General strike in Auckland (1913), Bert Roth

•29/03/2013 • 1 Comment
Strikers and supporters march in Auckland, Nov 1913, in the vicinity of the gasometer, college hill and victoria street

Strikers and supporters march in Auckland, Nov 1913, in the vicinity of the gasometer, college hill and victoria street

It’s 100 years since an attempted general strike in New Zealand, so here’s an article from Bert Roth on the pinnacle of that dispute, the Auckland general strike of 1913. I don’t agree with everything he says, but Roth’s history is the best short overview of the events I have come across. Some more online material on the events in 1913 can be found on the Red Ruffians website, Frank Prebble’s pamphlet Troublemakers, Tom Barker’s memoirs, as well as no doubt many other sources. And Don Franks of Redline has written an article about the relevance of the strike to today.

H. [Bert] Roth. ‘General Strike in Auckland’ Here and Now, November 1956, pp. 15-17

In the third week of October 1913, Huntly miners and Wellington watersiders ceased work. Their action precipitated what was to be the most serious industrial dispute in New Zealand history, not to be eclipsed in magnitude until 1951.

Various theories were advanced as to the causes of the strike. According to the Prime Minister, foreigners were responsible. ‘If we had to deal with New Zealanders on both sides of the dispute there would have been no difficulty at all,’ said Mr Massey, himself an Ulsterman.

There is more serious evidence to suggest that the employers were anxious to provoke a dispute at a time favourable to themselves. It is equally clear that the watersiders, at least, were only too eager to take up the challenge and allowed themselves to be baited into a premature walk-out. The rashness of the corporal’s guard, to quote one labour leader, was to involve the whole army in a fight for which it was not prepared.

For a week the strike remained confined to Wellington and Huntly. Talks with the shipowners brought no results, but attempts to unload ships with voluntary labour were frustrated by the strikers. On 26 October, the first violent incidents were reported from Wellington, and the Auckland watersiders sent their president down to see what the position was. He was told that no settlement was in sight and on his own initiative he instructed his union to ‘let her rip’. Westport watersiders, also, spontaneously ceased work and, a day later, the United Federation of Labour called out the remaining waterfront unions.

In Wellington, riots and violence became almost continuous. ‘So far as the employers are concerned,’ reported the Wellington correspondent of the Otago Daily Times, ‘it is now war to the knife’; and Police Commissioner Cullen was said to have told his men: ‘If they won’t go, ride over the top of them’.

Auckland, however, remained quiet. In charge of the local police was Superintendent Mitchell who, a year earlier, had refused to take action against the Huntly strikers and who was suspected of having given at least tacit encouragement to the policemen’s trade union formed in Auckland earlier in 1913. Mitchell now refused to swear in special constables, and he promised that union pickets would not be interfered with as long as order was maintained.

This did not suit the employers who wanted to open the port. The Mayor and the chairman of the Auckland Harbour Board complained and the Government quickly replaced Mitchell (he was soon dismissed altogether). On 5 November the first mounted ‘specials’ — ‘Massey’s Cossacks’, as they were called — arrived in Auckland from the Waikato. They were stoned while riding through Epsom, and two days later 250 building workers on the Exhibition site ceased work because a ‘special’ had come near them in search of grass for his horse.

Vain Appeals to Employers

Massey's Cossacks or 'mounted specials' camped in the Auckland Domain 1913

Massey’s Cossacks or ‘mounted specials’ camped in the Auckland Domain 1913

The situation in Auckland quickly became explosive. Auckland workers had first hand knowledge of the violence which had marked the Waihi strike a year earlier. They had seen the strike leaders taken to Mt Eden gaol and, indeed, given rousing receptions to each batch of prisoners and had held mass meetings outside the prison gates. After the defeat of the Waihi strike, hundreds of miners who had been run out of town by the arbitrationists had come to live and work in Auckland and some of them already held leading office in Auckland trade unions.

Auckland workers did not want to see their town become another Waihi, and when the Waikato farmers set up camp in the Domain, the Strike Committee warned that a general strike would follow attempts to occupy the wharves and work the port. Several leading citizens, among them Messrs T. W. Leys, Ernest Davis, A. Sanford, Colonel Bell and Bishop Cleary, urged the Employers’ Association to take a conciliatory attitude, but all appeals were in vain.

Meeting at the Chamber of Commerce, a number of farmer volunteers secretly formed an arbitration wharf union. On 8 November, 800 specials, armed with revolvers, hardwood batons, and axe-handles, occupied the wharves and raided the offices of the watersiders’ union in Gladstone Buildings where they tore down a placard reading ‘Workers of the World Unite! One Big Union!’ That same day a general strike began in Auckland, the first in New Zealand history.

Seamen and general labourers ceased work, as did carpenters, drivers, bricklayers, Harbour Board employees, shipwrights, tinsmiths and cooks and waiters. They were soon joined by timber workers and painters, furniture workers, brewery workers, and engine-drivers. Even jockeys and newspaper runners joined in, reported the Maoriland Worker.

Altogether, over 7000 men ceased work and thousands of others were rendered idle by the strike. The tram service, for instance, was suspended for lack of coal a day before the strike started, but the tramwaymen considered themselves on strike and were represented on the Strike Committee. The ‘strike fever’ positively embarrassed the committee, who would have preferred to see some unions remain at work and support the strike financially.

Restaurants and tea-rooms closed and hotel guests had to cook their own meals. Bars were closed by order of the magistrates for the duration of the strike. Hairdressers, bakers, and blacksmiths refused to serve the specials and paid a levy to the strike funds, and midwives, it was reported, offered to attend strikers’ wives without pay. Taxi drivers refused to carry specials and were called before the City Council and threatened with cancellation of their licenses.

Hardly any of the striking unions had any previous connection with the United Federation of Labour which conducted the strike. Some of the Auckland unions were still affiliated to the right-wing United Labour Party. The president of the Auckland District Council of this organisation was the Hon. George Fowlds, a wealthy draper. Far from leading his men into battle, Fowlds’ main concern at this crucial moment was for the safety of his business. ‘Some of the more criminal and extreme elements might want to take it out of me’, he wrote to a friend in Britain and he was not at ease until his friend had arranged for special fire and riot insurance policies.

On 10 November, several hundred strikers’ wives and children marched from the Trades Hall through Queen Street behind a banner ‘We Have Come to See the Cockies.’ The ‘cockies’ were concentrated on the waterfront where they had cordoned off lower Queen Street. It was not a place to take the children, for a variety of reasons. ‘An objectionable feature of the arrangements within the lines of horses’, reported the Auckland Star, ‘is that no provision has been made to clean up the roadway. The condition this forenoon was little short of disgraceful. The prevalent odour was distinctly unpleasant, and over a wide area of the thoroughfare where the hundreds of horses have been tethered or in service there were accumulations calculated to set up any kind of fever.’

The success of the Auckland strike encouraged the United Federation of Labour to call for a general strike throughout New Zealand ‘in order to preserve unionism against blackleggism’. The response was negligible and the Government at once retaliated by arresting the strike leaders, Young, Semple, H. E. Holland and Fraser, and in Auckland, Tom Barker, the young I.W.W. leader, who was arrested outside the Trades Hall where he had just finished selling 700 copies of his Industrial Unionist, ‘the most revolutionary paper south of the line’.

The Rot Sets In

Massey's cossacks lined up outside the Kauri TImber Company, Freeman's Bay, Auckland, 1913

Massey’s cossacks lined up outside the Kauri TImber Company, Freeman’s Bay, Auckland, 1913

For a week the general strike in Auckland remained solid. Business was at a standstill and three hundred Auckland shopkeepers signed an appeal to Members of Parliament asking the Government to bring pressure to bear on the Employers’ Federation and ‘not to allow their stubbornness to ruin our trade’. More than 7000 strikers attended a mass meeting in Victoria Park and a representative citizens’ meeting urged a peaceful solution of the conflict. Mounted specials deliberately rode along Hobson Street, past the crowds in front of the Trades Hall, but attempts to provoke incidents failed and the regular police quickly restored order.

The City Council employees were the first to return to work, followed by building and hotel workers. After the first enthusiastic week there was a revulsion of feeling, and each day more and more strikers resumed work. Some were threatened with loss of employment through the formation of rival arbitration unions, while others were lured by promises of higher pay.

The carpenters, one of whose members, Tom Bloodworth, was chairman of the Central Strike Committee, were faced with the arrival from Wellington of their national secretary who declared the strike illegal and threatened strikers with loss of union benefits. He was deeply shocked by what he saw in the Auckland office of the society. ‘The Strike Committee composed of our members turned the District Council, the organiser and lady collector out of the Society’s office’, he reported on his return to Wellington, ‘and took full possession themselves. They actually buried the Amalgamated Society of Carpenters and Joiners, and the chairman of the Strike Committee sealed it by writing across the pages of our general rule book “R.I.P.” in large letters, and the Committee framed the rules, hung them on the wall, and draped them in black. Such diabolical work shows clearly that these members are not fit to belong to such a glorious and respectable organisation as the Amalgamated.’

On 21 November, the timber mills reopened with adequate staff. Eight hundred carpenters had by now resumed work and the painters announced that they would return. By the end of the second week, half the strikers had resumed work. The Central Strike Committee saw no alternative to calling off the general strike and on 23 November it advised all unions to return to work on the following day, Monday, with the exception only of the transport union — watersiders, seamen and drivers. Some unions, notably the bricklayers and general labourers, decided to continue the strike but otherwise the orders of the committee were obeyed. The general strike in Auckland came to an end.

