Who are the next generation of NZ Left Thinkers?

datePosted on 17:18, January 24th, 2011 by Pablo

I almost choked on my chardonnay when I read over the weekend a quote from Chris Trotter stating that Bomber Bradbury represented the future of NZ Left thinking. Martin is a genial enough, alternative-minded, progressive niche market entertainer with strong opinions, generally good intentions and a decent grasp of current affairs. But Chris must have dropped an E to be that generous in his assessment of Bomber’s contributions to NZ’s Left intelligentsia. He also mentioned Jordan Carter as an up-and-coming Labour strategist, which seems to be less a product of party drug induced rapture and more of a wide-spread consensus amongst Lefty consignieri (and Labour Party consiglieri) about Jordan’s talents as a party strategist.

That got me to thinking about who are the next generation of NZ’s Left thinkers. I have had a fair share of young progressives pass through my classes while engaged in university teaching in Aotearoa (including, I believe, both Jordan and Bomber), which makes me wonder who in the under 40-generation will inherit the mantle that Chris, Matt McCarten, Laila Harre and very few others currently represent (not that I think that the over 40′s are finished in terms of their contributions to activism and Left political thought–it is the future of the ideological school that has been piqued in my mind by Chris’s comment). Note that I am not thinking exclusively of activists, academicians or politicians, and am trying to get an idea of the wide swathe of young Left thinkers that may be out there.

I of course am biased in favour of my colleagues here on KP Anita and Lew, who I think represent the sharper edge of Left-leaning bloggers. Idiot Savant is another blogger who seems to fit the bill, as do some of the authors at The Hand Mirror, and some of the folk over at the Standard exhibit intellectual depth beyond their obvious partisan ties. Bryce Edwards might be one who straddles the gap between blogging and academia (although truth be told, I know little of Bryce’s scholarly writing and am quite aware that there are very few quality Left academicians in NZ social science departments–most are po-mo or derivationist navel-gazing PC knee jerkers with little to offer by the way of contribution to modern Marxist, neo-Marxist or post-Marxist debates). There are bound to be young Maori who can contribute to future Left debates from more than a reflexive, grievance-based perspective. Of the neo-Gramscians, Kate Nicholls is a personal favorite of mine, but I am too close to her to be fully objective. For their part, I do not think that Stalinist or Trotskyites represent the future of NZ Left praxis, much less thought.

The issue is important because unless the NZ Left can rejuvenate itself intellectually and separate its scholarly tradition from the base practice of partisan politics and street-level activism, then it will cede the field of reasoned debate to the intellectual Right, something that in turn will have negative consequences for the overall prospects of progressive change in the country. In other words, the Left needs to reproduce itself intellectually as well as politically if it is to compete in the market of ideas that in turn influences the way in which the very concepts of politics, citizenship, rights, entitlements and obligations are addressed.

I therefore pose the question to KP readers: who would be on your short list of young NZ Left intellectuals who represent the future of progressive thought in Aotearoa?

92 Responses to “Who are the next generation of NZ Left Thinkers?”

  1. Daveosaurus on January 24th, 2011 at 17:56

    I’m not sure if they fit the age criteria (on the internet, you can be any age you want to be) and I don’t know if they are hiding among the list you’ve already mentioned (I don’t care about bloggers’ real names so much as the quality of their writing), but the Reading the Maps crowd would be my top choice for young thinkers to watch in the future. Even when they’re wrong (which isn’t often, but isn’t unheard of either) they’re interesting and challenging to read.

  2. Bryce Edwards on January 24th, 2011 at 20:04

    Wow – interesting question and exercise. Important too.

    And I’m honoured to be considered on Pablo’s initial short list!

    I’d agree with the above comment – Scott Hamilton from Reading the Maps is certainly impressive. The other blogger who immediately comes to mind is Andrew Geddis at Pundit. And, yes, there are plenty of other bloggers and blog dwellers who are sometimes very impressive, but sadly, too often they go via pseudonyms that make it impossible to know who they are. Tim Bowron (who blogs irregularly at Fatal Paradox) is very smart, but seems to be trying to keep away from politics at the moment. There’s a few other emerging younger intellectuals like Morgan Godfery (excellent Maui St blog) and Jake Quinn. Tom Semmens is pretty onto it too. And Victor Billot.

    I also know of a huge number of other highly intelligent and insightful left intellectuals that have gone overseas but have ideas of coming back to do more studies here. (Geoffrey Miller, John Moore, Oliver Woods). The problem seems to be to get these talented people engaged.

    And there’s all sorts of partisan people that can be very insightful, but their talents are probably wasted on parliamentary politics and the drive for power – such as Grant Robertson and Andrew Campbell.

    I’ve probably omitted some important names, but that’s all off the top of my head.

  3. Pablo on January 24th, 2011 at 20:19

    I am still trying to offer some baseline criteria for selection in this group.

    Besides the under-40 age limit, perhaps nominees should demonstrate analytic and conceptual depth when speaking to matters of public import, should be able to handle counter-arguments with reason and wit, be committed to engaging in public debate or informing public opinion, and be (relatively) widely read or heard.

    That may include bloggers but surely there are young Left intellectuals who wok outside that medium and yet are influential if not amongst the public at large, then certainly amongst their peers.

  4. Scott on January 24th, 2011 at 21:06

    Some of the names mentioned are good ones. I am constantly delighted by the depth and strength of Lew’s work here. Scott Hamilton’s work is always impressive and well-researched. Bryce Edwards is also a must read.

    I’m struggling to think of anyone actually engaged in national politics though…

  5. Monkey Boy on January 24th, 2011 at 21:16

    There aren’t any. ‘NZ left thinker’ is a three-tiered oxymoron.

  6. tochigi on January 24th, 2011 at 21:24

    * do any of the co-authors of the No Ordinary Deal book project fall into this category?

    * are there any young Green Party activists ready to assume the mantle of Sue Bradford?

    * anyone who is associated with the Labour Party excludes themselves from the description of “left thinker” on both counts.

    * i really hate to see the leagacy of Bruce Jesson disappear without a trace. are there young people out there who can take the bastards on at their own game, and win, like Bruce did?

    * my favourite (ex-)Marxist is Stan Goff. is there anyone in the young nz left who cites Stan as one of their intellectual influences? (yeah, probably not, but still, there’s always hope)

  7. Pablo on January 24th, 2011 at 21:28

    Monkey Boy/Lee C: Do not be a troll. We do not do it over at your place, so please desist.

    Scott: Are you in that age bracket? If so your writing will qualify you.

    Tochigi: All good points/questions. As a contributor to the NOD volume I can say that we are all over-40s, unfortunately. Your Labour Party comment was very funny and TBH, I tend to agree.

  8. Scott on January 24th, 2011 at 21:52

    Scott: Are you in that age bracket? If so your writing will qualify you.

    Well I am under 40, but I don’t think I have the gravitas or intellect to be a great thinker!

  9. Deborah on January 24th, 2011 at 21:53

    I’ve probably omitted some important names, but that’s all off the top of my head.

    And not a single woman among the names you mention.

  10. Pablo on January 24th, 2011 at 22:03

    Deborah:

    That was the first point of order raised about Bryce’s comment by the more reasoned individual in my household.

    In his defense he did say he was winging it, so perhaps upon reflection he can add some gender balance to his list of Lefty luminaries…

  11. Bryce Edwards on January 24th, 2011 at 22:32

    Deborah – yes, the lack of females in my list is indeed rather disturbing. Hopefully that doesn’t reflect badly on me though… Quite simply, none came to mind, and Pablo had already put forward the obvious ones. Who would you add, Deborah? I’m very interested to know.

    In terms of young female leftwing intellectuals, it’s my feeling that many end up in party politics or journalism, and are lost to intellectualism! Claire Browning is quite impressive, but I have no idea of her age, and she’s not particularly leftwing.

    As I’ve written before (http://liberation.typepad.com/liberation/2009/08/whats-left-in-2009-in-new-zealand.html), ‘there’s few leftwing intellectuals of any prominence’ in this country, and a large part of the crisis of the left in NZ is related to anti-intellectualism on the left. That’s why I regard Pablo’s blog post as being so important.

    Yes, I would definitely include Scott Yorke in the short list as well.

  12. Robert Winter on January 24th, 2011 at 23:00

    Rhema Vaithianathan is someone who crosses the professional academic-Left divide and is, I believe, though I am far too traditional to enquire, more or less within the required age group.

  13. Pablo on January 24th, 2011 at 23:03

    Robert:

    Is that Stargazer?

  14. tochigi on January 24th, 2011 at 23:36

    Is that Stargazer?

    no, that’s Anjum Rahman.

    Rhema Vaithianathan:
    http://homes.eco.auckland.ac.nz/rvai001/

  15. George D on January 25th, 2011 at 00:24

    Absent also your list is Julie Fairey, who I have a lot of respect for.

    However, I’ll take a crack at answering the why, which leads to the who. I know perhaps 20 or 30 minds as sharp as the ones you mention, all to some degree politically engaged. But absent a home – they are just speaking into the wind. Most prefer to save their breath. Many have deserted “left politics” for more direct forms of struggle/praxis: working class, union, and beneficiary activism; tino Rangatiratanga; environmentalism; feminism; and animal rights. Most engaged in at least one, with the knowledge that the structural conditions that enforce one enforce them all.

    By this home I mean a space in which they can express their ideas and be taken seriously, at the very least by each other, and from which to develop a sustained and productive critique of society. Indymedia attempted to be such a venue in the early 2000s, but its tendency to attract marginalia and lack of space for focus impeded it.

    This is not a problem that I am blaming on them, or on those on the rest of the left (old against young). The fourth and fifth Labour Governments obliterated discursive space that the progressive left might inhabit. A corporate media duopoly (thanks, Michael Cullen!) means that there’s no point trying to have these debates in a privatised public.

  16. Scott on January 25th, 2011 at 01:27

    Thanks for those plugs, folks. I’ve made a typically long-winded comment on this interesting discussion over at:
    http://readingthemaps.blogspot.com/2011/01/have-our-intellectuals-gone-to-blogs.html

  17. reader on January 25th, 2011 at 07:43

    Almost all on the lists produced so far would fit into the middle-class professional (particularly academic) category. (I take it you were being droll with the chardonnay line Pablo).

  18. pollywog on January 25th, 2011 at 10:04

    *sigh*…if only more Pasifikans even knew the difference between leaning left or right or went on to tertiary study to become intellectuals, me inclusive.

    Then we’d have the problem of countering christian cultural conditioning to truly speak our minds with force and clarity

    what a wonderful world that would be !

