The New Zealand left has been no stranger to this sort of carry on. In 1970 the entire Wellington district of the Communist Party of New Zealand (CPNZ) was expelled as the result of a bitter faction struggle within the organisation. The central committee made the call that state repression was likely to rise due to growing opposition to the Vietnam War, thus the Communist Party needed to form a secret parallel organisation in anticipation of the NZ state banning the Party – as it had done 30 years earlier during the 2nd world war. The Wellington district carried out these orders, which made the leadership in Auckland suspicious that a leadership coup was on the way – thus the whole district was expelled.
Members of the CPNZ who were expelled included Pat Kelly, longstanding Trade Unionist and father of Helen Kelly, current President of the NZ Council of Trade Unions (CTU). Ray Nunnes, who went on to found the Workers’ Party of New Zealand, and longstanding anti war activist Ron Smith, were also both part of the expelled Wellington membership, along with a number of other longstanding and hard working unionists and left activists of the time. In what is one of the best histories of the New Zealand socialist left in publication, Ron Smith’s Memoir ‘Working Class Son’ had this to say about those responsible for the expulsion:
Marxism is a most profound philosophy. It should be used to interpret real lifeThis event did significant damage to the Wellington left, caused significant divisions in the anti Vietnam War movement, and proved to be the beginning of the end for the CPNZ. It is most disappointing that 39 years later the left appear to have learnt nothing from the past mistakes. This certainly seems the case with the recent expulsion of Jasmine Freemantle, President of the Victoria University of Wellington Students’ Association (VUWSA) from the Workers’ Party (WP).
and guide action in response to it. But some “Marxists” fail to do this and use
Marxist jargon in place of any analysis of the complex fabric of social
This pseudo-marxism is an evil which has beset Marxism from its
beginning. Marx himself used to say, commenting on certain French “Marxists”:
“If that is Marxism then I am no marxist.” Engels said of these ‘marxists’: “The
materialist conception of history serves them as an excuse for not studying
A quick Google search will show I am no stranger to controversy, for example :
When I was Chair of then Commerce Minister Paul Swain’s electorate Committee I came out first against the Labour administration’s support of the Hong Kong Free Trade Agreement, then shortly after, against Labour’s sending of troops to Afghanistan to support the US-led war of terror. In 2002 I stood against Paul Swain for the seat of Rimutaka in that year’s general election, resulting in my expulsion from the Labour Party and getting more votes than the Alliance candidate (though a few hundred shy of my Green Party Russell Norman).
After this I remained a political independent for nearly 2 years, meanwhile getting involved in student politics, the anti war movement after the invasion of Iraq, and being a union delegate on the cleaning site I was working on.
I finally joined the WP, then the Anti-Capitalist Alliance (ACA), on 01 February 2004. The group was a merger of two different socialist parties: one Pro-Trotskyist, one Pro-Mao. Traditionally groups with these differing backgrounds proved they were unable to work together, so there was a certain appeal in finding a socialist organisation that was able to put differences behind it for a common cause – i.e. they actually wanted to fight the Romans, not each other.
For the last 5 years I have been an active and loyal member of the WP. I stood as a Mayoral candidate for Upper Hutt in 2004, for Wellington City in 2007, and as a list candidate in the 2008 general election. I also stood for Vice- President and President of VUWSA as an openly WP candidate, and perused what I believed to be a socialist but also democratic platform when holding these roles. Between December 2006 and April 2009 I served as the Organiser of the Wellington Branch of the WP.
How the wheels fell of the wagon
As someone put it to me a few weeks ago, sometimes you can go along thinking everything is going fine then one day you wake up and find that things aren’t fine at all: in fact you have some pretty serious problems.
In upholding socialist tradition, Jasmine Freemantle issued an 8000+ word polemic against her expulsion from the WP which can be seen at:
The response of the WP was to describe the polemic as “Freemantle’s lurid fiction, personal attacks and self-justifying antics”. According to the WP “People who know the Workers Party will have little difficulty in recognising that subsequent comments by her bear little connection to reality”.
There would be few people who know the WP better than I. Jasmine’s account, far from being “lurid fiction” provides a detailed and very accurate account of what has gone down within the WP.
It’s been suggested that my support for Jasmine is based on my personal relationship with her and that I am not looking at the situation objectively. Or, to paraphrase one so-called leader of the WP: I have “put my cock before the struggle”.