The British warship Pyramus, which had been kept in Auckland, its searchlight trained on Queen Street while its crew drilled on the wharves with fixed bayonets in full view of the strikers, was now transferred to Lyttelton where the specials were waiting to occupy the wharves. On leaving Auckland the captain of the Pyramus thanked the specials, telling them that ‘Deeds like this help one to realise the cause of the greatness of the British Empire’. When Mr Churchill, as First Lord of the Admiralty, was later asked in the House of Commons why the British Government had departed from traditional policy by letting the Navy be used in an industrial dispute, he replied that this action had been taken at the express wish of the New Zealand Government.

On 25 November the trams resumed and next day the hotels reopened. The following day there were riots in Auckland and thirty-eight men were arrested. Arbitration unions were formed for drivers and seamen, and on 4 December the scratch crew of the Maheno, largely farmer volunteers, assaulted C. T. Reeve, a prominent member of the Auckland I.W.W., who was about to embark for Sydney.

In the presence of detectives who had come to search his luggage Reeve was attacked, dragged off the ship and prevented from sailing. Policemen on the wharf, reported the Otago Daily Times, ‘made as if to interfere’ but did not. Charges of assault arising out of this incident were dismissed because the culprits could not be found, but a Sydney crowd took revenge on the Maheno’s crew with the result that one of them bad to be taken to hospital.

Causes of Defeat

Although the general strike in Auckland had lasted only a fortnight, the waterfront strike continued for almost another month. The Auckland watersiders held out to the bitter end, and they refused to surrender even after the seamen had come to a separate agreement with the employers. On 19 December, when a special conference officially called off the strike, Canham, the president of the Auckland watersiders, was one of the minority of four who voted against surrender.

As in 1890, the employers had insisted on total annihilation of their opponents, but in 1913 they needed the full help of the State to carry them to victory. Even then it took fifty-eight days (two days longer than in 1890) and a total cost of nearly a million sterling to break the power of the ‘Red’ Federation. Major causes of the defeat were the defection of the railwaymen and the meagre assistance received from Australia, as well as the lack of resolution shown by the Federation leadership.

‘Now they return to work’, wrote a correspondent in the New Statesman, ‘thousands of missionaries of discontent; sullen, knocked about, gaoled, but each a ferment, each a nucleus of disaffection against the existing social system and each a pioneer towards better things.’

During the months which followed the strike great efforts were made to rebuild the movement. One by one the bogus arbitration unions collapsed or were taken over by the strikers, and soon only the Auckland and Greymouth wharf unions remained closed to genuine unionists.

At first, very few Auckland strikers were able to find work again on the wharves. Prospective members of the new arbitration union had to undergo a rigid cross-examination and known Federationists were automatically excluded. Some of the more notorious ‘Red Feds’ were forced to go gum-digging in the Far North, where they put to good use a quantity of gelignite sticks which had been stolen during the strike and had caused the police much needless concern.

It took more than two years of bitter struggle before the Auckland wharf union opened its doors to the strikers. ‘For six solid months I worked on the wharves’, wrote a former Wellington striker who had joined the Auckland union under an assumed name. ‘I was silent — one had to be in those days, but I learned many things. There were three hundred men outside the gates who could not come inside to look for a job. If they did, they were liable to prosecution. To be seen making friends with those honest strikers meant a “freeze”, but we made friends on the quiet. We organised us best we could to capture the union for the genuine Labour Movement.’

Early in 1916, these efforts at last bore fruit. In quick succession the Auckland wharf union took three important decisions: to open wide its doors to all who wanted to join, to suspend its arbitrationist president, and to join the new Waterside Workers’ Federation which had been organised in Wellington on the initiative of Jim Roberts.

Advertisements

Boredom at the office

•24/02/2013 • Leave a Comment

bored-guy-at-work-office

A 1973 leaflet from the Brisbane Self-Management Group. An oldie, but some of it still relevant today. I intend to comment on office work and whether self-management is the key to subverting it later.

BOREDOM AT THE OFFICE

“It’s nine o’clock. Once again I’m at my utterly boring, monotonous job. My eyes wander to the grey-haired man near me. This office has drained thirty precious years of his life. I can expect the same.”

It should be obvious that white-collar workers spend most of their time avoiding work. A quick look around the office shows people actively doing as little as possible – reading books under the desks, talking to others, or taking long, slow trips to the toilet. It seems universally true that office workers have little interest in their jobs. They spend almost the entire day dreaming of life outside the office. They try to overcome the reality of the situation by rationalising it or slipping into fanciful escapisms.

FOUR VARIATIONS ON HOW TO GRUDGINGLY ACCEPT DRUDGERY OF OFFICE WORK

1) WORK IS A NECESSARY EVIL. One common reaction to boring and meaningless activity is to assume that work in itself is the basic fault and should be avoided. People accept that watching T.V. or drinking beer at the local are the only alternatives to the oppressive work environment. However, ‘Revolution Seven and ‘XXXX’ and eight hours of boredom do not add up to a joyous and fulfilling existence. Man has a basic need to work – to engage in creative and productive activity – activity over which he has control.

2) IT’S ONLY FOR EIGHT HOURS A DAY. Many think they only have to worry about it all between eight and five. But work has a dominating influence on peoples lives. People attempt to cement their superficial relationships. Their relationships are superficial because their work does not carry the weight of people initiating and controlling their own activity. Work is trivial and pre-determined. There is no creative co-operation from which trust could be built. People try to compensate for this lack of solidarity by building group identity and using meaningless differences like colour to define another group as separate and inferior. Because people feel powerless to change their situation, they are full of resentment, and they hurl it around blaming or scape-goating an identifiable group. Only by having a positive alternative to submission at work will workers abandon their racism. Moreover, because attempts to change their situation are frustrated, workers believe they cannot run their own lives. They either identify with a leader in an effort to feel potent through him, or vie for leadership positions to exercise power over others. In the family, they hold authority over wife and children for these same reasons. Where love, equality, co-operation and trust should prevail, i.e. both at home and at work, indeed anywhere people gather socially, there is instead irrational authority, clearly expressed at work and more subtly carried over into the home and other institutions in society.

3) IT COULD BE WORSE – I MIGHT BE DIGGING ROADS. Office jobs and industrial work have one thing in common – the utter drudgery. A person who has to dig roads and trenches shares the same continual feeling of hopelessness that office workers experience in their jobs. At least such labourers have plenty of fresh air and sunshine. Considering the layout of most offices, they bear close resemblance to a prison, and exhibit great lack of regard for people who must use them. Almost nothing is as hideous as the thought of spending thirty or forty years in such an office.

4) IT STINKS BUT DONT TELL ME – TELL THE BOSS OR THE UNION. Because people dont initiate work (office work does not flow from the needs or impulses of workers) nor control work, they feel alienated from the content of their work and powerless to alter the form of work. This leads to a belief in their own inability to change their situation and a belief in leaders (bosses and unions) to change it for them. But bosses and unions cannot alter things to suit people’s needs; they dont even know what such needs are. The re-organisation of work and all aspects of life and society can only be accomplished by the activity of workers trying collectively and equally to determine the best way of satisfying their needs. The means of carrying out this task is workers’ management of production, organised as workers’ councils on shop-floors, in offices, in factories and throughout whole industries and all society.

WHAT IS WORKERS’ MANAGEMENT?

Workers’ management does not mean that individuals of working class origin are appointed to replace today’s managers. It means that industry is managed by the collectivity of the workers, employees and technicians. Affairs affecting the shop or the department are decided by the assemblies of workers of the particular shop or department concerned. Routine or emergency problems are handled by stewards, elected and subject to instant recall. Co-ordination between two or more shops or departments is ensured by meetings of stewards or by common assemblies. Co-ordination for the factory and relations with the rest of the economy are tasks for the Workers’ Councils, composed of elected and revocable delegates from the various departments. Fundamental issues are decided in general assemblies, comprising all workers in a factory.

Workers’ management will mark the end of labour’s domination over man, and the beginning of man’s domination over his labour. Each enterprise will be autonomous to the greatest possible degree, itself deciding all aspects of production and work which do not affect the rest of the economy, and participating in decisions which concern the overall organization of production and social life. The general objectives of production will be decided by the whole working population. The chosen plan will ascribe to each enterprise the tasks to be accomplished in a given period, and the means will be supplied to them for this end. But within this general framework, workers of each enterprise will have to organize their own work. A study of the demands of workers and their informal struggles indicates the lines along which the reorganization of production will develop. Externally imposed standards of work will be abolished, co-ordination of work will take place through direct contacts and co-operation; the rigid division of labour will start being eliminated through rotation of people between departments and between jobs.

There will be direct contact between machine and tool-using departments and machine or tool-making departments and factories. This will result in a change in the workers’ relation to the instruments of production. The main objective of today’s equipment is to raise production through the subordination of man to machine. When the workers themselves manage production, they will start adapting equipment not only to the needs of the work to be done but mainly to their own needs.

By the conscious transformation of technology, man will become master of his productive activity. Work will cease to be the realm of necessity. It will become a field where man exerts his creative power. Present science and technique offer immense possibilities in this area. Of course, such a transformation will not take place overnight, but it must not be seen as lying in the very distant future. These matters will not take care of themselves, but must be fought for as soon as the working class takes power. This will be the start of socialism.

No more bosses and bureaucrats – let the workers rule.

SELF-MANAGEMENT GROUP – FOR A SOCIETY BASED ON WORKERS’ COUNCILS.

N.B. Contact with S.M.G. is through the Red and Black bookshop, shops 21 and 22, Elizabeth Arcade, Elizabeth St., City.

4th May 1973.

Hobbit Hysteria

•13/01/2013 • 3 Comments

[This is an article I wrote for the latest issue of Mutiny (no. 68), an Australian magazine. Thanks to the editors for publishing it.]

