The illusions of revolution – how Karl Marx misled historians…and the world…

I spotted some protestors a while back in central Wellington. “Aha,” I said to myself, “the people’s revolution is happening a century too late.” But it wasn’t. It was a group of public servants wanting a pay rise.

Me, in Versailles where the French had a bit of a revolution a couple of centuries back, starting about a century of them in France alone…

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the western world was riven by upheaval; the radical left – the ‘reds’, after the colour they had adopted as their symbol. They advocated a philosophy that had roots in the social turmoil that followed the Industrial Revolution, given focus by some of the teachings of Karl Marx, and which drew further detail from the manifesto of Parisian students during the ‘Communard’ of 1870-71 – hence its name, ‘communism’.  And at the end of the First World War, several of Europe’s larger nations fell over in revolt. Germany’s communist revolution didn’t last. Russia’s did.

That set up the great ideological opposition of the twentieth century: the struggle between ‘capitalism’ and ‘communism’. In many ways it was illusory: as Barbara Tuchmann has observed, history played one of its greatest jokes on Marx. He was seduced by his notions of ‘inevitability’ – by the idea that social change followed mechanistic lines. His end-game was defined as the opposite of the extremist ‘cowboy’ capitalism of the 1840s, against which he was reacting.

The reality is that society didn’t change in that way at all. ‘Communism’ was an intellectual conceit, a reaction to extreme early capitalism but nothing new of itself. It wasn’t going to work in practise – and didn’t. The Soviet Union swiftly became a totalitarian dictatorship where efforts to impose a ‘communist’ (‘Leninist’) ideology served only to destroy the production base. Nor were the basic principles of ‘communism’ ever going to work. Communal property took away any individual incentive to innovate or make an effort. Soviet farms were collectivised in 1932, and famine followed.

That didn’t mean that the opposite view was automatically right. The human condition is far more complex than the usual reduction of it to the polar opposites defined by the social impact of industrialisation and the style of economy that followed. But even today we still view things in those polar opposites. Certainly the failure of Marx’s doctrine to work did not reduce the angst among the intellectualised western left over the issue. Historians such as Christopher Hill still tried to impose Marxist structures across the English Revolution of the 1640s in efforts to prove that Marx had found some kind of universal truth about how societies change. They failed – largely because Marx got it totally wrong.

Still, the notion that revolutions were ‘automatic’ gained ground in New Zealand’s historical academia. And the question arose: why didn’t we have a revolution at the end of the First World War, as happened or seemed likely for other nations? We had our ‘red feds’, and they’d risen up in street protests during the winter of 1913. Why didn’t more happen?

This was seriously posed as a question by academic historians, though it shouldn’t have been.

The reality was that New Zealand didn’t need a revolution, because we already had what the revolutionaries were looking for elsewhere, by design. We’d been set up as a democracy, for instance – made that way – from the beginning. Specifically, it was the Constitution Act 1852, implemented at request of the Colonial Office as pakeha settlements grew. New Zealand didn’t have any of the baggage of the long-established older nations.

Michael Joseph Savage
Michael Joseph Savage, whose universal state welfare and health system of 1938 was described as ‘applied Christianity’.

When the ‘radical reds’ did emerge – in the coalfields of the West Coast, principally, during the 1890s, they assumed the trappings of the international left such as the “Wobblies” of Chicago, calling each other ‘comrade’. But the miners’ hall at Runanga, where most of them met, was sponsored by local businesses. And the aim of their main movers-and-shakers – people such as Michael Joseph Savage, Peter Fraser and Robert ‘Battling Bob’ Semple – was to get a better deal not just for workers, but for people generally – and in particular, for anybody suffering through no fault of their own. To these so-called ‘revolutionaries’, the best way to achieve that was to become part of that establishment – to support the structures of government and systems of enterprise, then harness those systems to the benefit of ordinary people. This meant stepping back from capitalism’s early ideological excesses.

They did just that, eventually, coming to power in 1935. And guess which New Zealand Prime Minister remains, to this day, the only PM to have their portrait hung on the wall of many New Zealand homes – at the time, usually alongside the picture of Jesus Christ? Yup – Michael Joseph Savage.

By some measures he was the greatest New Zealander that ever lived. His work and legacy, including free state hospitals and extensive healthcare and welfare systems, made the biggest positive difference, over the longest period, for the largest number of Kiwis ever – and is still doing so.

When Savage died in office in 1940 – a direct consequence of his decision to ignore medical advice so that he could focus, instead, on getting his policy of ‘applied Christianity’ in place – the nation mourned. Despite taking a severe battering during the so-called ‘reform’ period of 1985-99, the systems of health care and welfare that Savage sacrificed himself to implement, for the benefit of the people, remain a cornerstone of New Zealand’s social-government structures today.

If you want to check out my account of those events, have a look at my book The Bateman Illustrated History of New Zealand – available either on Kindle, in print direct from the publisher, or in any good New Zealand bookshop.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2017

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