Back when I was kicked out of the Labour Party, my parents (whom I’m quite close to and at the time lived with) were both active members of the Rimutaka Labour electorate committee, and remained so after my public expulsion. This time around I have a number of close friendships within the WP. During my time in the WP I worked closely with many of its members, and have had respect for many of the longer serving members and things they have done in the past. Whatever side I was to take in the Freemantle-WP dispute there would be fallout and personal consequences as there are in most things. However, my views on Jasmine’s expulsion are based on the facts and what I believe to be the principled decision to make. There will be those who refuse to believe this; those people clearly don’t know me very well.
Much of Jasmine’s problem is that members of the WP didn’t get to know her very well. As one WP member put it to me recently in an e-mail “I have for a long time held you in very high regard. I cannot say the same thing about Jasmine for the simple reason that I have had much less awareness of her over the years.” Within small organisations friendships and loyalties develop. It’s much easier to demonise and attack someone you have “less awareness of” than someone you have spent considerable amounts of social time with, worked with on a number of projects, e-mailed and talked to about everything from the important political questions of the day through to the latest Green Day album. 2008 VUWSA President Joel Cosgrove used student money to have a holiday in Melbourne; the consequence for this was a motion of censure from the WP. Jasmine is doing a fine job running the students’ association in a principled, democratic and accountable way – the consequence for her is expulsion. The only difference: most WP members know Joel better.
Workerism within the Workers’ Party
Workerism refers to when people on the left romanticise the working class rather than taking a more objective view. Central to Marxism is the labour theory of value. This is that the working majority are the ones who create all value; it is their labour which makes the capitalist system work. Because of this workers’ are the agents of change as the whole system depends on their labour, and if this is no longer available to the capitalist class, the whole system falls over. Thus, it is the goal of any revolutionary socialist to organise workers, with the eventual aim of getting workers as a class to overthrow the capitalist system and help build a socialist and classless society.
To a degree, the WP have always engaged in a level of workerism. For certain members it perhaps was from lack of regular contact with workers, though in recent years almost all WP members have had fairly regular contact with workers, in many cases fairly low paid ones. Part of this perspective comes from reading historical accounts of workers struggles such as the 1930’s Teamster Rebellion in the USA or accounts of the 1912 minors strike in Waihi. It is accurate to say however, that many in the Party engage in a level of romanticism about revolution generally, many WP members being avid fans of anything to do with Che Guevara.
With the last quarter of a century of attacks on workers as a result of the Rogernomics politics at the end of the post war boom, with little resistance or fight back by workers or others, it is easy to become demoralised. In this context romanticism about revolutions past, or the idea of workers rising up and overthrowing their oppressive capitalism a la Russia in 1917, does have some appeal. This is perhaps not surprising when contrasted against the low horizons and generally cynicalism of mainstream politics: at least this romanticism provides some hope. However, all it really results in is Marxist textbook dogma, excessive jargon and the like which leaves little correlation to reality and makes the possibility of these groups getting anywhere minimal. This process isn’t inevitable, but it does seem to keep happening. And it has certainly happened to the WP.
This outlook also explains the WP attitude towards university students. Back when I first came in contact with the WP we had various debates over e-mail loops regarding whether it was progressive to support calls for free education. Their line back then was that students were middle class, thus why should the working class have to pay for their education – a la calls for free education weren’t progressive. It is true that 2/3 of the cost of tertiary education is paid for by workers, many of whom will never themselves get the opportunity to study at university. There is of course a public good/public service value in training teachers, doctors etc. But there is also a private benefit argument. The right would argue this is a justification for user-pays and fees, and generally the left would disagree with this. The WP line is that students should be serving the workers who paid for their education, and siding with them in class struggle. This bit is fair enough. At other times prominent members of the Party have gone so far as to say students should still pay fees, or that if they took state power the student loan scheme wouldn’t be scraped.
At my first internal meeting of the WP as a member this issue was debated. Party Secretary Daphna Whitmore argued that the current fees system and the student loan scheme didn’t need reversing. Others such as Phil Ferguson said it was important that instead of charging fees students should serve the working class – this is the line that I supported and argued for, which eventually won out and became the WP official line.
Meanwhile a few of us came and went through the VUWSA Executive. When we were doing things like opposing the invasion of Iraq, organising for trade unions to have stalls on campus and generally putting forward progressive politics nobody in the WP minded. Student politics was still considered lesser work to involvement in trade unions, because the latter was with workers. This is despite almost all WP members undertaking university study or having completed degrees at some time in the past. Further irony was (and is) that a great many of the ‘workers’ they have organised through Unite Union, are in fact tertiary students. The fact was that if the WP and people in Unite had been a bit less snotty about campus activism and a bit more strategic, we could have done some good organising based around students who were working in fast food and similar places. But strategies that may bring unity tend to require a movement beyond textbook dogma and entrenched prejudices – thus this wasn’t to be.