Fans hold up Hobbit signs at world premiere in Wellington

The recent release of the first film of The Hobbit trilogy has created an alarming hullabaloo in New Zealand. Happily, we were out of the country when Hobbit fever hit, but, drat it, we didn’t manage to escape it on our return a few weeks later. After getting on the plane, Air New Zealand showed a smug safety video based on the Hobbit. As we left the plane at Wellington airport, we were greeted by a garish, grotesque Hobbit mural down the sides of the airbridge. Arriving in the terminal, a 12 metre sculpture of Gollum menaced us from the roof. Even the top of the conveyer belt at baggage claim was decorated with scenes from Hobbiton.

wellington airport

middle-earth-baggage-services-003

On the bus home, we passed by a giant Gandalf statue protruding from the theatre where the world premiere of the Hobbit was held a few weeks earlier. Possibly about 100,000 people had lined Courtenay Place for the premiere. This was an extraordinary number, as Wellington only has a population of about 400,000. Both ‘public’ and commercial organisations had gone to extraordinary lengths to offer free advertising for the film. The Wellington City Council – currently imposing austerity cuts – forked out over a million dollars to host the premiere, and to launch a campaign that proclaimed Wellington was ‘the middle of middle earth’ (they even put up banners on streets proclaiming so). An Air New Zealand plane emblazoned with Hobbit advertising performed a low fly-by during the premiere. New Zealand Post issued hobbit stamps, stamped mail destined for overseas with ‘middle earth’ instead of ‘New Zealand’, and even issued Gandalf and Bilbo coins which apparently are legal tender. The list goes on …

Hobbit-Stamps

hobbit coin

It was like we were either having a bad surreal dream, or had entered some tacky tinpot tourist dystopia which had been clumsily and smugly rebranded as Middle Earth (as Tourism New Zealand has actually done – their cringeworthy slogan is that New Zealand is ‘100% Middle Earth, 100% pure New Zealand’ and that the ‘fantasy of Middle Earth is the reality of New Zealand’) In this short piece, I will briefly look at a few events Australians and others outside New Zealand might be unaware of, especially the ugly and tragic saga of the making of the Hobbit.

tourism-new-zealand-lost-world

tourism-new-zealand-hobbiton-2

Epic Pooh
In the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien – a conservative and a Catholic — offers an idealised, romanticised picture of rural, pre-industrial England (namely, The Shire and the Hobbits) where content little hobbits could live happily ever after. Yet, their peaceful little patch of earth is being threatened by the rise of mysterious forces and creatures from the east. One sturdy and reserved little hobbit is reluctantly drawn into a quest with a wizard and some swarthy dwarves and their dwarf king (in the film, the dwarves are portrayed as Scottish and Irish) to wage a glorious reign of death on the inherently evil, wicked creatures of the east.

(As an aside, many other interpretations of the Hobbit can be offered. For example, it’s remarkable that only one woman appeared in the whole film, and she, Cate Blanchett as elf queen Galadriel, is bizarrely portrayed as glowing and ethereal. Michael Moorcock once slated Tolkien’s work as ‘epic pooh’, that is, it is ‘Winnie the Pooh posing as an epic’. China Mieville cuttingly wrote ‘Tolkien is the wen on the arse of fantasy literature… there’s a lot to dislike – his cod-Wagnerian pomposity, his boys-own-adventure glorying in war, his small-minded and reactionary love for hierarchical status-quos, his belief in absolute morality that blurs moral and political complexity.’ Perhaps my favourite interpretation comes from Ishay Landa who argued in Historical Materialism that Middle Earth is Tolkien’s alarmist response to ‘the crisis of capitalist property relations at the beginning of the twentieth century culminating in the First World War’ and the Russian revolution. He sees the goblins/orcs as proles who embody ‘Tolkien’s underlying terror at the prospect of revolution’. As John Molyneux has written, this reading seems ‘forced and unconvincing’ but nonetheless it is somewhat intriguing.)

The Battle of the Hobbit
In Tolkien’s fantasy world, there is no class struggle. Unfortunately for Tolkien, Hollywood, Warner Brothers (the financiers of the film), and ‘Sir’ Peter Jackson, such conflict actually exists. It raised its ugly head during the making of the film, even delaying its production for a month or so.

slane cartoon

The saga commenced in late 2010, before the Hobbit had gone into production. Warner Brothers offered contracts to New Zealand actors for working on the Hobbit which undercut many previous industry wide conditions, and did not offer the same benefits as actors outside New Zealand. The NZ Actors’ union, NZ Actors’ Equity, an autonomous union which is part of the broader Australasian Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA), then attempted to enter negotiations about these contracts, with the aim of attempting to secure a collectively bargained employment agreement, and to win some of the cut back conditions. After Warners refused to talk, the actors union passed a resolution calling on all actors part of the International Federation of Actors to ‘wait before accepting any engagement on the production of The Hobbit until the production has advised whether it will enter into good faith negotiations with NZ Actors’ Equity with respect to the minimum conditions of engagement under which NZ Actors’ Equity will recommend performers work on the production The Hobbit’ (see Kelly).

weta workshop organised anti union protest 2

The response from the film industry was astounding. Accusations flew, emotional pleas were made by Jackson in the media worthy of someone who feared losing his precious, threats were made that the film would not be made in New Zealand (ie. capital flight), public slating of actors who spoke out occurred, as well as a disturbing wave of nationalism. The low point was a couple of anti-union ‘save the Hobbit’ marches in Wellington by hundreds and hundreds of film technicians (drummed up and supported by the owner of Weta Workshops, ‘Sir’ Richard Taylor – Weta workshops are the special effects and prop company for Jackson’s films), in which protesters held signs such as ‘film actors are killing our industry’. The techies even besieged an Actors’ Equity meeting, which was cancelled as a result. Some fans posted photos on the internet that they would ‘work for food’ on the Hobbit.

hobbit work-for-food

weta workshop anti union protestHobbit2

The result was that Actors’ Equity lifted their international blacking [or greylisting] of the film, and the film went ahead and was shot. What’s worse is that the NZ government, in a classic example of how the state is a fundamental support for capital accumulation (and vice versa), made sure that filming the Hobbit in New Zealand was retained after offering Warners a massive multi-million dollar subsidy, new employment legislation that odiously ensures all film workers are permanently ‘self-employed’ contractors rather than employees (thus individualising film workers, stopping them from collective bargaining, making collective organising difficult, and cutting workers out of holidays, sick days, and accident compensation), and enacting various legislation to enclose the digital commons and stop downloading of copyrighted material.

save the hobbit rally

Despite the overwhelming defeat of the actors, a few minor positive things resulted. For example, the dispute has led to a general questioning of the extremity of the NZ government’s actions, many have become sick of the tacky commodification surrounding the Hobbit, and the hero worship of Peter Jackson has taken a big dint.

save the hobbit rally labour day

What does this all mean? In many respects, it’s not so shocking or sickening, as I have portrayed above. The battle of the Hobbit illustrates the enormous power of the spectacle, which is still an integral part of modern capitalism. Further, it’s standard Hollywood practice internationally to twist governments’ arms to secure subsidies, and reduce working conditions. And the film industry is notorious internationally for being based on the hyper-exploitation of a precarious and often low-paid workforce who work extremely long hours for intense spells, and then are out of work for long periods. It’s sad but not surprising that during an international depression, and in New Zealand at least a very low level of class struggle and solidarity, that many unemployed film techies were desperate for jobs, and many (but not all) went out and actively hobbled the actors’ dispute. And it shows the difficulties of a small bunch of 600 actors taking on a mobile and massively capital intensive industry. However, there is plenty of scope for criticism of the role of unions, too: their overestimation of their power, their lack of attempts to build solidarity with film technicians, and their apparent belief that only an effective PR campaign is needed to win a struggle rather than grassroots activity and self-organisation. Overall, it is fitting that a brutal fantasy which (unsurprisingly) upholds the status quo ended up, by suppressing a nascent actor’s revolt, doing the same thing in reality.

Rolling out the red carpet

Rolling out the red carpet

References
Helen Kelly (2011), ‘The Hobbit Dispute’ http://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/HL1104/S00081/helen-kelly-the-hobbit-dispute.htm
Ishay Landa (2002) ‘Slaves of the Ring: Tolkien’s Political Unconscious’, Historical Materialism number 10 volume 4, pp. 113-33.
Michael Moorcock (1978) ‘Epic Pooh’, http://www.revolutionsf.com/article.php?id=953
John Molyneux (2011) ‘Tolkien’s world: A Marxist analysis’ http://johnmolyneux.blogspot.co.nz/2011/09/tolkiens-world-marxist-analysis.html

Further reading (not included in published article)

There is a fair bit written on the Hobbit and J.R.R. Tolkien from a leftist point of view.

If you are lucky enough to have access to academic databases, these articles are worth checking out:

The 2002 (volume 10, no 4) issue of Historical Materialism contains a few articles analysing the Tolkien from a Marxist point of view.

Ian McAndrew and Martin Risak, ‘Shakedown in the Shaky Isles: Union Bashing in New Zealand’, Labor Studies Journal, vol 20 no 10, 2012, pp. 1-25 contains a very good overview of the dispute, and is quite critical of the union’s strategy.

Bryce Edwards – Liberation blog – ‘We are not for the Hobbit workers, and we are not against them’ (on the Labour Party and the Hobbits)

Carol Jess – Equal Times – The Hobbit vs The Unions

NZ Against the Current blog – That’s all folks!

