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Arachne. No. 2

The Evaporation of Social Democracy

page 39

The Evaporation of Social Democracy

There has Been Nothing in New Zealand politics since the fall of the Labour Government last November to suggest that there is as yet even a faint beginning of the revival of life in the left of this country. To expect a mass movement at this stage would be unrealistic. But the situation of New Zealand socialism today is much less flourishing than it was in the early 1920's. The social democracy that was an exciting possibility in those days has been in part realized and in part rejected and it is necessary to begin once more with the articulation of a body of thought which will offer a better hope than the idolisation of either the profit motive or the wisdom of commissars.

The situation has been well illustrated by events in the trade union movement. The militant unionists who broke away from the Federation of Labour at the Easter Conference had indictments against both the industrial and political wings of labour—against the Federation that it was too subservient to political Labour and against the latter that when in power it made too little progress towards socialism. These charges are not necessarily inconsistent with each other but if they are to serve as the basis of a new movement a more precise conception of 'socialism' is necessary. Communists and some others seem to believe that real socialists could never find themselves in conflct with really militant unionists. But those who do admit such a possibility will have noticed that as states extend their control of 'the means of production, distribution and exchange' they become increasingly and necessarily anxious to control the people who do the producing, distributing and exchanging. Hence the importance to socialist governments of docile trade union movements.

The syndicalist ideas which were said to have some currency in the breakaway New Zealand Trades Union Congress seemed to offer the beginning of a solution to this dilemma

page 40

confronting the socialist but undocile trade unionist. Communal control of economic life might well be a very different thing if it were not imposed from above by the state but built up and managed by those concerned in a particular industry. Such a form of decentralised socialism would need to rest on the effective local organisation of consumers as well as producers.

It is more to be hoped than expected that the Trades Union Congress or the Federation of Labour or the Labour Party will develop such ideas or take their stand upon them. But unless they do it is hard to see how any amount of uninstructed militancy, even if it achieves political 'success'—which is improbable—can lead to anything more desirable than the piling up of a few more stories on the topheavy structure which was repudiated by the people in November 1949.

The danger of war between the West and Russia is so much more alarming than the crisis within, that it is natural that many people are disinclined to devote much thought to the latter. But the decline of social democracy is not confined to New Zealand. It is the general inability of the Western countries to solve the problems sketched above that makes it so difficult for their left wing groups to offer any convincing opposition when rightist governments think and act as if Italy or Korea must enjoy the benefits of 'free enterprise' or tread a path that leads ultimately to Moscow. This illusion both brings war nearer and makes success in war less likely. It is a far graver weakness in the Western position than any temporary weakness in military strength. It is not likely to be remedied until there appears a mode of social organisation which is not a compromise between capitalist exploitation and communist tyranny but a true contrary of both. 'The way to do is to be.'


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