This is why when VUWSA and Unite came into conflict at the start of 2009, things went very pear shaped. Again Jasmine’s account and various other sources give a bit of insight into this. Jasmine took over as President in January. She found herself employer of staff who thought instead of applying for annual leave in advance, they could just not show up. These are staff who interpret the ‘fair and reasonable’ sick leave provision to mean the skies the limit, some taking 40+ days in 2008. The VUWSA staff refused to cooperate with the 2009 VUWSA Strategic & Operational Plan (i.e. the list of stuff that VUWSA will do this year, based on the policies the Executive were elected on and the goals and policies of the association), and have generally maintained that it is them and not the elected Executive who should be running the organisation. I was fortunate enough to not have a situation nearly this bad (though it wasn’t wonderful) back when I was VUWSA President in 2006, as for Joel it’s unclear whether he turned up to work often enough to notice.
A fairly complicated situation has arisen largely because the number of staff employed by VUWSA has increased significantly in the last decade – the result of increased services and having satellite campuses to service. The VUWSA President is the employer of association staff, though of course the President is elected on a one year term, along with the rest of the Executive. Most other similar sized students’ associations now have a General Manager, however VUWSA resisted this due to concern that at some other associations the manager has more power than the Executive – in part by virtue of the fact that they were there longer than the exec. However what the VUWSA example has now shown is that without a manger, this power can end up in the hands of the permanent staff depending on the competency of the President’s. Unfortunately Jasmine two immediate presidents were particularly weak on this score.
People get involved with student politics to protest against student fees, to help organise gigs and activities, and generally participate in the fun and the political side of VUWSA. There is little glory in being the President who tries to sort out the internal structures and issues that exist. Like in many trade unions, in students associations these things can often end up being ignored, to the point where minor problems become not so minor. The fact is that dealing with these issues are actually important political questions, no less so than running campaigns around student fees or the like. It is only by sorting out the internal systems and structures that important organisations like students’ associations can work to their full potential.
Unfortunately these things are complicated, and take a bit of time to work through. The WP don’t however see it this way. The very binary view they have is simply that workers = good, students = middle class. Despite the fact that many of the VUWSA staff earn $60,000+, over double what the President is paid, the President is an employer and the workers should be supported. Black and white apparently!
Added to this, the VUWSA staff are covered by Unite Union. The majority of the Auckland Branch of the WP are on the payroll as Organisers for this union. Don Franks from Wellington earlier this year became the new Wellington Unite Organiser, a job he’d applied unsuccessfully for in the past. Far too much was at stake for WP members personally and politically in Unite for them to stand behind Jasmine – despite a number of them privately admitting many of her claims were fair enough.
Attempts by Unite and the WP to apply political pressure on Jasmine to succumb to the demands of the VUWSA staff have been widely condemned by people from across the political spectrum. The sort of shady backroom deals WP leadership attempted would make some of the mafia controlled sections of the US Teamster Union blush.
Back when I was President in 2006 this wasn’t how it was, and had it been I’d have made a fuss at the time. However back then Wellington Unite had little connection with the WP. In 2009 they may as well share the same office.
Despite winning the argument that the WP should support free education, when things got a bit rough the old workerist anti-student default position kicked right back in. In one e-mail exchange on our internal list not long before I was booted off a couple of weeks ago, WP National Organiser Phil Ferguson described doing political work in supporting student issues as being like supporting campaigns demanding “better conditions for managers” and that we should all just forget about the students and side with the working class by doing things like Unite organising. Again many of the Unite members in fast food are also these dreadful tertiary students!
The issue eventually came to ahead when someone posted an anonymous post on the open publishing Indymedia site claiming Jasmine was a big nasty employer doing lot of mean things (like making her staff apply for annual leave in advance like the rest of the workforce). Serious political operators would dismiss such posts, at best maybe challenging the author to identify themselves when making the claim. The WP response however was a frenzy of excitement, a whole heap of e-mails, and calls for the post to be discussed urgently by at a local branch level and at the national steering committee.
