There’s Plenty Left: Chris Trotter responds to Paul Buchanan’s critique of the New Zealand Left.

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Young leftwing protesters march in Athens

REPORTS OF THE LEFT’S DEMISE have been greatly exaggerated. The Italian socialist, Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937) may have prescribed “pessimism of the intellect”, but it is doubtful he would have found much to inspire “optimism of the will” in the voluminous literature of defeat that is fast becoming a thriving cottage industry among demoralised left-wing intellectuals.

Paul Buchanan’s “Nothing Left” (Kiwipolitico Blog, 20 January 2014) is the latest manifestation of this ideological malaise. Outraged by the willingness of some leftists to sup at the table of his satanic majesty, Kim Dotcom, Buchanan, in Olympian fury, has rained down upon their miscreant heads a storm of condemnatory thunderbolts.

“The association (supplication?) of these ‘progressives’ with a cowboy capitalist who has zero Marxist inclinations is a travesty if not treason to any working class cause […..] That some on the Left would countenance Dotcom as a tactical ally (in that his party is supposed to siphon young urban professional votes away from National) demonstrates how bereft of ideas, agenda and praxis they have become.”

Bereft? That rather depends upon your point of view.

Some might consider hurling insults at dedicated individuals and loftily dismissing the contributions of Labour, the Council of Trade Unions and the Greens (collectively, the decisive concentration of New Zealand’s progressive energy) as prima facie evidence of a mind as bereft of tactical common sense as it is of anything remotely resembling “ideas, agenda and praxis”.

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Amongst all the stinging verbal pellets of Buchanan’s rhetorical shotgun blasts, one paragraph stands out as deserving of serious consideration:

“It would be useful then, for those of us who pontificate on such matters, to take stock of what it means to be a sincere and viable political Leftist in a country where the very mention of such a term elicits derision or disinterest on the part of the majority of those who should find socialism, or at least social democracy, to be the natural political choice.”

First of all let’s deal with the charge that progressive ideas elicit “derision or disinterest” from those for whom they should be “the natural political choice”. Not to put too fine a point upon it, this is bullshit. The Pundit blog’s Poll-of-Polls shows an extremely healthy 46 percent of voters expressing support for the Labour, Green and Mana parties. In a country that has been subjected to an unrelenting barrage of neoliberal propaganda for the best part of 30 years that is a heartening result.

Now Buchanan will object that because the policies of these parties in no way conform to anything remotely resembling “socialism, or at least social democracy” the fact that nearly half the electorate has made them their “natural political choice” means little or nothing.

But I am moved to wonder if Buchanan’s penchant for defining all but his own understanding of what it means to be “a sincere and viable political Leftist” as the province of “self-interested opportunists and vainglorious charlatans” isn’t proof that he has become a left-wing version of Don Quixote.

Like Cervantes’ hero, he finds himself stranded in a world that no longer conforms to his definition of reality. All his old enemies: the Argentinian Junta, Pinochet, Somoza, have passed into history – along with all but two of the regimes of “actually existing socialism”. The evil giants of his youth have shape-shifted into the windmills of a technological age in which socialism is no longer represented by the incorruptible virtues of Soviet propaganda posters, Maoist operettas and macho Guevarristas.

Even in the period of the Comintern’s greatest success, the agents of revolution were not above hob-nobbing with the Kim Dotcoms of their day. Clandestine shapers of mass opinion, like Lenin’s friend and comrade, Willi Munzenberg, understood the power of famous names to lead the masses in directions they might otherwise feel disinclined to travel. Throughout the 1920s and 30s communist agents like Munzenberg and his ally Otto Katz placed themselves at the cutting edge of film and radio, the new technologies of their day, to drive wedges into the ideological joinery of Capitalism. If there was political progress to be made, the Comintern was not too proud to get down and dirty with Hollywood moguls. They did not regard turning Capitalism’s new technologies against it as “treason” to the “working class cause” – quite the reverse!

Jamie Whyte, the man who would be the next leader of Act, told a gathering of British intellectuals  who had come together to hear a panel of political commentators debate the moot: “What’s Left Now?” that he could not understand the extraordinary pessimism of the Left. As far as he was concerned, his left-wing opponents had “won”. They had a welfare state, free trade unions, public health and education and progressive taxation. What more did they want!

In answering his own question he suggested that it was simply in the DNA of those on the Left to be always trying to improve things; always trying to make the world a better and fairer place.

That’s a pretty good definition of the left-winger’s political role (and in no way deficient for being simply put). In meeting the perennial challenges of inequality and social injustice we have no choice but to use the tools of our times – however imperfect they may be. It is important that we not allow ourselves to be side-tracked by crotchety counsellors of Marxist perfection.

Nor should we forget that Gramsci always paired his “pessimism of the intellect” with its powerful existential rejoinder “optimism of the will”.

