Saturday, February 10, 2007

Beyond the Treaty

Commenting in the aftermath of this week's controversies over the Maori flag, Maia at the popular Capitalism bad; tree pretty blog has linked to a Communist Workers Group leaflet which I posted on this blog last February. Maia agrees with the leaflet's argument that the Treaty was an essentially fraduluent document, designed to facilitate the theft of Maori land, but she adds a caveat:

The CWG seem to be implying that this must mean that Maori should not organise around treaty grievances. I don't think that follows - I think powerless people can claim their rights under the current legal system, even if they're are entitled to much more. But even if I did agree in principle, the most basic right to self-determination is the right to determine your struggle. It is not up to me, the CWG, or any other Pakeha to direct the Maori movement for self-determination.

I don't think the CWG would disagree with anything Maia says in her post. I certainly wouldn't. We certainly should be on the side of Maori campaigners when they take on the discrimination and try to reverse the legacy of colonialism, regardless of the languages and symbols these campaigners use. We must also respect the right of Maori to organise amongst themselves and make their own decisions about the precise form that tino rangatiratanga takes.

I remember arguing with a couple of holier than thou self-proclaimed Marxists a few years back about the occupation of land at Ngawha slated for a new prison. The 'Marxists', who happened to be postgrad students at a flash university, said that they couldn't support the occupation, because some of its spokespeople had talked about 'backward' ideas like the existence of a taniwha under the proposed prison site.

To me this sort of attitude is no better than run of the mill right-wing bigotry. How are indigenous people living in poor rural areas without access to the fancy libraries and internet servers uni-educated Marxists take for granted supposed to understand the world? Do they have to quote from Das Kapital before we support them?

There's a division amongst Marxists over what attitude to take toward indigenous peoples fighting to save wholly or partly pre-capitalist societies from 'development' at the hands of imperialism. There are those who, usually under the influence of Stalinism or some sort of Fabianism, look back to the first section of The Communist Manifesto, where the young Marx praises capitalism as a liberatory force dragging societies out of feudal bondage, and give the thumbs up to the multinational companies clearing Amazonian rain forest or putting small farmers in India out of business with copyrighted seeds.

There are others who remember that the world has changed since 1848, and that even Marx radically reformed his attitudes toward pre-capitalist societies after he took the time to study the Iroquois Federation and (especially) the Russian peasant commune in the last decade of his life. In his late writing on Russia, some of which was deliberately suppressed by the leadership of the terminally imperiocentric Second International, Marx argued that pre-capitalist social forms like the peasant commune did not have to be destroyed by imperialism in the name of 'progress'; instead, they could become the basis for a new, socialist society.

The tradition that I belong to argues that, far from simply collapsing in the face of the 'superior' social system brought by the British, Maori fused elements of capitalism with elements of their own traditional society to create a new 'Polynesian mode of production'. In places like the Waikato Kingdom and (later, on a smaller scale) Parihaka, Maori established a thriving market gardening economy that combined collective ownership of land and collective labour with capitalist laws and deamnd and supply. The Waikato war was begun by Pakeha colonists frustrated by the success of the Polynesian mode of production. They were sick of sitting in Auckland shelling out for the food that Maori were producing in huge quantities with their cultivations and flour mills.

Elements of the Polynesian mode of production still survive - think of the collective nature of much Maori land ownership, which drives both Pakeha bankers and iwicorp capitalists wild - and the memory of the Waikato Kingdom and Parihaka still inspires both Maori and Pakeha lefties. Owen Gager has written about the Polynesian mode of production here, in a small book whose powerful arguments are marred by some pointless sectariana which today looks old-fashioned. I've written a little bit about Parihka and its predecessors here, and I've described the role the French theorist Louis Althusser played in helping Kiwi Marxists escape the legacy of Stalinism and develop a real analysis of Maori history here.

The CWG and others in the tradition I've been describing believe that if Maori are to reverse the legacy of colonialism by winning back stolen lands and reclaiming their old economic power they have to make alliances with ordinary Kiwis of other races. We think that, whatever their race and culture, working class Kiwis have an interest in wresting control of their country's resources and economy from the American imperialists and the caste of local capitalists who control these resources and run our economy for the benefit of international capital.

What does this mean in practice? On the seabed and foreshore hikoi the CWG and a number of other socialist groups and individuals distributed leaflets and made speeches calling for Maori and non-Maori working class supporters to occupy the foreshore, using the Bastion Point occupation as a model. We wanted to see the resources of the seabed and foreshore paced under the control of ordinary Kiwis, and used for the benefit of ordinary Kiwis, rather than confiscated by the state and leased to multinational companies for ironsand mining or luxury resorts.

Most Maori are only likely to come to the view that class-based politics are part of the solution to their problems if they see socialists bringing working class Pakeha along to events like the seabed and foreshore hikoi and the Ngawha occupation. That's why the CWG and other groups and individuals with the same views tried hard to build support in the big trade unions for the hikoi.

We didn't succeed in getting large numbers of Pakeha trade unionists to join the hikoi, but examples like the Bastion Point struggle show that working class Pakeha can come to the side of Maori. In 1937 the Marxist poet RAK Mason pulled workers off building sites around Auckland and got them down to Okahu Bay, at the bottom of Bastion Point, where they erected palisades around an 'illegal' Ngati Whatua village threatened with destruction by the government.

The village at Okahu Bay would not be demolished until 1953, after the power of the militant trade unions had been broken by the Holland government's imposition of a police state. In the 1970s, when Ngati Whatua began to organise to win back Bastion Point, they soon found widespread trade union support. When the Muldoon government brought in the army to demolish the protest village Nagti Whatua had built on Bastion Point tens of thousands of workers of all races walked off the job around Auckland in a wildcat strike. Muldoon had to use soldiers to dismantle the village because no construction worker in Auckland would touch Bastion Point. Socialist and trade union support had a lot to do with the eventual victory of Ngati Whatua in the late '80s.

Of course, battles like the one at Bastion Point were conducted on a relatively small scale. To find large-scale examples of the fusion of socialism and the fight for indigenous rights we have to look overseas. I believe that the Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela offers some good examples of the way that the struggle against imperialism and for workers' interests can be combined with the struggle for the interests of indigenous peoples. (Not that the process is without its difficulties, of course. We cannot afford to follow any foreign model slavishly.)


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