Bat, Bean, Beam – Leaving Middle Earth

Joe Karaganis – Kill the Hobbit subsidies to save regular earth

The Anatomy of Decision and other completely related things

•21/12/2012 • 1 Comment

Turning away from the deathly dull world of politics, here are some important facts:

samuel and andre

  1. Did you know Samuel Beckett, the author of immortal lines such as ‘the sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new’ (itself a play upon the bible, of all things) played two first-class cricket games for Dublin University in 1925 and 1926? His top score was just 18, but he possessed a ‘gritty defence’.
  2. Did you know Samuel Beckett used to drive Andre the Giant, of wrestling fame, to school everyday in France? Yes, that Andre the Giant, 7 foot plus tall and couldn’t really wrestle or speak English too well (I could never really understand what he said during those melodramatic interviews, but he possessed a wicked grin). Beckett knew Andre’s father, who helped him build his cottage, and so to repay the gift Beckett drove an already oversized Andre to school everyday in his truck – it was one of the few vehicles that Andre could fit in. And, of course, the main subject they talked about was cricket.
  3. Did you know that the largest shopping mall in the world is in Dongguan, China, and has the potential to hold 2350 shops! Wowee! I must visit sometime. Even better, 99% of the shops are vacant! Must be the coolest shopping mall in the world, though I bet they don’t do exciting things like play cricket or watch terrible wrestling matches in that mall. south china shopping mall
  4. On a completely related topic, has anyone noticed that Gangnam Style is in a fact a poor quality, poppy remake of a much better, weirder and groovier 2003 song from Benny Benassi called satisfaction? Have a listen. The riffs are almost exactly the same, and all PSY has done has added in a few bridges and some lyrics. No talk of great subjects like cricket, shopping malls, Beckett and Andre the Giant in the lyrics, just some gentle. ironic satire for the consumption of the Korean and now global spectacle (and added in a funny dance to sell more records and make more profits, kerchinggg…). As this article says, PSY is no anti-capitalist making fun of the lifestyles of the filthy rich, but is actually from the wealthy, ostentatious suburb of Gangnam, and partakes in its nightlife and scene. I’m all for plagiarism (it’s all very communist, you see) – indeed, it is great that the song has itself become globally spoofed numerous times (including one by Shirley Boys High making fun of the attempt by the govt to merge their school with a horrible elite school in Christchurch, just to rub salt into the wounds the quakes have caused in Christchurch) but it is funny how most music is dead, re-packaged, re-modelled stuff from the past. Even a pop indie band like Metric ironically produced dead music to comment that today’s music is dead. It is like ‘post-modern’ irony, man. It is also like the spectacle is consuming and feeding from itself. (Yes this is a blatant attempt at populism on this blog, in the hope irate supporters of the PSY spectacle turn up here.)

gangnam

Now for something completely different…

Here is a pamphlet written in 1974 by Steve Taylor of the Revolutionary Committee of the Communist Party of New Zealand (Expelled) called anatomy of decision. Fantastically silly name for a group! They were expelled from the CPNZ for opposing the Maoist CPNZ’s support for elections, parliament, and how the CPNZ did not allow dissent/freedom. They then became councilists, influenced by the British Solidarity group, but you can still trace elements of Maoism in their thinking (and this pamphlet).

The exciting cover of Anatomy of Decision

The exciting cover of Anatomy of Decision

The pamphlet is a careful (if a little mechanistic) analysis of the decision-making process. I have been unable to scan it – for some reason old gestetnered pamphlets from the 1970s do not process well in OCR text recognition programmes, so here is the contents list for those who are interested in delving in it.

Contents.

Chapter One. Political Background.

Sub-headings: Start with the axioms; China and the USSR; Lenin on the Party

Chapter Two: Decision, The Gate between Ideas and Action.

The fundamental nature of decision; Decision in the context of social life

Chapter Three: On the Question of Votes and Voting.

Study of the vote as a thing ‘in itself’; How political decisions can be made; the statement of the problem; ideology

Chapter Four: Categories of Decision.

Politics compared with blood circulation; from the simple to the complex; decision by appointed leader; a study of the policy vote or majority decision; a group of twenty-one; the fetish of property

Chapter Five: The Anatomy of Socialism.
Chapter Six. The Parliamentary Elective Vote and How Its Socialist Counterpart Could Compare.

The Elective Vote under capitalism; In Summary and Comment; Definitions.

—-

You can see how Taylor placed a lot of importance on critiquing Leninist parliamentarism and participation in elections. It is good that Taylor thoughtfully supports bringing women into the centre stage of socialism, rejects Leninism and parliament, and supports voting (rather than fetishising consensus decision-making) and freedom of thought and organisation.

But I guess he fell into the trap a lot of councilists did – that is, he fetishised the direct democratic decision-making process itself over the content of communism. I guess he was trying to avoid the big thing they were reacting against: Leninism, whether in its Stalinist, Maoist or Trotskyist varieties. They were trying to get away from what they called bureaucratic capitalism, and instead have workers decide things for themselves through workers’ councils. But, of course, when you fetishise and idealise a perfect process — whatever that process is, whether it be consensus decision-making or mass discussion and voting in mass assemblies — you tend to overlook content (or at least be very murky on it, as you can see in Taylor’s chapter on the content of socialism, which simply says socialism is self-organisation, and freedom of thought and assembly and the ability to make decisions freely. I’d agree, but we need to go beyond that… ).

That is, you can have the best process in the world, but the content of your politics can still lack concrete substance and sometimes be unprincipled eg. support self-managed capitalism, which is in the end self-managed exploitation. This in my experience has been a common mistake of the councilist and anarchist milieu, which tends to seize upon and fetishise certain formulas and organisational forms, and then at its worst use them idealistically and moralistically to denounce all those who don’t share their belief in their perfect ideal, rather than use an open-ended, non-dogmatic materialist analysis to work out what’s best.

Even dogs are given bones: Rixen women fight back

•27/10/2012 • Leave a Comment

“A documentary about the dispute in 1981 between the clothing workers at the Rixen factory in Levin, New Zealand and their employer, who decided to close the factory. The women were given short notice of their dismissal, and no redundancy pay. The women, many of whom had worked there for over a decade, wanted the opportunity to take over management of the factory and continue working it as a co-operative. When their employer refused to negotiate terms, they occupied the premises where they lived for 13 weeks, with the support of the Federation of Labour and other clothing workers around the country. Produced by Dyke Productions in association with Women’s Community Video.”

This was the longest workplace occupation in New Zealand history, lasting 13 weeks. It was unsucessful, but inspiring. The 43 Levin women from the Clothing Workers’ Federation did their occupation in the face of threats from the police to evict them (this was soon after the 1981 Springbok tour, and the massive police operation against the massive mobilisation of 250,000 odd people against that tour), and received much solidarity from members of the public, workers, unions and women’s groups. It also shows how class struggle during the time was not about male, white blue-collar workers, as is sometimes thought. Indeed, the strike wave of the time involved thousands and thousands and thousands of women workers, as well as heaps of Maori and Pasifika workers.

Workplace occupations nowadays seem almost an impossibility given the ongoing defeat and decomposition of the working class in New Zealand. The basics of collective organising and building confidence from below seem to be largely lost, and the tradition of collectively fighting back almost gone. There have been probably more redundancies in the last few years than there were in the late 1970s and early 1980s, but little fight back. (I don’t have time to go into the reasons for this, as they are complex and multiple – the orthodox Marxist blog Redline usefully presents some of them here and here, but I’d disagree with a fair bit of their analysis). Yet in a different era, and under a different class composition, many did fight back against redundancies. Indeed, the 1980s was the second most strike prone decade in NZ history, just after the 1970s. So it’s important to re-learn that these struggles occurred, and maybe some people out there will find it useful and inspiring. Redundancies are particularly hard to fight back against, as Mouvement Communiste note in their pamphlet.

NZ has never had a tradition of workplace occupations. I can think of only four major ones, namely the sit-ins in the freezing works in Auckland and the Waikato in 1937 (sit-ins which the Labour Party lambasted), the very short occupation by women workers of the Lane Walker Rudkin factory in Greymouth in 1990 (they herded the managers into a room and shouted at them! And then held pickets outside the factory (which had closed down) for six weeks – see Paul Maunder, ‘Greymouth vs Ron Brierley, Labour History Project Newsletter no 52, August 2011), and in 1998 the successful occupations of fire stations in Auckland against restructuring – see this article. There have been maybe a few others that i’m not aware of. There was also a very brief occupation of a canteen by Feltex workers in Christchurch in 2006.

In contrast, a country like the UK has more of a tradition of occupations – and there were numerous occupations in the 1970s and 1980s in Scotland and England. There is a whole book written about by Ken Coates of the Institute for Workers Control called Work-ins, Sit-ins and Industrial Democracy: The Implications of Factory Occupations in Great Britain in the Early Seventies. For example, in 1981, Lee jeans women clothing workers in Greenock, Scotland held a successful occupation. Even in more recent times, there have been a few – such as at Visteon. The occupations in Argentina during and after the 2001 revolt also deserve a mention.

NZ does have rich history of other forms of occupation – especially land occupations by Maori over a long period of time, but also since the late 1960s numerous student occupations, anti-Vietnam War sit-ins of US consulates and ‘occupations’ of visiting US warships and the like, a few occupations by the unemployed (eg, of social welfare offices), a few housing occupation and even an anti-road occupation in Wellington, brief occupations of corporate headquarters by activists (animal rights, anti-capitalists, unemployed) and so on.  This tradition, however, is also dying out, and the few occupations that do occur these days are very small and thus easier to repress by the authorities.

Shortness of time prevents me from analysing the multiple strengths and weaknesses of workplace occupations; that is not the purpose of this wee blog entry in any case – the purpose being simply some background to the little known Rixen occupation of 1981 and a link to the excellent wee documentary about it.

E J B Allen and the muck of syndicalism

•25/09/2012 • Leave a Comment

I’ve seen the light!

In the midst of yet another bout of overwork, this blog has become neglected. In fact, everything has become neglected; it’s amazing how many things one has to catch up on. Anyway, I’ve let myself have the pleasure of doodling a few things on this blog tonight.