There’s always plenty Left.

We’re not beaten yet.

30 COMMENTS

  1. “Beaten”?!

    F**k me, we’ve only begun!!

    And proof of the turning of fortunes for the Left is the desperation shown by Key to climb into “the marital bed” with Peters as a possible coalition partner. That should scream, volumes to the Left.

    Good post, Chris! And this bit should be nailed at every Leftist’s masthead,

    ” In meeting the perennial challenges of inequality and social injustice we have no choice but to use the tools of our times – however imperfect they may be. It is important that we not allow ourselves to be side-tracked by crotchety counsellors of Marxist perfection. ”

    So whilst KDC may not be a “fellow traveller” in our quest for a better and fairer place, if he damages National’s prospects for a third term – I’ll happily shout the bugger a beer!

    Let’s not forget that in National’s desperation to survive as a government, they have been targetting and attacking the poorest people in our society; beneficiaries; poor families; unemployed, workers; etc. Those who cannot fight back. Those who rely on the organised and vocal Left to resist.

    That be us.

    So setting self-indulgent indignation at KDC aside – we have a job to do.

    As the old Soviet propaganda posters loved to depict; time to roll up our sleeves and get down to it.

    • “As the old Soviet propaganda posters loved to depict; time to roll up our sleeves and get down to it.”

      Hopefully with the same outcome as well.

      • Gosman:

        Why do you want to see the country run by oligarchs and the provinces sending suicide bombers to the railway stations?

        Plus desperate people either drinking themselves to death using strange concoctions and others dying hideously from using krocodil?

        Why?

        Workers anywhere can roll up their sleeves and get down to honest work. Under any political environment.

        For sure. some of those workshy spongers who claim to be among the top 5% would have a greater grasp on reality once they’d worked up a set of calluses from hand tools, not golf clubs.

        • National’s propaganda machine is functioning the way the Government intended. Financially-self-serving policies devised by politicians and CEOs are propped up by spin doctors – Government flunkies who earn fat wages manufacturing propaganda that keeps the public controlled through misinformation. That this misinformation is largely supported by the mainstream media gives it false credibility. Buying the lie that anyone can do an honest day’s work in any political environment when there aren’t enough jobs in the chain for those who want them is to behave as a fish biting a chunk of poison off a hook, line and rapidly descending sinker.

  2. “We’re not beaten yet” – definitely not. And the present government has contributed a great deal to a reinvigoration of political activism.

    However, I still think Kim Dotcom is going to hurt the chances of a Labour/Green government by losing them some valuable votes and people who want this government out should not be supporting his party.

    • Fambo – that may be a possibility.

      It’ll be interesting to see if KDC’s Party registers in the next few polls – and more importantly, where he draws support from. That will be intriguing…

  3. “Kiwipolitico” has lasted longer than expected and hosted some memorable discussions such as those on public intellectuals, the Arab Spring and particularly foreign and military policy but Pablo’s temperament can be a real flat tyre.

  4. My humble opinion is that just because people when polled have progressive sympathies is not evidence of a latent leftist historical tendency. For example the Tea Party rank and file when polled in the US do not want to see medicare and social security cuts and would even support taxing the rich. That’s why politics and ideology are important. If we pretend that dot.com’s libertarianism is somehow “left” we lend credibility to an anti-government sentiment that can prevent the left from effecting real change. Cynicism towards government is cheap today and I suspect quite prevalent amongst the social media masses Chris identifies as the potential new constituency for the Left. I realize MMP forces us in to some weird sympathies (ie Winston) but I find libertarianism a really disempowering fake radicalism and poison for the Left.

  5. Does this mean you agree with the premise that Kim Dotcom’s Internet party is primarily a vehicle designed to split the right vote to the benefit of the left?

  6. I must vehemently protest you drawing Gramsci into this. Firstly, the sentence you quote means the exact opposite of how you’re presenting it. ‘Sono pessimista per l’intelligenza, ottimista per la volontà’ comes from one of the prison letters. As he explains it, it means that he has taken to be utterly pessimistic and bleak in his analysis of any given situation, in order to muster the strongest possible will to change it. And by change Gramsci always meant radical change. He hated reformists. To suggest otherwise is deeply offensive to his memory, seeing as his refusal to compromise and soften his stance is what lead directly to his imprisonment and ultimately to his death.

    There is very little doubt in my mind – as there could be in anyone who had read his work – that Gramsci would have nothing but contempt for the contemporary New Zealand political class. To suggest otherwise is frankly bizarre.

    • Editors note: Sigh – whenever I hear Giovanni screaming at me, my head hurts and eyes water – Giovanni, I notice you are on twitter again claiming how hard done by you are by this blog because apparently this comment wasn’t posted this morning. I have not blocked any comment from yourself since our run in over my misunderstanding that you were calling me anti-semitic, when in fact you were saying I was just too stupid to be anti-Semitic.