When it finally got to the branch Joel Cosgrove and another very young and immature WP member leafleted the meeting with a document citing examples of how Jasmine is apparently a terrible employer. Joel and his followers had gone around interviewing VUWSA staff and managed to source a draft collective agreement between VUWSA and Unite. Nothing Joel et al wrote was at all factually accurate, though it did label Jasmine a “reactionary” and used a lot of other textbook dogma and simplistic generalisations.
The WP position on redundancies is that workers should fight to save every job. The idea is that if it’s announced that a factory is laying off 50 workers or about to close down, instead of the union official going “this is a sad day for the workers at Colgate in Petone” they organise occupations of the factory and try to run the thing as a cooperative. Failing all this at least call strikes and protests to pressure the employers to pay better redundancy pay outs.
This is all fair enough. A factory makes a profit for 50 years out of the goods made by their workers labour. A fraction of the value they create is paid back to them in wages. Then one day the plant machinery gets old and the owners discover it’s cheaper to move production to China than reinvest in the factory in Petone. The workers get some piddling pay out then find themselves making weekly visits to Work and Income to get their dole payouts. Meanwhile the mayor of the city comes on TV and talks about how tragic it is, but then tell us the good news that some jobs will be going at the new Burger King that’s opening next week.
The WP position is fine. However it is yet to be tested in any real way. The WP is yet to be part of or led a campaign where workers fight against redundancies and have these ideas of factory occupations (of which there are some successful examples from overseas) in practice here. So to date it remains a romantic ideal. Moreover, various WP members and supporters have been through the redundancy process themselves, and found in those cases they were unable to fight back.
Where things have got a bit difficult for the WP is that VUWSA is a student union, not a factory in Petone. When the spectra of there being redundancies raised its ugly head at VUWSA things soon became very ugly. Firstly as already noted by Jasmine and elsewhere, the prospect of redundancies first came last year with VUWSA’s Change Proposal document. This proposal was rightly rejected by the student body as it would have meant services like clubs and activities were effectively contracted out to the University. This proposal put forward under Joel’s VUWSA Presidency, was authored by Joel and Sonny Thomas (a Labour member who stood unsuccessfully for President against Jasmine.) Joel was quite happy to go along with this proposal, thinking Sonny would come in after him in 2009 and carry out the dirty work of getting rid of some VUWSA staff he didn’t like. Joel of course didn’t want to do it himself.
However the proposal was announced during Joel’s term as President. The WP were in outrage and Joel was forced to do a 180 degree turn around, at least on the surface. Joel however continued to push for redundancies and other measures for the rest of his term.
Ironically, in taking office Jasmine as the employer managed to save 3 jobs at VUWSA. This is 3 more jobs than most of the self righteous members of the WP now condemning her as a reactionary will ever be able to save. Unfortunately, there was still one redundancy that ended up taking place. It is of course a terrible thing, which nobody wanted to have happen. Clearly mistakes have been made in the past and changes had to be made.
As far as the WP were concerned this was the complete betrayal. Joel, having recommended the redundancy himself last year, smugly leafleted the Wellington branch meeting with leaflets denouncing Jasmine as a reactionary for having to pick up the pieces. The rest of the Party joined the chorus of condemnation. As one Party member put it “we can never be part of any redundancies or cut backs, so if it looks like its going to go that way we are better off just pulling out.”
I am currently the President of the Wellington Branch of the Tramways Union. At present we only have one paid staffer, the elected Union Secretary Kevin O’Sullivan. However down the track we may end up employing paid Organisers as the Union grows. What happens if say the Union has half a dozen Organisers employed, then one day something happens which means we can no longer afford to pay them (e.g. we lose members, get done over in the Employment Court etc)? Do I principally go “no we must fight to save every job” knowing full well the Union can’t afford the Organisers? Or do I instead look at what is in the interests of the wider movement, and of the union membership as a whole? I’d hate doing it, but in that situation I as the Union President would make the Organisers redundant.
The WP of course have in the past been the beneficiaries of unions getting rid of staff. In 2006 members of rival socialist group Socialist Worker (Judean People’s front) were employed as Organisers for Unite in Auckland. At the end of the 2006 supersize my pay campaign, these Organisers were laid off/had their fixed term contracts not renewed/sent down the road. It was only a very short time later that members of the WP in Auckland began working as Unite Organisers themselves. Were they saying “fight for every job” when the Socialist Worker members were booted out? No way!
