The issue of ‘holding together the broad base’ is a perennial one for the left anywhere, wherever & whenever it is attempted. As such it is an issue worth dredging up to examine at the moment, and indeed at this present political moment because there are various attempts at left regroupment underway right now.
At one level this matter can be viewed through the ideological spread of the radical left in NZ and possible fissures resulting therewith. At another the level of ‘organisational materialism’. This referring to the process of an organisations practice influencing its theoretical considerations as the process of self-justification takes place. I highly recommend the recent essay Organizational Materialism: Considerations on Contemporary Leftism. While this piece will only be a brief intervention, I do think it is a matter worth returning to in the future and would love to see others weighing in on it.
To set the scene, when I am referring to regroupment projects I use the term in a broad sense. In the most direct, the ever mysterious Organise Aotearoa is regroupment in its purest form. The goal of building a new socialist organisation out of what remains of the existent radical left with ambitious plans for the future. While it may not be the case that members themselves view OA in that light, it appears that’s what it is in practice. It makes sense for this to be the case: it was the same momentum from which Counterfutures journal, the annual Social Movements conference, and Economic & Social Research Aotearoa (a left-wing think tank founded of Sue Bradford’s PhD thesis on the topic) all arose. All of which have at least acted as implicit regroupment projects, if simply because their broad-based nature requires them to act as such.
In a somewhat broader sense, multiple attempts at new leftist media projects have cropped up in incipient form of late (some of which I myself have been involved in) and again have an inherent though not necessarily overt regroupment character to them. Beyond that still, broad-base coalitions and campaign groups like People Against Prisons or the recently formed anti-fascist groups have had to grapple with the similar issue of ‘left unity’ that ‘big-tent’ groups embody more so than usual of late.
At an obvious, above-board level there is a ‘fragile peace’ at play in many such groups as they stand today simply because of the volatile mix of tendencies involved. PAPA in particular seems to count among its membership a core of fairly hardline Marxist-Leninists and Maoists, alongside a number of Trotskyists, anarchists of several stripes, decolonial activists, and any number of people drawn in by a desire for radical prison reform.
The basic logic of such a project, unity in a shared program on their particular issue (for PAPA, prison abolition), is more or less sound with respect to the activity undertaken by the organisation. I pick PAPA as an example, however, because the goal of prison abolition necessitates adherence to principles which require the eventual abolition of capitalism – it is a ‘single-issue’ group that must, at some point, propose a revolutionary politics that go beyond ‘single-issue’ campaigning.
PAPA as an organisation, as well as its individual activists, are very clear about this need. It does not get too much more revolutionary than the call towards the end of the Abolitionist Demands for the “complete restructuring of social, political, and economic power […] culminating in the overturning of the New Zealand government.” Herein is the rub, at some point the genuine ideological differences between people will be drawn to the surface revealing fundamental differences in vision as to the kind of strategy, the kind of revolution, the kind of society folk wish to form.
A coalition formed over a particular reform or imminently possible change to society, or indeed any change that may be progressive but does not implicitly require revolution at some point, can dissolve after the goal has been completed. Cannabis or other drug reform is on the cards, and it seems coalition groups are forming to fight it out over the issue. This is something possible within the confines of the current formation of liberal parliamentary capitalism in New Zealand. It does not have a foreseeable need for anything more radical than the reform of the criminal justice and perhaps healthcare systems in order to achieve its goals sufficiently in the eyes of most supporters. That is to say, such a coalition can form, win, and dissolve, without even deep contradictions in the political spread of the people or organisations involved ever being brought to the fore.
My point is not that ideology is immutable, but that these real differences cannot be left on the backburner indefinitely by any organisation of a broad type that is genuinely serious about the breadth of its goals. Even considerable ideological drift and development could leave truly unbridgeable gulfs over things like the role of the state, the form of organisation needed for revolutionary politics, or the relationship of this envisioned society with the rest of the world. The differences will, must, be unearthed, regardless of whether there is a conscious attempt to do so or not.
It is this seemingly unconscious manner by which these differences could dissipate that may prove the saving grace of any regroupment projects going forward. Where the ideological gap as is may be unbridgeable, the subtle and long term effects of any one organisations practice on its theoretical self-justification and as such the ideological positions of its members, could be what covers said gap. It would still be the case that individuals or factions within an organisation must reckon with the political contradictions being raised. But this is a process by which it could happen without the organisation itself being destroyed along the way.
This can dictate not only the matters of ideological position and strategy regarding any one organisation, but how organisations on a whole interact and influence one another. Jean Allen makes the point in Organizational Materialism that different forms of organisation by the working class (parliamentary parties, unions, mutual aid associations, etc) shift in emphasis and power over time as circumstances change. The material strength, mass support, and in a loose sense dynamism of one form of organisation might wane leading to the growing strength of another.
In New Zealand this is very clearly demonstrated in the rise of the Liberal-Labour alliance in parliament in the aftermath of the crushed 1890 Maritime Strike. The process again took place as the ‘lib-lab’ alliance weakened amidst growing class discontent toward the end of the 1900s, leading in turn to the definitive shift towards revolutionary unionism in the form of the Red Federation and the explosion of industrial unrest over 1908-1913.
The material experience of both parliamentary reform and revolutionary industrial unionism informed their own theoretical underpinnings as they informed one another’s in practice. The Red Feds grappled with how to relate to parliament throughout those five explosive years, much as the various parliamentary parties of labour could not but experience a mirror of the exact same strategic fight internally at the same time and after.
This process can, is, will continue going forward. The question is whether the fragile peace upon which today’s efforts at getting the left to play nice can hold without tearing any gains made apart. Whether the fragile peace can hold against inexorable forces at work beneath the skin of whatever remains of ‘the left’.