Sunday, January 29, 2012

30 years ago: Owen Gager on 'Towards a Socialist Polynesia'

Patu Squad Anti-Springbok Tour protest 1981 - photo John Miller
The Springbok Tour of Aotearoa in 1981 opened up a chapter in our history when fundamental questions about colonisation and racism in Aotearoa were directly confronted by mass audiences for the first time. A tiny Trotskyist group entered this debate with the production of a pamphlet around a year later titled "Towards a Socialist Polynesia". Written by Owen Gager, the first professional (as in full time, unpaid) Trotskyist agitator NZ had seen, it argued that NZ could best be understood as a white settler colony (yet with pretensions of imperialist rule in the South Pacific) very much in the same mould as South Africa.  It was then, the first serious Marxist attempt to subject the events of the Tour of 1981 to dialectical analysis, and a critique of the other  attempts on the left to explain these events. It makes the point that white settler colonies are backward, racist outposts of empire, and that their future is one of reactionary racism until such time as they are transformed into socialist republics, in the case of New Zealand, part of a federation of Socialist Republics of Polynesia. 

Before making a couple of lengthy quotes which convey the substance of the argument about the white settler colonies and display its power as a critique of the conventional 'left' views of Aotearoa, some short account of the Spartacist League and its co-founder, Owen Gager, is necessary. After all, why would a revolutionary current emerge in such a backward, and as Gager used to say, petty bourgeois, British white-settler colony? 

As we might expect, left politics in small countries are heavily influenced by currents in larger countries. NZ as a small, dependent, colony had is own local minor echoes of Fabian, anarchist, IWW, Labourite, Stalinist and Trotskyist politics. Apart from a few sympathisers of Trotsky in the 1930s and a bogus rumour that rightwing 1950's union boss and dairy farmer Fintan Patrick Walsh was once a Trotskyist, Trotskyism in NZ originated in the 1960s around a few key individuals. Notable among them was Owen Gager who as an honours student of history in the late 1950s wrote a path breaking Marxist critique of the colonial suppression of the labour movement during the First World War.

In the 1960s like many intelligent and revolutionary minded youth during that intense period of decolonisation, the bloody IndoChina war and 'new left', Gager became highly politically active editing the Victoria University paper Salient, and founding and editing at least three Marxist or Trotskyist magazines, Dispute, Spartacist Spasmodical and Red.  Gager had discovered Trotskyism and made it his business to find out which was the best in keeping Trotsky's program alive. In 1970 he joined up with Bill Logan at Victoria University to form the NZ Spartacist League. As the name suggests this was a statement of solidarity with the international Spartacist current based in the US. But as everyone likes to repeat parrot-like where there are at least two Trotskyists there must be a split, so around 1972 Logan went off to the US to join the Spartacists while Gager rejected the Spartacists as pro-US imperialist and left for Australia to co-found the Communist Left, leaving his frustrations with 'petty bourgeois' NZ behind.

Gager came back to NZ for around a year in 1982 largely as the result of the ferment stirred up by the Tour in 81. He helped revive the then dormant Tenants Protection Association in Ponsonby and wrote a number of pamphlets including Towards a Socialist Polynesia. One needs to read the whole pamphlet to realise what a ground-breaking work it was, especially the 'Leninist' critique of the other left currents, including the Maori nationalists around Donna Awatere and their chief nemesis, Bill Andersen. But his main contribution in this pamphlet was to build a Marxist theoretical framework for understanding NZ's place as a colony of British imperialism, and its role in the wider Pacific, and in particular the role of the pan-Pacific proletariat in making a socialist revolution. Here the concept of the white-settler colony was central to the argument.

In the introductory section Gager ties in NZs intellectual and political backwardness with its colonial history.  Any here South Africa is the appropriate explanatory model. Gager uses Marx's method of taking as his reference point the actual disruption of the Tour and then going down to the roots of this conflict in our common history. Of course a reading of the complete pamphlet is necessary to grasp the power of the argument.