Another example of how the WP theory often doesn’t correspond with a serious fight back in reality is its position on migrant workers. The position of the WP is to support ‘Open Borders’: opposition to immigration controls and for the free movement of people. This is fine in principle: restrictions on the movement of people is a tool of capitalism to control workers, hold down wages and undermine human freedom. Humanity should be striving for a world where migrations controls are history.
The problem is: how do we get from where we are now to that point? A lofty ideal is good but what program, transitional demand or strategy does the WP have or at least suggest to actually activate this?
Earlier this year Engineers, Printing and Manufacturing Union (EPMU) President Andrew Little and Manufacturing and Contraction (M & C) Union President Graeme Clarke were interviewed by the media, making comments that priority should be given to NZ workers over migrants, especially in the case of redundancies. The background to this was a couple of cases where long serving workers at sites covered by the EPMU and the M & C unions were made redundant, but migrant workers recently employed remained in work. Many of the migrants were on fixed term contracts. The employers had brought in the migrants claiming there was a skills shortage. The worst case I heard of was a group of migrant workers being brought into the factory under the guise of their being a skills shortage, a bunch of guys who’d worked at the factory 30 years trained the migrants up, only to be made redundant themselves a week later.
According to Graeme Clarke the report of what he said was actually not entirely accurate, making it sound stronger than it actually was. However the line these unions took was that NZ workers should have priority. This caused controversy in the EPMU and Graeme from M & C Union received various complaints, including one accusing him of being a Neo Nazi.
The response from the WP was total condemnation. Party members threatened to picket a “drinking liberally” (progressive drinking social event) at the Southern Cross bar where Andrew Little was going to talk the following week. Thankfully various members of the WP came to the realisation that putting up a picket line outside a popular inner city bar probably wasn’t going to win them any support.
I don’t agree with the line of NZ workers first, and think that the role of the union movement is to support the rights of all workers. However in this situation the union leaders involved were arguing the case for their members who were the ones being put out of work. Clearly in these cases the employers are bringing in migrant workers as they can be paid less, and deliberately play off NZ and migrant workers to their own ends. So whilst I disagree with the statements made, I also understand why from a trade union perspective they were made. Moreover I think the issue is a complicated one, and at this point I don’t think anyone has come up with a clear strategy to deal with it.
In discussions on the WP discussion list, a couple of people asked how we should deal with this stuff if it came up in our union. Christchurch WP member Paul Hopkinson had the following to suggest:
…by pointing out that open boarders can’t exist under capitalism. Open boardersThe trouble with this is that it raises an idea, and defends a Marxist principle – a good one at that. But it offers the workers involved no strategy to fight back, just pointing out that capitalism is “crap”.
is one of our best platform points as it challenges the system and can be
to help demonstrate how crap capitalism is.
It was around this time that VUWSA had begun planning Students’ as Workers Week. Don Franks, having been involved with the organisation of the previous Workers Week at Vic in 2004, became involved with preparing for this one. In a discussion with Jasmine it was suggested that maybe he could debate Andrew Little over the question of open borders and challenge this issue. By this time the Wellington Branch of the WP was in a bit of a mess and lacking vision. Don became obsessed with this project seeing it as a political project for everyone to focus on. Also, he would get to debate Andrew Little with the moral high ground and expose the President of the Labour Party as being anti migrant workers. Unfortunately Andrew declined the debate. Somehow this all became Jasmine’s fault – which became worse when at one meeting she complained how Don had become obsessed with the debating Andrew Little.
The debate was to be organised from the safety of a university campus (ironically the places of middle class reaction according to many members of the WP). The debate would be around principles and ideas. Don would put forward the argument against immigration controls and take a moral high ground. This debate wasn’t going to be happening on the factory floor where the workers had been put out of work – where the members affected were angry and were demanding the union put out the statements it did. This isn’t me justifying the NZ workers first line, but the WP didn’t actually have a program to put forward as an alternative, just a slogan and an ideal.
But due to other things going on within the WP, the fact that this debate didn’t take place was used as a stick to beat Jasmine with.
Conflict within the WP
Clearly there has been a fair amount of conflict within the WP for some time. Certainly in 2009 the organisation and particularly the Wellington Branch has been totally plagued with in-fighting and disintegration.
The first branch meeting of the year set the tone with Joel Cosgrove refusing to pay back the money he owed VUWSA his a trip to Australia he took on student money. Joel whilst President visited Melbourne for 10 days. By all accounts he spent a lot of time in bars and pubs, attended the conferences of a couple of socialist organisations and generally had a great old time. Unfortunately instead of taking annual leave for his holiday, he used student money to pay for flights and was on full pay. The purpose of his trip was to write a report on the voluntary students’ association situation in Australia, a report which by the end of his term he still hadn’t written. Worse, when Jasmine requested this report be done in January, Joel submitted a report that was totally plagiarized. So he was asked to pay back the money. Joel came to that first branch meeting, with a bunch of students he’d signed up to the WP and spent much time with socially, and ardently argued he shouldn’t have to repay the money.