  19. Sanctuary on January 25th, 2011 at 10:08

    Our intellectuals may have gone to the blogs, but perhaps that is preferable to an impromptu going to the bogs…

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/jan/24/jorge-luis-borges-grave

  20. Scott on January 25th, 2011 at 11:11

    Hi Pollywog,

    have you had a look at some of the Tongan intellectuals who have come out of ‘Atenisi University over the last few decades? The university itself is in a bad state – I visited it in November – but some of the work of its graduates is remarkable, and certainly isn’t the product of ‘Christian cultural conditioning’:
    http://readingthemaps.blogspot.com/2010/11/
    decline-and-defiance-at-athens-of-tonga.html

  21. Scott on January 25th, 2011 at 11:13

    Apologies, here’s that link to the article I wrote about ‘Atenisi again:
    http://readingthemaps.blogspot.com/2010/11/decline-and-defiance-at-athens-of-tonga.html

  22. Chris Trotter on January 25th, 2011 at 11:22

    As some of the above comments demonstrate, it’s no easy matter to produce a definitive list of, well, just about anything, off the top of your head.

    It’s even harder, let me tell you, when the tape is rolling and the interview is drawing to an end.

    In the context of my discussion with Cameron Slater, however, the identification of Martyn “Bomber” Bradbury as a leading voice of the NZ Left was perfectly natural. (And certainly not drug-induced, Pablo.)

    Mr Slater’s intention, as I read it, was not to have me identify the best thinkers, or the best writers, among the younger generation of NZ leftists (were that the case, then Bryce Edwards and Scott Hamilton would’ve been right at the top of my list) but rather to name those most likely to replace the over-40 public “faces” and “voices” of the NZ Left – the Matt McCartens, Sue Bradfords, John Mintos, Paul Buchanans, etc.

    By those criteria, Martyn certainly rates a very honourable mention – especially given his independent (i.e. non-partisan) status and media reach.

    With hindsight (and time to think) I should also have identified Bryce, who is rapidly building up a strong media presence as a political commentator. He’s even managed to dodge the “left-wing” tag (a reason, perhaps, for keeping his name out of lists like this
    ;-)

    It is genuinely worrying that – using the above criteria – it is so very difficult to name more than two, independent, under-40, media-recognised “faces” and “voices” of the NZ Left.

  23. Joss on January 25th, 2011 at 11:57

    How does this list stack up compared to a similar list of independent, right wing political commentators, under 40, that are well recognised by media?

    I believe Cameron Slater is under 40 – are Whaleoil and Aaron Bhatnagar? Matthew Hooton? Who else is there?

    The picture may not be as bad as we think.

  24. Graeme Edgeler on January 25th, 2011 at 13:14

    It is genuinely worrying that – using the above criteria – it is so very difficult to name more than two, independent, under-40, media-recognised “faces” and “voices” of the NZ Left.

    And the young faces of the New Zealand Right are …?

    And the young thinkers of the New Zealand Right are …?

    What is it we want these faces/thinkers to do? How is it that Laila Harre and others fit the bill, while Bomber might not? Is Roger Douglas one of the right thinkers? Is John Key just a face? If I knew what we were talking about, it might help me add to the list.

    p.s. Cam Slater is 42.

  25. Pablo on January 25th, 2011 at 13:27

    I had intended to run the question about young Right thinkers in my next post.

    I do not know about other people but my interest is not so much on media types but on younger minds who have the potential to frame Left approaches to NZ society based upon their intellectual depth and the reach of their thought. Although media commentary like Bomber’s can be biting when it comes to critiques of the Right, it does not substitute for proactive praxis or deep thought.

    As someone mentioned above, there must be young Greens or people in UNITE that could fit the bill. I know of former students living abroad who would suit but the problem is that they are overseas and have yet to return to contribute to current NZ debates (e.g. Nina Hall).

    I will not comment yet on who the young Right thinkers might be but I certainly do not think that Whaleoil or Aaron B. will be leading the intellectual charge of the Right brigade.

  26. Graeme Edgeler on January 25th, 2011 at 13:41

    As someone mentioned above, there must be young Greens or people in UNITE that could fit the bill. I know of former students living abroad who would suit but the problem is that they are overseas and have yet to return to contribute to current NZ debates (e.g. Nina Hall).

    From the Greens … maybe someone like Holly Walker? I’ve no idea if she’s trying to influence their intellectual direction, and I haven’t read anything from her recently, but the Rhodes Scholar bit seems to fit.

    I would note that while she’s played – at times – an important role in the NZ Left, I’ve never really seen Laila Harre as an intellectual, so I’m still trying to figure out why you’d want an intellectual to take over her mantle…

  27. Hugh on January 25th, 2011 at 13:46

    I think there are innate problems with one generation trying to identify the leading lights of the next generation. I’m almost tempted to say anybody who does meet the prior generation’s standards by definition isn’t a leader. That’s probably a bit flippant, but I think it’s worth noting that the fact that it’s hard to pin down individuals may have as much to do with the people trying to do the pinning as the people who are prospective pinees. (And also to do with the extremely wobbly criteria for what constitutes a “public intellectual”).

  28. Hugh on January 25th, 2011 at 13:49

    Having said that I am a big fan of Bryce’s. (Hi, Bryce!) And I think his ability to avoid the Left-wing label is probably a part of it.

    Contrast Bryce’s approach with Idiot Savant’s. I/S takes an impassioned moral stand on almost every issue to the point where he uses the term “corrupt” to describe every form of political behaviour he doesn’t like. Bryce is much more dispassionate even though they probably substantively agree on almost all issues (with the major exception of environmentalism).

    Actually, to change the subject, I think part of the problem may be that there actually isn’t much space for Left oriented political thought in mainstream New Zealand culture. Those who critique the liberal-capitalist-nationalist consensus do so almost entirely from post-materialist or indigenist perspectives, not anti-capitalist ones.

  29. southernrata on January 25th, 2011 at 14:06

    I always enjoy Keith Ng’s analyses
    http://publicaddress.net/onpoint/

  30. Joss on January 25th, 2011 at 14:27

    I was going to say there’s a huge difference between having media recognition and being a ‘thinker’ or intellectual. They’re not mutually exclusive of course, but the media do tend to like having one or two ‘names’ to go to, rather than exploring a range of opinions.

  31. Pablo on January 25th, 2011 at 14:45

    Joss:

    The key to be a successful media commentator in NZ is to be glib and quick-witted. The attributes of an intellectual are to be reasoned, measured and thoughtful. Although there are a few people who can do both, for the most part what makes for success in one field is antithetical to success in the other.

    I should reiterate that I am not focused on academicians here. Instead, I am thinking of “organic” as opposed to “traditional” intellectuals (in the Gramscian sense), who may or may not be associated with academia. I have never felt that having a Ph.D. (short for “Pile it High and Deep”) was a necessary indicator of having common sense, much less intellectual acumen–it just means that one has become technically proficient and punched the required professional development cards in a specific discipline. Thus my query is directed towards finding those under-40s who are Left opinion-shapers regardless of their day job.

  32. Ruth on January 25th, 2011 at 15:03

    Scott Yorke of Imperator Fish fits all your abovementioned qualities. His humor has a sharp edge, and bites in a way that the Dimpost blogger does not. He reminds me of Lange in that respect.

  33. George D on January 25th, 2011 at 15:20

    Pablo, I’m interested in the concept of intellectual spaces – and feedback from you and others on whether these are a necessary precondition for the creation of productive public thought. Certainly there are intellectuals who work as lone beasts, but these seem to be the exception rather than the norm.

    Scott Hamilton argues above that blogs are such a venue, but my experience with them in New Zealand is that they have tended to be an echo chamber. The shrillest voices win out, and too much effort is expended on trying to regain the original conversation. I much prefer curated spaces (journals etc.) and places (physical and otherwise) where people can be intellectual equals and have conversations without being shouted down.

  34. George D on January 25th, 2011 at 15:22

    Scott’s own blog, and a few others (this, fairly often) being notable exceptions.

  35. Pablo on January 25th, 2011 at 16:47

    George D:

    I tend to agree with you that there is smoke than fire in NZ political blogs, but it seems also that is the reason people like me and others have decided to blog ourselves. Besides filling a niche in my writing, it is an outlet for more reasoned debate than is often found on-line. I see that increasingly, intelligent folk are taking to blogging in order to get away from the shouting and get their points across is a reasonable manner. Since blogging has a generational aspect to it (the young being more prone to doing it), it seems inevitable that some of the best Left talent would make its voice heard on blogs.

    However, since I spend a fair time overseas and am no longer directly associated with successive generations of young intellectuals the way I used to be when in academia, I am not in a position to nominate a short list of potential candidates for the “Young Left Thinker” category, which is why I have enjoyed reading what other people have to say on the matter.

  36. Monkey Boy on January 25th, 2011 at 17:22

    Pablo, if you want to ‘troll’ over at my pace youare welcome. These are the fundamental differences between us, mate, I’m not afraid of views contrary to my own and am not so up myself thatI can’t have a little smile even out of politeness when someone tries to be witty in my presence.

  37. Tom Semmens on January 25th, 2011 at 17:45

    Scott Hamilton argues above that blogs are such a venue, but my experience with them in New Zealand is that they have tended to be an echo chamber. The shrillest voices win out, and too much effort is expended on trying to regain the original conversation.

    It seems to me foolish to categorise “blogs” as having a single form that all share the same characteristics. Radio, like blogs, is also a “talk” based medium, and no one would lump Radio New Zealand in with the sort of vile ignorance encouraged by Leighton Smith. Blogs are also like talkback radio in that they seem to favour the troll and the agent provocateur. I have long held that blogs need tighter moderation – you don’t get free access to say what you like on NewsTalk ZB or even in a letter to the editor, so why people angst so much over moderating clear trolls and bots has always been a mystery to me.

    Readingthemaps is, for me, the best left wing site in New Zealand by a long way and to my mind the ONLY “intellectual” left wing website. It’s ideological position is clear and in Scott Hamilton it has a lucid and considered writer. Above all, the site “wins” because it is the only New Zealand website not afraid to discuss and regard intellectual ideas as important. Every other New Zealand site pretty much fails this test – a monument to our parochialism, and our anti-intellectual pragmatism that leaves New Zealanderd uneasy with anything that isn’t demonstrably empirical.

    To be fair, Pablo has noted elsewhere an obvious manifestation of this unease with ideas – our obsessive fascination with mechanism and process, but I wouldn’t think Kiwipolitico is left wing, because for my taste Pablo is to conservative (Yes, I know he’s a rabid socialist when viewed from the lens of his homeland) and Lew still a chanmpion of failed identity politics. Of course, we all know that identity politics MAY be left wing – but as Tariana Turia and Pita Sharples (and any number of suddenly conservative thirty something ex-left wing liberals with mortgages in leafy suburbs) demonstrate, it may also be very, very right wing.

    As for me, alas – I just fail the age test for the flattering inclusion on Bryce Edward’s list. But really, is age so important? Surely timing of intellectual blooming can be a moveable chronological feast?