Gager begins by claiming that settler colonies like South Africa and NZ maintain a racist division between the indigenous and settler populations today because the indigenous populations still have some residue of their original mode of production and live in a semi-wage labour reserve army. Racism justifies this division while apartheid legalises it.  The Tour served to highlight that in fighting Apartheid in South Africa the Pakeha left faced the reality of racism in this country; that South Africa showed Aotearoa its future.

" But while expropriation and continued land sales made possible the rise of commodity production, it was the survival of remnants of the Polynesian mode of production which made the super-exploitation of the Maori rural reserve army of cheap labour possible.[3] Pre-capitalist forms of property in land and traditions of mutual economic support within tribes provided means of subsistence outside that which could be bought with wages in the market. This meant that Maori workers could be paid low wages (below the cost of reproduction of labour power in the market) and employed as casual or seasonal labour. As land values dropped further and more land was alienated, the dependence of the Maori rural reserve army on its own means of subsistence lessened but without any equalisation of the low wage and the ‘high minimum level” set by commodity production.

The history of the super-exploitation of the Polynesian workers is the history of the continued existence of the Polynesian mode of production within the framework of the dominant capitalist relations of production. So long as the Polynesian mode of production survives within the hostile capitalist environment, the wages of Maori workers are forced below the value of labour power. While the continued possession of some Maori land may slow down the proletarianisation of the Maori people, it cannot prevent and has not prevented it. It ensures, on the contrary, that when Maori workers enter the proletariat, they do so on the worst terms, as the lowest stratum of the class. This is not the result of racism, though this process has produced and will continue to produce racism. It arises rather from the logic of a slow and protracted expropriation of a pre-capitalist mode of production by the capitalist mode, at every point representing continuous immiseration of the indigenous population as the value of Maori land declines and the amount of land owned is reduced in area and fertility. Similar processes take place in other Polynesian islands but even more slowly."

"This [the South African case] as we have argued, is similar to the position in New Zealand. In both cases part of the costs of reproduction of indigenous labour-power is being met by the traditional labour of those (particularly women) outside the capitalist mode of production. South Africa’s development diverged from New Zealand’s in that the CMP displaced the petty commodity MOP in agriculture by force, a result of British imperialism’s drive to protect large-scale mining capital. The absence of any large-scale mineral or other raw material resources in New Zealand meant that massive capital investment such as in South Africa did not take place. This held back the development of industry and the rate of conversion of petty commodity production into capitalist agriculture, and allowed the survival of comprador small capital dominated by British finance, shipping and meat exporting capital. These differences however, are differences of pace and scale, not of substance. An accelerated concentration of capital in New Zealand and the South Pacific would utilise existing wage differentials between white and Polynesian workers to entrench an apartheid-like system. Under capitalism, South Africa represents the future of Polynesia." 

The next step in the argument was to show that the struggles of the indigenous peoples to defend their mode of production from capitalist incursion gave rise to a rich history of insurrections and wars, and after a series of failed national movements, the assimilation of the indigenous peoples into the reserve army of the proletariat as the best, most militant, and ultimately the leading layers of the revolutionary proletariat. Of course, the punch line is that this revolution must lead to a "Socialist Union of the Pacific".

Permanent Revolution in Polynesia

Polynesia (except Tonga) was annexed by various European powers in the nineteenth century, and the history of struggle against annexation is long and bloody. Throughout Polynesia, King Movements developed as forms of Polynesian self-government, following European monarchical traditions, initially under the influence of missionaries. These movements generally lacked the strength to control European land purchases, and their surrender to the market made inevitable their surrender to European governors. In Aotearoa, however, a King Movement developed after annexation rather than before it, against European opposition and using its monopoly of physical force in certain areas to control the activities of pakeha farmers.