The leadership of the WP were rightly annoyed and embarrassed by Joel’s behaviour, some quietly muttering that they wished he’d quit the Party as he had threatened. However the prospect of losing a bunch of new members Joel had brought in meant they were reluctant to take the strong stand they needed to. In the end the Party gave him a motion of censure and slapped him across the wrist with a wet Snapper ticket.
The saga meant a number in the WP began to go very cold on being involved with students’ associations. Don Franks began to complain that the core problem within the WP Wellington Branch was the “student culture” of being unreliable and care free. In 2009 the average age of tertiary students is 27 years old, many work multiple jobs whilst studying. Joel, nor the fairly eccentric characters now following him, are not typical students. However it was much easier to blame the whole thing on ‘middle class student culture’. The only proposed cure to this was doing lots of Unite organising, Don now being employed as the Organiser for this union.
ANZAC day and flag burning
In 2003 I laid an anti war wreath at the Cenotaph on ANZAC day. The wording was the same as that laid 30 years earlier by the then student President Peter Wilson, who died tragically a few years later. Me doing this did cause some controversy, but in the end I won support for this, and in 2004 laid the same wreath without any opposition.
I also burnt a NZ flag outside parliament in opposition to NZ troops being in Afghanistan back in 2004, and supported the earlier flag burning by Paul Hopkinson outside the state luncheon for John Howard in 2003. The backdrop to this was a strong anti war movement against the US led invasion of Iraq. My actions, and those of other anti war protesters were controversial, but I was able to justify them.
For both these actions I had a support base. The student body had voted at a General Meeting to condemn the invasion of Iraq, and to support the protest movement against it. In 2004 at another student meeting I managed to get through a resolution in support of the right of people to burn the NZ flag. What I did was controversial, but I had arguments to back me up, and was prepared to win public support for what I did first.
By contrast the actions of Joel and his band of supporters within the WP were not (and still aren’t) part of a wider anti war movement, nor have they even attempted to gain the support of students. Moreover, the motive for the actions they’ve taken are not in my view about ANZAC day at all. For Joel burning the flag was about restoring his status within the WP, and to thumb in nose at Jasmine.
Jasmine and the rest of the VUWSA Executive made the call not to do anything for ANZAC day in 2009 as they had no mandate from students to do so. Despite the fact that the WP made the same call and did nothing whatsoever for ANZAC day, they used the controversy that erupted as yet another way to put the boot in to Jasmine. Somehow a rumor had got out that Jasmine was to burn a flag at the cenotaph at the dawn ceremony, as a couple of anarchists had done in 2007. Ironically the only comment she had made regarding this was a warning to the Executive that in no way should they engage in such an act.
The Executive decided to call a meeting of students to discuss the issue. Jasmine and the Vice Presidents met with the RSA, which apparently was an act of class treachery – anyone would think she’d gone and had lunch with George Bush given the hysteria with which the WP responded to that. The RSA actually endorsed the fairly progressive resolutions that Jasmine wanted to put forward. But for the WP this was “shamefully compromising”.
Joel and his mates rocked on up to the Student Representative Council (SRC) meeting regarding ANZAC Day and burnt a NZ flag. In Joel’s account to the WP internal list the day before the event:
“Don suggested it yesterday. We had a meeting about it with 5 of the branch and
then today most of the branch showed up. Personally the whole redundancy stuff
at VUWSA has been scratching away at me because I started the ball rolling. All
this mess surrounding it has managed to gloss over some pretty strong
achievements last year, it's nice to peg it back a bit.”
So there it is. The true motivation for Joel burning the flag was about trying to win back some left credibility after the “redundancy stuff” at VUWSA – which had lost him brownie points with various members of the Party leadership. Still angry that Jasmine was making Joel pay back his Australia trip money, Joel was happy to burn a flag and look staunch to the WP. For Don Franks, smarting at Jasmine for not giving into all of Unite’s demands and calling him “obsessive” regarding the Andrew Little debate, this was a way of putting Jasmine in a difficult position.
