After talking to a friend on the matter I thought I’d note some thoughts on the geographic considerations of socialist organising. By this I mean the literal matter of how socialist groups spatially organise in New Zealand; with an eye to such issues as transportation, social base, and spread of membership. My interest here is less in attacking any one ideological stance (these are strategic moves made by many anarchists, trotskyists, tanks, and social democrats alike), so much as considering the long term impacts of a ‘pivot to the campuses’.
At present, most notable socialist sects are centered on university campuses. Only the International Socialists are in good health with their base largely at Otago University in Dunedin, Victoria University in Wellington, and Auckland University. Such campus orientation is/was the modus operandi of socialist groupings from the 1990s onward. Since the late 1960s some level of campus orientation has existed with the emergence of the Progressive Youth Movement (PYM) and Socialist Action League (SAL). Notably the SAL was the first major Trotskyist organisation in New Zealand, and its origins are at Victoria University and in the Christchurch PYM. With the turn of the bulk of the socialist movement to post-Cliffite Trotskyism (often with Maoist influences), this set a precedent for NZ socialism to come.
There are some advantages to the socialist groupings in question, at least in the aftermath of the drastic collapse in membership in the late-1980s to early-1990s. Universities act as communal spaces for a large, young, transitory population of people who are at least conceptually open to ‘radical ideas’. Likewise, in theory, students have considerably more free time than a full-time waged worker of any age, and are thus more available for the party activity or social activism that keeps such groups alive. At a deeper level, students often form unofficial neighborhoods, the kind of organic communities with a shared socio-economic position socialist organisations are generally rooted in. These communities are fertile ground for social struggle over everything from poor housing and healthcare, to low wages or allowances and high fees. This is certainly the case in Dunedin. North Dunedin is largely covered by a sprawling, densely populated student quarter (alternately ‘Scarfieville’, ‘studentville’, or ‘the ghetto’) radiating outward from the main campus. Abysmal housing conditions, inadequate healthcare, and up until the last few years sporadic outbursts of social disorder are par for the course. This is all to say that I’m not attempting to make the claim that campus organising is entirely worthless, it simply has a definite effect on the trajectory of the socialist movement as a whole.
The issue here is the rooting of such organisations within student communities and neighborhoods, which in turn centers the bulk of activity in that geographic area. In Dunedin, Scarfieville is the one area where the ISO has a noticeable presence. From regular talks at the student association building, to always appearing at campus events, right down to the old posters peeling on decaying student flats. The largest working class area in Dunedin is at the opposite end of the city in South Dunedin, which contains some of the most impoverished suburbs in the country. Now while I see no problem with operating on campus at the north end, the issue here is the absolute lack of any notable socialist presence at the south end. That’s not to say there aren’t members and supporters living around South Dunedin – last I knew, there are – but that the centering of all the activity around campus means there is little chance of growth down there. A stratified geography of socialist organising develops, where the expectation is for most party activity to occur where the group is strongest. Thus, even if there’s a conscious effort to recruit in South Dunedin, regular activity remains in the north and that will continue to hamstring such efforts.
I will state again here that I’m not advocating any kind of total rejection of campus organising. In fact, I imagine it would be an impractical and wildly unsuccessful undertaking (at least in the short term). The SAL made a ‘pivot to industry’ in the late 1970s which involved many members dropping university entirely to enter blue-collar work and be ‘one with the class’. Recruiting continued on campuses but with the aim of convincing new student members to drop their studies and move into industrial work. It should not be surprising that this was very unsuccessful and the SAL went into steep decline over the late 1980s, during which it became the Communist League. Such a move would perpetuate the tendency Jesson identified in 1973 for the socialist left to act “as a fringe of political misfits” in which “each member . . . radicalises as an individual, not as part of a class or community”. This was the case with the SAL, as it found itself alienated from both the campuses it left and the workplaces it entered.
No, what I’m proposing is merely a consciousness of the role that a campus focus has, or at least can have, in the perpetuation of a real separation between the socialist movement and the working class. Or, indeed, any potential support bases outside of campuses and the student neighborhoods thus attached. This is likewise not something unique to the ISO or Dunedin, but it is common to much of the socialist Left. I’ve heard similar gripes from ex-Wellington friends, although the situation is perhaps worse than Dunedin given Victoria University’s location ‘up a big fuck-off hill’. My point here is that the campus orientation can have the effect not only of redirecting immediate efforts onto campuses, but of also narrowing the scope or capacity of socialist organising in the longer term.
What, then, is the answer? I don’t claim to have much to offer on this, as I’m more clearing thoughts than anything, but there are a few things that come to mind. It seems clear that in the longer run it may be preferable to break up branch activity to smaller bodies with an eye to longer sustained growth on a more suburb-to-suburb basis. For Dunedin, this may mean a functioning campus branch and a further South Dunedin branch. While there may not be a high enough local membership for such a branch, the redirection of efforts to the campus (or any theoretical hub of activity) not only stymies its growth but warps the overall direction of the organisation. Something like the Castle Street Labour could be a decent model to keep in mind, given a real and demonstrable rootedness in Scarfieville as a sub-body of Dunedin Young Labour at large. It should go without saying that I have no interest in the intellectually barren centrist opportunism of Labour. But if something works, and work it did, I likewise see no reason not to at least consider the underlying reasons why and learn from them.
From discussions with some of the members of the youth wing, it is clear that this was an exceptionally successful initiative. Volunteer numbers were not only up on previous elections, as may be anticipated, but hit record levels for the Dunedin branch, which is not something I or many others would have expected at all. It showed, with Labour holding election rallies in the final weeks that likely set a new benchmark for the post-VSM era at Otago Uni. This was possible, I suspect, not because of “Jacindamania” or some boost in party resources in the north end, but because Castle Street Labour initiative. What I’m not suggesting is a widespread decentralisation, nor a tight micromanagement. I would suspect neither would be successful. The former ending in something like the veritable evaporation of the Wellington anarchist movement over the later 2000s, the latter in the stifling bureaucracy of the Communist Party and Socialist Unity Party in the late 1980s to early 1990s.
Perhaps the best way to put it is an overall slowdown, to resist the urge to focus all activity where strongest. It is certainly the case that one of the main draw points of campuses is the perception of a pool of undergrads with comparatively greater free time than waged workers, looking for campaigns to get amongst. After going through that phase myself a few years back I suspect such a pool is more mythic than real. To an extent maybe even created by the over density of socialist groupings on campuses rather than a result of it. Less emphasis on being at Every 👏 Single 👏 Action 👏 to keep the group body alive (or at least give the illusion of it). More on giving membership and supporters the breathing space to engage in the longer and more boring activity of rooting the body in the community. More on undertaking activity asides the frenetic campus recruiting needed to keep an activist machine alive. Against the myopic cycle of recruiting to campaign to recruit to campaign.