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Is it time for some Community Communism in Aotearoa?

By   /  June 22, 2016  /  10 Comments

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The outlawing of Zero Hours Contracts in Aotearoa this April was big news for the Left and union movement abroad, with the result that Unite union activists were invited to speak at conferences and parliaments in Ireland, Britain and the USA last month.

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The outlawing of Zero Hours Contracts in Aotearoa this April was big news for the Left and union movement abroad, with the result that Unite union activists were invited to speak at conferences and parliaments in Ireland, Britain and the USA last month. Myself, MIke Treen, Alastair Reith and Unite president Victoria Hopgood spoke to a panel in Westminster, where the Jeremy Corbyn led Labour Party is seriously examining our campaign, both industrially and politically, of how we scored this victory. We had a very good meeting with Shadow Chancellor John Mc Donnell, where he outlined an ambitious plan to unionise millions of fast food and zero hour contract workers working with fighting unions and other left wing and socialist activists.

In Ireland, I spoke to a cross party committee in the Dail, where TDs and activists from Sinn Fein, the Anti Austerity Alliance and People Before Profit considered how Irish unions could turn to the Left, in the wake of the decimation of Ireland’s neoliberal Labour Party and its replacement in may working class areas by socialist and radical MPs.

In the North of Ireland, myself and Mike Treen were present during the Assembly elections, which saw the election of two Marxist MLAs in the heartlands of the struggle- Derry and West Belfast. Zero hours are a plague on the working poor in both parts of Ireland- it was great to see the rise of a socialist alternative to the politics of Green and Orange win representation for a working class that feels communal politics has ignored their suffering.

All of these things have led me to think of what we can learn from these experiences here.

First off, people abroad were very happy that a fighting union like Unite has successfully unionised the fast food industry and won some tangible victories there- in the USA, the SEIU union has been fighting for $15 and a Union for several years now, but now wants formal union recognition in these industries. The defeat of Zero Hours also raises new answers to the academic theorists who argue there is a new class- the Precariat, who cannot be organised. So, in this respect, many of these countries think the example of Unite in NZ is one worth repeating abroad.

BUt when you are abroad, you can see the advantages that the Left has in these countries as well.
Even though I have some strong disagreements with the Corbyn/McDonnell leadership of Labour on issues like the reformabilty of the EU, there is no doubt that the program they have to revitalise the union movement and take the fight to the Tories both inside and outside of parliament, is one that every radical should get behind. Many people in New Zealand ask the question- where is our Jeremy Corbyn? With the recent announcement on maintaining 90 day trial periods, I struggle to think it is Andrew Little.

In Ireland, this went a stage further. The Irish Labour Party has been practically wiped out, after betraying the massive mandate it got from Irish workers to stop austerity- instead, it joined a right wing coalition government and introduced brutal taxes on working people, including a hated Water Tax, which saw a massive movement explode onto the streets. Hundreds of thousands of people marched, not only mobilised by radical groups such as People Before Profit, the Anti Austerity Alliance or Sinn Fein, but also by five large trade unions that broke from the Labour Party stranglehold on action, mobilising workers through union channels in huge numbers.

The rise of a new Left in Ireland was not an overnight occurence. Marxists made a turn away from propaganda group campus rhythyms after the Battle of Seattle, instead concentrating on community activity in working class areas. In many working class areas in Ireland’s major cities, the socialist left have been active fighting attacks on working people for decades- fighting for housing, rent control, refugee and gay rights, and against Household, Bin and Water taxes. The result has been the election of dozens of councillors, 6 AAA-PBP TDs, and another dozen or so radical left independent TDs, as well as a bigger group of 30 or so Sinn Fein TDs.

One of the reasons why the Left in Irleand concentrated on community politics, was, in my mind, that any radical route in the unions was blocked by the Labour Party bureaucracy and its ideology of partnership. Gino Kenny, TD for working class Clondalkin, describes himself as a Shop Steward for his area, which has suffered severe economic deprivation. He famously flew the Palestinian flag on his election, which shows also a deep internationalism in the Irish working class with the suffering of people abroad.

Here, in Aotearoa, with local elections coming up later this year, we start to see the same old faces and the same old tickets shuffle forward for the local boards. Interest in local and community politics is at an all time low, because very few of these tickets talk the language of the working class, or have taken a lead in the grassroots on issues like rent control and state housing. Groups like the Tamaki Housing Association in Glen Innes and the Save Our Community Coalition in Mangere have battled the effects of the housing crisis largely by themselves, with no serious support for what passes for a parliamentary Left.

Could something in the community to the left of the Labour-Greens alliance emerge from the current crisis- prehaps concentrating on a burning issue for working people like the Zero Hours Campaign began. A working title could be Housing Action or Rent Control Now? There are hundreds of activists to the left of both Labour and the Greens who could be organised by such a campaign- and we could force the issue onto the agenda.

IN the absence of a Bernie Sanders or a Jeremy Corbyn figure to pull establishment politics to the Left , that no saviour from on high delivers- maybe we do need to realise the truth of two Irish words- “Sinn Fein” -that change can only come from Ourselves Alone.