Knowing full well that the public was angry over the rumour of a flag burning at ANZAC Day, Jasmine and VUWSA weren’t about to stupidly misjudge the mood of students and support this action, particularly given the motivation behind it. However the WP were then able to use Jasmine saying the action wasn’t done by VUWSA (rightly distancing herself from the idiocy) as a way to condemn her as a reactionary and expel her.
Did the flag burning at the SRC help build an anti war movement? Did what Joel and his mates did in the student café help anyone in Iraq and Afghanistan? Has this action struck a blow against imperialist plunder of the 3rd world? The answer of course is no. And moreover that wasn’t the intention of doing it.
What Joel and his mates got was a fair bit of media attention, and martyrdom as a result of the University kicking them out for the rest of the term. They claim this was an attack on political freedom by the University. The University claim it was due to the health and safety risk they caused. Let’s put this in context. In 2003 a group of us burnt an effigy of then Victoria University Vice Chancellor. This was done outside in the University quad, where there is a concrete floor and we had buckets of water near by. These guys burnt the flag on a wooden deck in the student café, under a canvas covering only a meter or so from where a group of students were sitting eating their lunch. Unfortunately disenrolling Joel and his mates from the University was their desired outcome: they even refused to turn up to investigation meetings to argue their case. They got the outcome they desired, and the media attention they so crave.
When asked by the media why Joel hadn’t done this at the dawn parade on ANZAC Day he claimed the following to the Herald on May 10th:
“The former student association president had planned to burn a flag at a dawn
ceremony on Anzac Day, but the protest fizzled after Cosgrove and his followers
realised large numbers of police were attending.”
The question really has to be asked, if they are such staunch revolutionaries why did they run away from confrontation with the state forces (the police) on ANZAC morning? Instead they burnt a flag from the relative safety of the student café.
But of course they were in bed asleep on ANZAC morning. The flag burning was not about challenging the state or its war machine at all. It was about internal WP politics and sticking it to VUWSA.
The idiocy of this wasn’t lost on many. In reply to a media release from Joel about a fictitious trespass order Joel claimed had been issued against him, the Editor of student magazine Nexis responded to Joel with this:
“Hahahaha!What did you expect? Come on, you love it. Now you and yourUnfortunately the Editor of Nexis incorrectly spelt ‘patriarchal’ in the reply.
super-minority party can be martyrs to the Glorious Cause. You love it. By
the way, did you think of running your press release through a grammar
check? It’s terrible. Or is it your preferred method of self-expression
against the imperialist patriachial hegemonic sexist capitalist anti-worker
method of… writing?”
Playing the game
In relation to the dispute surrounding the VUWSA collective agreement, staffing issues and the like, WP National Organiser Phil Fergusson sent a long e-mail about where he thought the WP members had gone wrong. Below are some excerpts:
"Instead we have been *complicit* in 'playing the game', a game designedby,
and where the rules are drawn up by, our *enemies* - and the*enemies of our
class* - in order to protect their system.”
"This is the absolutely classic scenario by which the system draws in itscritics
and opponents. It gives them some little space to manage, orwhere they can feel
like they're in charge and calling the shots, anddoing some little bit of good,
whereas actually the main thing they aredoing is helping manage the system. One
of the forms this takes, by theway, is the 'professionalisation' of students
associations through thehiring of capitalist recruitment firms, lawyers,
accountants, managersand so on.”
"Those of us of a certain age have also seen it all before in NZ. Allthe radical
student and union activists who get into positions andsuddenly principles become
expendable, suddenly it's about smoothingdown the rough edges of the system.
But, as we should know from RosaLuxemburg, those who choose the road of
smoothing down the rough edgesof the system are not headed in the same direction
as us, merelytravelling by a different means or route - they are actually
travellingto another destination entirely (whether they realise it or not,
whetherthey intend to or not, when setting out).”
A very large percentage of current WP active members (i.e. the leadership) are employed as Union Organisers. Their role is to negotiate employment contracts, ie contracts that outline the employment conditions within the capitalist workforce, enforced by the capitalist employment courts and operating within the wages system. In short people who are active within the union movement are “playing the game”. Those of us who work in unions are constantly “smoothing down the rough edges of the system. Why? Because the point is the get workers, students and whoever can be united to defend their interests and stand up to their employers, the government and the capitalist system we live under.