This movement, because of its totally Polynesian character and its effective control of agricultural production was seen by the white settler ruling class – who had achieved ‘responsible government’ in 1852, excluding Maori from the vote – as part of an insurrection. Forms of Maori sovereignty directly confronted pakeha sovereignty, in opposed forms of government based upon conflicting modes of production. The King Movement once under attack from the white settler government, lost effective power because it did not gain military support from all sections of the Maori population in the land wars. The white government, protesting its ‘loyalty’ to Britain – so as to use the British army’s guns to facilitate land expropriation – conceded to the Maori people the struggle for national independence.

A minority of the King Movement saw itself as opposed to British rule – Te Hokioi, the King Movement paper, pointed to Haiti’s success in maintaining its independence – but the majority could not rise to the conception of a national movement cutting across tribal divisions. Yet the King Movement, before its suppression, exercised more economic and political power over both Maori and pakehas within its jurisdiction than any similar movement elsewhere in Polynesia, learning as it did from similar movements in other islands.

The defeat of the King Movement had several effects. It confirmed the white settler government in its role as a dependent satellite of British imperialism. It led to the rise of Christian churches independent of the pakeha missionaries, most notably Ringatu, whose view of the lessons to be learnt from defeat was not only that the pakeha missionaries were servants of imperialism, but also that the Maori people were being proletarianised.

“Each tohunga therefore must earn his living with his own hands and anything that in any way resembles tithing is not tolerated”. “ The love-feast whish is held in the morning of the second day of a monthly Ringatu festival, is a feast in the literal sense of the term. When a large crowd is gathered…the feast is held in the open, the ‘tables’ being laid on the ground in true Maori fashion…The tohunga offers grace, and the meal is eaten with relish. Truly only the best is provided, the motive being that it is a love-feast to God. A collection is taken toward the close of the meal, the money being used for church purposes only.  The collection must not be used for defraying the expenses of the meal, or making other provision for the entertainment of the gathering. It is also a rule of the church that the money given must be earned by the sweat of the brow – interest on investments, proceeds of sale of land or leases not being acceptable.”[11]

The withdrawal of many North Island Maori from the only white institutions they had previous links with – the pakeha churches – was their verdict on the ruling class’s land war. Now, in a period of Maori political decline new white missionaries have emerged to tie Polynesian workers to white capitalism.

The formation in 1892 of a Kotahitanga, or union, deriving from the 1835 Declaration of Independence by a confederation of united tribes, was another effort by Maori in Aotearoa to achieve their own form of government. While it was claimed that Kotahitanga did not aim to limit the authority of the British Crown, both the New Zealand and British ruling classes refused to recognise it. Had its leaders seriously based themselves on the 1835 Declaration, they could have claimed the Kotahitanga had more right to existence than the pakeha parliament. They did not do so. Although the movement later subsided (as was inevitable because its success relied on pakeha parliamentary approval) it was nonetheless an expression of Maori lack of faith in capitalist parliamentarism, and an attempt to develop their own institutions instead.

By contrast, the so-called ‘Young Maori Movement’ (praised by Donna Awatere and the Socialist Action League), was an abandonment of the Polynesian revolutionary tradition, and a surrender to European parliamentarism, leading to such racist attacks on Maori culture as the Suppression of Tohungaism Act. With Apirana Ngata’s impeachment in 1934, it was shown that even the better elements in the Movement, given opportunities at the highest level, could not work through colonial parliamentary institutions. The Ratana Movement, in reaction, linked itself to the Labour Party, in endorsing Tawhiao’s view of the unity of the working class.

“…in London, Ratana was snubbed by his own High Commissioner, Sir James Allen, who was happy for the party to perform haka and poi dances at the Wembley exhibition but laughed when Ratana asked that arrangements be made for him to meet representatives of the British Government. This rejection deeply wounded Ratana and, standing on Westminster Bridge, he prophesied in the words used by Tawhiao: “When all your stone houses are destroyed in time to come, then will the carpenters, the blacksmiths and the shoemakers be in power and I will be the government.”[12] Although their links with the labour movement have enabled the Ratana Church to play a continuing political role in Maori affairs, again it has failed to achieve its objectives through parliamentary means.

