand the way electoral politics in a capitalist state works.

Because political parties are expected to operate within “the system” they are most unlikely to advance policies that have not been sanctioned by powerful social entities (corporations, unions, NGOs, the news media) and for which large sections of the electorate have already indicated (usually through polling) their support. The political party’s job is to present these policies to the electorate in ways that not only retain the loyalty of existing supporters’ but also attract new ones.

When it comes to electoral politics the Left’s tasks are, therefore, very clear. First, it must make sure that those it is seeking to empower can speak with voices sufficiently loud and convincing to attract the political parties’ (or party’s) attention. Second, if the demands of the oppressed fall outside the boundaries of what is generally considered “politically feasible”, then the Left’s job is to expand the parameters of the possible. An excellent example of this process (sometimes referred to as moving the “Overton Window” ) is the extraordinary success of the Living Wage Campaign.

In addressing these tasks, however, left-wing activists will soon discover that it is extremely difficult to address one socio-economic or human rights issue without immediately becoming aware of a whole host of others.

How, for example, does one address the problem of child poverty without, at the same time, confronting the issue of domestic violence and spousal desertion? What is it that makes young men so willing to impregnate young women but so unwilling to accept the responsibilities of fatherhood? What does “being a man” mean in an age when the traditional vocational markers of masculinity have either been removed or rewritten? What kind of society sells its young people a vision of adulthood and citizenship it has no intention of fulfilling?

Capitalism is not just an economic system, it is a complex web of social relationships and cultural expectations from which it is virtually impossible to escape. Cut one thread and the entire system shudders. Commit yourself to attacking one feature of capitalist exploitation and before you know it you’re doing battle with the whole ferocious beast.

In her posting on The Standard, “It’s 2014 and we have a job to do”, the blogger Queen of Thorns wrote:

“In 2014 the New Zealand Left must have more on its agenda than “win power”. We should want to create a better New Zealand, and doing that is about so much more than economic policy (which is also, obviously, important). It has to touch everything. And it’s going to take people working in different areas on different parts of the plan to make it all happen.”

I couldn’t agree more.


  1. This one post seems to be rather “down to earth” compared with some of Chris’ other posts. It combines being pragmatic and passionate at the same time, by suggesting to push for what is possible and necessary, and then to try and expand this further, to push also for what should also be possible and necessary (in regards to social, human and economic justice).

  2. I disagree.

    How the system should operate is that a party with good solutions to the countries problems will form at the bottom with little to no chance of getting seats at first.

    The answer is to promote that new party with its solutions. Not to try change the minds of political elites, that are only trying to keep their power for its own sake, which involves changing the whole sociaty (or a major part anyway). That is the USAs method (two-party lock in) and it sucks.

    I’m in my 20s so all I have ever known in my life is that the true enemy of the peolpe is the Labour Party. They may have lasted ~50 years before corruption, buto corrupted they are. They are holding back progress and they must be destroyed.

    There will always be a Party of No, the blue party. The peolpe who vote for National are same sorts of people who vote for Labour and each need to be educated about the solutions (and the problems too for blue voters).

    In democracy you don’t vote for hope, you vote for what you want; solutions, not a kinder ear.

    • There was a time where the Labour Party stood for progress, and when you go back to the 1930s, it certainly set it’s mark on NZ politics and society, same at certain periods later (Norman Kirk, David Lange).

      So to simply consider the Labour Party as the “enemy of the people” appears to be something that you either feel, because in the last two decades they have failed to be truly and honestly progressive, or because it has been put into your mind by a questionable NZ mainstream media, or certain individuals.

      I agree that Labour as it is now leaves a fair bit to be desired. But it could renew and revive itself from within, if enough members push for it, and if the leaders and MPs would listen and support such a reform move.

      We are yet to see how the recent changes of their leader and new, grown membership will present themselves in this year, leading up to a general election.

      I agree that the traditional, so common 2-party system, that exists and dominates parliaments in many places, is not helpful. Change tends to come from new ideas, new movements and parties, and they have the potential to convince, grow and get more votes. Their risk is aligning themselves with larger parties in formed governments, and compromise too much, to lose credit.

      Reforms from the top down have worked in various cases, but they tend to be prone to criticism, attack and being subverted, and at other times they were done out of sheer arrogance, where some elite forces or persons thought they know best for all, so they had the “mission”, “right” or even “duty” to implement what they wanted.

      Anything reformed without sufficient democratic support is often or mostly bound to fail in the medium to long run.

      In NZ we sadly have too much public indifference and apathy for potentially successful change, and what the smaller parties on the opposition benches have been doing, is only convincing their fragmented supporters, and therefore not a wide enough part of the population, to bring about proper change and reforms. That indeed is one major challenge for “the left”, it is somehow a “divided” force, while the right is largely represented by a comparatively dominant political party, the National Party.

