The rise of the new social movements was a phenomenon throughout the west, whereby oppressed groups other than simply the working class became much more politically organised and visible. Typically, the new social movements involved peace groups, gay liberation groups, the women’s movement and nationalist groups, and in New Zealand this included Maori cultural revivalist movements and Pacific peoples’ cultural and nationalist groups (Roper, 2005: pp.95-96). Leaders from a variety of groups and movements promoted the idea of identity based on gender, sexuality, culture and origins. This was often consciously contrasted with models of identity and political action based on class.
Within these new social movements there was a contest of ideas over concerns relating to identity, political tactics and strategies, class and ideologies. The eventual cementing of ‘identity politics’ as the framework through which these new social movements operated developed through discussions, fights, government cooptation and class conflict within the groups themselves (Trotter, 2002).
The advocates of identity politics proposed the ‘tripod theory’ of exploitation, according to which race, gender and class comprise the separate but equal pillars of human oppression. The tripod political ideology held that class should no longer be the primary concern of the left. Gender, race and class were to be given equal status in terms of analysing society and in terms of engagement in political action. Disillusioned Stalinists and Maoists, who were desperate to discard their unfashionable baggage, enthusiastically embraced this new approach.
Such tripod theories can be seen as a variant of post-modern approaches to struggle, with no form of oppression or identity afforded primacy. Instead a tolerant, non-critical approach was given to various avenues of struggle. These ‘new leftists’ therefore rejected the Marxist view of identifying racism, sexism and homophobia as subordinate (but highly effective) strategies of oppression, which complement and intensify the dominant relationship within capitalism – which is class exploitation. Those who resisted this new paradigm were branded ‘racists’ by the Maori activists and liberal pakeha who now dominated the left and set the framework for left politics (Trotter, 2002: p.6).
It has to be pointed out, however, that this tripod trend was partly a reaction to an equally negative economistic position on the left before then. For many years the left tried to pretend that gender, racial, and national oppression were either non-existent or unimportant. For these leftists – who were often situated in trade union activism – economic issues were all that mattered.
I recently read of a US example of this shift from one extreme to another:
The old Socialist leader Eugene Debs used to be criticized for being unwilling to interest himself in any social reform that didn't involve attacking economic inequality. The situation now is almost exactly the opposite; the left today obsessively interests itself in issues that have nothing to do with economic inequality.
Likewise in New Zealand, the left swung from one negative extreme to another – from ignoring the oppression of women and Maori, to then obsessing over these types of oppression, yet without locating them within a wider understanding of the economic social system. Class exploitation and the class division of society were systematically downplayed (Poata-Smith, 2004: pp.71-72).
Where are the new social movements now?
Chris Trotter has recently elaborated on who the liberals are, saying that ‘This segment of the New Zealand Left is risibly small – probably numbering fewer than 5,000 individuals.’ These are the people, according to Trotter, who ‘undertook the "long march through the institutions" and made their way into positions of authority in schools, universities, government departments, unions and political parties’. This ‘Komissariat’ now plays a strong role in running the country. Their influence first became apparent during the radical reforms of the 1980s Fourth Labour Government – when social liberalism united with neoliberalism. The next post will look at how social liberalism transformed into neo-liberalism.