  38. Monkey Boy on January 25th, 2011 at 18:44

    Now if I may qualify my ‘wit’ to me ‘left thinker’ is an oxymoron because from my observations at least in the blogosphere, the description could be equated with ‘intellectual laziness’. In this I mean that any one who is still using an out-moded paradigm such as Marxism is hobbled not only because it [Marxism] to my mind is redundant as a political analysis, but also because (again from observations on the blog) ‘left thinkers’ tend to either reduce themselves to ad hominem attacks on adverse views or else ban the expression of them. So to my mind, ‘thinking’ is not their strong suite -they are so limited in their world-view, and so threatened by other ones that they tend to reside in a self-imposed ‘echo-chamber’ surrounded by others who share their ideas, to the exclusion of others.
    Now, this may be unfair on actual ‘Left thinkers’ but really, has New Zealand produced a single Chomsky, Bertrand Russell, or George Bernard Shaw? No, because the societal seed-bed which rendedered that once vibrant creed relevant is now dead and dusty. Modern ‘Left thinkers’ are merely fooling themselves with a romanticised view of what they think it used to be like.
    This is not to suggest that kiwis are stupid, but that those who might have qualified for the description are long-dead. Those who presently think they qualify for the description of ‘left thinker’ are living in an intellectual la-la land. Also many of those who inhabit this intellectual la-la land exhibit neither the wit, brains or actual humanity towards their fellow man to break out of their sniffy condescension and actual ‘get down’ with real folk, preferring to peddle an ivory-tower sanitised version of ‘class struggle’ which has (again my opinion) a much reduced relevance to the modern world. Now, if you disagree with my opinions fine, but please don’t patronise me by dismissing this as ‘trolling’. I respectfully suggest to you that by doing so you would merely be supporting some of the observations I have made above.
    It’s like syllogilistic trap – You ask ‘who are teh next generation of Left Thinkers’ presupposes they exist in the first place, whihc sutomatically renders any view suggesting they may not, as a kind of heresy. So I suggest that the original question is a dishonest attempt to lead the gullible into agreeing with an unproven premise, which to my mind indicates that only responses that flatteringly promote the original unsound premise are welcome. But I would say that wouldn’t I?
    Thank you for reading this far.

  39. Hugh on January 25th, 2011 at 19:11

    Kind of ironic Monkey Boy that you hate on Marxism and then go on to say “Where are the Noam Chomskys?”

  40. Deborah on January 25th, 2011 at 19:49

    Well, New Zealand did produce Jeremy Waldron, whose cosmopolitanism is just plain wrong, I think, but his piece on homelessness is a classic. There’s a not-very-easy-to-read copy of it here, but if you go to Google Books and search on waldron, “homelessness and the issue of freedom” you should come up with it.

    Regarding leftwing women, our tradition of course includes the wonderful Marilyn Waring, former National party MP. For young female thinkers, Julie Fairey is the obvious one (blogging, that is), and I second the mention of Rhema Vaithianathan. I’ve been out of the country for a few years, and out of the academy for even longer, so I’m not sure who else is about. However, there are many women writing feminism… which can intersect with left wing thinking.

    Wasn’t there a stoush in the US political blogosphere recently wondering about where all the left wing bloggers are? Somehow, feminist bloggers didn’t seem to be regarded as leftwing bloggers… Not that feminism is necessarily left wing, but it can be.

  41. Scott on January 25th, 2011 at 20:14

    I’m not quite sure if you demonstrate the sort of intellectual lucidity you call for, Monkey Boy.

    I don’t mean to be obtuse, but I must ask: what is Marxism? I am strongly influenced by various Marxist ideas, and so is Bryce Edwards, and yet I disagree with Bryce on all manner of things. Right-wing warhawks Christopher Hitchens and Norma Geras still call themselves Marxists, and in Britain the invasion of Iraq was frequently argued for with (selective) references to Marx, and yet Marxists were at the ehart of the anti-war movement. The Marx who wrote the Communist Manifesto in 1848 was a profoundly different person to the man who wrote the preface to the 1882 edition of that same work, and who at about the same time denied being a Marxist. If you want to discuss Marx and Marxism, then a little nuance is necessary.

    And if you want to discuss New Zealand intellectual history, wouldn’t it be useful to make a few allowances for the concrete circumstances of our history and sociology? Most of the world’s radical intelligentsias have arisen in unevenly developed societies struggling to make the leap into modernity. In nineteenth century France and Russia the ruling classes needed to train a layer of intellectuals to oversee industrialisation and the construction of a modern state, with modern schools and bureaucracies and so on, that would drag a peasant population into modernity. Intellectuals in these countries were inevitably acutely conscious of their separation from other strata of the population and of their special role. A lot of them went rouge and took upon themselves the role of critic and conscience of their society. The same pattern was been repeated in the twentieth century in the Third World nations, producing phenomena like the Negritude movement in Africa and the Carribean.

    Great conservative intellectuals have generally been produced in societies haunted by the spectre of social instability and radical change. Durkheim arose in response to Marx, and in response to the revolutionary upheaveals Marx celebrated; Heidegger at first developed his thought as part of a movement of self-renewal within the Catholic church, a movement which saw conservative-minded priests and philosophers looking for new, more credible ways of justifying traditions which were under threat.

    Britain never needed a specialised intelligentsia of the French or Russian sort, and never faced the spectre of class war in the way that many European nations did. The British did, however, soak up a lot of exiles from parts of Europe that were suffering upheaval. Perry Anderson has pointed out that most of Britain’s leading intellectuals in the twentieth century – I think he mentioned Namier, Wittgenstein, Popper, Lakatos – were conservative ‘white emigres’ fleeing the chaos in their own countries.

    Like Britain, New Zealand has an advanced capitalist economy and has had a history of relative social stability; unlike Britain, we never soaked up many intellectual refugees from the turmoil of the twentieth century (I know we got Popper for a while, but he left). It’s not entirely surprising that our society hasn’t included large dynamic movements of distinguished intellectuals of either a radical or conservative bent.

    (That’s not to say, of course, that we haven’t had some very fine intellectuals whose lives and works warrant careful study! Here’s one of them: http://readingthemaps.blogspot.com/2010/11/deeper-water.html)

  42. pollywog on January 25th, 2011 at 20:17

    Hey Scott

    Yeah i thoroughly enjoyed your Atenisi piece. I only wished i’d come across Futa Helu a decade or two ago.

    so who amongst his acolytes has taken up the mantle he vacated with his passing ?

  43. Pablo on January 25th, 2011 at 21:27

    Monkey Boy Lee:

    Your first comment was neither witty or incisive. Your second comment was overly snide and defensive, to say nothing of plain wrong (on the issue of contrary views). Your third comment at least had something substantive to say even as it continued to drip with snarky pseudo anti-intellectualism. So it seems that you are gradually getting into the spirit of things here, even if your argument’s merits are quite debatable.

  44. Scott on January 25th, 2011 at 22:10

    Hi Pollywog,

    I didn’t realsie you’d seen the piece on ‘Atenisi: sorry for flogging a dead horse! ‘Okusitino Mahina seems to be the man, though he has apparently fallen out with ‘Atenisi and set up his own institute up in Vava’u. I assume you enjoy Albert Wendt’s quite strong criticism of the conflation of Pacific and Christian identities? One thing that fascinates me is the question of how far the old pagan forms persist beneath the Christian surface. Would you agree they are stronger in Samoa than in Tonga? I think they are stronger still in certain parts of outlier Polynesia. On the outlier of Takuu Christianity hasn’t even won over the pagans yet!

  45. QoT on January 25th, 2011 at 22:46

    Wasn’t there a stoush in the US political blogosphere recently wondering about where all the left wing bloggers are? Somehow, feminist bloggers didn’t seem to be regarded as leftwing bloggers… Not that feminism is necessarily left wing, but it can be.

    Deborah – wasn’t that the Aussies? I’ve previously linked on KP to the Hoydens’ and Woolly Days’ coverage of the whole “where the feminist political bloggers at? Oh not YOU, you don’t talk about real politics” debacle.

    I personally think of myself as a leftwing feminist blogger but wonder if the same kind of thinking applies: my recent rants have been on rape culture and fat acceptance, not Proper Issues. (And of course there was that timeChris Trotter accused me/us feminists of trying to destroy the Left …)

  46. SPC on January 26th, 2011 at 01:03

    I suppose the problem is common acceptance of what “left wing” identity is. And then whether the advocacy of left wing ideas is done in an intellectual way, or merely as a chosen partisanship of someone who is an intellectual.

    Does it mean someone well established taking the side of equity in society, or can it include someone of the underclass advocating for their self-interest or simply for a society order that gives them a fair go and provides for those in need. Do they need to have studied so they put this in the learned terms common to academia?

    Given the tools of the left – (via Hegel and Marx) of class struggle to realise equal access to government and subsequent use of the power of government to deliver to all of the people (step by step fabianism of social democracy), are still available for use – the first level struggle has already been won. The second level struggle to establish and secure public provision and a safety net is an on-going one for any economy (let alone in a contestable political society).

    Given globalisation, a banking and international currency financial system in crisis, today is a time for internationalisation of the left as never before. This is the third level for new developments.

  47. barry on January 26th, 2011 at 08:28

    Ahhhh- Deborah

    And not a single woman among the names you mention.

    Here we go – next will be:
    And not a maori among them, then
    And not a gay person among them, etc

    Deborah – why do people like you have to drag in the awful PC stuff – it detracts from the exercise.

  48. pollywog on January 26th, 2011 at 11:33

    To be honest Scott, i’m not much of a reader and am unfamiliar with Albert Wendt’s works, though not the name or mana of the person

    I don’t know much about Tongan pagan customs, only that back in the early missionary days they readily ditched many of them in favour of christianity, but in Samoa they cut a deal with the missionaries to retain a few of them, most notably the Pe’a.

    the underlying Pasifikan paganism i would equate to western superstition and the co opting of many symbolic dates and rituals into christianity with a lot of the actual meanings for traditions lost or hidden from mainstream sight

    just did a bit of google and it looks like i’m in for a treat discovering Wendt…cheers

    btw this guy sounds interesting
    http://pacificdreamsnewyorklife.blogspot.com/

  49. Jordan Carter on January 26th, 2011 at 15:01

    Hmm, strategist? Thinker? I dno’t know I would choose such a grandiose title to be honest. I do like having a rark up over a beer or two tho, as Chris has experienced more than once…

    The contribution I’ve made in the party is to try and get a more open policy-making process in place, and to contribute to the organisation’s governance and the campaigning organisation on the ground.

    The usual slaps about whether anyone in Labour is left wing are to be expected, and inevitably come from people who aren’t involved. I joined Labour and not the Alliance for the simple reason that the people involved with the latter were not people who seemed fond of working in an inclusive way (with honourable exceptions); and because I believed then as I do now that the only hope for a properly progressive government in New Zealand is one that is led by a Labour Party that is firmly on and of the left.

  50. Hugh on January 26th, 2011 at 16:28

    Regarding leftwing women, our tradition of course includes the wonderful Marilyn Waring, former National party MP.

    I would not call Marilyn Waring left wing.