One of the better things to happen in historical circles in recent years is papers past. Papers past is an initiative of the national library to digitise old New Zealand newspapers, generally before about 1920 if i remember right. They then make them freely available on the interwebs — which some I could guess claim are yet another limited, distorted example of communism in action (for one thing, while digitisation offers old newspapers for free, we are still riding on the back of all the poor sods who spend their days scanning in newspapers – digitisation requires a casual workforce who must get bored out of their brains scanning things in day in, day out, for what I guess are pretty shitty wages).  The great thing about papers past is that it allows anybody to use it as a tool for historical research, rather than that research being limited to a small group of professional genealogists, historians and students, or those who have the time and money to be able to spend lots of time in libraries. It also speeds up the research process a hell of a lot quicker, as you don’t have to spend hours if not days searching thru numerous documents and papers and newspapers just trying to find that bit of magic evidence. All you have to do is enter something in the search engine and you come up with what you want (although you can get a whole lot of irrelevant answers). Which means that there is a flurry of people checking out their ancestors in the papers, and finding out some funny things about them.

Anyway, for some strange reason, they put up the Maoriland Worker on papers past. From memory, the Maoriland Worker was the paper of the Shearers’ Union before WWI, then became the paper of the ‘Red’ Federation of Labour when it was influenced by syndicalism, and then became the official organ of the NZ Labour Party when it was formed in 1916 (but still retained some syndicalist influence). There is a good article in a recent Labour History Project Newsletter by Peter Clayworth that provides an overview of its history. The Maoriland Worker sort of served as the major left-wing paper of the times, and what is more, it was generally eclectic, revolutionary in its early years, and quite fiery, lively and energetic, in a way that current radical papers are not (in fact, they are quite dull and banal). The Maoriland Worker is worth reading for a trip back into the past.

You can find all sorts of things. For example, I come across this from MW 25 April 1913:

The pakeha wage-slave can learn something from his Brown Brother. A native before the Feilding Court in a debt case was asked if he was in constant work. “No,” he said, “I’m not like European, work all the time. You know Maori, he have to knock off sometime.” “Yes,” said the magistrate, smilingly, “he has to go to a huia [sic] or a tangi occasionally.” The Maori smiled broadly. Further asked how such work he had been doing, he said, “Oh, work three weeks, knock off for a month!”

Hmmm, funny – good to see someone refusing to work and practising jobbing before it became a popular strategy in the 1960s and 1970s and 1980s (taking a job for a while, and then living off the proceeds, in order to the more important things in life than wage-slavery), but a bit weird, given he was up for bad debts – and how many Maori had become a sort of precarious rural proletariat after the vast majority of their lands had been brutally (or cunningly – I am thinking of the ‘native land’ court) enclosed by capital and the state, getting casual, badly-paid and physically demanding farm work for a while, and this wee story gives us a glimpse that the income they received was often not enough to live on (given his indebtedness). Maori were quite impoverished.

Anyway, it is amazing what you can turn up in half an hour’s research on papers past. I turn to the story of E J B Allen. I’ve had an interest in Allen since I helped out a comrade from England with some research about him. He was a prominent syndicalist from England who moved to New Zealand in 1913, when most Pakeha NZers considered Britain (or Ireland) home. He received a wee bit of education at Oxford, but dropped out without a degree if I remember right. In New Zealand, he was pretty much dirt poor throughout his life, having a succession of shitty labouring jobs, and his family resented how he was castigated by the socialist movement as an aloof Oxbridge intellectual with a stiff upper lip who had no experience of working-class struggle or life. Allen even wrote an article about communism or was it anarchist communism for a British paper, which would be a good one to find and publish. But there was another reason why Allen found it tough in the nascent NZ socialist movement.

His arrival is greeted in the MW on 4 April 1913. He was interviewed in the next article:

A Distinguished Syndicalist – Arrival in New Zealand – RECOMMENDED TO NEW ZEALANDERS. – AN INTERVIEW

We were delighted to have a chat with friend and fellow-worker Allen when he arrived in Wellington on his way to Auckland; and we expect him to be of great service in this country. He will be a contributor to our paper, and we will leave him to speak for himself. However, Allen brought some credentials that we read with pleasure and pride—one from good old Tom Maun commending Allen eulogistically to the workers of New Zealand. There was another from the Natonal Union of Gasworkers and General Laborers (London office) reading in part as follows

222 Carr-rd., Walthamstow. Dear Comrade,—On behalf of the Walthamstow branch, I am writing to express oar regret to lose a comrade who has taken his part on behalf of the working-class movement in this country, and has done his share towards the emancipation of his class from the domination of capitalism. On behalf of my fellow-members, I wish you a pleasant voyage to the far-off land and hope you will find it more prosperous than the Old Country. I hope you will have the best of health so that you may be able to Carry on the propaganda for the cause you have at heart.—W. FLUTE, Branch Sec.

This is the message from the Indnstrial Syndicalist Education League: To all Concerned, —At the first annual general meeting of the 1.5. E.L., held at the Communist Club to-day (Feb. 1.), all the members and delegates present joined in a hearty expression of appreciation for the services rendered both to the league and the Labor movement in England by E. J. B. Allen. They wish him a safe voyage, and most heartily recommend him to all comrades in Australasia, where he is going. May he succeed in rendering the same services at the Antipodes as he has done here.—GUY BOWMAN, Gen. Sec,

The following speaks for itself: There arrived by the Tongariro on March 28, a, prominent Home syndicalist, at one time connected editorially with the official paper in the Old Country. To a Dunedin Star reporter he said there would be another big transport strike in England in July. The railway men,- he stated, are also very discontented, and will probably come out this year. The conciliation of Mr. Lloyd George had not been very effective. At a great delegation meeting recently in Manchester of the more advanced Labor thought, those in favour of direct methods of procedure towards obtaining social reforms had got resolutions carried which would mean the contradiction of the French methods of Spontaneous strikes, general strikes, antimilitarism and sabotage. The word “sabotage,” which was much abused, meant harassing employers. For instance, if an employer had a contract and a time limit, the workers might use the circumstances to obtain better conditions. The anti-militarist tactics would be on the lines of the famous “open letter to British soldiers” in connection with which Tom Mann was imprisoned. The Insurance Act would fail as regarded its unemployment relief payments, because the labour agencies were unworkable on their intended lines, and opened the door to the cutting of wages. There was now in England no antagonism between the “political Socialists” and the ‘direct actioniats”; they were co-operating. It is realised that Socialism will not come for the asking nor even through Parliament, but that “outside pressure” must be excercised to achieve its ideals. It is thought that even if a Socialist House of Commons were elected, the Constitution would be suspended before the dictates of such a body would be accepted. The “direct* actionists” see ahead, and are preparing for any contingency from the lever of a general strike to we phenomena of insurrection when the crisis comes.

Asked about the rivalry between England and Germany, the newcomer said that it was commercial rivalry. Austria, backed by Germany, wanted a route to the Mediterranean and a say in the Bagdad railway, and the development and port construction following on that. There was the commercial antagonism between two great countries, and also the jingo spirit. The only hope of peace is that the German worker may be persuaded to use his training as a conscript to prevent war. He is getting as much of the necessary education now as- possible. Of course, constitutional government was merely a farce in Germany. Returning to Labor questions, the syndicalist editor said that the Socialist movement had now become a recognised part of the working-man’s existence in England. The workers there believe first of all in joining the co-operation movement, so as to get rid of the middleman; secondly, they join a trades union; and, thirdly, the local Socialist Club. The policy is a combination of the old procedure: work in Parliament and pressure outside.

Hmm, no antagonism between syndicalists and social democrats??

Contrast the anti-militarism voiced above this with this letter from Allen in MW, 2 July 1919:

THE MOVEMENT.

The old International Workingmen’s Association declared “that the economic emancipation of the workers is the end toward which all political activity should be subordinated.” It is control of. the means of our livelihood that is the chief concern of the workers, therefore it depends upon the effectiveness of our industrial organisation and activity whether we make any advance in New Zealand or not. We are miles behind the Old Country at the present time, and our antiquated, I sectional, local arbitration unions will never command sufficient respect from the employers to offer us anything other than that which the Arbitration Court says shall be offered. Until the workers of the Dominion have learned to stand on their own legs instead of being propped up by the Arbitration Court no advance will be made. Seeing that the bulk of the New Zealand workers have been used to being spoon fed, let us start at the bottom and endeavor to make industrial unionism possible under the Arbitration Act. There will then be the possibility of utilising the machine if it can be made. The proposals of the Executive of the United Federation of Labor for joint councils on the Whitley plan (which have been turned down by every militant body of workers at Home) will draw nothing more than a sneer from the employers here, because, apart from the miners, there is hardly a single union that is national in scope and has the requisite solidarity and class-conscious spirit to put up a fight and command respect. My friend Tom Bloodworth may think otherwise, but the bosses will have no joint council with any body of workers who have not compelled them to realise that the industry cannot be run without them or run efficiently without their active co-operation. The remote and possible exception are a few local bodies, which may be captured by the Labor Party. The need of the hour is for a more militant industrial propaganda, its objective the abolition of the wages system and the reorganisation of the industrial system upon control by the workers in the industries. The New Zealand Labor Party have just contested the municipal elections and is preparing for the parliamentary elections, and the chief propaganda seems to be the “release of the conscientious objectors,” and not the need for the overthrow of the present systm. I may not be in touch with the movement so much as circumstances have permitted on other occasions, but I think, in spite of the meteor-like success of P. I Fraser, the workers are by no means so solidly in favor of the anti-war propaganda as some of our spokesmen believe. But apart from that matter, the majority of votes cast for Labor candidates are cast for them in spite of the anti-war attitude and not because of it. The proof lies in the attenuated support given to the dependants of the C.O.’s. For strike victims the money came in, for alleged seditionists the money came in, but there was a big drop when it came to the C.O.’s pure and simple. And if that is the position in the unions, what is it like amongst the general public, the shopkeepers, the civil servants, the professional men, the farmers, and all those -whom the Labor Party must ask for votes? Instead of the spokesmen of the Labor movement neglecting the more important cause of industrial ownership and control, by their illogical campaign of passivism and pacificists, they should get to bedrock. There will be no Labor victories at the general election unless the war issue is side-stepped. Holland succeeded a Labor man, so did Semple. Fraser is really the only definite winner. We must not forget that the coming elections will take place when the men have returned, and they are not pacifists. They have seen war and they do not want to see it again, but when our fellow-workers in Belgium and Northern France are threatened again, most, if able, would again, go to fight the bestial invaders of a peaceful country. The returned men want a square deal, and they will hesitate in thinking that they can obtain it from a party which was opposed to them going away and which tried to prevent adequate reinforcements going except on terms that were exceptional. Socialists are supposed to believe in social duties, and no right without equivalent service, which must include military service as well as industrial or other matters. We object to the parasitism of the capitalists and landlords under the present system; we cannot do other than look upon as parasites those who refuse their obligations, but who desire the privileges. We hate them as non-unionists, but must apparently idolise them as pacifists. The war split the Labor movement in the past. Too much extolling of the passive resisters will split it again at the elections, if Howard Elliot does not.