      Labour needs to listen to the reformists within and without, to survive and grow again, and to succeed, or they will only have another temporary role to play in government, gradually fading into insignificance, as the lighter shade of what ‘National’ now stands for.

      In my eyes that is NO option, and especially MPs in caucus and the LEC should damned well realise this and heed the messages.

      • It seems like you broadly agree with me anyway.

        And I thought the very definition of MSM with respect to politics was defining it as a war of only two parties (marginalising the “minor” parties).

        Top down change can occur (USA Democrats), but it’s super-rare. I’m looking for a more recent Canadain-like Left flip.

        Both methods can work, but wouldn’t you rather just vote for party you agree with than have a large social campaign for each issue you care about. That was my point.

        It’s easier to educate people and then say vote for these guys for solutions rather than attend these 10 protests in the hopes of changing the elites minds.

        The only hold-up is the media. And isn’t that why Bomber keeps going on about Cunliffe taking on the Media portfolio.

        Also don’t forget that Cunliffe is in a progressive minority in his own caucus. And that’s even if he is a true progressive (which I’m still not convinced about). Labour has done great things in the past, but for the last 20 years it has just been the lesser of two evils.

        Yeah I spoke maybe too strongly like Trotter says we do in the article. Labour is not a real enemy of the people, but it certainly doesn’t have the anwsers to real progress does it. So why vote for them?

        • Of course, under the present MMP system it is logical to give your party vote to the party and the policies you support most. When it comes to the electorate vote it gets tricky, and at least in some cases, strategic voting is highly recommended, if not necessary.

          I know that it takes time for new ideas, new policies to get wider acceptance, as it takes time for people to observe, assess, re-assess and then make decisions, which they may change again later. So if a small party has great new policies, but they have not got the votes to govern, their best hope is to be part of a government, or to support a government with their votes in Parliament.

          They can run the risk of having to make too many compromises, but ultimately such parties have to make decisions about how they think they best operate and can succeed.

          Politics is complex, and over time, change does usually come gradually. Hence there will be no quick fix solution this coming election, but it can be the start of a better future, even a game changer further down the line.

          As voters we will all find there is no “perfect” party fitting all our expectations. So we all have to make some compromises as voters too. Some matters will be bottom line to me, and yes, I do presently not see myself voting Labour but most likely another “left” of centre party, which may well be supporting the next government. The end mix will show what the new government can do and is likely to achieve.

          But making sure to vote, that is the most important decision of all, as not voting is NO option in my eyes, because that will mean handing it over to Key and Nats on a silver platter yet again. No thanks to that. Vote!

          • We could have a massive change in government at no longer than 3 years. Because that is when we vote for who fills every seat.

            The limiting factor is the spread of information. And, yes, that does tend to spread through society slowly. But it doesn’t necessarily have to be that way. Yes it’s highly improbable, but it’s not impossible. That is my point.

            There are maybe about half-a-dozen electorates where it may be advisable to vote for the Labour electoral candidate only and give the party vote to some-one else, but you’d better be sure.

  3. Chris, when did you embrace us on the libertarian socialist left? Making the world a better place, one free thought at a time! Then following it up by one act of defiance. Hugs and Bikkies Chris. Hugs and Bikkies.

    • This is the message we all need to hear more of. Stop hoping for a leader to save and instead force the next leader to be the guy we want him to be.

      If we don’t do it this time, the right wing will keep destroying the country until a new (much more desperate) generation gets active – and they’ll look back on us and wonder in amazement why we just sat round squabling on blogs.

  4. Chris, I read QoT’s post on The Standard, and couldn’t agree more with her ideas.

    It’s unfortunate that the following debate turned into an inevitable slanging match, name calling, and bannings. What I was seeing was passion – albeit mis-directed and unfocused.

    I encourage folk to read QoT’s blogpost. It has merit.

    And as I stated after, on the comments section, a new Labour-led government will have it’s hands full with a multitudinous agenda of undoing National’s hopelessly anti-social, anti-worker policies. And more than that, once elected, we citizens (on the left and elsewhere) must support and encourage MPs to to the right thing.

    I believe we allowed the 2000-08 Labour government to drift and lose their purpose. No wonder they lost so badly in 2008. (And by contrast, that snake-oil peddlar, Key, and his strategists, were able to pick up on that aimlessness and offer an alternative “vision” to New Zealanders. Check out his 2008 speech, “A Fresh Start for New Zealand” – http://johnkey.co.nz/archives/306-SPEECH-2008-A-Fresh-Start-for-New-Zealand.html. It may be crass bullshit to our eyes and ears, but I believe it filled a vacuum. We need to offer an alternative vision to our fellow Kiwis – one not rooted in selfish individualism.)

    No more. This time, once in power, it has to be an on-going partnership between our elected representatives and us.

    There is much work to be done.