  51. Tiger Mountain on January 26th, 2011 at 18:00

    A timely enquiry Pablo, up there with the previous one about public intellectuals. The “dark kiwi” posts were most interesting too. A difficulty is that people that have not declared themselves as marxists, or have declared themselves as not, are hardly likely to profer much illumination on the matter of new hard left leaders. Public pontificators are one thing, and under 40s? I would estimate several hundred capable younger people at least.

    Robert Reid NDU Gen. Sec. (over 40) if ya gotta have a name, a guy with wide international contacts and just beginning to settle into a stable, popular with members, blue collar union with a history of not sucking up to the CTU or Labour Party.

    I know quite a few under the radar lefties that have some marxist left tradition, knowledge, class analysis and fight in them. The working class will present it’s own leaders, to paraphrase. And so it will be really. Some old CPNZ leaders used to claim in the early 1960s that an experienced group of just 20 cadres could lead an NZ revolution in suitable circumstances and they were probably correct in a time when taking out a few railway bridges and telephone lines would have casused significant disruption.

    I would add, the NZ marxist left has consistently ripped its self to bits over international matters beyond expected solidarity issues, and operated on a ‘war’ or revolutionary ‘footing’ when NZ has clearly not so far been anywhere near a genuine revoutionary change of class power. The two old questions remain for Marxist Leninists, (it is ok to drop the “Stalinist” thank you very much), Maoists and Trotskyites alike: their stance on social democracy (reformism as an ideology as opposed to individual reforms), and finding a suitable balance between local and international revolutionary work.

    Things could change quite quickly if finance capital provokes another 2008. In the meantime it is likely some of us will blog on.

  52. QoT on January 26th, 2011 at 18:29

    Here we go – next will be:
    And not a maori among them, then
    And not a gay person among them, etc

    Deborah – why do people like you have to drag in the awful PC stuff – it detracts from the exercise.

    Barry, I’d refer you to George D’s excellent comment above:

    Many have deserted “left politics” for more direct forms of struggle/praxis: working class, union, and beneficiary activism; tino Rangatiratanga; environmentalism; feminism; and animal rights.

    Given attitudes like yours, would you like to make a guess as to why George says many people have “deserted” left politics? If your answer includes words like “marginalized” “ignored” and “shouted down by white male heterosexual interests” you get a cookie.

    (Edited for HTML fail)

  53. tochigi on January 26th, 2011 at 19:49

    The usual slaps about whether anyone in Labour is left wing are to be expected, and inevitably come from people who aren’t involved.

    how about, from people who twice voted for the Fourth Labour Government and were utterly betrayed and f***ed over for their trouble? or from people who have closely watched the yawning gap between what the Labour Party say they stand for and what they actually do? cf. Zaoui? Property market bubble? No “family support” for bebeficiaries or parttimers? the list is endless.

  54. me on January 26th, 2011 at 20:33

    Tiger mountain has a good point about the marxist left ripping themselves to bits over far off issues. although I totally reject leninism, I think the workers party are the only marxist party worth watching, precisely because they formed around agreement on an NZ political issue (namely they all hated the labour party) rather than trying to agree on the revolution in nepal or whatever.
    Having said that, leninism is dead and that is a good thing. marxists have some good ideas but they have to reject leninism if they are ever going to be part of a serious alternative to capitalism.

  55. Tiger Mountain on January 26th, 2011 at 21:22

    Well hello Paris Hilton aka “me”,
    “marxists have some good ideas but they have to reject leninism if they are ever going to be part of a serious alternative to capitalism.”

    The opposite actually. A strong center is a pre-requisite for left progress. Any number of united front, mass movement, and community group, Maori, and issue campaigns can be run but should ultimately all be aimed at creating strong NZ communist party.

    The veracity of posters such as ‘me’ really puts them in the “pie and Penthouse brigade” (aka SIS) as far as I am concerned until she/he offers something about a real world involvement and her stance in it.

  56. Eddie C on January 27th, 2011 at 05:26

    “most are po-mo or derivationist navel-gazing PC knee jerkers with little to offer by the way of contribution to modern Marxist, neo-Marxist or post-Marxist debates”

    Is this part of the problem? I think a lot of left-wing thinkers have no real interest in Marxist derived politics or social theory. And not all non-Marxist left wing thought is po-mo PC knee jerking. Or to put it another way, you’re drawing quite a narrow set of criteria as to what qualifies as proper/acceptable left wing thinkers.

    As others have said, as well, where are the public spaces for young intellectuals to be heard these days, beyond blogs? The academy itself is overwhelmingly (though obviously not exclusively) older, and has entrenched voices with particular perspectives on what is a ‘proper’ perspective (be it po-mo handwaving or hard-line marxism or whatever). Trying to get into that environment from the outside with a slightly different perspective is somewhat difficult. And it isn’t like the NZ media goes looking for young left-wing voices for comment on, well, anything. That being the case, what space is there?

  57. me on January 27th, 2011 at 07:50

    Hey Tiger, its a bit rich implying I might be a spook cos you don’t know who I am, particularly when you your pseudonym doesn’t even have a link to your website (like mine does). My objection to Leninism, or “strong communist parties” as you put it, is based on studying the history of those parties in the twentieth century and involvement in social justice struggles in NZ for twenty years. things are getting worse and all of us need to drop the dogma and try to figure out a way forward, because right now, the bad guys are winning.

  58. barry on January 27th, 2011 at 07:54

    QoT says

    Given attitudes like yours, would you like to make a guess as to why George says many people have “deserted” left politics? If your answer includes words like “marginalized” “ignored” and “shouted down by white male heterosexual interests” you get a cookie.

    Now dont be silly. People havent deserted ‘left’ to go and be more involved in some other current ‘hot’ activity (culture, sexualit, etc)

    theyve deserted ‘Left’ because most of them equate ‘Left’ with ‘Socialist’.
    One of the planks of socialism is that we are all equal, we shall be treated as equals, we shall all perform equally, we shall all be paid equally (by redistributing wealth), etc, etc.

    Deep down everyone knows that such thinking is but the issue of a weak brain. There are many examples of why this equality idea is incorrect. Take NCEA. It is an idea that is supposed to make everyone an academic winner – “we are all graduates”. Its b******t.
    As for the idea of wealth redistribution – all one needs to do is look at any socialist regime and it takes but 2 seconds to see that there is no incentive in such systems. Actually it should take a lot less than 2 seconds to see that the idea of everyone getting the same income no matter how much effort goes in is just stupid.

    Over the last half century the reality of socialist sand castles has been exposed – the system doesnt work. And most people can see that. What those who have deserted the left are doing is trying to find some other idea that does work. They will stumble across various ideas that might have some attractions – and currently some of them are things like biculturalism, feminism, various way out religious ideas (and I think one could currently put AGW in the cult sector), obesity, etc, etc. However these are but passing fascinations that briefly occupy active minds.
    One day those who have deserted the left will come to realise that you have to consider human nature in all of this. We currently are going thru a very PC phase where basic human nature is to be ignored. We will get over this in due course and then things will become clearer. Only when they (the deserters) understand and acknowledge whats make humans tick will they find something workable to grab hold of.
    But you can be assured that after 100 years or more of trying it has been established that socialism doesn make the averga ehuman tick

  59. Scott on January 27th, 2011 at 10:45

    In their different ways, Barry and Moneky Boy offer good examples of the strange paradox which besets right-wing discussions of ‘socialism’ and ‘Marxism’ in the New Zealand blogosphere. If someone had some sort of search engine (forgive me for not knowing the details, I’m not a big IT man) which could trawl New Zealand blogs for mentions of the words ‘Marxism’ and ‘socialism’, then I’m sure the results would show that these words made their appearances, far more often than not, in the discussion fora of right-wing sites like Kiwiblog.
    I’ve looked at a few of the long, winding, vituperative ‘General Discussion’ threads at Kiwiblog, and marvelled at how obsessed the commenters there are with ‘Marxism’.

    For all their references to Marxism, though, the folks at Kiwiblog and similar sites never seem once to cite, let alone discuss, a text by Marx, or a Marxist concept. For them, Marxism and socialism seem to have become vague swear words, to be aimed at anyone who advocates a more intricately tiered tax system, or a raise in the minimum wage, or an independent foreign policy, or some general belief in ‘equality’, whatever that means. (Here’s a hint, Barry: if you’re looking for a theory of a ‘basic human nature’ in Marx, you’re looking in the wrong place. Marx and Marxists are not interested in arguing that humans are ‘basically’ good or evil or intrinsically fond of equality or inequality. Marx explicitly denies there is such a thing as human nature: for him, the idea is an abomination, a hangover from the days before Darwin destroyed the notion that creatures had static, ahistorical ‘essences’ given to them by some creator.)

    There’s never any mention, from the obsessively anti-Marxist right-wingers, of the basics of Marx’s intellectual system – his materialist view of history and historical change, his dialectical method of analysis, his concept of modes of production,
    his use of the base-superstructure metaphor to try to capture the relationship between the different parts of society, his theories of the tendency for the rate of profit to fall and the tendency towards crises of overproduction, and so on.

    I don’t expect right-wingers necessarily to agree that Marx’s intellectual creations are useful for the analysis of society and history, but I do think that if they spend so much energy deploring Marx and socialism then they might want to find out a little about what Marx and socialism actually are.

    It’s easy to get the impression, reading some of the more paranoid comments at sites like Kiwiblog, that Marxists control large parts of New Zealand society, especially the trade unions, the state sector of the economy, and the education system. The reality, of course, is that Marxist ideas have no hold at all on the mainstream of our society. They are only upheld by a tiny number of people, and sometimes – as some
    of the latter comments in this thread show – the way they are upheld is dogmatic and counterproductive. The influence Marxism did enjoy thirty years ago in the trade unions is only a memory now.

    The only people in New Zealand who at present do seem to have a discernable attraction to Marxist ideas are postgraduate students in the social sciences and humanities. A small but noticeable minority of students in these areas seem to become enthusiastic about Marx’s method and his concepts as they undertake their research.

    If the paranoiacs at Kiwiblog are to be believed, these young people are attracted to Marx because they’ve been brainwashed by their teachers, and because they want to ‘fit in’ to a Marxist public sector. In reality, of course, an interest in Marx is usually an encumbrance, rather than a benefit, for any postgraduate researcher. Marxism is not fashionable amongst Heads of Department, and Marxist concepts are not likely to smiled upon in the public sector beyond the university.

    A sophisticated interest in Marx does not even give students much credibility with New Zealand’s miniscule Marxist political groups: many of these groups are decades or more out of touch with the research produced by Marxist scholars, and in any case are more interested in selling papers and organising meetings than in exploring the finer points of research and theory.

    The reason why postgraduate research students continue to be drawn towards Marxist ideas has nothing to do
    self-interest, or even, in many cases, with political belief. They are drawn towards Marxist ideas because those ideas, despite their incomplete and sometimes contradictory nature, offer exciting ways of understanding society and history. For all its flaws, and in spite of its continual need of refinement and revision, Marxism as a mode of analysis is vastly superior to anything offered by postmodernism, with its theoretical fuzz and inability to see the big picture and long duree, or classical liberalism, with its futile focus on a non-existent rational individual
    consumer as the unit of analysis, or the halfway house of Keynesian/social democratic/Third Way thinking about society, with its politically-motivated evasions and equivocations.