The history of the Maori people in Aotearoa has been a history of struggle for its own form of government. So long as the Polynesian mode of production continued to have vitality, traditional leaders basing themselves on the survival of Maori social relations tried, always unsuccessfully, to persuade white settler governments to tolerate forms of Maori self-government. When traditional leadership failed, now leaders emerged – often as apparently ‘religious’ leaders in a society where distinctions between religion and politics are not clear cut – giving expression to the proletarianisation of the Maori people and their links with other workers outside the framework of parliamentary politics. The refusal of Maori to fight imperialist wars have been the direct result of the emergence of this formally religious, but proletarian in reality, tradition – mass actions with little echo and no support from the ‘official’ pakeha labour movement.[13]

As the old social relations of the Polynesian mode of production fused with the social relations of the Capitalist mode, as the Maori people became fully proletarianised, the early forms of proletarian ideology lost their religious shell and took on the form of self-government in opposition to imperialism and colonial racist parliamentary rule. The New Zealand colonial ruling class has and will refuse to concede the demand for self-government, but this demand will be achieved in spite of the ruling class, by smashing it. The King Movement and the Kotahitanga were imitations of European class institutions, their monarchies, their parliaments. It is necessary to go beyond European class society and its imitation.

The Polynesian people, their land having been expropriated, now constitute a section – potentially the most revolutionary section because of their tradition as an oppressed nationality – of the working class. The struggle for self-government has now become the workers’ struggle for power: instead of Kings and parliament, workers’ councils are on the agenda. The tradition of the Maori people, a tradition of armed struggle and revolutionary aspiration, now fuses with the international working class culture, developed by Marxism and its tradition of revolution to form the science and culture of the Polynesian socialist revolution.

This struggle has always had an international dimension. The King Movement of the Waikato drew on the lessons of Tahiti, Hawaii and Haiti in the nineteenth century. Today, as the Spartacist League predicted fifteen years ago, the Polynesian islands which have been conceded formal independence by imperialism, experience as a result the crisis of the nation-state in holding back the development of the forces of production, in its most acute form.

Political independence only deepens the economic dependence of the Polynesian island states, accentuating the dependence of the national economies themselves on the remittance of wages of Polynesian migrant workers in New Zealand. Therefore, the achievement in the less developed island states of what has proved impossible in the most developed island with its white culture – the objectives of the King Movement and Kotahitanga –shows that these forms of independence do not halt the pauperisation, immiseration and proletarianisation of the Polynesians by the Capitalist mode of production.

In Polynesia, the less developed island states are to Aotearoa what Transkei and Ciskei are to South Africa – reserves of cheap labour-power which can be forced back into poverty during any economic downturn in the sacred name of respect for ‘national sovereignty’. But the Polynesian proletariat has outgrown ‘nationalism’, which is another name for starvation behind national frontiers, and which intensifies imperialist exploitation instead of abolishing it. Samoa, the Cook Islands, Niue and to a certain extent Tonga, are New Zealand semi-colonies whose colonial dependence can be ended only by socialism. Tahiti, Eastern Samoa and Hawaii, are victims of the final ruse of imperialism – incorporation of the colony into the metropolitan imperialist state. We demand for them the right of secession!

What is needed is a Socialist Union of Polynesia! The revolutionary tradition of Samoa, Hawaii, and Tahiti – the history of uprisings against imperialism – must now directed beyond independence to socialism. Now that large numbers of Polynesian workers have been concentrated in Auckland and other parts of Aotearoa, it is there that they will exchange experiences and prepare for united revolutionary action. This pamphlet has concentrated on Polynesia since (with the exception of Tahiti and Hawaii) it is largely within the sphere of interest of New Zealand as a small imperialist power. A Socialist Polynesia would, however be only a step toward a Socialist Union of the Pacific."
No doubt this pamphlet would benefit from being updated and corrected in some factual points today, yet as an historical document of its times,  the fight against the '81 Apartheid Tour, and the Marxist lessons Gager drew about the roots of racism in both South Africa and Aotearoa, its stands proud as part of the Communist Workers Group's revolutionary heritage.

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