Of course there is some truth in the stuff about the ‘professionalisation’ of students’ associations and of trade unions. There is of course no shortage of examples of leftists being elected to positions of power and moving rightward. The question is how does one challenge this. The anarchist response would be not to participate in things like trade unions or students’ associations at all, as they are structures. Yet the socialist movement doesn’t take the line that all structures are evil, or that organisations with rules, processes or the like are automatically evil and corrupt all who touch them. The socialist line should be that we work within trade unions, students’ associations and similar collectives and struggle within them for socialist or at least more progressive politics.
It’s all nice and pure to denounce people for playing the game, but in the end everybody plays the game. The point is how one plays the game, what principles guide your decisions and what outcomes you seek to achieve.
I stood up to the Labour Party as it became evident that for them the purpose of the game was about staying in power, even if it meant being barely any different to the National Party in order to curry votes. They had given up on convincing people of anything resembling socialist politics long ago, and were about cynical management of the system.
By contrast the WP is so keen not to get their hands dirty they are not capable of leading the struggle. They are so concerned about looking staunch, and not having anonymous posts on Indymedia, that they have become incapable of a proper analysis of the complex fabric of social life. They are incapable of having people in what are even reasonably moderate positions of leadership such as the President of a students’ association in case some difficult decision has to be made – apparently if this happens we are to walk away and be pure.
Do they even matter?
The question of course is does the WP even matter. The WP is a fairly small socialist group which got just over 900 votes in the last election. It is hardly a significant political force, and the direction they are moving is moribund and not going to any serious people over to their ideas.
However the political ideas they claim to represent do matter. With the current economic recession many are now questioning the capitalist system and asking whether there is a better way. With unemployment, poverty and general human misery set to rise around the world in the coming months and years there is a real need for an alternative to the system where the few profit out of the exploitation of the many.
The socialist principles of Marxism are still in my view some of the best clues to humanity as to how we can move out of the current mess that we are in. Unfortunately peoples perceptions of these ideas are marred by the pseudo-marxist behavior and stupidity displayed by the WP in this sorry saga. The WP has gone down the same road as the rest of the socialist left since the end of the 2nd world war, as was satirized by Monty Python’s film the Life of Brian.
The response to Jasmine’s polemic following her expulsion from the WP has been general condemnation from the Party (in contrast to the response from everyone else!). The WP claim that Jasmine has falsely accused all men within the WP of being misogynists and that she has “framed up” the party through her “manipulative innuendo”. Jasmine wrote a factual account of what had happened in her time as a WP member, and raised some serious issues. She didn’t accuse every male member of being a misogynist, she put it out that some current and former members had acted in that way and it wasn’t taken seriously within the Party. The response to this since then shows that they still don’t.
Further it’s been claimed that Jasmine’s post was full of personal attacks. Moreover, it is claimed by the WP that what went down in the Wellington Branch was a personal fight between Jasmine (and/or me) and Joel. Actually the dispute was about Joel’s actions and behaviour as the political leader of VUWSA, an organisation I consider to be of some political significance.
Apparently I co-authored Jasmine’s polemic, and have since been thrown off the WP internal list due to leaking emails to her. I certainly forwarded emails to Jasmine from the WP list after her suspension, as I believed she had a right to see what they were saying. Further I supported making them public. The WP have put out public statements calling for Jasmine to resign as VUWSA president and criticised the way she had dwelt with things like the staff collective. I regard it as a matter of public interest that when they make these sort of claims, that people get all the information and see what they were really saying and doing. Ironically Jasmine was condemned for hiding behind "cones of silence" in not releasing information regarding the VUWSA staff negotiations to the WP. Yet when it comes to some of the internal discussion on the WP e-loop, ‘cones of silence’ are exactly what they wanted.
What next for me?
Currently I remain a financial member of the WP. However unless the Party make a serious shift in the way they operate this is unlikely to be the case for very much longer. In early April I resigned from the Wellington Branch of the WP, seeing that it was moribund and not something that could be improved. Whilst it has recruited some new members, the branch is more like a out patients psychiatric ward support group than anything politically serious. The rest of the Party is incapable of more than dogma and unable to apply the theory into serious practice.
The priority now for the left needs to be building up collective organisations, such as trade unions and students’ associations. I will continue the work I’m doing in the Wellington Tramways Union and promoting the idea that by working together collectively workers can win a better life.
There does still need to be a political party to lead the struggle. This Party needs to remain true to its principles and not trade them away for short term political gain as the Labour Party has done. Yet it also needs to operate in reality and apply the theory to the real world and have more to offer workers than slogans, dogma and stupidity. I am confident that one day the socialist left will managed to do this, it just hasn’t done so yet.