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The idiocy of “glorious defeat”

Written By: - Date published: 9:52 am, March 2nd, 2009 - 16 comments
Categories: activism, Unions - Tags:

Chris Trotter has decided to take umbrage at my post about the 1951 lockout. I wouldn’t usually reply to such criticism but this one provides me with the opportunity to discuss one of my pet grudges: the pointless obsession of some on the left with glorious defeat.

I say pointless because defeat is defeat. It’s not glorious and if you treat it as such the vast majority of people will see you as a loser.

If there is one line in Trotter’s post that sums up his failing of logic across the whole thing it is this:

so long as you’re willing to fight, you can never truly lose

Let’s just consider that for a moment. According to Trotter you never lose as long as you fight. By that logic the Germans never really lost the first (or the second) world war, the indigenous populations of South-America, the Congo and Aotearoa didn’t lose because they put up a good fight.

I’d be interested to know if Trotter believes the US didn’t really lose in Vietnam.

Is anyone else seeing the problem with this proposition?

As difficult as it may be for a middle-class moralist like Trotter to understand, winning actually requires winning. Good unionists know that. If you engage in a dispute and lose you don’t just lose the dispute you lose the majority of the members involved. Knowing you were morally right doesn’t feed them or their families. And it doesn’t strengthen the position of the next generation of workers on that site.

That’s why comments like this are so absurd:

Because the example you provide for the generations to come of resistance to injustice, and self-sacrifice in a noble cause, is always in and of itself a triumph of the human spirit.

That’s a perspective better suited to some 50’s religious epic than an industrial dispute.

In my time I’ve seen a lot of industrial disputes and I’ve seen a few go wrong (thankfully not many). From that experience I can tell you that when you unpack Trotter’s “human spirit” statement what you find he is actually saying is working people should sacrifice their livelihoods, their homes and, often, their marriages in order to prove a political point.

I don’t know many workers stupid enough to do that. Would Chris?

16 comments on “The idiocy of “glorious defeat””

  1. burt 1

    Trotter can retire warm in the knowledge that eventhough the left and the right gave up reading his bile he was still fighting till the end.

    Why do you even bother reading what this has-been has to say?

  2. Because the example you provide for the generations to come of resistance to injustice, and self-sacrifice in a noble cause, is always in and of itself a triumph of the human spirit.

    Was it needless death after all?
    For England may keep faith
    For all that is done and said.
    We know their dream; enough
    To know they dreamed and are dead.
    And what if excess of love
    Bewildered them till they died?
    I write it out in a verse —
    MacDonagh and MacBride
    And Connolly and Pearse
    Now and in time to be,
    Wherever green is worn,
    Are changed, changed utterly:
    A terrible beauty is born.

    WB Yeats, Easter 1916

  3. BLiP 3

    ” . . . so long as you’re willing to fight, you can never truly lose . . . ”

    Makes sense to me. The Germans lost of the war because they lost the will to fight, same with the Americans in Vietnam. So long as the will to fight remains, the battle is never over.

    As an Irishman you should well understand that concept.

  4. IrishBill 4

    Yes, as an Irishman I am too familiar with the concept of glorious defeat. It makes for enjoyably wistful discussion over a few whiskey’s at the end of a hard day in the garden but if Danyl would care to come down and quote Yeats to striking factory workers he will realise that the idea of the noble struggle is not only an historical artifact but actually culturally divides many on the left from the class they claim to support.

  5. Lew 5


    I see you have also attracted Chris’ scorn.

    Would Chris?

    For `would’ you can substitute `has’.


  6. The Voice of Reason 6

    ’51 should be celebrated because of the struggle, not the outcome. It was an organised working class resistance to a near fascist political threat.

    The ’51 blue had international support, an underground resistance movement and gave birth to a generation of leaders who unltimately took the union movement away from FP Walsh and left it in better shape for the unionists of today.

    Trotter is politically infantile and it’s frustrating that he is seen as any sort of expert on ‘the left’. One of his final comments in reply to IB’s post is to accuse the nineties’ union leadership of bottling the general strike call in 1991. They actually got it dead right in accepting the political reality that working people had just voted en masse for a taste of the lash and were not going to protest against the new National government taking away their rights. Much like today.

    Trotter is just another vested interest telling unions from the outside what they should do, without having to be in any way responsible for the outcomes.

    The ’51ers’ did us proud. I, for one, salute them.

    • ak 6.1

      that working people had just voted en masse for a taste of the lash…

      Nup. As improbable as it sounds. They voted to punish the most treacherous political betrayal in NZ’s history by Douglas et al.

      …and were not going to protest against the new National government taking away their rights.

      Probably true (though they were never given the chance). Why? Because of a widespread lack of faith in union and “Labour” govt leadership resulting from decades of infighting and demarcation disputes culminating in the Douglas rout.

      Much like today.

      Nup. Rather than the lash, this time they voted for free money (tax cuts) and a fresh face. Give it a few months and our entire world will be different.

      The ‘51ers’ did us proud. I, for one, salute them.