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About the author

Joe Carolan

Unite Union campaigner

Joe Carolan, Unite Union campaigner, Socialist activist.


  1. Rae says:

    It is how communism can work, on a small scale level, as in community, communal etc. Communism is probably the definitive explanation of how the real enemy is actually “big” not really any one monetary system or other. We are running into more and more trouble as corporations and governments get bigger and bigger, leaving the general populace less and less able to do things for themselves.
    An underground economy may one of the things that get us through the technological age where machines displace people

  2. Priss says:

    It’s a shame that socialism-communism was hijacked by the former USSR. The concept is forever tarred by the brutal dictators of that benighted country.

    • roy says:

      And China.

      • maninthemiddle says:

        Communism is a totalitarian political ideology that cannot survive without the suppression of the citizenry. It has failed utterly, and thankfully has, for the most part, been consigned to the dustbin of history.

        • In Vino says:

          The dustbin of history (what a tired cliché) seems to be where you have delved for your historical knowledge. Communism in principle is not totalitarian; it has never in its correct form been tried in a country with democratic traditions; Stalin and Mao betrayed their revolutions by reverting instantly to the totalitarian traditions of their cultures, and produced the kind of régimes that the capitalist countries could all too easily demonise; despite the abject poverty from which most Russians have always suffered and the damage that left much of Russia in ruins after WW2, even Stalin’s totalitarian version of communism enabled Russia to become a superpower until the capitalist world managed to engineer the collapse of the USSR…

          Your simplistic views on the lessons of history are laughable.
          You provide proof of Hegel’s aphorism: “We learn from history that no-one learns from history.”

          • maninthemiddle says:

            “Communism in principle is not totalitarian; ”

            You didn;t read my post properly, did you? I’m not talking about ‘in principle’, I’m talking about ‘in practice’.

            “…it has never in its correct form been tried in a country with democratic traditions; ”

            What a tired old argument. Communism didn’t exactly assist moving countries towards democracy, did it?

            • In Vino says:

              Did you read your own very brief post? Where do you mention ‘in practice?’

              I think it could be argued that communism did Cuba more good than harm, but more importantly I would ask if anyone at all has really helped any country towards real democracy.

              Look at Chile, Vietnam, etc and weep.

        • John W says:

          Communism as a brand attached to the USSR, hardly describes China today.

          What is more totalitarian than Capitalism.

          Throwing around labels does little in describing a path to organisation or governance for the good of the many while preserving a humane level of rights for families and individuals encompassing all in society.

          Socialism as a broad brush describes a path NZ was forced to follow after capitalism brought down the global economies early in the 20th century – and we did well to lift our population out of that mess created through the lack of socialism and social responsibility.

          A strong move to establish more cooperative organisation can have many positive consequences for all.


          A “Kiwi Alone” direction is not new and need reviving. Needless to say Corporate control has to be countered.

          Black and white judgements on economic models will not lead us to deal with the current lack of social responsibility.

    • OneTrack says:

      And North Korea

  3. Sheepdog says:

    Joe Carolan is a very capable and principled man, and his article here shows he understands the mood of the working class. Perhaps it took a trip abroad to get him to see that things have changed dramatically, and that people everywhere are finally ready for struggle.

    Socialism in New Zealand must be built around community activism, not the political formalism that we’ve been captive to for so long.

    This requires leadership. But before the Left can rediscover the concept of “leadership”, we have to understand what leadership actually means. It is not about dogma or saviours, or charismatic figures, it is about day-to-day empowerment of ordinary people. It is about training and skills. It is about trusting people enough to delegate to them, and being tolerant enough of their failings to pick them up, dust them off, retrain them and trust them again. It is about recalibrating people’s expectations, away from learned-helplessness and whining dependency on “the Government”, and toward the notion that WE are the government, that the government is what we make it, and that all of us have a personal duty to rise up and build socialism where we live and work.

    Obsession with Internationalism and Imperialism has for too long been an excuse for avoiding the hard yaka of community-building. But real human beings, real working class families are hurting and in pain NOW, and we, as Socialists, are the only people who can even begin to create the social networks and institutions required to alleviate their suffering. This must be done *before* we can toss out the government, not as a consequence of it. This is about taking back our power to make and unmake society as the people decide, not asking for permission from illegitimate corporate-appointed political apparatchiks.

    All this we do, not from any moralistic do-gooder notions, but because we genuinely need the skills and resources locked up in the great reservoir of talent we call the Working Class. We do not give them dignity, rather, they confer their dignity on us by their choice to join in the struggle. The poor and the disadvantaged have all the abilities, strength, loyalty and commitment we need to swell our numbers and bring about real change. But this can only happen if we redefine “leadership” enough to reach out to them, support them, liberate their time, and train them up to fulfill the roles they choose for themselves.

    Without them, we are nothing. With them, we can make a Political Revolution in New Zealand now. We don’t need a Bernie Sanders, Jeremy Corbyn or Andrew Little to save us. We can save ourselves.

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