    Marxism is such a powerful way of analysing society and history that it has been coopted and abused by people with belief-systems Marx himself would have abhorred. We all know about the way that Stalinists captured and distorted Marx’s ideas, turning them into a closed, rigid, inhuman system, but what is less known is that the more thoughtul parts of the right have been pillaging Marxist ideas for many decades. Some of this pillaging has had benign, even beneficial effects. Eric Hobsbawm has noted the way that certain ideas of Marx’s – the notion that the material base of a society influences and places limits upon the ideas which can be generated in that society, for instance – once seemed shocking, but have become accepted even by conservatives in disciplines like history.

    At other times, though, the appropriation of Marx can be destructive. Marxist ideas were used in a distorted form by hawkish intellectuals like Christopher Hitchens and Norm Geras, journalists like Nick Cohen and David Aaronovitz and even by the British government minister John Denham to justify the invasion of Iraq. In the late nineties and early noughties, when Western economies were surging and politicians and business analysts were proclaiming the end of the boom-bust cycles, influential economists began to reach for Marx’s early acclamations of the dynamism of capitalism, strip them of their nuance and their historical context, and use them to argue for the invincibility of the system in the twenty-first century (see, for example, Meghnad Desai’s much-discussed volume Marx’s Revenge: the Resurgence of Capitalism and the Death of Statist Socialism).

    I won’t hold my breath, but the day that the right-wingers of New Zealand blogosphere actually make the effort to find out what Marx thought will be a great step in their intellectual evolution. It will also make their arguments a lot more interesting. As it is, we have to put up with the sort of irrelevancies Barry
    and Monkey Boy have offered up in this thread.

  60. Sanctuary on January 27th, 2011 at 11:10

    I won’t hold my breath, but the day that the right-wingers of New Zealand blogosphere actually make the effort to find out what Marx thought will be a great step in their intellectual evolution. It will also make their arguments a lot more interesting. As it is, we have to put up with the sort of irrelevancies Barry
    and Monkey Boy have offered up in this thread.

    But that is like the the risk of eating the free food offered at musical festivals by the Hare Krishna folk – you might be comtaminated by their ideas, or worse, converted!

  61. Pablo on January 27th, 2011 at 13:04

    Scott:

    I really enjoyed your last comment. It reflects my own views on the the status of Marxism, its ongoing utility and the misconceptions or ignorance about it in a very articulate way. The only thing missing was a comment on what Marxism offers that is more than a critique of capitalism (both as a productive form as well as a social construct). But nicely said in any event.

  62. lyndon on January 27th, 2011 at 14:01

    I’ve looked at a few of the long, winding, vituperative ‘General Discussion’ threads at Kiwiblog, and marvelled at how obsessed the commenters there are with ‘Marxism’.

    When I worked at a student newspaper we had a correspondent who regularly allowed his anti-leftist wrath to overcome his spelling. He more than once accused the student union of falling victim to a Marists.

  63. QoT on January 27th, 2011 at 18:42

    Deborah – why do people like you have to drag in the awful PC stuff – it detracts from the exercise.

    Now dont be silly. People havent deserted ‘left’ to go and be more involved in some other current ‘hot’ activity (culture, sexualit, etc)

    Barry, why do people like you have to drag in the “Marxism is dead” stuff? It completely ignores the exercise.

    I think it was pretty clear that George D was discussing people who would be in the Left movement or who consider themselves as part of the Left but have chosen to focus on other, not-specifically-Left issues and theories due to the reasons I outlined: feeling marginalized or ignored or being told that their priorities continually have to be put on hold to concentrate on the “real” (white male heterosexual) issues.

    Personally, I certainly identify with the Left, but many left thinkers have made it very clear that they perceive my priority issues (or even the entirety of feminism itself) to be either irrelevant or even destructive to the left. (Yes I’m talking about you, “Comrade” Trotter.) So where does that leave us?

  64. bradluen on January 27th, 2011 at 20:57

    Marxism as a mode of analysis is vastly superior to anything offered by postmodernism… classical liberalism… or the halfway house of Keynesian/social democratic/Third Way thinking…

    Some of us who did our postgrad studies in Not the Humanities are suspicious of Marxism-as-an-Ism because its claimed power seems too magical, too sexy to be true. It’s not that it lacks rigour, it’s just that the rigour seems (to someone who doesn’t read the literature for a living) to be more about self-consistency than congruence with the empirical world; in this, it’s similar to Objectivism, albeit with foundations that are less evidently wrong. Anyone who identifies as proper Left is going to use of a lot of work by Marxists–for instance, I wouldn’t want to try to make sense of culture without Raymond Williams and his descendants. But there are many socialisms, and I’m more interested in the ones that are serious about verification; I have the feeling that these are rarely Marxist. But maybe I’m wrong! I’d welcome suggestions as to Marxist work that fits the bill. Bonus points if it’s by a young New Zealander or especially relevant to young New Zealand; super bonus points if it’s twelve pages or less.

    PS: I know that many attempts to make social science sufficiently scientific are silly (e.g., most of economics) but still think this the major road forward.

  65. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Paul Wiggins, Lew. Lew said: On KP: Who is the future of NZ Left intellectualism? A pretty robust debate which we'd love people to join. http://arseh.at/3ov [...]

  66. Scott on January 27th, 2011 at 22:37

    Hi Brad,

    I agree with you that Marxism can become a dogmatic system of thought that overdetermines the research which its adherants do, dictating in advance their conclusions. I think this sort of danger clings to any ambitious research programme, which lays out a methodology and a set of hypotheses that are inevitably quite speculative. Freudianism and processual archaeology are, or were, just much at risk.

    I think, though, that in Marx’s own oeuvre we see a resistance to the ‘freezing’ of his hypotheses into a dogma, as he repeatedly abandons formulations he had once made so confidently, after finding out through intensive empirical research that he had been mistaken. I mentioned earlier in this thread the way that Marx abandoned the Eurocentric, pro-imperialist arguments of the first section of the Communist Manifesto in his last decade, after doing an extraordinary amount of study of non-Western, pre-capitalist societies and the onslaught that these societies were suffering from the heartland of capital.

    I think that the Cold War, particularly in the ’50s and ’60s, encouraged dogmatic readings of Marx from both left and right, but the end of anti-communist hysteria in the West, the opening of archives in the East, and the publication and study of some of Marx’s ‘heretical’ late writings, as well as some of his very early writings, have done much to discourage the notion that any single ‘definitive’ reading of his oeuvre is possible (the same process has shaken up the study of Lenin and of Bolshevik history).

    You asked about interpretations of Marx which discard some of the dogmas of old, and which are oriented towards New Zealand and the Pacific. I know it’s dreadful to self-advertise, but I have a book coming out in the UK in April which looks at EP Thompson and certain other thinkers who were drawn towards Marx’s late, post-Eurocentric writings. In the introduction to the book, which I plonked on my blog a while ago, I try to argue that both the later Marx and Thompson were preoccupied with the impact of capitalism on the so-called margins of the world, and that they therefore have considerable value for contemporary Pacific thinkers:
    http://readingthemaps.blogspot.com/2010/02/ep-thompson-today.html

  67. Lew on January 28th, 2011 at 00:19

    My initial thought when I read this post was “how would we know?” There seems such a paucity of left intellectualism in NZ, outside the academy and political/pseudo-political organs, but I suspect this is simply because we see so little of it. I am reluctant to consider blogs and bloggers as meeting the criteria for that reason. Blogging, much though it pains me to say so, barely makes a blind bit of difference to anything, and absent some other achievements — writing or appearance in more relevant media, policy or political activities, academic research or other such contributions — I don’t think that writing a blog, however good it is, qualifies one as an intellectual.

    I have come to this discussion late and was reluctant to engage for a couple of reasons. The first is that I’m a bit uncomfortable being included in such a list as this; for the reasons articulated above, and also that, far from feeling like any sort of intellectual, I feel very much like an ordinary dad and husband struggling to hold things together. The other reason is that I’m very conscious of the potentially corrosive nature of Marxist/post-Marxist/non-Marxist infighting. While important, it can serves to distract from other issues such as those we’re discussing. That said, I’m probably going to add to it now, in the hope of homing in on what the hell a ‘left’ intellectual is or should be anyhow.

    Part of the problem with the definition is the insistence by some of the more hardline Marxists on ideological unity; essentially that, unless pulling toward an ultimately socialist/communist goal, people aren’t really ‘of the left’. Such has been evident in this thread. It is a restriction not usually internally imposed by members of the intellectual right upon their own, and the two major groups which do insist on such purity (Randian libertarians and religious fundamentalists) are their own lessons in political irrelevance. That having been said, it’s important that these factions not bottle their own perspectives; better to let them be known, but be prepared to set them aside as circumstances demand. Tolerate; allow disagreement to proceed gracefully; bend, but do not break.

    I agree with Scott’s excellent points about Marxism: it is much-maligned, and has broader applicability than zealots of either the right or the left camps would tend to think. I do not call myself a Marxist but I am by no means averse to his work, and consider it a crucial set of conceptual and philosophical tools. But I am opposed to the common tendency to adopt simplistic political implementations of Marx, especially where Marx’s class analyses are employed to circumscribe other analyses such as the feminist or indigenous analyses. In particular I think the drive toward classical Marxian socialism and communism to be probably the single most deleterious tendency in the modern left’s political discourse.

    Socialism, per Marx, has failed in all of its (admittedly warped and imperfect) implementations. Marx’s schema required that the power to put down a counter-revolution be maintained — against the peoples’ will if need be — until the revolution was complete. While it is true that the persistence of that power and its development into totalitarianism, as occurred in the best-known socialist regimes were not ‘true’ to Marx, that’s irrelevant: I consider it an inevitable consequence of impunity. For me, democracy must trump socialism; liberalism must trump Marxism, because only liberalism contains within it the necessary safeguards against totalitarian hijack. (I am perfectly prepared to accept that it’s open to other forms of hijack, and that the preference for one over the other is a value judgement, but I’ll put the Holomodor, Gulag Archipelago, Cultural Revolution, Year Zero and Juche up against any modern opposition you like, the Third Reich included).

    Even if a democratic type of socialism could be implemented (one which was not just essentially a liberal democracy with a freely-chosen set of policy preferences which happened to look a bit like socialism), in any case the existence of those regimes (and the facts of their support by some socialists, even after their excesses became known) have poisoned the discourse to the point where the terms ‘socialist’ and ‘communist’ could not be salvaged, even if we wanted to do so. In our political tradition few insults are more grave or toxic to a movement than ‘socialist’ or ‘communist’; and consequently the right avails itself of every opportunity to label all manner of things — any sort of wealth distribution, regulation or collective management, for example — as such, even when they’re not. This is perhaps a shame, but it’s a shame socialism has brought upon itself. (And some of the more deluded socialists adopt these exaggerated definitions to ‘prove’ that socialism, such as in Scandinavia, can work. This does not help.) Unless modern socialists can find a magic antidote to this poison, or unless they are genuinely working toward a (temporary) totalitarianism, electoral sentiment toward a movement’s philosophical underpinnings is relevant and cannot be dismissed. If the former case, then I say: good luck with that rehabilitation. If the latter case, then I want no part of it.

