Critical support: a paradox, or a practice?
I'm not about to say Scott's suggestions or Simon Whipp's actions are in the same league as the nastiness we've seen in National Socialism or Stalinism, because obviously that would make me a complete fool. But the ideals of 'strength in collectivity' being more important 'the truth', whether it be nationality, religion, or class, is the root of all those movements.
At another blog a commenter said that I reminded him of a Christian fundamentalist who believed in unthinking obedience to God and to church hierarchy.
I had thought that I was arguing, not for the worship of union leaders or a Nietzschean veneration of power over truth, but for the practice socialists often call critical support. In the context of the current conflict between Actors' Equity and Peter Jackson's shady friends, critical support could mean combining criticism of flawed union leaders and flawed union policies with acts of solidarity with a union being attacked by bosses, the media and the state.
If I don't find the idea of critical support contradictory, or even very complicated, it may be because I always seem to be in a very small minority in whatever organisation or milieu I join. A few weeks ago I was lecturing some mates, including the brilliant but very sardonic Hamish Dewe, about the state of New Zealand literature and art, and about the tendency within New Zealand literature I see myself as belonging to. "Ah yes", Hamish interjected to much amusement, "Scott and his merry band of one".
It's not only in the literary world that I tend to feel somewhat isolated. Within political organisations I seem always to have views on particular issues which don't quite fit those of most other members, and which compel me to write long internal documents and argue obscure points at meetings.
When we think about it, though, aren't we all members of a series of factions, declared or undeclared, in any organisation we belong to? We might each share a certain number of views with everyone else in a group - why else would we belong to it? - but we'll each usually hold some beliefs which are shared only by a minority of other members, and we'll each have some ideas which are unique to us. Surely that makes us each, in a sense, a faction of one? What other option do we have, given our inevitable dissidence, but to offer a sort of critical support to the groups to which we belong, working beside our fellow members on various projects but at the same time promoting, with more or less fervour and impatience, the views unique to us?
Auckland's Anti-Imperialist Coalition, which I was involved in from late 2001 until about 2004, was a United Front whose members were brought together by some strong commonly-held beliefs - the view that Bush's wars in the Middle East should be opposed, a belief that the UN was just a figleaf for imperialism and therefore couldn't be trusted, and a belief that mass direct action, especially by workers, can be the key to stopping wars - but who nevertheless had a wide range of political affiliations. Inside the outfit there were Trotskyists of various flavours (Trotskyism has, of course, a lot of flavours to offer the punter), Maoists, 'old school' social democrats, old school Iraqi communists, radical Christians, radical feminists, and people who identified politically as well as religiously as Muslims. (As I noted in a book review written about a year ago, we also attracted the rather clownish attentions of a now-notorious spy.)
I remember helping to produce a newsletter for the AIC in which the various views of group members jostled for attention, and realising how much more entertaining the publication was than the normal 'party line' material of left-wing outfits. I also remember a day school at which the viewpoints of Islamists, Marxists, social democrats, and radical feminists competed, and were not really reconciled (things became particularly difficult for me when I gave a talk on Marxism, said something positive about Marx's analysis of capitalism, and immediately attracted the criticism of a young woman whose family had been tortured by Soviet troops during the occupation of Afghanistan). Whenever I organised an AIC barbeque I had to be careful to buy some halal meat as well as the obligatory tofu patties for the vegetarian minority. As an unreconstructed carnivore raised on a dairy farm, I found such dietary subtleties new and rather confusing. I don't think the AIC worked too badly, and I think it can claim some small credit for helping build the anti-war movement in Auckland and for giving that movement an orientation towards organised labour and towards the western and the southern suburbs of the city. The key to the group's relative success, I think, was unity in action: even if we disagreed with each other about the existence of God, or the proper definition of the social structure of the Soviet Union, or some other similarly weighty matter, we were generally willing to go out leafleting and postering together on a cold and rainy Friday night, instead of having a few beers at the pub or watching a DVD beside the fireplace at home. And the AIC generally worked quite constructively within the wider anti-war movement: certainly, we religiously promoted not only our own events but the events of the larger and better-resourced Global Peace and Justice Auckland group, with whom we sometimes disagreed quite sharply about strategic and tactical matters.
