A new radical left group has formed with the goal of making socialism a reality in New Zealand. But what would that even look like? And will they have any chance of success by rejecting parliamentary politics?
You’ve probably seen them on the news. If there’s an event on that has a militant looking protest taking place at it in the last few years, it’s likely at least some of those protesters are among a new generation of self-described communists, anarchists and socialists who have coalesced into a new group called Organise Aotearoa. They intend to build a movement “for liberation and socialism”, but have no intention of ever standing for election to make that happen.
Organise Aotearoa officially launched this week after about two years of less formal meetings. They’re currently building a political programme – in a manner not unlike a working group – which will be unfurled next year. The membership so far comes largely from a base of other like-minded organisations, such as People Against Prisons Aotearoa, the Peace Action networks, and Auckland Action Against Poverty, describing themselves as a collection of “ordinary people – teachers, workers, students, unionists, parents.” According to one source in the organisation the membership numbered about 80 when it launched on Monday. Since then, they’ve tweeted about their signup page crashing from being overloaded.
Emilie Rākete, the Organise Aotearoa press spokesperson, is one such person who has been actively involved in street protest and organising with People Against Prisons Aotearoa. Rākete says the history of the activists involved means the organisation can start with a base of people who have learnt what has and hasn’t worked. “We’re working directly with oppressed, exploited and dispossessed communities to directly build political power for the working class.”
“Traditional political structures haven’t worked, and can’t address the crisis of capitalism in the 21st century,” she says, as to why they’re not bothering with standing for parliament. The rhetoric is of rich and poor having diametrically opposed interests, and the state’s failure to mediate between those interests. Looking at stats around widening economic inequality that periodically come out, it’s hard to argue with the diagnosis of the problem. But as for solutions, why not run for office just in case?
“There are a lot of really important and good and progressive movements that do try and use parliamentary politics, to alleviate the suffering that working class people endure every day. And those are good things. But what those experiments in parliamentary politics have shown is that the state as a tool is incapable of resolving the conflicts between rich and poor,” says Rākete. And while some in existing political parties might share some of the same views – for example, the explicitly anti-capitalist kaupapa of the GreenLeft network within the Green Party – they still have to operate within the framework of parliament.
So what does political success look like, if parliament isn’t the goal? Rākate says in New Zealand it would require meaningful tino rangatiratanga, and the fulfilment of the promises in the Treaty of Waitangi. But over and above that, she says there needs to be a “qualitatively new kind of government, by and for working people, not capitalists”. Asked, at the risk of ending up on a watch-list of some sort, if that means overthrowing the state, Rākete jokes about a GCSB agent listening in, saying she’s probably already on a watch-list. It’s not as paranoid a suggestion as it might seem, given the surveillance that has taken place of radical activists in New Zealand in the past.
“I can’t predict what the future contingencies of class struggle are going to be in this country,” she says, talking around the question. “All I know is that right now, at least 15 children a year are going to die from rotten lungs, because their landlords are making thousands of dollars a year by renting out a slum. Organise Aotearoa is committed to building the kind of power for working class people that can completely abolish this situation, and build a new kind of society.”
While it’s not a direct link, it is possible to see the influence of the groups feeding into Organise Aotearoa in the kinds of ideas being pursued by the current government’s many Working Groups. But often other, more moderate groups have been more prominent in that. Pressure from AAAP – along with other groups like the Salvation Army and the Child Poverty Action Group – managed to get welfare system reform on the table, at least in the form of a review. And the current Justice system reforms move ever so slightly on a continuum towards prison abolitionist ideas pushed by People Against Prisons Aotearoa. But the government’s reforms just address symptoms, says OA, and while the government remains “shackled by the capitalist economic system,” it will never actually solve those problems.
But their group may come in for criticism not only from natural enemies, but from those you might think would be friends. Academic Tyler West, who wrote his Master’s Thesis on the extra-parliamentary left between 1999-2008, says there is still a constellation of other small leftist groups in New Zealand. He also says the radical left really does often become bogged down and split over questions of positions on various bouts of historical fratricide, in keeping with the Monty Pythonesque ‘People’s Front of Judea’ stereotype. In an announcement episode put out by the Shit Hot People’s Politburo, a podcast that shares members with with Organise Aotearoa, the panelists pre-emptively responded to some of the criticisms they expected, including from other far left groups. The episode opened with a support group skit. “Hi everyone, my name’s Emmy, and I’m a Tankie.” By the end of the skit, they’re lining each other up against the wall.
