For Liberation: The National Oppression of Māori and Class Struggle in Aotearoa

The struggle at Ihumātao was a radicalising moment for a lot of people. Our organisation was involved, in many different forms, in supporting the occupation – but many people who just existed in the orbit of Ihumātao have been what older generations of activists call “conscientised”. Ihumātao demonstrated a flaw of capitalism to many people, and for many this has drawn them into revolutionary politics. Māori struggles are clearly important to our ongoing task, which I think our slogan clearly sums up. We are for liberation and socialism. But how are Māori struggles related to communism? Even as a Māori communist, when someone asks me “well what will communism mean for Māori,” I stumble a little. Thankfully, we aren’t the first people to try to work out whether the socialist movement cares about colonialism. Indeed, this argument was the cause of one of the earliest and most vicious splits in the 20th-century socialist movement.

Thousands of supporters arrive after police kettle kaitiaki at Ihumātao on August 5th 2019.

We will have to dig up the grave of a very old argument, but I will try to keep our tomb-robbing brief. Ho Chi Minh sums things up really well for us in this short article. Essentially, the world socialist movement was split in two over the question of imperialism. The center- and right-leaning factions were ambivalent about imperialism, and cared little for the fate of the peoples colonised by the developed capitalist countries. The left-leaning factions argued that capitalism specifically depended on the exploitation of colonies and that opposing imperialism was essential if we were going to win. Ultimately it was the left-leaning factions that won out, leading to the founding of the Third Communist International and a policy for communists around the world to support the national liberation struggles of colonised peoples. Decolonisation struggles in Vietnam, Angola, Ghana, the Congo, Indonesia, Ireland and many other places all received the backing of socialists. 

I bring this up to show that Marxists have never been content to simply say “our fight is with the bourgeoisie, full stop” and leave things there. Of course our fight is with the bourgeoisie – fuck those guys – but we’re fighting against a capitalist world order that is increasingly dependent on north-south exploitation. The bourgeoisie lives by sucking the blood of the global south’s oppressed nations, and we’ve always fought to break this exploitation in order to free the world and weaken the capitalist enemy. Any time socialists have tried to ignore national oppression, as the chauvinists of the Second International did, they have proved their own irrelevance and faded into shameful obscurity. 

We’re clear that national oppression is something we need to care about if we want to win. As Marxists, this puts us now in a weird position. Being in a weird spot, people end up thinking some weird things in order to get out of it. We can start with this question: are we for the liberation of oppressed nations, or are we for the elimination of the capitalist class? The question is one of political priorities, but considered too simply, people can contort themselves into all kinds of awful tangles trying to decide what to do. As revolutionaries in Aotearoa, whose world has been shaped by the expropriation of Māori land, it is vital that we don’t fall into the most common of these distortions. This is the claim, which I’m sure you’ve heard someone or other make at some point, that “we’re all part of the working class anyway, so what relevance do particularly Māori issues have for socialists?”

Let’s break our ‘friend’s’ argument down a little and see what it’s proposing. We are, indeed, all part of the working class. In Marxist terms, this is saying that there is a contradiction between the capitalist class and the working class. This is absolutely true. We can even use our eyes and see this contradiction – just look at the difference in life outcomes between the people who own capital and the people who sell their labour. Working people are poorer, hungrier, live in worse homes, have more health problems, and have worse overall life outcomes than those who live off of rent, interest, or profit. This is because, as we all know by now, capitalists depend on the extraction of surplus value from the labour-power of workers in order to exist. In this sense, half of what our ‘friend’ is saying is true. It’s in the second half, however, where they trip over their own ass and fall into the gutter. 

If we’ve established that there is a contradiction between capitalists and workers, our ‘friend’ goes one step further and argues that there is not a contradiction between Indigenous people and settlers. For this to be true, we would need to be unable to find any difference in how Māori and Pākehā relate to the process of production. This is where our ‘friend’ starts their short journey to the puddle, because we can tell this isn’t true. 