    All of which is to say: if being “of the left” in 21st Century New Zealand requires that one is actively working towards the establishment of a functioning communist party as someone, I think Tiger Mountain, suggested upthread, then the New Zealand left is beyond all redemption. I don’t believe it is, so my working definition of a left intellectualism with a future would be considerably broader. Crucially, I think it takes all sorts, and that there is still a place — albeit a small one — for those desk-pounding hardliners; a sentiment often not reciprocated by them toward me. But the reality of left praxis in 21st century Aotearoa is pluralist liberal democracy informed by Marx (and, to a greater extent, those who followed him), rather than classical revolutionary Marxism. The left must learn to accomodate this reality; the sooner the better, by learning to tolerate internal dissent in the common interest.

    So, for me, the future of left intellectualism is best served by those who integrate these competing strands of identity. In my view is not predominantly held by those who cleave to the “blue collars, red necks” doctrines which argue that working-class Māori are just another sort of elite who’re lording it up over their Pākehā brethren; or the sorts who see topics of gender and sexuality as a distraction from the ‘real’ business of male-dominant working-class warfare. Nor is it well-served by those who blindly fight bourgeois culture wars on topics like abortion, gay marriage, tino rangatiratanga or smacking without taking proper cognisance of the class issues which undergird them.

    But these are ideal types. Probably nobody balances those things adequately within one person. I myself have been guilty of falling into the latter camp too often, and I frequently criticise others for falling into the former. This is why diversity is so crucial: I fight my battles; you fight yours, and if we can coordinate, so much the better.

    L

  68. Scott on January 28th, 2011 at 00:59

    Hi Lew,

    I agree with your criticism of those who make Marxism a dogma, or a justification for the dictatorship of a bureaucracy, or a reason to write off political movements which identify by ethnicity or gender rather than simply by class. But I don’t think that the history of movements and governments which have claimed Marxist credentials is quite as straightforward as you claim.

    You counterpose Western bourgeois democracy to Bolshevism, but perhaps forget that in many cases bourgeois democracy was only achieved due to the threat posed by Bolshevism. The long-overdue introduction of universal suffrage in Britain, for example, was prompted quite directly by the revolution in Russia, and the fear it would spread to Britain. Even after Britain itself became formally democratic, 90% of the British monarch’s subjects lacked democratic rights.

    Today the bourgeois democratic states have lost most of their old colonial empires, but operate a type of neo-colonialism which supplies the material foundation for their democracies. Without the relatively high wages and welfare states which profits extracted from the semi-colonial world make possible, democracy wouldn’t last a year in any Western European society.

    You speak scornfully about various ostensibly Marxist regimes without acknowledging their historical context. To conflate Lenin’s and Stalin’s Soviet Union makes little sense. You cite North Korea as a supposedly straightforward example of the failure of Marxism, but ignore the fact that there was a genuine workers’ and peasants’ revolution in Korea which was only hijacked by Kim Il-Sung and Stalin after it had been decimated by that bastion of democracy, the United States. In South Korea Marxist forces established control of virtually the whole of Cheju Island for a time, without receiving any assistance from the North. They were slaughtered by the US’s puppet South Korea forces. South Korea has a huge socialist movement today, and some of its members actually make pilgrimmages to Cheju, to see the sites associated with the rebellion there. They don’t equate Marxism with the weird dynasty of the Kims; we shouldn’t either.

    You accuse Marxists, especially Marxists of the Stalinist persuasion, of ignoring issues like Maori rights, and some certainly have done, but the fact is that it was the Stalin-worshippers of the Communist Party of New Zealand who, in concert with Prince Te Puea, organised the first modern Maori land occupation:
    http://readingthemaps.blogspot.com/2008/05/remembering-1978and-1943.html
    It was the ‘moderate’, ‘democratic’ socialist government of Peter Fraser which was trying to destroy the village the Stalinists and their Maori allies fought successfully to save! Far from being indifferent to the situation of Maori, members of the Communist Party of New Zealand discussed the subject at great length in their theoretical journal Communist Review in the ’30s. Major intellectual figures in the party like Sid Scott, RAK Mason and Elsie Locke were preoccupied with the subject.

    It is by no means clear that the language of Marxism, or even (sadly) the language of Stalinism, is exhausted in the twenty-first century. In Venezuela Chavez quotes Marx and Trotsky and proclaims himself a revolutionary socialist, in Bolivia public servants are being asked to study Das Kapital, and most of Nepal and about ten percent of India are controlled by forces which identify with Mao and have kind words for Stalin. History is not as neat and its lessons not as straightforward as you seem to think.

  69. Phil Sage on January 28th, 2011 at 01:36

    Your problem Lew is that you are a Libertarian at heart but you fail to recognise it.

    You embrace the positive liberal ideal of free choice and reject the idea that some form of marxist compulsion is acceptable on the road to the socialist ideal.

    So what you mean is that you perceive that the best system is individuals making all of their decisions, whether democratic vote or the lifestyle they choose, freely and without compulsion or undue influence. When you take that to its logical conclusion you can only determine that Randian libertarianism in all facets of life is the ideal.

    The typical libertarian response, and the one that I think repels you, is that we should immediately abandon all support for those without power now and embed the existing power relationship.
    In that respect socialist and libertarian revolution are similar in that they will simply embed the current elite.

    The real path is being started down by Iain Duncan Smith in the UK. I am by no means certain he will be successful or that he has all the answers but it is a balanced recognition of rights and responsibilities.

    People whose parents and grandparents never learned responsibility cannot be expected to suddenly achieve libertarian independence without some assistance.

    Not quite the response you were looking for but that is what life gives you, imperfections and outcomes different from what you expect…

  70. Phil Sage on January 28th, 2011 at 01:59

    Scott – your response to Lew is exactly the problem of a failure to understand reality of so many of those on the left. You are willing to excuse all kinds of abuse on behalf of failed marxist states and utterly utterly utterly fail to recognise that any system that entrenches an elite, however temporarily it believes that to be, will inevitably fail or be compelled to use more and more force to enforce their elite status. Chavez is a perfect example of someone who clothes himself in the socialist dogma of marx whilst steadily denying people their freedom to choose. Every system is imperfect. Those which are based on individual freedom to choose must be superior to those which rely on the judgement of an elite. That means a bourgeois capitalist market democracy will trump a socialist “paradise” every time.

  71. Lew on January 28th, 2011 at 09:04

    Scott,

    I realise that history is not so neat as all of that, but I generalise by necessity. My assertion regarding the language of socialism holds within our political context, as I said. The developing world is a different matter (and not without its own troubles, as you know). But it is due to the wrinkles and exceptions you cite that I don’t rule out the contributions of the genuine socialists. But I’m by no means persuaded that they are anything other than wrinkles and exceptions. The fundamental critique — that it’s failed everywhere — in my view gives strong grounds for a highly precautionary approach.

    Phil, thanks for your enthusiastic diagnosis, but I have no stomach for replacing one set of utopian delusions with another. The very reason I’m not a libertarian, or anything of the sort, is due to the general lack of perspective and tendency towards “logical conclusion” extremism among libertarians and their ideological allies. Just because a little bit of something is desirable doesn’t mean an excess of it is perfect.

    The fundamental problem is that the equivalence you (and they) suggest between an actual dictatorship imposed to progress a Marxist revolution, and laws and norms and regulations imposed by a democratic government with an electoral mandate from those it governs does not hold. These things are not equivalent, and attempting to leap from one to the other — from Soviet-style collective production and redistribution to taxation, for example — is simply logically false. The role of the state is for the society to determine. It is not laid down in some set of holy writs, much less those of an amphetamine-fuelled Russian émigré of the 1950s.

    Because it is for the society to determine the role of the state, if a democratic society decided to embark on an aggressively libertarian programme of abolishing the machinery of the state, I would reluctantly accept it — just as I would accept a system of aggressive socialisation and redistribution, secured by a strong democratic mandate. But neither of these extremes are especially palatable to me, because I fundamentally don’t believe in either sort of utopia.

    Your response to Scott, ostensibly on my behalf, is unduly harsh but makes my central point well: any system which entrenches an elite, even temporarily, without a robust mechanism to remove them from power is a poor political system which will tend to achieve poor results. But it doesn’t follow from that that an absolute and fetishised enforcement of individualism will be any better.

    L

  72. Scott on January 28th, 2011 at 10:22

    It’s striking that neither Lew nor Phil actually discusses a single society or revolution in any detail.
    Both think using ostensibly ethical propositions which sound very worthy, but are so abstract that they actually have no value in analysing the real world in any detail.

    What Lew and Phil offer, instead of any engagement with concrete detail, is the recapitulation of the old idea, which we can trace back at least as far as Edmund Burke’s broadside against the French Revolution, and which was given its classical modern form by Karl Popper, that ambitious schemes to change the world are a form of utopianism, and that utopianism always leads to disaster, because it assumes that humans can be perfected. Popper and other Cold Warriors were convinced that revolutionary movements were composed of elites of utopian intellectuals who had worked out a rigid blueprint for the ideal society and were determined to seize power and impose their blueprint at any cost.

    One would never know, reading Lew or Phil, that Marx was one of the most ferocious critics of utopian thought on the left in the nineteenth century, and deliberately refused to discuss what a future society would look like in any great detail. Usually he would suggest looking for ideas about the future in the brief lives of societies like the Paris Commune, or (later) the Iroquois Federation – organisations which had been created in an improvisational fashion by people in the course of their political struggles.

    The reality, as I mentioned to Pablo the other day, is that most of the great revolutions have been chaotic, improvisational affairs, and that the societies which they have created have been overdetermined by a whole range of factors outside the control of the new society. Anyone who reads Lenin’s post-revolution writings is immediately struck by their improvisational quality, as he and his comrades struggle to deal with challenge after challenge and contingency after contingency. It is possible to
    criticise Lenin and the Bolsheviks for the policies they purused in power, but it is hard to credibly suggest that these policies were the outcome of some splendid intellectual plueprint they had been carrying around in their heads before 1917.

    Phil and Lew seem to think that Venezuela’s Bolivarian revolution is the latest example of intellectuals getting all utopian. Back in the late ’80s and ’90s, though, Venezuela society was of intense interest to IMF bureaucrats and right-wing modernisation theorists in the West because of the surpassingly radical neo-liberal ‘reform’ programme it had undergone. The state-dominated economy which had existed during the ‘Punto Fijo’ era of 1958-1988 was demolished extraordinarily quickly. Like Rogernomics in New Zealand, the ‘reform’ programme of the IMF in Venezuela was a real life example of dangerous utopianism. It was cooked up by ideologues in back rooms and imposed at breakneck speed on an unwilling populace.