Industrial solidarity and a militant policy is the chief matter. Let the Labor spokesmen deal with these. Too much parliamentarism with a weak and divided union movement, is only going to repeat Australia over again. To a European the thing seems incredible that there should have been a Federal Labor Government and no emancipation. We know where the trouble lies, and until the workers unite and take and hold that which they produce through an economic organisation of the working-class there is no hope. Concentration on the C.O.s won’t cut much ice either politically or industrially. We want more of working-class agitation and less of parliamentarism. Whitely councils and joint committees come as a concession to strength and are not bestowed as gifts to weaklings. The squatter and employer- do not care a tinker’s damn for the U.F.L. proposals, because the U.F.L. has no power to do anything. The miners have their own organisations and win respect and concessions. The Transport Workers have won a little. But where are the others? It seems the U.F.L. is superfluous, and it needs the miners, transporters, and A.P.U. to form a U.F.L.

Not C.O.s, but industrial organisation is the prime business. Unity over essentials and not splits over non-essentials. And to those who adopt the heresy-hunting tactics on men who would not support German militarism by refusing to fight it, I would call attention to the splendid motto of the co-operative movement at Home: “In things essential, Unity. In things doubtful, Liberty. In all things, Charity.’ E. G. B. ALLEN.

Yes, Allen supported the Allies and conscription during WWI! He was not alone in this, given the French CGT, then the biggest syndicalist union in the world, mostly supported WWI and a minority of ‘anarcho-trenchists’ did as well, like Kropotkin, Grave and others. Allen was expelled from the socialist movement, and the above letter was part of his re-engagement with it. Allen received a caustic response from C. Faulkner from Auckland in MW, 23 July 1919:

THE MOVEMENT.

It was with great interest I listened to the caustic criticisms on the above subject which appeared m your issue of July 2, -written by E. J. B. Allen. Although there was much there that was interesting and worthy of consideration, it seems to me that the whole trend of his letter consists of an attack on the N.Z. Labor Party for daring to show a little sympathy to the C.O.s and demanding, their release. As most of the C.O.s are Labor men and class-conscious Socialists, with a fair knowledge of the class War (a qualification which E. J. B. Allen seems to lack), from whom else can the C.O.s expect sympathy or cousideration if not from the Labor Party. At the end of his letter he appeals for charity in all things. Very good. Let us for a moment review the position of some of the C.O.’s. In 1913, when the strike of waterside workers took place, all the power of capitalism and landlordism was brought to bear upon the workers. Result, after a strenuous fight lasting eight weeks, total defeat of the toilers, and in addition to that a denial for nearly three years of the right of hundreds of the workers to follow the occupation to which they had been accustomed, consequently, homes were broken up and  families scattered to various parts of the colonies. Just a matter of surprise, Sir, that a few months later, when the war broke out, and Mr. Fat appealed to the wageslaves to go and make the country “safe for capitalism,” they got the reply from many: See you damned first; go and protect your property yourself. Of course, one cannot expect E J B Allento feel quite as bitter on that subject as many of us, as he at that time was snugly ensconced on the staff of The Maoriland Worker, in receipt of a fairly remunerative salary, and consequently did not feel the terrible pressure of the mailed fist of capitalism as some of us did. Mr. Allen further states that if occasion required, many who know what war is would return and fight the bestial invader of Belgium and Northern France. True, men can be got to fight in all wars, holy or unholy, just as in England volunteers are enlisting at the rate of a thousand a week to go to Russia and collect the debts of thin German-Jew money lenders, destroy the Revolution, and restore Czardom to the throne, and I am not so certain that it is patriotism with 50 per cent, so much as the 5/- a day seven days a week, and the rather generous allotment to wife and children, which animating them, combined with a great, deal of change and some interesting adventure. Mr. Allen should extend some of the charity to the C.O.’s. who have just as good a case as Mr. E. G. B. Allen had when, nearly two years after the war had been on, he tried to enlist, and was turned down owing, as I understand, to physical inability. Much more might be said, but I will be content to leave his cheap sneer re the very small amount of power held by the U.F.L., to some more able pen than mine.—C. FAULKNER. Auckland, July 8, 1919.

Shows you the left could be just as nasty, brutal and short as it is today. And what is Faulker on about by mentioning German-Jew moneylenders? Ugly anti-semitism.

Allen then replies to Faulkner at length citing all the socialists who supported the war:

Mr. E.J.B.Allen replies at extreme length to gome personal issues raised by another correspondent, Mr. C. Faulkner. The main points touched ou by Mr. Allen were a refutation of the statement that he waited two years before attempting to enlist, and a very long explanation, or rather narrative, of the events leading up to and including his experience in The Worker Office as sub-editor under Mr. H. B. Holland in 1913-1914. Mr. Allen then proceeds to propound his attitude to the C.O.s and other questions. .Consideration of space prevent giving his letter in full. The following is a very interesting extract: “The men in the International Labor movement who denounced the crime of Germany contain workers far better known than those of the opposing school. Kropotkin, Jean Grave, Reclusj in France; Hyndman, Bax, Blatchford, C’lynes and practically the whole Labor Party in England; W. E. Mailing, Prof. G. D. Herron, in America; Dr. Robert Michels, author of “J’Accuse” and “The Crime,” Karl Liebknecht, Rosa Luxemburg, of Germany; Bissolatti, D’Annunzio, of Italy; and in France again men of such vitally divergent views as Vaillant, Herve, Albert Thomas, Varenne, He la Porte, Morel and Jules Guerde (the leader of the Marxians); in Belgium, Vaidervelde and Huysm’ns. For every pacifist, there are so many who saw the danger to democracy. I can assure Mrs. Watson that I know many C.O.s and Socialists who were against the war even when forced on us, and to quote Hyndmau: “As a Socialist, I can understand their fanaticism, though I despise their judgment.’ Capitalism under the control of home employers and financiers is bad, but it can be controlled by educated workers. Capitalism in victorious alliance with foreign Junkerdom would have made France uninhabitable ‘for Frenchmen, and would have thrown back Democratic Socialism for at least two generations throughout Europe.” Referring to Germany, Hyndman, in “Clemenceau-. The Man and His Time,” says: “As an old Socialist myself, who, as a member ot the International Socialist Bureau, had discussed the whole question at length with Liebknecht, Bebel, Singer and Kautsky (the idea of the German Social Democrats stopping war), I knew that, as they themselves explained to mc, there was little or no hope of anything of the sort being done when war was once declared. I viewed the whole propaganda with alarm, and Bebel himself warned the French that the Socialists would: march with the rest.” I wrote my letter merely to point out that many members of the rank and file of the U.F. of L. and the Labor Party were not Pacifists and had a conscientious objection to being compelled to see so much time and attention being paid to this issue. Is one’s attitude to the C.O.s to determine whether one is fit to be in the Labor Party the U.F.of L.? If’so, then all those Unionists and Socialists who went as volunteers and conscripts ought to be expelled, and what kind of unions or party would be left? The war is over, and we must get together, to hold our own, let alone win anything else, and concentration on C.O.s or the P.P. A. or the Prohibition campaign is more likely to split the movement than anything else. There is no room for more than one workers’ party in New Zealand, and the sooner the pacifists get a more tolerant attitude, the better will they be in accord with their love of brotherliness aud unity. My criticism of the U.F.L. is no sneer. This is what is in existence. The best-organised body of workers and the most militant—the miners—are outside the U.F. of L., so likewise is the old A.P.U. and the Watersiders. Is unity? Again, in Auckland, there are about 20 or more unions affiliated with the U.F. of L., and each one runs its own tinpot office ans secretary, and so far no scheme such as the Dunedin Central Office has been effected. Is this unity? The general strike of 1913 failed, not because I had a “fairly remunerative salary,” but because one or two conditions are essential for the success of a strike of large dimensions, ne is a large reserve fund, so that, working in conjunction with workers’ cooperative societies, rationing can be continued long enough to interfere seriously with the whole of industrial activity; and, secondly, a sympathetic public. There are no funds, no co-operative movement, and very little public sympathy. The alternative is: A revolutionary direct action movement that completely intimidates scabs and Government alike. There is not that feeling here yet, so I ask for In things essential, unity; in things, doubtful, liberty; and in all things, charity. Not all unionists may be able to make an effective movement whether they can obtain control of industry, through their own economic organisation, and owned by the whole of society. A system of National Guilds, avoiding alike the bureaucratic effeteness of Civil Service control, and the wild and fatuous revolution, that might call a general strike and overthrow capitalism, and yet be unable to secure liberty and well-being for the workers afterwards.—E. J.B. ALLEN.