      I have not seen any comment from you all day, I was alerted to your latest twitter dramas and went back through our system. Your comment hilariously had ended up in the spam folder. It has been rectified and your comment in full is here. Perhaps you might want to actually email first to check if we are snubbing you on purpose next time?

      Finally, I’m more a neo-Gramscian counter hegemonic movement kinda person myself.

      • Concerning the previous incident you mention, I’ll note that you didn’t post my comment in which I explained how you were wrong. There’s a name for attacking people on a public forum and denying them right of reply, you know.

    • Someone has to distort revolutionary heroes into instruments for the legitimisation of the capitalist state. Trust the reformists.

  7. The problem with snap judgements about who is left and right is that they ignore the deeper dynamic.
    Global capitalism is in an existential crisis forcing many to convert from a view of crisis as opportunity to that of crisis as potential extinction.
    They recognise that to survive capitalism must destroy nature and humanity not to mention democracy.
    It is the left that defends democracy and horrors of horrors it now includes those like Dotcom whose democratic rights have been stripped.
    If Dotcom did what other super-rich refugees do who climate crash into their rural bunkers in NZ to join NACTs cronies, the left would piss on him too.
    It is not the left that supports Dotcom, but Dotcom that supports the left as the defenders of democracy.

    • Yes, interesting what a few nights in Mt Eden with a bad back and Banksie not returning your calls after giving the swine 50 grand can do for raising one’s political consciousness.

      No one forced KDC to stand with Bomber Bradbury in Queen St with a megaphone berating the GCSB. KDC may well prove to be a vacillating friend over time, but he is putting a public focus on government snooping and primed to play a role in removing the Key gang from parliamentary office which surely is one of 2014s priorities.

  8. It’s all very well saying that the left is about making things better, but when it comes to providing a plan or program to to do so the left seems to be at sixes and sevens. Methinks a dose of “Marxist perfection”, at least as ideal, would not come amiss

  9. I don’t think we can talk about Dotcom in simple left and right terms. He didn’t make his money by internalising the values of the establishment and rising up through normal means – he did it on his own terms. I’m not exactly sure what his own values are but the immunity from what might be called ‘character-building experiences’ that the rich normally have was destroyed when his house was invaded and he was forced to watch impotently while his pregnant wife and chlidren were heavied by goons with guns and then left traumatised by the whole event.

    He has certainly been radicalised by these events and freely admits he’s had his eyes opened about the behaviour of governments.

    Something I partiularly enjoyed was his confrontation with John Key where he treated Key like just another person – there was a complete absense of the usual obsequeious fawning that pretty much everyone else does.

    He probably isn’t going to be anyone’s saviour but he definitely adds a wildcard element to this election

  10. They had a welfare state, free trade unions, public health and education and progressive taxation. What more did they want!

    All of which have been significantly eroded in the last 30 years.

    Buchanan has a point: I have seen nobody in the NZ left blogosphere capable of making the simple economic case for social democracy. Instead, the usual move is either to concede the economic argument to the right and then argue in moral terms for putting economic concerns aside or to espouse some antique, heterodox form of economic theory or to recast the debate in terms of identity politics. None of these have proven effective.

    It’s extremely easy to make the economic case for social democracy, yet nobody of the NZ left seems willing or able to do it without descending into derpitude.

  11. There is no question that KDC could turn on the Left when it’s future policies conflict with his interests however at the moment he is an articulate and genuinely aggrieved man whose experience with the foetid underbelly of the hard right wing showed in bright light what the Key Government’s total capitulation to the interests of the US commercial machine really means. The left is never going to win government with just it’s avowed supporters. There is a massive largely politically neutral pool out there that may well be swayed ever so slightly in light of the clearly inappropriate and quite likely illegal actions that the whole KDC fiasco showed up. This combined with the Snowden files and the plain old creepiness of the likes of Paula Bennett and other working class traitors that fill the Government benches and of course the total ineptitude shown by the whole lot of them I think we have a decent chance of winning the election. As I understand it though successful politics relies on inclusion rather than exclusion and the enemy of our enemy is in this case definitely our friend!

  12. Dotcom aside, Pablo is in many ways correct.

    How can unions be effective when they are unable to throw a spanner into the works? Not only can they not strike, they cannot prevent off-shoring either. How can poverty be effectively opposed when migration can be used, not to build the nation but to keep prices up, wages down and retail ticking over. We can hardly claim an effective left when our workforce has been deliberately driven off shore and legislation brought in to pick their pockets while they are there, through adding compound interest to their student loans.

    It is to be hoped that David Cunliffe is able to restore Labour’s credibility to at least some extent, but those of us on the left really do need to find a way of regrouping and making ourselves influential. At the Jesson lecture last year, Sir Edmund Thomas suggested substantive human rights as a rallying point which involves security of housing and adequately paid employment. This at least presents a concrete thing at which to aim.