Another exemplary group with which I was involved, though more briefly, was the Waitemata branch of Unite union. Composed mostly of low-paid workers and long-term beneficiaries with strongly left-wing views, the Waitemata branch was dominated by the extraordinary, and at times quite difficult, personality of the late and much-missed Roger Fox.
Roger became involved in scraps with the Unite hierarchy, and in particular with Matt McCarten, after he horrified head office by getting elected to the union's national executive. Roger and most of the other members of the Waitemata branch were determined that Unite should keep a strong focus on the recruitment of beneficiaries, and often took the side of other unions in disputes over McCarten's poaching activities at big worksites in Auckland. But Waitemata Unite's criticism of the union leadership never stopped them supporting that leadership against its right-wing detractors, or participating in pickets organised by comrade McCarten.
Back in November 2003, Waitemata Unite was a key player in an event which demonstrated some of the ambiguities and conundrums that the practice of critical support can create. To mark the 90th anniversary of the Great Strike of 1913, which pitted the 'Red' Federation of Labour against the bitterly reactionary government of William Massey, and which saw unions seizing power on the West Coast and fighting pitched battles with the police in the streets of Auckland and Wellington, a number of historians and trade unionists decided to organise an exhibition and a day of lectures. Unfortunately, they decided to invite the police along to their party. During a debate at indymedia, the veteran Wellington trade unionist Don Franks summed up the dismay the invite to the cops created amongst a section of the left:
Let's have a big reunion to mark the next anniversary of the 1981 Springbok Tour and invite the police to come along and celebrate alongside the activists they beat up. Silly idea isn't it? And this event is just as silly. The police are the enemies of the union movement. They have fought on the wrong side of every industrial dispute in our history. Being all friendly with them is an insult to the strikers of 1913.
Inevitably, visitors to Comrades and Cossacks had to negotiate their way through a rowdy protest in which members of the Waitemata branch of Unite were prominent. A very large number of young uniformed cops kept an eye on the protesters, while older cops in suits slipped in to sample the finger food and wine and look over artefacts of the 1913 strike. Apparently the boys in blue were particularly excited to see one of the infamous long batons that their predecessors had wielded from horseback when they charged the picket lines at Auckland's wharves.
One of the visitors to Comrades and Cossacks was Matt McCarten, who was blocked for some time from entering the event by a former leader of the firefighter's union. McCarten's critic called him a "scab", and much else beside, as the police looked on, uncertain of whether to intervene. Several senior trade unionists who visited Comrades and Cossacks wandered out after a short time and apologised, explaining that they had felt obliged to put in an appearance. Some attendees were unapologetic, and accused the protesters of being "stuck in the past" and failing to realise that the "police have changed". I didn't enjoy the angry division that Comrades and Cossacks created in unions like Unite and on the left, but I have no doubt that the decision to make a fuss about the presence of the police at the event was the right one. As the arrest and harassment of dozens of activists during the tragicomic 'terror raids' of 2007 has since shown very clearly, the police have not 'changed' from the days of 1951 and 1913. Even though many cops, then and now, are perfectly nice people, they inevitably find themselves on the wrong sides of picket lines and protests. Looking back to November 2003 now, though, I do wonder how the protest outside Comrades and Cossacks fits with the notion of critical support. My comrades and I may have been right in our opposition to the cops attending a union event, but did we violate the tenets of critical support by taking such an openly confrontational approach to leaders like McCarten? Or were we actually showing solidarity with the best parts of the history of the union movement, when we protested the desecration of the memory of the Red Feds of 1913? These questions probably have no simple answers.
But the Comrades and Cossacks controversy was an isolated event, and my experiences in both the Anti-Imperialist Coalition and the Waitemata branch of Unite helped convince me that the notion of critical support makes sense, and that the old left-wing slogans 'diversity of opinion, unity in action' and 'march separately, strike together' can be more than mere rhetoric.