Shit, I disagree with that so much I don’t where to begin! Pretty weird reasoning why workers should go and kill themselves for French and English capital. I guess I wanted to highlight this fairly chilling shift byAllen from syndicalism to supporting the war and what looks like guild socialism, and rejecting revolution and then supporting the Labour Party, not as a story of personal betrayal of one’s former values (and then the common moralistic response on the left to denounce that individual on a personal basis), but to understand how a shift could happen, and how people could justify it. The defeat of 1913 seems to have a played a big part, as does the alleged conservatism of most NZ workers, as well as a nationalistic fear of the German state and what it represented. Allen later provided some of the nationalist ideology of the Labour Party by arguing that New Zealand does not suit a revolutionary movement because of the lack of large-scale industry here (among other arguments), an argument later picked up by all sorts of moderates including Bruce Jesson, and has become a sort of mantra of the social democratic left. More on this later.

If yr interested in Allen, check out the entry about him in the NZDB, and the article by Erik Olssen in NZJH about Allen (and W T Mills and J A Lee)

I’d like to jump off from here not at the level of a personal attack on Allen, or a political biography (NZ history circles are full of that; it is the dominant form of history in NZ; perhaps it is time to move beyond that sort of history and start moving into a bit more analytical history?) or a simplistic cry that syndicalism leads to supporting war (citing the examples of the French CGT and Allen). Instead , i’ll jump off here into some notes towards a deeper and more nuanced critique of syndicalism. I’ve never been attracted to syndicalism or anarcho-syndicalism for many different reasons:

  • It seems a product of the past, when skilled and unskilled male-dominated workers desired control over the production process at a time when the production process was a lot less complex than it is now, and workers control was sort of practised on a daily basis anyway in many workshops, and it seemed feasible and practical to throw of capitalist parasites. But capital is an exploitative social relationship, and its not possible just to throw off a few evil capitalists and the socialist paradise will arrive. Ending capital means getting rid of all classes, including the working class. Workers’ control would preserve the wages system and the market, and preserve divisions between workers – the mines to the miners, the railways to the railwayworkers etc, placing workers in strategic industries in key positions of domination over the rest of us (paid and unpaid) workers. Further, I don’t think unions can be revolutionary, nor form the nucleus of a new society.
  • There is tendency to self-managed capitalism within syndicalism and anarcho-syndicalism, as revealed in Spain and documented by Leval et al. I think this is not some aberration but a strong tendency from within syndicalism and anarcho-syndicalism from the beginning which has tended to be very vague on the distribution of the social product, or outrightly collectivist (distribution according to work done, so the strongest and healthiest and those work the hardest get paid more, thus recreating class divisions).
  • There is a strong tendency in syndicalism to a sort of simplistic religious faith and belief in social redemption, whereby the cooperative commonwealth would solve all problems overnight. There is also a strong trend to workerism (meaning the worship of blue-collar, male-dominated labour) and a love of this work in itself, seeing it as redemptive and purifying etc. This can lead to a sort of ideology of sneering at the rest of us who don’t perform manual work, a love of productivity and hard work and sacrifice, and at its worst forcing others to do such work or urging sacrifice for the cause. Of course, manual labour is completely necessary, and often sneered at in its turn, but I am for the getting rid of the division of labour. Communism means varied domestic, manual and intellectual self-chosen and collectively-chosen work  (we need to call it something else than work!) which will hopefully lead to the creation of well-rounded, fulfilled, eudaemonic human beings, and diversity, creativity, and an end to the division between work and play: ‘an association in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.’ (on the other hand, there is a trend within syndicalism that stresses a rejection of work, slowing down work, and having free time, and ‘bumming around’, so maybe it is a contradiction within syndicalism).
  • Most syndicalist unions end up being bureaucratic, and run by a small elite who edit their press, make decisions, and so on. This is not historically inevitable, nor an iron law of oligarchy, but it is a strong tendency. The reasons for it are complex, but have something to do with the pressure of capital and the state, the laws of the state, the nature of unions as negotiators of labour power, and also a tendency within anarcho-syndicalism to believe that the revolutionary minority (I think the French syndicalists called it the minorite consciente if I recall right) who are the key to success, and need to drive workers from above.

Workerism

 

Of course, a lot more could be said –  these are just some jumbled, half thought out rough notes, and many critics have probed the contradictions of syndicalism a lot deeper and coherently than I.

Nevertheless, its a bit boring and somewhat programmatic to reject syndicalism just because it isn’t, surprise surprise, communist enough. Syndicalism was useful to thousands of NZ workers. It had many strengths, such as its desire to organise the unorganised, the attempt of the IWW to organise workers regardless of their ethnicity, its emphasis on action by the workers themselves, its emphasis on sabotage and informal and illegal forms of resistance (normally overlooked by the left), and many others besides – I am just scraping the surface. A lot more could be said, especially as syndicalism contributed to the most radical workplace-based revolt in NZ history, and to the current of militant unionism in certain unions. I haven’t really touched some interesting debates about class composition and syndicalism here, but plenty more could be said. Alrite, enuf, time to stop doodling, adios.

China’s Counterinsurgency Policies and How to Respond

•04/07/2012 • 4 Comments

republished from latest issue of MUTINY #65 MAY/JUNE 2012

 

China’s Counterinsurgency Policies and How to Respond

By friends of gongchao.org

In spring 2010, workers at a Honda plant in the industrial city of Foshan, Guangdong went on strike. They overcame the split between permanent employees and technical student interns and brought Honda’s entire production in China to a halt. The transnational company was forced to increase workers’ wages by more than 30 percent. This conflict triggered a strike wave across several industries and regions that lasted about two months. In autumn 2011, the inhabitants of Wukan, Guangdong took control of their rural town and kicked out local party and government staff. Corrupt officials had sold off land without proper compensation for the peasants. After locals fought off the police and staged large assemblies in the town centre for several weeks, the government accepted an investigation into the sale of land and elections of a new local government.

These are prominent examples of the success and failure of the Chinese government’s counterinsurgency policies. Social unrest has been increasing since the mid-1990s, involving all dangerous classes – peasants, urban workers, and migrant workers. Land conflicts, strikes, and riots in the countryside as well as the cities could be harbingers of an explosion of struggles that might blow up the existing socioeconomic power structures. However, the counterinsurgency policies were successful because the explosion has not yet taken place, despite the tension and frictions. Social unrest has put immense pressure on the regime but has not loosened its grip on power. The new ruling class of old Party officials and their Capitalist offspring [Chinese capitalists are often the children of Party officials – eds.] have not only modernized and strengthened the anti-uprising apparatus, but also created a range of institutions to mediate, pacify, and integrate social conflicts.

While the explosion has not yet happened it still might. The reasons why neither repression nor integration – nor a certain improvement in living conditions – have successfully blown out the flame of revolt can be read as being due to a list of social horrors: a huge income gap, displacements, low wages, long working hours, lack of work safety with millions of dead or maimed workers, lack of an effective social insurance system, mass layoffs, old-age poverty, widespread corruption, and embezzlement – each a reason to keep on fighting. There are two questions that proletarians, peasants, and all indignad@s in China and elsewhere eventually have to answer: since capitalism reproduces these social horrors, how do we get rid of it and what comes afterwards?

No Communism Before, Or No Communism No More?

In 1978, China’s Communist Party (CP) regime set out on a long march from capitalist state socialism to state socialist capitalism. The old socialist system had combined the modernist belief in industrial (Taylorist, Fordist) development with land reform, mass health care and welfare on the one hand, and urban-rural Apartheid, nationalism, militarism, authoritarianism, and patriarchy on the other hand. The political, economic, and social crises of state socialism in the 1960s and 1970s forced the regime into trial and error reforms, without it knowing where it would end up. The process can be called the three long decades of reform and development.

In the first long decade from 1978 to 1992, the CP and state structures began to cooperate with transnational capital to change the conditions of capital accumulation and the reproduction of labour power. Foreign capital was allowed to pour into the country. The Chinese state provided the conditions for profitable industrialization by, for instance, loosening tight migration policies and thereby opening the supply of new labour power for the newly formed Special Economic Zones. The first cracks began to emerge in the socialist Iron Rice Bowl – a set of welfare measures available to a minority of mostly urban workers. Moreover, the Communist Party started to eliminate its former class struggle rhetoric, beginning to use reactionary concepts of social stratification while keeping other elements of the Maoist “social glue”, being Chinese nationalism and repression. Meanwhile, an intensified commodification of labour, economic crises, and increased work pressure lead to popular discontent in many parts of the country that culminated in the Tian’anmen Movement in 1989. Contrary to the common view, this was not just a student and prodemocracy movement but a massive popular uprising against social conditions and the regime. The crackdown on the movement with tens of thousands of casualties, death penalties, and arrests, weakened popular opposition and opened the way for even harsher attacks on the working-class.

In the second long decade from 1992 to 2002, the state restructured the state economy by privatising or closing small or medium sized state companies and transforming the bigger ones into profit-oriented state trusts. Millions of workers were made redundant, many of whom could not find jobs in the new private sector and formed the new urban unemployed and poor. This destruction of the Iron Rice Bowl in the mid and late 1990s led to massive struggles of the urban working class, that could not stop the restructuring but slowed it down and won monetary concessions. Meanwhile, the inflow of transnational capital into China’s Eastern provinces exploded. In the course of the nineties, the larger part of the young rural population moved to the cities to work in the factories, on construction sites, and in urban services. The regime realized that it needed to modernise forms of repression and conflict resolution. While creating a big counterinsurgency police force, it also introduced a new framework of labour laws and regulations for the mediation of labour conflicts.