    But in order to start anywhere, we have to grasp what has already been lost to us. The fact that a lot of us still consider ourselves left wing does not automatically mean that we are also a force to be reckoned with.

    • “We can hardly claim an effective left when our workforce has been deliberately driven off shore and legislation brought in to pick their pockets while they are there, through adding compound interest to their student loans.”

      Sorry OLWYN, the constant cop out of workers, voters and opposition party members to use this kind of explanations, it is not really valid, I fear.

      If people had always waited for the right kind of leader to step up, to wait until a better government is voted in, then nothing much would have changed in history and we would still be ruled by medieval aristocrats and oligarchs.

      Workers and people in general have to realise again that only united can they achieve much, and bring about change, and the fight must start at the coal front, not depend on a charismatic leader to step up and take the opportunity to lead for a change.

      It is very difficult, but it is exactly the apathy, the passiveness, the respecting of unfair, unreasonable and suppressive law, that keeps things as they are, and this government in place.

      If a law and rule is unfair, unjust and unacceptable, it is lawful and just to stand up against it and do away with it.

      So EVERY person is asked and challenged to stand her/his ground, day in and out. But no, we have anything but that, and most using excuses to do nothing, thus maintaining the status quo.

      This of course gives Key and the Nats the confidence, that they are right and can get away with more mean, suppressive, disowning stuff, which will certainly come, unless people start standing up, yes, before elections.

      It can start with wide scale, peaceful civil disobedience.

      • When I said “left” Marc, I meant it to include us – not just the political class. It is hard to be effective however, even in civil disobedience, when we are not united, which is why I pointed to Edmund Thomas’s suggestion of rallying around substantive human rights.

  13. I suppose it comes down to how individuals interpret and consider what being and thinking “left” really means. It is all rather “relative”, and depends on where a subjective individual stands personally. And with saying that, we are after all really all somewhat “subjective” in our views.

    But check out perhaps the social and economic statistics, and the real status quo, who has power, who exercises power, who has choices, and who does not. Looking at that “the left” is very weak these days. There may surely be a somewhat “left” leaning sentiment amongst the NZ population (similar to other comparable countries), but when it comes to standing up for things, for actually applying solidarity, I also see rather little of that happening.

    So naturally Chris sees a need to defend “the left”, but in all honesty, in some ways Buchanan has a point, I fear.

  14. An often underappreciated split in political attitudes is that between progressives and conservatives. Progressives desiring new solutions to new problems, and conservatives seeking maintenance, or a return to, the status quo.

    The strength of left-wing politics, in my opinion, is progressive left-wing politics. Conservative left-wing politics – smokestack socialists, trade-union reformists, and social democrats – desire a return to a pre-neoliberal status quo. An old solution in a changing world. How can conservative left-wing politics address issues such as: the global uneven development of capitalism, and movement of capital away from Western and Northern hemispheres into China and India; the same ongoing process of uneven development in New Zealand, with growing urban and declining rural areas; the austerity measures in Southern Europe and mass youth unemployment; the waning power of the US, and its movement into binding agreements (such as TPP) which empower their corporations in foreign countries; or, most of all, the seemingly endless quest for economic growth in a planet of finite resources?

    Progressive lefitsts can observe these problems, and with deep reflection and collaboration, author solutions which may address these systemic issues. Antonio Gramsci proclaimed his strength was recognizing “that if you beat your head against the wall it is your head which breaks and not the wall”. The remedy to Gramsci’s wall, for the left, is for progressives to describe the injustices of the modern world, and to mobilize those experiencing the injustices into concrete political action.

  15. ‘First of all let’s deal with the charge that progressive ideas elicit “derision or disinterest” from those for whom they should be “the natural political choice”…’

    He didn’t say that Chris – he said, and you quoted it above your comment:

    ‘what [does] means to be a sincere and viable political Leftist in a country where the very mention of such a term elicits derision or disinterest on the part of the majority of those who should find socialism, or at least social democracy, to be the natural political choice’

    What I read into that is that much of what passes for so called progressive political ideas in New Zealand – labourism, liberalism, feminism, anti-colonialism etc – has little if anything to do with socialism and that the term ‘leftist’ elicits derision and/or lack of interest (which, as you know, isn’t the same as ‘disinterest’) amongst the mass of working people.

    Yes, 46% may express support for Labour, the Greens, Mana and yes, ‘the policies of these parties in no way conform to anything remotely resembling “socialism, or at least social democracy”…’.

    How does that makes Paul Buchanan a character out of a Cervantes novel?

    • results of election 2014.
      NZ Nat 45%
      NZ Conservative 1 seat
      NZ First 5%
      Maori 2 seats
      end of the socialist crpa

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