    Instead of revelling in their new-found libertarian freedoms, the Venezuelan people staged a spontaneous, chaotic rebellion called the ‘Caracazo’ against the intolerable price of living and the disappearance of their welfare state. Their impeccably liberal government responded by slaughtering five thousand people in a couple of days and by effectively suspending civil liberties, while continuing to maintain the facade of bourgeois democracy. Chavez’s 1992 coup attempt was a direct response to these events, and was seen in Venezuela, a country where the army is regarded as a defender of democracy because of its role in the 1958 democratic revolution, as the act of a democrat.

    Chavez was swept to power in the late ’90s with no clear idea of what to do with Venezuela. The programme his government has followed is anything but dogmatic: it is the outcome of a complex process of push and pull between the interests of the grassroots workers and peasants who support Chavez, the interests of the many international companies with whom the regime has chosen to keep a good relationship, and the pressure from the US-backed, fanatically right-wing opposition, which has waged an undeclared civil war in the countryside and mounted a coup attempt. Chavez is not a utopian but a master improviser. I wrote a paper about the backround to and early progress of the Bolivarian revolution a few years ago:
    http://readingthemaps.blogspot.com/2007/01/analysing-bolivarian-revolution.html

    Phil accuses Chavez of implementing ‘Marxist dogma’, as if Marx’s massive and chaotic oeuvre, with its endless of research questions and tentative, frequently overturned hypotheses and its very few references to the post-revolutionary future, constituted some tidy set of prescriptions for political leaders. The fact is though, that Chavez has a much more nuanced understanding o Marx than certain commenters in this thread. He upholds certain Marxist concepts, but has made some virulent (and, in my opinion, justified) criticisms of some of Marx’s (early) ideas:
    http://readingthemaps.blogspot.com/2007/09/chavez-is-not-marxist-but-neither-was.html

    Reality is always messier, and more interesting, than tidy abstract formulas.

  73. Lew on January 28th, 2011 at 10:46

    Scott, I suppose I should apologise for having neither your time nor your stamina when it comes to this argument.

    Suffice it to say that the source of my scorn for utopian socialists stems from the fact that while Marx may have abhorred notions of utopia, the implementers of his theories (Lenin perhaps chief amongst them) were extremely assiduous in cloaking his theory in utopian cloth. As I noted above, it is not mainly Marx or his theories with which I have a problem; it is their implementation in reality. I have no truck with the No True Scotsman fallacy that ‘that’s not real socialism!’ It is as bad as the Randians and Mises-ites claiming that there has never been a capitalist society: perhaps true in a strict technical sense, but meaningless in the real world.

    Chavez and the Venezuelan (and to an extent Boliviarian) experiments I am as yet undecided upon. The extent and degree of political and social control exercised by the ruling elites gives me concern, but I do recognise that there is no dogmatic blueprint.

    I never argued, that, of course, with regard to the socialist failures I cited; rather I argued that whether well-intentioned or not, the counter-revolutionary imperatives and elite impunity central to those regimes would inevitably result in totalitarianism of one sort or another. That, I don’t think, is a very controversial statement.

    L

  74. Phil Sage on January 28th, 2011 at 11:17

    Lew – I agree with everything you wrote, it was inadequate grammar and nuance that failed to make it clear that I share your view that a utopian revolutionary path from socialist or libertarian dogma is doomed to fail and not supportable. I would only slightly diverge with your view that the democratic majority must be right by definition. There are fundamental truths. A democratic majority labouring under a massive misconception is not automatically right.( for a non political example try the widespread belief that housing prices will always go up prevalent till late 2007). It follows that their policy is not necessarily right and you do not need to accept and support their policy, however democratic. The response and the policy must be balanced. I think that is what we would agree on.

  75. Scott on January 28th, 2011 at 11:21

    ‘the implementers of his theories (Lenin perhaps chief amongst them) were extremely assiduous in cloaking his theory in utopian cloth’

    The trouble is that this simply isn’t true. It was Lenin who drove through the New Economic Policy, who insisted that the Soviet Union was not socialist but merely, in many respects ‘state capitalist’, who insisted on retaining capitalist managers at many factories, who condemned the utopianism of the Kommunist group that wanted to socialise the whole economy and then launch an invasion of Europe to start revolutions there, who condemned Trotsky as a dangerous utopian because of his neither ‘war or peace’ stance at the negotiations over the Brest-Litovsk Treaty, who opposed as utopian the Proletcult group of writers and artists who wanted to create out of thin air a brand new art which owed nothing to the bourgeois past…what you’re doing is unknowingly echoing Popper and Burke. The Cold War is over, comrade!

  76. Lew on January 28th, 2011 at 11:31

    Scott, you’re talking policy, action and high theoretical treatise. I’m talking of the propaganda which was employed to gain what meagre public consent and support they did for their programmes. Those in charge may not have been utopians, but they had no compunctions about selling the revolution to their proletariat as such. Of course, the capitalist equivalents are little better in this regard: except, to a certain extent, they delivered on their propagandised promises. But that’s a different argument.

    As for Popper and Burke: I stand guilty as charged. It’s not unknowing, in any case. If that renders me ideologically impure, then fine. I’ll respond with Danyl’s retort that there’s nothing ideologically wrong with me a couple of decades digging canals in Fiordland wouldn’t fix.

    L

  77. me on January 28th, 2011 at 12:43

    Phil rejects socialism because to him it is incompatible with freedom, and Scott correctly rejects utopianism but ends up defending Lenin.
    it is possible to have socialism and freedom. Bakunin pointed that out to marx many years ago but hardly anyone listened and we ended up with Lenin.
    it’s essential if we are going to get anywhere that we figure out how to build a socialist movement that is based on freedom. I happen to be an anarchist for that very reason (the fact that this is the first mention of the A word in this thread on the future of the left is a bit sad).

    One of the most interesting Marxist groups around is the International working class association inthe UK. they are tiny as usual, and I don’t agree with everything they do or say but they have written a lot of stuff on how to rebuild a radical socialist movement in Britain without becoming authoritarian here
    http://www.iwca.info/?p=10172

    if we could get beyond the boring “Marx sucks” vs “Lenin is great lets build the party” vs “vote for me” we might get somewhere

  78. bradluen on January 28th, 2011 at 19:17

    Scott: Browsing your blog, I figure I should read your book. I should read The Making of the the English Working Class first though.

    Everyone (but Lew in particular): Socialism doesn’t have to be disjoint from liberalism (or even some varieties of conservatism).

    Here’s what I think left liberals, democratic socialists, and for that matter a fair number of Tories can agree on:

    – A perfectly equal society, let alone a perfect society, is impossible, but this is no reason to think the status quo is fair. Society can be improved as surely as it can be made worse. There is room for a wide spectrum of ideas as to how to improve, and what constitutes improvement. The final choice of ideas to implement must be democratic.
    – Individual freedom is, in general, good. Yet there are trade-offs between freedoms; hence, some must necessarily be limited. Perfect agreement on what these limitations should be is, again, impossible; this doesn’t imply that underregulation is preferable to overregulation.
    – Economic freedom must be limited for a number of reasons: because an excess of economic freedom for one actor comes at the expense of others; because unlimited freedom to profit is incompatible with security. Taxation–even progressive taxation!–is a legitimate way to implement this limitation.

    Now it’s pretty unlikely that New Zealand will, in the view of left liberals or democratic socialists, have too high a level of socialisation or redistribution any time soon. (That doesn’t mean we have to agree with every proposal for socialisation or redistribution, though we might.) We can and should debate the extent to which Mickey Savage or Evo Morales or whoever should be a model for the contemporary NZ left. But unless one is revolution-or-bust, there’s no reason not to co-operate on political practice–and, as far as I can tell, there’s little argument against such co-operation.

  79. Scott on January 28th, 2011 at 20:21

    I think The Making of the Working Class is a higher priority read than my next tome, brad! It’s a marvellous book which seems to find new fans continually.

    I think an examination of reforming left-wing governments from the past brings out how hard it is to realise even a fairly moderate social demcratic programme in New Zealand. The dependence of this country on primary product exports and the ownership or effective control of much of the economy by foreign capitalists savagely limit the autonomy of our governments. The experience of the first Labour government, which started out with all sorts of progressive measures and then got called to heel, much to the frustration of its more radical members like John A Lee, by London bankers in 1938, is instructive.

    In the Third World fairly moderate reforming leaders like Chavez, Morales, Allende, Arbenz and so on create revolutionary crises – crisis which can only be resolved by the victory of one or another class – because they push at the limits of capitalism in their societies as they search for money to fund their programmes of social welfare, land reform and so on. The local capitalist class just can’t afford to give away anything.

    A full-blooded social democratic government in twenty-first century New Zealand would soon create a profound crisis here. Even that uber-Blairite Helen Clark was faced with a ‘winter of discontent’ as the media and big business got grumpy over her more ‘radical’ policies back near the beginning of her first term!

  80. Pablo on January 28th, 2011 at 21:10

    Scott:

    I do not want to argue with you any more but you are moving over the top when discussing Latin American politics. Equating Chavez and Morales with Allende and Arbenz is absurd in no small part because the former are self-styled “revolutionaries” (which they are not) and the latter were transparently open reformists whose major flaw was to not move against the plotting against them before it was too late.

    Moreover, Morales represents a different and more genuine type of indigenous socialism than Chavez, who is nothing more than a populist authoritarian using the mantle of “socialism” to disguise his ego-driven power lust (I suggest you read up on national populism to get a clue as to why you are misidentifying Chavez). Whatever the sins of his predecessors, he has proven to be a major disappointment for all of those with hopes for democratic socialism in Latin America–and his failures cannot be solely blamed on the US. Morales has issues of his own, but he has nowhere the authoritarian streak that Chavez has–after all, Chavez is a twice failed golpista while Evo was a community organiser. Their approaches to power start from different premises.

    It is clear that you have the vulgar and outdated dependency line going strong, in obvious tribute to your sociology mentors. The trouble is that your romaticised view of “socialism” in Latin America does not accord with the realities on the ground or the fact that people like Chavez actually impede the progress of democratic socialism in the region. Blaming Yanqui imperialism is not enough, especially when the PRC has moved into the region as a major trading partner that does not give a hoot about the nature of the regimes it deals with.

    There is an old saying in Latin America when it comes to the dictatorships. Capitalist authoritarianism is for the few by the few, while socialist authoritarianism is for the many by the few. In Venezuela the Boliviarian “Revolution” (actually an electoral transfer of power followed by radical reform) has moved from the latter to the former while the crime rate has soared, production has declined, censorship of the media and universities has become commonplace, and emmigration amongst the skilled labour force has accelerated (basic education and health levels have improved thanks to the influx of Cuban teachers and doctors, but that has bred resentment by nationalists against what they perceive as an “invasion” by Cubans, who also now have major roles in the Venezuelan intelligence and internal security apparatuses).