As with when we looked at the contradiction between capitalists and workers, we can start with a merely empirical evaluation. Do Māori people and Pākehā people have basically identical life outcomes? The answer, as we all already know, is no. Of course not. Māori die younger than Pākehā, are more likely to be sent to prison than Pākehā, receive lower wages than Pākehā, and are more likely to be unemployed than Pākehā. These facts show that the disparities between Māori and Pākehā are far from just cultural. These are directly economic factors, they concern the particular relation that Māori have to the process of production. Our lower wages show that Māori receive a lower price when we sell our labour-power, in other words, as a population we are subject to imperialist superexploitation. Our disproportionate unemployment rate shows that we are used to bulk out the relative surplus population – that army of potential workers held in reserve, desperate for employment, competing for jobs and therefore driving down wages across society as a whole. The first two points show that not only is the contradiction between Māori and Pākehā real and material in the Marxist sense, it also has deadly consequences for our population. 

Sign reading “This land is tapu! Protect te whenua not colonialism” pinned to the group by a Tino Rangatiratanga flag.

So this is the tangled knot we find ourselves in. Both contradictions are real. There is a contradiction between the interests of capitalists and workers, and there is also a contradiction between the interests of Indigenous people and settlers. What do we do? This is the knot our clumsy friend has tried to chop through, with embarrassing results. Chauvinists acknowledge the first contradiction, but try to ignore the second. This is for a variety of reasons. Some are just, themselves, racist. Fuck these people. Others are understandably unsure of what the task of building socialism on stolen Māori land can even look like, and so forgive themselves of responsibility for doing it by pretending we don’t exist. Still more people just haven’t understood that the national oppression of Māori is central to the existence of capitalism in Aotearoa. Neither excuse is a very good one, and we have to gently but firmly correct these ideas when we see them. 

I’d like to introduce the concept of antagonism to help us explain how to handle the two contradictions. Mao Zedong argues that “antagonism is one form, but not the only form, of the struggle of opposites.” What he means is that as contradictions between groups, factions, and classes develop, they can change from non-antagonistic to antagonistic forms and back again. Mao says for example that “there is a difference between workers and peasants and this very difference is a contradiction, although, unlike the contradiction between labour and capital, it will not become intensified into antagonism or assume the form of class struggle.” Workers and peasants had different, even opposed interests. Yet, Mao argues, this contradiction does not necessarily have to take the form of a struggle by one to overcome the other. Rather, peasants and workers should instead ally, despite their differences, in order to eliminate the capitalist system. A contradiction existed between workers and peasants, but it was the contradiction between capitalists and the worker-peasant alliance that Mao argues was the antagonistic one. 

Likewise, we say that there is a contradiction between capitalists and workers, and between Indigenous people and settlers, but that it is the first of these which is an antagonistic contradiction. The contradiction between capitalists and workers is antagonistic because the capitalist class cannot exist as a class without exploiting and extracting from the working class. To be a capitalist is to exploit workers: there’s no way to broker peace with a tapeworm. The contradiction between Māori and Pākehā is a consequence of the national oppression of Māori that is necessary to the imposition of capitalism, and can be resolved as we dismantle the capitalist system and make our way towards communism. Our responsibility as socialists, tauiwi and otherwise, is to follow through on this promise without backsliding into chauvinism. 

This final point is the most important one. We are dealing with national oppression, meaning that the exploitation of Māori as a population is a conscious and deliberate economic strategy of the bourgeoisie. It makes no sense, then, for our ‘friend’ to argue that capitalism has naturally and automatically erased the distinction between Māori and Pākehā. On the contrary, the distinction between Māori and Pākehā is a very productive one for the capitalist class. Even though we accept that the primary contradiction of our time, the antagonistic contradiction, is between capitalists and workers, we have to approach the contradiction between Māori and Pākehā with the same consciousness and deliberateness that our enemies do. The contradiction between Māori and Pākehā has been made on purpose. We must unmake it on purpose. 

What does this mean for our actual political practice? It means that we need to speak to the Māori working class. It means that we need to be a party for a working class which we know is already divided, in more ways than I’ve pointed out even here. And it means that we need a political form which deliberately dismantles the national oppression of Māori, even as we continue our long hīkoi to communism. 

Some Organise Aotearoa members and comrades venture behind the police line and into the early morning fog on July 24th 2019, the day after the eviction of kaitiaki at Ihumātao.

Words by Emmy Rākete
Photos by Larry T