The 'First White Marxists' reach Tuhoe Country
While Thompson's essay was at times unfair - the young Anderson and his friends did have some interesting things to say, and Britain's trade union movement and Labour and Communist Parties could have done with a little intellectual stimulation in the mid-60s - it does sound a necessary warning about the dangers of intellectual arrogance on the far left. In one particularly amusing passage in his polemic, Thompson found an historical analogy for his opponents' ideological zeal:
[Anderson and his circle] are heroic and missionary. We hold our breath in suspense as the first Marxist landfall is made upon this uncharted Northland. Amidst the tundra and sphangnum moss of English empiricism they are willing to build true conventicles to convert the poor trade unionist aborigines from their corporative myths to the hegemonic light...Pulling their snowcaps over their ears, they disembark and struggle onwards to bring the intense rational consciousness of their cutting instruments to the 'traditional intelligentsia'...There is a sense of rising suspense as they - the First White Marxists - approach the astonished aborigines.
I remembered these words recently, when I stumbled upon the intervention of a group of pious white revolutionaries into a discussion about Tuhoe nationalism at indymedia. Where the targets of Thompson's polemic sought to bring the true faith to the 'astonished aborigines' of Britain, the missionaries at indymedia sought to convert the indigenous people of Aotearoa to the creed. Inserting himself into the discussion under an article about Tuhoe's ongoing Treaty of Waitangi negotiations with the Crown, the self-proclaimed 'anarchist communist' and indymedia regular named 'Olly' warned that Tuhoe who wanted their land back were nothing more than capitalist rascals:
any redress [for past wrongs] on the part of the government will necessarily involve co-opting the struggle through the creation of a Tuhoe bourgeoisie, hence the need to 'create a Tuhoe economy'. By a Tuhoe economy we should make no mistake, this means a new Tuhoe capitalism - a capitalism with the added nicety of an anti-colonialist face...
Once again Aotearoa IMC has proved its worth as little more than a stooge for the more disaffected factions of the ruling class rather than a subversive voice which seeks confrontation with the exploitative and oppressive society we are all forced to live under, and which, despite the ernest efforts of both national liberationists and their many cheerleaders, has the unfortunate tendency of constantly reasserting itself.
When a Tuhoe reader responded to Olly by suggesting that he find out more about Tuhoe history and culture, instead of 'spouting middle class theories' from 'aloof' positions, the heroic missionary responded contemptuously:
To be frank, capital doesn't give a damn about cultural practice...
The way forward for Tuhoe is, it seems, straight and narrow. They must abandon their reactionary attempts to regain stolen land, forget about their irrelevant culture, and join Olly's revolutionary organisation of choice, an organisation which surely has, at present, only a tenuous existence in the offline world.
Olly's argument about the uselessness of Tuhoe history and culture to progressive politics was taken up with enthusiasm by another regular indymedia commenter, who uses the rather unfortunate nom de plume 'Madman'. According to 'Madman', all good Marxists realise that Maori history and tikanga is not only political useless but positively obnoxious:
Karl Marx was quite right when he emphasised the necessity to push for progress...We may indulge in romantic ideas about some South Pacific Societies living in harmony, the truth is that they were very much tribal and did not hesitate to fight between tribes on different islands, in different valleys, in some cases even went as far as cannibalism and had a very strict hierarchy...Even in Europe we had our "ancient" times with "Neandertal Man", "Cromagnon Man" and later tribal warfare...The same applies to modern-day thinking about the rights of Maori tribes, whanau, whatever. Once we go down that way we end up again in tribalism, hegemony, dividedness, envy and social hierarchy.
For reasons which will no doubt continue to escape their understanding, 'Olly' and 'Madman' failed to convert their Tuhoe interlocutors to the revolutionary creed. I'm sure that won't stop them, and sundry other members of the online far left, from trying again and again in future threads at indymedia and similar sites.
While Olly's kneejerk opposition to the culture of an indigenous people is hardly surprising - such prejudice is, after all, a perennial symptom of Eurocentric forms of Marxism and other socialisms - I was impressed by the sheer historical illiteracy of his claim that 'capital doesn't give a damn about cultural practice'.