    Land distribution schemes and confiscations have not improved agricultural productivity while military spending has risen dramatically and out of proportion to any construed threat by the US and/or Colombia. Corruption amongst the Chavista elite is endemic.

    And that is why he is going to fall of his own accord. Once a “socialist” elite betrays its promises and begins to act like a new oligarchy, then their days are numbered. It is one thing for the propertied elites to rob and steal; it is quite another when the faux fatigue and beret wearing crowd start doing it.

    Stick with deconstructing EP Thompson and leave the analysis of Latin American politics to those who have some practical experience with its politics and culture. Otherwise you come off as pedantic and naive.

    PS. For some background reading on the subject of the contemporary Left in Latin America, try these: Paul G. Buchanan, “Prospects and Problems of Indigenous Socialism in Latin america (or, How to Assess the Latin American Left),” in W.E. Murray and R. Rabel, eds., Latin America Today: Challenges, Opportunities and Trans-Pacific Perspectives. Wellington: New Zealand Institute of International Affairs and Victoria Institute for Linkages with Latin America, 2008: 57-70; and Raul L. Madrid, “The Origins of Two Lefts in Latin America,” Political Science Quarterly, V125, N.4 (Winter 2010-11): 587-610.

  81. Scott on January 28th, 2011 at 21:39

    I’m sorry to come off so poorly Pablo, but I did do a fair bit of research into Chavez and the Bolivarian revolution back in 2006, and the result was a published paper (I linked to an excerpt from it upthread).

    I think that you might be the one who hasn’t done enough reading on the origins of the Bolivarian revolution and Chavez’s ideology. To condemn Chavez’s 1992 coup attempt without understanding the Caracazo of 1989 and the precedent of the military’s crucial role in the 1958 revolution is to misunderstand the event completely. Have you seen the polls done in the aftermath of the coup attempt which showed that must people interpreted it not as a Chile-style coup but as the foiled prelude to a popular uprising along the lines of the 1958 rising that got rid of Jimenez?

    Chavez was a far more moderate figure than Arbenz or Allende when he took power – he even retained the Fianance Minister from the previous administration, and he made a speech praising the Third Way! – and the revolution he has ended up leading has really been driven by the sort of furious reaction to mild reform which I’ve talked about.

    I think you ought to be wary of dismissing quite significant trends in research in the social sciences and humanities just because you disagree with them. You might not like dependency theory, and you might be convinced that those who dispute your definition of revolution are mistaken. But throwing around phrases like ‘vulgar and outdated’ about research programmes which have produced thousands of essays and hundreds of books, and still have wide influence today, doesn’t bolster your argument at all – it just makes you appear shrill.

  82. peterquixote on January 28th, 2011 at 21:50

    Does it matter who your next Marxist thinkers are,
    well it does if you are in University because you are using our taxes ; New Zealand is crippled economically and you people talk dialectical ,
    Marxism taught Lenin, and Lenin taught Stalin and the world will never forget and go back to a system that is fundamentally opposed to human nature .

  83. Pablo on January 28th, 2011 at 21:51

    Crikey Scott, if you think that dependencia theory is still the bomb (and BTW, which strand–orthodox, holistic or analytic–are you referring to, and are you including neo-dependency theory as well?), then you really are behind the times.

    As for the Caracolazo and Chavez’s origins–duh! I am talking about his subsequent evolution. Y’know, good intentions gone bad and all that.

    I realise that you think very highly of yourself and in part such self-admiration is justified. But when you start moving out of your relatively limited area of expertise and begin to pontificate about things that you in fact do not know much about, then I have to call you on it (especially when it happens to be in my field of experience and interest). I would hope that you would do the same if I started speaking authoritatively about the intimacies of EP Thompson’s thought without regard to the fact that I have not immersed myself in his work.

  84. Pablo on January 28th, 2011 at 21:53

    Thanks peterquixote, that was a very helpful contribution.

  85. Scott on January 28th, 2011 at 22:12

    I hope I didn’t give the impression I think highly of myself by placing one to many links on this and other threads, Pablo. I can assure you that my self-esteem still hasn’t gotten over my failure to qualify for the Counties Under Sixteen Premiers Cricket team. I don’t claim to be an expert on every country in the world – like you, I suspect, I dislike the type of cookie cutter pseudo-Marxist analysis which subjects every country in the world to a pattern picked from Russia in 1917 or France in 1789.

    I got involved in a serious research project on Venezuela partly because I wanted to get past all of the cliched analyses of that country which we have gotten from both the left and the right. I had a special motivation to do the research because I was involved in political movements where Venezuela was the subject of sustained argument. I took time off from the Thompson project, much to the dismay of my supervisor, and read as much of the English-language academic literature on Venezuela in the ’80s and ’90s as I could find. I think this literature, which was mostly produced by conservative US scholars who thought that they were monitoring the transition of the country from the social democratic Punto Fijo era into the wonderful new age of Washington Consensus – oh, how times change! – might be a resource the left has left untapped when it analyses Venezuela. I don’t know Spanish, so I don’t think I could go beyond a certain point in studying Venezuela. I had a half-opportunity to go there at one stage but didn’t pursue it because I felt I’d be a tourist.

    I don’t mind if you read my piece on Venezuela and criticise it, but dismissing it outright because I’ve given most of attention to other subjects, or because I use concepts indebted to the classical Marxist theory of imperialism (a theory which is not about to die out any time soon) seems a bit over the top. It does seem to me you’re being a bit territorial here, and the idea that a researcher has to stay within a ‘relatively narrow area of expertise’ isn’t very appealing. I published a book last November about a New Zealand poet: should I have checked with some sort of academic border police service before doing that?

    I think the debates at this site over the last week have been excellent – we ought to maintain their tone.

  86. Pablo on January 28th, 2011 at 22:23

    Fine Scott, I will go read your essay.

    And since I write about a variety of cases and things, I certainly do not oppose your eclecticism.

    It is just hard to read assertive statements about a region, countries, regimes and other topics in the part of the world where I grew up, worked, researched and engaged in direct action with a social democratic focus from someone who has not been there for a minute and does not speak one of the major languages. Sorry.

    I have just grown weary of the debate. It has made me grumpy, for which I apologise. However, I also fear that I am starting to think that Rightwing Cathy was right: this has become a wank fest.

  87. Scott on January 28th, 2011 at 22:45

    No problems Pablo. I personally always thought that Guyana, as the home of Clive Lloyd, deserved to be considered a major South American country.

    Bringing the subject back to EP Thompson: it’s a little-known fact that he almost emigrated to Latin America about 1960. C Wright Mills was working very hard to get him a teaching job in Havana, and in Mills’ Collected Letters we can actually see him writing to Fidel Castro explaining what a great bloke Edward is, and how much he can contribute to the revolution. In 1960 Thompson was part-way through writing The Making of the English Class, and it’s fascinating to consider how the book might have turned out if it had ben finished under the Cuban sun. Dorothy Thompson reckons that the job offer never came because the Communist Party of Great Britain got on the blower to Moscow, or to Havana, or to both places.

  88. Pablo on January 28th, 2011 at 22:47

    Indeed Scott, I believe the written (and personal) outcome would have been very different.

  89. katie on February 1st, 2011 at 03:33

    It’s been interesting to see how various defenders of the left have described themselves, and ‘the left’ in general, here.

    It’s hard to point to young leaders-to-come if you are only looking for those who are publishing.

    Bryce, many of us are aware of the stoushes in the past between the editorial crews of “the Spark” and “Socialist Worker”, which aren’t worth going into.
    There are good people who have left off writing for both of these publications, due to a variety of reasons, some of which were personality clashes inside very small crews. Some of them are still very active on the left, just not publishing.

    Look at the young leaders in the Unite! organisation.
    Look at who’s getting serious about working to increase union membership and pay & conditions for minimum wage workers, particularly.
    Look at the people who are involved in Benefits Advocacy around the country, who are in pressing need of support under this job-cutting, beneficary bashing government.

    As for the women who seem to be absent from the picture, well I personally know of several leftist feminists who are too busy running actual directly useful concerns to be bothered with writing material for blogs, pamphlets or monthly leftist rags.
    They’re the vaguely anonymous faces behind such endeavors as Women’s Refuge, Rape Crisis, Victim Support, and a range of small groups running animal refuges, and community support groups.
    Mostly, they’re also running it all with a very low budget or with volunteer supporters, not sitting in a university writing about politics with a cushy salary to buffer them from actual hardship.

    Occasionally some of us band together to run public events like Reclaim the Night, or to support the public street collections for Refuge or Rape Crisis, but mostly people are too busy to actually have social time and network, apart from through e-mail contact.

    There used to be lots of little leftist groups brewing up at intervals on university campuses. This is dying out, mainly due to financial pressures on students with loans, and also due to pressure coming onto Faculties to drop ‘non-earning’ courses, as the corporatisation mantra takes over, and entire schools are being disestablished, not to mention papers trimmed all through the Humanities, so that the VC’s can say that they have a lean tertiary institution which is paying its way.
    Feminists in particular have struggled for the past few years to keep Gender & Women’s Studies going on VUW campus, without success; other universities are also trimming their courses under John Key’s new dictum of reduce access, restrict class sizes, and recycle the kids into the unemployment queues.

    There have been some interesting young people in the student associations around the country, over the past ten years – many of whom have had to leave NZ to get useful employment. Some of these might become ‘left leaders’ of the future, as they head into their thirties.

    Pablo, this was an interesting discussion to stumble into (I’ll admit I was pointed here by somebody else) but I think you may be missing out on a whole raft of people if you only look at those who are writing. Some of them are just too busy doing useful stuff to show up on this particular radar. I haven’t even skimmed any of the environmental groups, either, where a lot of ‘non-aligned’ smart young people are doing leftist work without writing it up in those terms.

    That’s the real difference between those of us who are older leftists (between 40 and death, as the saying goes…) and the younger crowd; they’re getting on and doing stuff, while we write and get angsty about the future of political involvement. Less of them are thinking like career politicians, they’re more interested in solving critical problems facing humankind over the next couple of decades.

  90. Pablo on February 1st, 2011 at 04:04

    Thanks Katie,

    for that illuminating comment. One of my purposes in writing was to identify exactly the sort of people you have mentioned, although I admit that I got caught up in the “who are the names” discussion that veered into those that publish, etc. I tend to agree with you that traditional academic outlets are no longer incubators of Left talent (in fact, the contrary could well be the case for the reasons you mention), so it will be from non-traditional, “organic” ranks from which the new ideas and praxis will come.

  91. [...] issue came up on Kiwipolitico when Pablo sought discussion on where all the young left thinkers at. George D commented: I know perhaps 20 or 30 minds as sharp as the ones you mention, all to some degree politically [...]

  92. In Defence of a SMOG on November 27th, 2012 at 12:44

    [...] to think that someone once thought Idiot was one of NZ’s up and coming left thinkers – bring on the [...]

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