What the hell is a Tankie? It basically means someone who supports Stalinism, to varying degrees of totality and totalitarianism. Allegedly, it originally referred to British communists who backed the Soviet Union using tanks on Hungarian protesters, crushing what some would argue was an attempt at a revolution. That’s one historical line leftists split down. There’s also the Spanish Civil War, or the current war in Syria, or Venezuela, or the Occupy movements, or Tibet, or even the moment of most profound ruptures in Communism, the Russian revolution and eventual triumph of Stalin over Trotsky. Just for context Leon Trotsky was murdered in 1940, a mere 78 years ago.
West said these sorts of questions still had the potential to cause division, partly because of personal baggage and infighting between individuals, but also partly because “there are a lot of genuine ideological differences, which if you weren’t familiar with the radical left, might not seem important.” But if different strands of thought exist within the same organisation, from anarchists to Maoists, “you can dismiss the historical things, but what they’re drawing from that are lessons that give a fundamentally different direction, that will start pulling Organise Aotearoa in different ways.”
James Roberts, the OA National Secretary, spoke directly about this on the podcast, saying they weren’t debates worth derailing the wider project for. When it came to dealing with other groups, he said the aim would not be “colonising space that they’re trying to organise within, but rather working alongside to build socialism together.” He says the “plans will probably be as diverse as the membership,” but also with unifying points that everyone will agree on.
But is there actually any point to all of this? You may have noticed that socialism and communism comes with quite a lot of historical baggage. It’s a safe bet that if you polled the country at large as to whether they wanted a socialist revolution, they’d say no. New Zealand didn’t even end up supporting a flag change, let alone the wholesale replacement of the state. And besides, the history of New Zealand’s radical left is littered with small groups who have briefly flared and burnt out, ground away in obscurity, or won literally dozens of votes in elections.
That in and of itself is one perhaps reason to not want to stand for parliament every three years. A lot of very small parties across the spectrum only stand once or twice before deregistering, the exercise having given them nothing but worn out shoes. If a group of activists outside the political mainstream actually want to have any effect on the world, they’re better of simply going and doing some mahi.
It’s a point also picked up in the interview with Rākete, who says that “socialism isn’t going to come because someone sat behind a desk and signed a proclamation. Socialism is going to come to Aotearoa because it’s the answer to a question that millions of people are asking themselves.”
And there is a deep-seated sense of malaise that can be seen in many parts of New Zealand – a sense that housing issues will never really get sorted out, that any victories in the workplace are just gaining back what has been lost, that the country is becoming fundamentally less fair. Ironically for OA, it was articulated quite well by the arch-parliamentarian Winston Peters, when he said “far too many New Zealanders have come to view today’s capitalism, not as their friend, but as their foe.”
OA also don’t have anyone involved who would be widely recognised outside of their activism, which would probably be necessary for electoral politics. One person who might have been that, former Green MP and long-time welfare reform campaigner Sue Bradford, was involved in the early stages of the group, but left in 2017. She had also been involved with the Mana Movement, which was represented in parliament through Hone Harawira. Bradford says she’s made political progress inside parliament, which showed that it was always useful to be represented there. She also said groups completely outside of that mattered as influencers, especially in the current context within which she didn’t see much from the current coalition government. But she wished Organise Aotearoa well, saying the outcomes they were working towards were more important than the methods.
There is also potentially a space for them to work in the same way that groups like the Democratic Socialists of America, or Momentum in the United Kingdom. Those groups have become politically influential, partly through entryist tactics into existing political parties, and partly by acting as pressure groups to put issues on the agenda.
But in the short term, it’s direct action and protest where there presence will be felt most. OA have committed themselves to protests that are going to take place at the Defence Industry Forum – colloquially known as the Weapons Expo – in Palmerston North at the end of the month. Given the tensions already developing around that event between organisers and opponents, it’s likely that confrontations will kick off. So even if Organise Aotearoa eventually comes to nothing, like so many other leftist groups before them, you’ll probably be seeing them on the news soon.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed, free daily curated digest of all the most important stories from around New Zealand delivered directly to your inbox each morning.
Subscribe to The Bulletin to get all the day’s key news stories in five minutes – delivered every weekday at 7.30am.