Considering that I have been intensely interested in politics since my mid-teens, one might have expected that in the many elections I have taken part in since then, I would have come out on the winning side more than twice. Alas, it is not so. I just voted in Quebec this week: my guy did better than usual, came in second in our constituency, and his party third in the overall seat-count, a result they considered to be almost a victory.
I think I have to go back to my early conditioning about politics to understand how come I am usually backing the losers. I now know that compromise is the art of politics. Which is to say there is always something that should be acceptable that the other side is proposing.
My resistance to that commonsense attitude was born when, at the age of 16 or so, I realized that not a single favorable word about our government had ever appeared in any New Zealand newspaper. The government was Labour, and was made up almost entirely of working class men and women who did their best to represent the interests of the average worker, and had done some remarkable things in pursuance of that end.
For example in 1938, the middle of the Great Depression, they had introduced the English-speaking world’s first universal health care system. They had also --- or were in processing of doing so --- overhauled the education system so as to make it more democratic, using the best educational theorizing of the time in doing so. They had carried on the nation’s good record of social welfare --- established in 1905 when a Liberal government of the time introduced one of the first old age pensions in the world ---- and they were working hand in glove with the diminishing Maori population to attempt a resurgence of that proud people, an effort that eventually drew wholehearted admiration around the world. In addition they had introduced a system of price stabilization for New Zealand’s exports of meat, wool, butter and cheese, that should have earned them the support of farmers, but did not, the farmers remaining rhere as always, a stubbornly conservative group.
Not a bad record, one might think. But the conservative opposition were so entrenched in their old-fashioned, outmoded ideas, that they couldn’t bear even to admit the value of what had been done. In other words, they were our implacable adversaries: I picked up that attitude when in my teens, and I have not changed.
What I discovered as I ventured out into the world was that “our side”, the yearning socialist masses, although they should have been the greatest in number, in fact have always been the smaller. Everywhere, it has been a struggle to convince the groaning masses that they could, if they wished, shake off the tyrannical, controlling hand of the wealth-owning corporate class.
As I watched in dismay this failure of the workers to sweep all before them, I developed a less ambitious objective than I started out with. “I will vote for anyone,” I decided, “who will nationalize the banks and insurance companies.” But even these have been few and far between. I have never been able to accept the arguments for this failure put forward by our political enemies on grounds of the ineptitude of publicly-owned services. Rather --- and I know something of what I am saying in this field, having worked in it for all my life --- rather it is ascribable to the fact that the wealth-owners have always owned, or if not owned, certainly dominated, all the means of communication and the information systems.
With his dominance, they have kept up a relentless drumbeat of propaganda, so complete that even in the publicly-owned services, every news item these days is followed by an advertisement which, in terms of its effect, is really just an argument for private wealth and private ownership of everything.
In the years before the Second World War there was at least a countervailing impetus emanating from the global Communist movement. But the long-term effect of this great movement was stunted by its fatal subservience to the Soviet Union. Ludicrous decisions were made about that war which completely discredited the movement among serious people. In the 1930s, Communism was the only serious opponent of fascism, for example, fronting up against it in Spain when the effete British ruling class, and the wealthy but extremely conservative American ruling class, were more than ready to play ball with the rising Nazis and fascists.
With the signing of the Hitler-Stalin Pact in August 1939, a month before Britain declared war following Hitler’s invasion of Poland, the world-wide Communist movement changed overnight from being against the coming war and fascism, to acceptance of the Pact, thereafter propagandizing on its behalf, an action which lost them whatever goodwill they might have previously earned in the Western world by their staunch defence of the working classes.
That remained official global Communist policy, each national party falling into line behind Moscow without blinking an eye, until Hitler attacked the Soviet Union in June, 1941, at which point they all magically changed sides again, flinging themselves into the war enthusiastically and becoming a central part of the Resistance against the Nazis throughout Europe. One might argue that if any nation won that war, it was probably the Soviet Union, 27 million of whose citizens died in the process, a burden far ahead of that borne by any other nation.
Just to outline this scenario illustrates what a tough world it has been for a democratic socialist to make his way in. In fact, the only successes of democratic socialism have been to save capitalism from its worst excesses, modifying the system in the United States with the New Deal, in Britain with the Labour governments, in Scandinavia with its tenacious governments combining socialist-tinged communities with capitalist economic systems, and elsewhere with fairly short-lived governments in smaller counties like New Zealand and Australia, or, in Canada, the provincial government of Saskatchewan, which took advantage of the discontent among prairie farmers to create a spirit for socialism in that province, a spirit that led to Canada’s universal health-care system today, one of our proudest achievements.
Speaking as a person who has always supported social democracy, I have always been aware of this paradox in a society dedicated to more equality of opportunity, including economic opportunity: that such an aim can be achieved only by taking the surplus wealth off the wealth-owners and redistributing it among the ordinary workers, who, let’s not forget, have actually created this wealth. The wealth-owners are never ready to give it away, therefore it has to be taken from them. And to persuade an electorate to accept this as a fact of life has proven to be so difficult in face of the dominant control of every lever of society by the wealth-owners, that by the time a standard leftist-leaning party might be voted into government, it has usually betrayed all its original principles by subordinating everything to the search for votes. In other words, even if they are elected, they prove to be scarcely worth electing.