Sue Bradford's well-attended talk on the concept of a left wing think tank in NZ has provoked considerable discussion among attendees. Below is a considered response by Geoff Fischer in which he questions whether an institution of the general form discussed by Sue would necessarily represent a solution to any of the Left's problems.
Sue Bradford, has been part of many of the left-wing political parties which have come and gone (or stayed as the case may be) in New Zealand over the past forty years. In each case she has left disillusioned and her disillusion has been attributed at least in part to the fact that her fellow left-wingers have shyed away from serious thinking on the issues that matter. Her proposed solution is a "left-wing think tank" which appears to be something akin to a political party consisting of professional thinkers without any direct connection to the mass of the public, or any involvement in political processes.
Whether the think tank proposal is designed to provide a last line of defence and a citadel from which the left may re-emerge armed with new thinking with which to engage the forces of the right on more equal terms, or whether to provide a comfortable refuge for those old warriors of the left who have been defeated in the political arena, might be a subject of contention, but most of us would opt for the former view.
Despite that, there will be obstacles in the path of such an initiative. Even if the funds can be found to launch and sustain the left-wing think tank project, the essential element of "thought" may be lacking. If the left is incapable of profound thought in its many and various existing parties and associations, why would things be any different when a selection of those same individuals who presently make up the left are assembled under the banner of a "think tank"? Would the name itself make the difference? Would the selective nature of its membership make a difference? I suspect that neither would be the case. If the left is not capable of creating a coherent, cohesive and astute political movement or party, why should we expect it to be able to establish a think tank which would be all those things?
It is as well to remember that the right wing and centrist think tanks exist in an environment where there are large, well organised right-wing and centrist political parties. These think tanks have grown out of the political success of the right-wing, and not out of failure, and their elitist structure is wholly consistent with the fundamental political tenets of the right. It is wrong to assume that in a quite different environment, and for quite different reasons, a left-wing think tank could enjoy a comparable level of success.
Sue suggests that the left too often engages in mindless activism, and that the need is for "thinking". She is indulging in hyperbole of course. Left wing activists do think. They just don't think critically enough and often enough. They don't seriously question their own assumptions, strategies and objectives, they don't objectively review the realities of the world and, crucially, most fail to seriously engage with those who among their number who do attempt to think critically.
They devote too much of their energy in ultimately futile attempts to variously shout down, collaborate with or emulate the parties of the right. From street protests outside National Party conferences, to the Green Party efforts to create a cross-party parliamentary consensus, and now the call for a "left-wing think tank" Sue has figured prominently in all those strategies. There have been some successes along the way - the "no-smacking law" and "homosexual marriage" being two examples - but I feel that Sue herself would feel frustrated by her failure to achieve more.
There have been other more positive and I would have thought more promising initiatives such as the Peoples' Centre and the Kotare Trust. Rather than propose the formation of yet another new organisation for the left, I suggest that Sue should set out to tell us why all the previous initiatives failed. It is not too soon for her to write a memoir of her forty year career as a left-wing activist, particularly if she can bring a critical insight to bear on that history.
The best investigation and critical thinking done on the left has been the work of independents such as Bruce Jesson and, more recently, Nicky Hager. The case of Bruce Jesson is particularly pertinent, because he took it upon himself not just to criticise and expose the abuses of the right, as Hagar has done, but to analyse the ideologies and behaviours of both right and left. When Jesson died at a tragically young age, he was mourned by the entire left, many in the centre, and a significant few on the right of politics. Yet very few engaged with his thought while he was writing and publishing, and the same remains true after his death. Not even the Bruce Jesson Foundation, established to honour his memory, has come to grips with his republican left-dissident political legacy. He was, and remains, a voice in the wilderness.
Critical thinking is what is lacking and critic thinking is what is needed, but there is no reason to suppose that a left-wing think tank will deliver, and if it did deliver, there is no reason to suppose that many on the left would listen. That unwillingness to engage with contrary opinions is unwittingly expressed in Sue's call for a specifically "left-wing" think tank. Thinking is thinking. It is the quality of the thought which matters, not the political allegiance of the thinker, and not the nature of the institution within which thinking takes place.
New Zealand as a whole is missing the courage and the will to think. That is true of the political parties from the smallest Marxist sects on the left to the orthodox parties of the centre right. It is true of the well-establishe d think tanks of the right. It is true of academia, which while being predominantly and instinctively right-wing still succours a small remnant of leftist thinkers left over from the previous century. That is part of the explanation as to why the general public, and particularly those of a younger generation, are disenchanted with democratic politics. Ordinary people are intuitively cogniscant of the truth to which the political classes remain oblivious: that parliamentary democracy, the product of the eighteenth century enlightenment, has reached a dead end, and that the essential precondition for any fundamental social and economic reform is the establishment of a radically different political system.
Can a left wing think tank challenge the fundamental assumptions of the left? A left-wing think tank might be the part of the answer to the problem, but only on condition that it is not "left-wing", and not a "think tank". That suggestion is not so hostile to Sue's proposal as it may sound. Her definition of "left" for the purposes of the thesis was broad enough to include all tendencies from "social democrat" to "Marxist revolutionary". Being so broad (citing "justice" and "fairness" as defining characteristics ) it is also capable of accommodating a broad range of centre and rightwing political persuasions.