      Thanks. But by sniping and nit-picking at your allies, it’s a two-finger job. If your people aren’t following, perhaps you’re not leading.

  7. QoT 7

    The Germans lost of the war because they lost the will to fight

    I just want y’all to know how hard it is not to throw Godwin’s down on this thread.

  8. Actually I totally agree with your post – I just thought the similarity between Trotter and Yeats were pretty striking. I can’t stand intellectuals like Trotter who think its vitally important for other people to suffer for their ideals.

    • IrishBill 8.1

      My apologies Danyl. I assumed your quoting of Yeats was a dig at me. What with the Irish connection and all.

  9. Lew 9


    The Germans lost the second world war because they were militarily routed (in Russia and at sea), their supply lines were cut off, their leadership scattered, and their ally in the Pacific crushed. The US lost in Viet Nam due to poor strategy, the inability to adapt, and political (not military) lack of support for the war. Neither lost because they couldn’t be arsed fighting – they couldn’t be arsed fighting, in the end, because they saw that continuing to fight was futile.


    • BLiP 9.1

      Seeing futher fighting as futile is the same is losing the will to fight. Sure – the Germans were well routed but, as a nation, they lost the will to fight. Same with the yanks in Vietnam – politically, they lost the will to fight. If the will to fight was not extinquished we would have seen a guerilla war in Germany and the Americans funding some other way of killing the Vietnamese.

      My point is that I believe the workers have not lost the will to fight and, thus, have not been defeated. Sure, they got the bash in 1951 and, sure, the watersiders lost that stoush, but workers still willing to fight need not consider it a defeat.

      • Lew 9.1.1

        The causation is the wrong way around, though, in your statement. Loss of will due to defeat, not defeat due to loss of will, as you’re arguing.


  10. DS 10

    >>>‘51 should be celebrated because of the struggle, not the outcome. It was an organised working class resistance to a near fascist political threat.<<>>One of his final comments in reply to IB’s post is to accuse the nineties’ union leadership of bottling the general strike call in 1991. They actually got it dead right in accepting the political reality that working people had just voted en masse for a taste of the lash and were not going to protest against the new National government taking away their rights. Much like today.<<<

    Actually, the honeymoon of the Bolger Government was well and truly over by then. The public was so angry with Richardson, Shipley, Birch, Smith and company that an effective General Strike could have been pulled off (Birch was actually prepared to backdown on the ECA, only for the unions to fold first). Moreover, the thing about fighting 1991 is that unions literally had nothing to lose. It was Political Ragnarok for them – fight or die. Their leadership unfortunately chose to die, and working people are still suffering the consequences.

    • IrishBill 10.1

      I don’t disagree that the unions should have fought the National government harder in 1991 but I don’t think they were capable of it because after decades of lazy compulsory unionism they didn’t have the credibility to pull it off.

      All we would have seen would be an even more thorough decimation of the union movement. Sometimes it pays to live to fight another day. Or, to put it another way, to change into a democratic member-based organisation to live to fight another day.

      And for the record I have nothing but respect for the workers involved in ’51 and for the campaign they waged but I’m not going to “celebrate” it.

  11. rave 11

    I see that Irish Bill is exposing the Labourites hatred of strike action.
    Labour was born out of the defeat of 1913 to steer workers into parliament. Strike action is a vote of no confidence in Labour’s reformist road to what…? Nowadays its called “democratic socialism” when its neither.

    In 51 Nash said neither for not against. A bob each way.
    In 84 Labour stabbed the unions in the back.
    In 91 Labour’s bedfellow Ken Douglas and the leadership of some of the weak unions like the PPTA sold out the majority vote for a general strikE.

    Labourites have got nothing to say about industrial disputes. For them unions are voting fodder. The EPMU leader Little just appointed Labour Pres speaks volumes.

    I have no brief for Trotter. I think he is a reformist. But he is right to reject the pathetic line that Irish Bill runs about “glorious defeats”. Of course it was better to fight and lose than to crawl away like like licked dogs as Jock Barnes said.

    51 was a defeat since the most militant leadership of the unions were persecuted and driven out of the union. But it was less of a defeat than if they had not fought. That would have proved that there was no union movement in NZ other than a tame Labourite bureaucracy.

    I don’t celebrate that defeat. But I do celebrate the militant workers who have split with the Labour Party and against the odds and Labour Party treachery stood up for their rights. That’s the same militant minority that will stand up to Key as the crisis dumps its shit on workers in NZ, and standup against Labour despite the CTU leadership in bed with the bosses in their “partnership”.

    The only reason that we are getting the show of some fight against the 90 Bill from the CTU is because they know that the left in the unions are already fighting it and they don’t want to lose control of the unions.

    So Irish Bill comes in on cue, to shit on the militants and try to sow demoralisation in their ranks blaming workers for being unable or unwilling to fight. Its accompanied by a thinly veiled economic nationalism that calls on workers to identify with their kiwi bosses naturally by voting for the Labour Party.

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