The third long decade began around 2002. The CP allowed the new elite to join it, changing it into a communist party of capitalists. The new class composition, involving an increasing number of migrant workers, began to take shape in the increasing number of struggles. The second generation of migrant workers coming to the cities in the 2000s has learned from the experience of their older migrating fellow villagers or family members. They want to stay in the cities, they want to have a share of the wealth they produce, and they are prepared to fight for it. They are considered part of the “rural population” and have to find ways to bypass the still existing hukou regime that gives them an insecure social status similar to “temporary” migrants in Western countries. Furthermore, during the 2000s the countryside has seen countless struggles of peasants against the dispossession of their plots, land-theft, industrial pollution, and government corruption. The increased number of struggles has forced the regime to engage in ‘firefighter’ policies. In cases of large scale proletarian or peasant struggles it sends not just anti-riot police but also government officials with suitcases of money. Again, new laws have been introduced, and new government agencies set up to channel social grievances, supported by ridiculous Confucian state propaganda about a “harmonious society” – which translates into a threat to all who “break” social peace and challenge the rule of the Communist Party.

The Fourth Long Decade or the Beginning of the End?

In a few years we might see 2010 as the beginning of a fourth long decade of reforms. The global crisis and increasing social struggles worldwide have changed the context. In China, social crises and conflicts might open up chances for change. The Honda strike and subsequent strike wave together with a series of suicides at the gigantic electronics producer Foxconn have had a great impact on the public debate on labour unrest and social justice within China. While some proletarians can use strikes as a means of struggle (as they work in industrial units with hundreds or thousands of others with similar interests), others continue to use popular uprisings and riots as a means to express their anger and a form of “collective bargaining by riot”. The increasing amount of autonomous forms of organising among workers and peasants has raised the spectre of revolt and lead to a renewed debate within the power structures about how to deal with social pressure from below.

Meanwhile, interrelated with the intensified class antagonism, many of the institutions underpinning Chinese society have undergone dramatic changes since the 1980s. This has led to a crisis of social reproduction and gender relations as well as resulting in (women’s) struggles around the organisation of reproduction and social freedom. Migration, the One Child Policy and the latent disintegration of the biological family has led to the changing status of women in the families and in society and a deep “care crisis”.

As usual, capital uses the desires of the oppressed for improved living conditions to implement new forms of control and exploitation. In this case many women take the opportunities migration offers to escape patriarchal control and oppression in the villages, only to end up in a new industrial world of exploitation under a different patriarchal regime. In combination with the commodification and rising costs of domestic labour, health care, and education, this has produced enormous social misery and deepened existential fears. Workers in China are forced to improve their personal suzhi (social quality or human capital) in order to improve their chances on the labour market and to fulfil the requirements of reproduction, while long working hours and long-distance migration have resulted in dramatic “time crises” in workers’ everyday lives. Further social tensions have arisen from the simultaneous existence of unemployment, precarity, exploitation, ongoing racist discrimination against migrants and so-called minorities, and ageist industrial policies that favour young labour forces.

The state knows that it has to keep on orchestrating these tensions and invent and use social technologies to weaken social revolts. It is trying to adapt the mechanisms of conflict regulation to the new labour relations. This includes a further modernization of the migration regime (hukou), new labour regulations, and the rigid channelling of conflicts through state agencies and state unions. Above all, the regime is using its new economic power and imperial role to try and ensure economic growth – despite the catastrophic effects of this on nature and humans. It has to make sure to meet the self-proclaimed 8 percent growth rate so it can create enough jobs for old and new proletarians and thereby prevent further social turmoil. It also needs this growth to uphold the banner of the capitalist dream of continuous material improvements and the promise of a better personal life for the suppressed class that it keeps at work, in chains and in good spirits.

What we see in this possible fourth phase of reforms is a self-proclaimed market-socialist state that still focuses on capitalist growth and modernization and now considers the “privatization” of land in the countryside and the final industrialization of agriculture. This is the last major reform that could complete the proletarianization of rural populations by taking away their (limited) means of subsistence. This state is mixing strategies of capitalist exploitation and workfare with a different set of social techniques of repressive tolerance than proletarians in “Western” states have to deal with. If we look at this from a perspective of social revolution and liberation, the repressive parts of China’s counterinsurgency policies, and the capitalist fixes (forms of restructuring aimed at weakening the workers – like capital relocation, automation, division of workforces as along gender lines, etc) are obvious targets of struggle. Meanwhile, other targets are obscured by the diverging interests of left-wing actors and ideologies.

Left Dead-end Street vs. Destructive Critique

The spread of struggle in China could open up new social perspectives of change. Ten years ago many struggles were based on kinship forms of organization and limited to cellular mobilizations in one company or neighbourhood. Within a decade, a new layer of worker activists, as well as so-called citizen lawyers and citizen journalists have emerged, and peer and interest groups have supplemented the kinship networks. While still limited by the hukou division (between rural and non-rural workers) and the labour and community hierarchies reflected in the strike committees and self-organized initiatives, it is evident that a new class (re)composition creates astonishing social dynamics: strike waves, copycat and domino resistance from the grassroots, debates on conditions, struggles, strategies of organising and change in the digital cloud of chat-rooms and websites as well as along the physical routes of migration and within proletarian communities. This has effects on rural, migrant and urban working classes, including the so-called ants (yizu), educated but precarious white-collar workers who hoped for a career and end up in lowskilled jobs. The Chinese regime fears that this new under-class might forge coalitions with the blue and pinkcollar proletarians and undermine the current order – as during the Arab Rebellions.

Meanwhile, what can be broadly defined as the “left” is small and fragmented in China. Large parts are influenced by different 9 interpretations of Maoism, supporting workers’ struggles while sticking to party concepts and nationalism. Activist NGOs, many of them supported by foundations, unions, or churches from Hong Kong or elsewhere in the West, oscillate between social work and state-oriented reformism, but also grassroots activism and workers’ empowerment. The spread of neo-Marxian and feminist ideas as well as a new interest in workers’ struggles and the desire to participate among younger academic circles are promising signs. However, this small “left” has to continuously deal with censorship, repression, and threats by the security forces on the one hand, and on the other hand, a strong pressure from within the state and party apparatus to follow the line of “social harmony” and help transform class power into a blunt weapon of social partnership.

An example of left-wing illusions and lobby politics is the debate on unions. Unions are one possible tool to control and pacify workers’ struggles. These can represent workers’ material interests against the interest of capital and the state, but only within certain systemic limits and by accepting capitalist mechanisms – otherwise they would have to break out of their union role. In China, the unions are still mass organizations of the CP and are directly dependent on state financial support and government directives. They oppose all strikes and attack independent forms of worker organising. That does not prevent left-wing advocates of militant or reformist unionism – Maoist or not – to demand “reform” of the state unions so they can fulfil the function of proper unions against capital and the state. Other left-wing protagonists favour the setting up of Western-type independent unions, counting on them to act in favour of workers’ interests, thereby ignoring the long history of union compromise and the weakening of workers’ struggles by such unions in countries around the globe.

Rather than providing the right “leftwing” repair-kit for the disintegrating capitalist social structure, greasing the cogs of arbitration and pacification of social struggles, or even reinventing the myth of a “workers’ state”, the left should further engage in and support the ‘class making’ processes by breaking state censorship and spreading more information about struggles in China and beyond, and by refraining from its constructive role within the limits of capitalism and forging tools of destructive critique. This form of critique has to look through state propaganda as well as the fog around capitalist exploitation and shed light on struggles that can open perspectives beyond capitalism. Concrete methods should include at least two elements – traces of which can be found throughout the history of revolutionary politics in China: the analysis of the processes of class (re) composition from the perspective of proletarians and other oppressed people; and variations of conricerca (co-research), the attempt through militant inquiry to break down the divisions between proletarians, activists, and so-called intellectuals both within China and in relation to proletarians and activists elsewhere – as part of a new organization from below.

Globalized Perspective

This is, of course, not just a challenge for the left in and around China, but around the world. It is amazing how – after decades of failed projects of left-wing parties, national liberation, and state socialism or social democracy – a large part of the left still holds on to the old leftist narrative of state building, party-based parliamentarism, paternalism, and power politics – even in a time of global crisis and misery that has led to unprecedented social anger and rebellion.

This is the time to attack the cheap-labour model, ideas of social partnership and welfare state compromises. The left has to leave behind concepts of consumer boycotts, corporate responsibility, and left-wing lobbyism and engage in non-paternalistic solidarity across physical and virtual borders. The outdated inter-nationalism needs to be replaced by a perspective of a global working class. That class is still split along the North-South divide, by national labour markets (as well as a sexist and racist division of labor within these markets) and along the global migration chains, but the global wave of struggles opens a chance for attacking and abolishing these borders from below. Global capital went to China, forming a coalition with a party state that tried to survive and defend its rule. Conflict followed, starting in the Special Economic Zones along China’s East Coast, and now following the routes of capital relocation into Central and Western China. If the pressure from below forces the regime to make more concessions – as in the past few years – and if the global crisis intensifies and rampages through China, the social struggles there might return to the global level, merge with social revolts elsewhere, and mess up capitalist projects of crisis management. Social struggles often have no political demands – in China as well as elsewhere – but if they form a mass movement they can overstretch the capitalist net of exploitation and repression, and open the way for a world beyond capitalist relations. This process might have just started, and for sure the struggles in China will play a key role in determining its direction and outcome.

Let’s join in.