    • Nobody was banned as a result of QoT’s post, Frank. A minority who went off track were asked to modify their behaviour and a couple who didn’t get the hint were asked not to comment further on that specific post, but were invited to continue commenting on Open Mike. If you don’t respect the host, expect to be asked to leave the party.

  5. The reason some of us on the left have misgivings about unity amongst the left is because it has been used as a vehicle in the past to damage and destroy working class and their interests. The policies of rogernomics under the Lange government are a good example of “uniting under labour” for the so called common good of society. But in reality we were joining together in voting for the next group of managers of New Zealand capital. The pitiful economic minds of the New Zealand Labour party in the 1980’s gave full credence to the ideologies of the treasury department (educated at US Ivy league institutions.) This left us with neoliberalism and the most damning indictment of Labour in New Zealand political history, it’s utter betrayal of the working class.
    Secondly I call bullshit on your writings of Lenin. Lenin is a figure that has been reshaped many times throughout history – but never as dog catcher which ruthlessly collars a “rollicking puppy” representing the revolution. Democratic centralism wasn’t even suggested by the Bolsheviks but actually by the Mensheviks that aside it simply purports something slightly better than in today’s society were legislation is suggested by a select few and then implemented nationally. Democratic centralism is centralised democracy – simply that what is decided by the majority is carried out by all.I disagree with many laws within New Zealand – Am I then justified to not follow New Zealand’s laws if I do not agree with them?
    I don’t believe we that powerless to just limit our political activity to the purely symbolic show of voting – we can get out on the streets and fight for our beliefs. Because you are right about one thing – every individual protest and campaign you organise or associate with, will show you that there are a whole host of other issues that are just as important and have one link between them. Capitalism. But if we are just to vote then we merely choose the managers of our capitalist economy – not how society should be structured so that we all get a fair share.
    This was the original intention of the soviets/workers councils – DIRECT DEMOCRACY – not representative, having a representative gives that person much more power, and much less accountability particularly in our modern “democracy”. This is what you are criticising Chris, you are criticising direct democracy in favour of representative democracy. I’m not saying like you, however that the soviets did not change over time. As soon as the soviets stopped empowering workers – namely with the rise of Stalin and the purge of the Bolsheviks and soviets, the country took a different form; one of state capitalism, where a corrupt party no longer supported the emancipation of the working class, but the accumulation of capital in the hands of party bureaucrats.
    The Left cannot wait in the shadows for the great working class to rise up and let the left be the political vehicle to shuffle them to power. We are not opportunists – We ARE the working class by and large, It is we who foster that growth – that development of consciousness through unionisation and struggle. So what happens then Chris are those workers who rose up, became radical and joined the left suddenly not part of the working class now?

    • >> Am I then justified to not follow New Zealand’s laws if I do not agree with them? <<

      Yes. "When injustice becomes law, resistance becomes duty" (anon).

      Laws are a way for private individuals to collaboratively define the the organs of our society, eg by limiting the powers of government agencies, or by creating disincentives to harm others for profit by. When laws are used for surveillance, regulation, or criminalization of the non-violent activities of private individuals, this is tyranny, not democracy. Such laws deserve no obedience, and those who make them deserve no respect.

  6. “Never again should the Left allow itself to be turned into an army. Because the purpose of the Left is not to lead the fight: its job is to explain and expose the sources and purposes of oppression, and to hasten the day when the oppressed themselves are ready to take the fight to their oppressors.”

    So we should all be schoolteachers? To me, this looks like abstaining as surely as Russell Brand wants us to abstain. We should separate ourselves from the oppressed (whoever they are) and preserve our doctrinal purity by writing on blogs until the oppressed spontaneously rise up and need our wisdom? Call me cynical, but this seems just a little opportunist to me. It seems like the leftness of chardonnay leftists who wait for the Waitakere men to rise up and throw off their chains etc. The left should be, and must be, an organic part of the oppressed. A long time ago it was, and we had worker intellectuals, men and women, who got their hands dirty on the picket lines. Any left worth its salt should be aiming to bring back the better practices of those days, not suggesting that the answers are to be found in our blog comments.

  7. I have come to the conclusion that both capitalism and collectivism (which I think is the better description for leftist monetary ideas) have a common enemy.
    The enemy is actually big. Big capitalism that morphs into giant corporations with massive wealth for the few at the top and crumbs for the vast numbers who work for them at the lower levels.
    Big collectivism is socialism and as we have seen, not that crash hot either, as it nearly always requires some kind of force to exist.
    What people need, generally, is to be able to seek their prosperity on their own path, not be tossed on the tide of big business that can decide whether you have a job this week or not as they can pay less wages elsewhere.
    We are imprisoned by this as much as any totalitarian government, it’s just we don’t realise it.
    I think the more egalitarian society was a more individual one, where the small business person was the norm.
    Think about it

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