Olly's formulation would be come as a surprise to a lot of the people who brought capitalism to this part of the world. They were always complaining about the obstacles which Polynesian cultural practices created for them. The refusal of many Polynesian groups to divide collectively-owned land into individual title and offer it for sale, the failure of Polynesians to work on newly-established plantations as individuals, rather than in groups, and their tendency to work their own hours, and to clear off for days or weeks whenever an important events like a wedding or funeral was being held - these and many other contradictions between Polynesian culture and the practices of capitalism are noted again and again in the journals and letters of nineteenth century colonisers and business-owners.
Collective ownership of land, collective organisation of labour, and the primacy of kin relationships are central to most traditional Polynesian cultures. They presented, and in some places continue to present, major obstacles to the encroachment of capitalism. There have been many times when the conflict between Polynesian culture and capitalism has flared into conflict.
Many of the conflicts grouped together nowadays under the heading 'the New Zealand Wars' were the product of the contradiction between Polynesian collectivism and the requirements of capitalism. Maori wanted to hold the land collectively and work it; capitalist farmers and speculators wanted to take it and subdivide it. The Mau rebellion which led to Samoan independence from New Zealand was triggered when Kiwi administrators tried to 'modernise' the country by breaking up old collectively-owned parcels of land and imposing more 'discipline' on Samoan labourers. The contradiction between Polynesian culture and capitalism persists today in various forms. The protracted and bitter struggles in parts of the Cook Islands against advocates of capitalism who want to break collectively-owned land into individual pieces and make it available to foreigners for purchase is one sign of the contradiction. Another symptom of the contradiction is the well-publicised failure of World Bank microcredit schemes to influence the economies of Polynesian nations like Samoa and Tonga. This failure has occurred because the individualist cultural bias of the World Bank clashes with the culture of those nations. Loans which were given to individuals were distributed in the kin group; profits which were supposed to be churned back into a business established with a microcredit loan were shared out amongst a village.
In this country, the conflicts within some iwi between those who want to adopt a corporate-style structure, divide up and sell some collectively-owned land, and invest rather than redistribute income, and those who want to follow different, anti-corporate practices are another sign of the continuing contradiction between Polynesian culture and capitalism.
I think that Olly's interlocutor was correct, then, to suggest that Tuhoe tikanga does in important ways contradict the practices of capitalism. And I think that, if Tuhoe were successful in winning real control of major resources from the Crown, this contradiction would make itself felt from within the iwi. Tuhoe versions of Tuku Morgan and Graham Latimer would emerge to argue that the iwi must ditch some parts of its tikanga and embrace 'corporate culture'. They would advocate cutting deals with multinational companies and working with parties like National. They would tell us that economic development can only come through capitalism.
But there are alternatives to capitalism as a motor for economic development. There are examples, both in New Zealand and in other parts of Polynesia, of peoples using modern technology and modern trade networks to develop their economies, and yet retaining collective control of their land and other resources.
In this country, the classic example of this alternative to capitalism is what some sociologists have called the 'Polynesian mode of production', which flourished in the Waikato Kingdom and in Parihaka before those places where invaded and conquered by Pakeha. Using imported technology, the peoples of the Waikato Kingdom and of Parihaka grew food for export to the Pakeha cities of Auckland, Wellington, and Sydney, but they grew the food on collectively-owned land using collective labour. Their economic success and their refusal to sell their land infuriated Pakeha capitalists, and led to their eventual conquest.
The sort of hybrid economy which was developed in the Waikato and Parihaka - using modern technology and trade, and yet retaining collective forms of labour and land ownership - is still seen today in a number of Polynesian nations. It is also being experimented with in Venezuela and in Bolivia, where left-wing governments have returned large areas of stolen land to peasants, some of whom are indigenous peoples, and urged them to use the land collectively, by forming co-operatives or communal farms. There is no reason why Tuhoe could not retain returned land and resources in collective ownership and develop their land and resources for the benefit of the whole iwi. There are already examples of iwi who are opting for the collectivist 'Polynesian mode of production' model of development over the 'corporate' model. Recently I visited a tourist attraction which is sited on land returned to a hapu. The land is jointly-owned by the whole hapu, and the tourism business employs members of the hapu and places an important part of the income it generates into a trust fund run by the hapu. This fund pays for things like tertiary fees and dental treatment for members of the group. Important decisions about the strategic direction of the business are made collectively, by the hapu. It seems to me that the model of economic development being pursued by this hapu is not only consistent with Maori tikanga - it is inconsistent with the dictates of capitalism.