The quest for the past
Quest for Security is an interesting new group blog which takes its name and its credo from a book by WB Sutch, the ideologist-in-chief of Kiwi economic nationalism in the '50s and the '60s. In a recent post, Questor Oliver Woods explained his ideas in more detail, and lobbed a couple of hand grenades leftwards:
Socialism and communism, rightly so, have never taken root in New Zealand. This is because they are, generally speaking, imported ideologies from far-away lands that frankly are not particularly similar to our own. Only a handful of socialists have come from a genuinely New Zealand tradition. Only a handful of socialists have come from a genuinely New Zealand tradition and deserve to be given considerable attention - these include Bruce Jesson and radical Labour MP John A. Lee...
There is a very unsavoury tradition in New Zealand on both the left and right to import wholesale ideas from overseas...This is why New Zealand needs to return back to stronger more pragmatic centrist policies that used to work so well for us...
There is a pronounced nostalgia on Quest for Security for the good old New Zealand of the immediate postwar decades, when men were men, leftists were patriots, rugby games produced single figure winning scores, and goverments were elected to, well, govern, rather than organise tax cuts and business forums. For the Questors the New Zealand of Fraser, Holyoake, and Kirk is not only a paradise lost, but a paradise that we must regain.
Now, I have nothing but sympathy for the Questors' criticisms of the neo-liberal 'reforms' which in the late '80s and '90s dismantled the protected economy and comprehensive welfare state that had been built here since the election of the first Labour government in 1935. Nobody will ever convince me that market rents should have been paid for state houses, that the Bank of New Zealand should have become Michael Fay's personal fiefdom, or that students should have had to pay for the abolition of inheritance tax by taking out hefty loans to pay for their studies.
I can't help quibbling, though, with the Questors' suggestion that the ideology of economic nationalism is somehow uniquely rooted in the soil of this country, and that the ideas of WB Sutch and the policies of Rob Muldoon offer us a path beyond neo-liberalism in the twenty-first century.
Whether or not one considers that 'communism and socialism' have ever 'taken root' in New Zealand depends partly on how one defines 'communism and socialism'. If we define the terms reasonably generously and take a careful look at history, we can see a number of occasions where something approximating 'communism and socialism' did achieve a mass following in New Zealand. Most dramatically, there is the case of the 'Red' Federation of Labour, which called for the abolition of wage labour and worker control of the economy, and commanded the allegiance of a majority of the working class during the revolutionary general strike of 1913.
On the West Coast of the South Island, which was then a working class heartland, Red Fed strike committees briefly took power from the state in 1913. In Auckland and Wellington there was streetfighting between the Red Feds and the forces of the state.
The period between 1946-1951, when the Waterfront Workers Union and its allies challenged successive governments intent on bringing the Cold War into New Zealand industrial relations, offers a less dramatic but still notable example of radical ideas enjoying mass influence in the union movement.
There is another example of the mass influence of socialistic ideas which is often overlooked by Pakeha leftists. The Maori fight against colonisation in the nineteenth century saw the evolution of a set of ideas which have surprising parrallels with the European socialist tradition, and which would have delighted the elderly Marx.
Entities like the Waikato Kingdom and Parihaka came into conflict with the New Zealand state partly because of the way that they tried to build an economic system that fused features of pre-capitalist society with modified features of capitalism. Te Whiti challenged the capitalist system which was preparing to invade Parihaka when he praised the miracle of collective labour and refused to sell communally-owned land. The example of the 'Polynesian mode of production' established in places like Parihaka still resonates today inside the movement for tino rangatiratanga. Some of the best activists in that movement have been deeply influenced by Marxism.
It is difficult to see how social democracy is especially 'indigenous' to this country. Certainly, the New Zealand working class has, for most of its history, been inclined to support the Labour Party, whose politics can be described, very loosely, as social democratic. But has Labour ever been a dynamo of social democratic thought? The party has tended to be an intellectual wasteland.
Most of the heavy-duty thinking about how to implement a left reformist agenda in New Zealand has been done outside Labour, by self-described Marxists who have taken the view that a long period of reform must precede radical change in this country. Obvious examples are members of the pro-Moscow Socialist Unity Party and the China-friendly Workers Communist League in the '70s and '80s. Although they were small, these groups had a disproportionate, and usually negative, influence on the intellectual culture of the left, and many of their senior members became rocks of the union movement. During the second half of the eighties, when a neo-liberal Labour government was on the rampage, it was the leaders of the Socialist Unity Party who acted as Labour's chief apologists in the union movement. With their training in political theory and the skill for organising they had acquired in the SUP, they were far better at constructing and selling arguments for 'sticking with Labour' than most Labour members.
Today, a lot of the people developing a reformist strategy for the Kiwi left - think of most of the material in the journal Red and Green, for instance - would describe themselves as Marxists. Key 'left social democrats' in the labour movement, like Matt McCarten and Laila Harre, have well-trained Marxists sitting on their shoulders.
Oliver cites Bruce Jesson and John A Lee as thinkers whose ideas didn't come from overseas. It is true that both Jesson and Lee looked carefully at Kiwi society before they writing about it - but so have scores of 'socialist and communist' thinkers of various kinds. Although he disagreed with them on some crucial points, Jesson still took many ideas from his '70s debating partners Owen Gager and Dave Bedggood, who were Trotskyists and therefore, in the terms of the Questors' schema, purveyors of alien ideology. Lee took over a lot of Social Credit ideas that were floating around the Northern Hemisphere. I suspect the Questors need to rethink their equation of the hard left with alien ideas and the soft left with good old Kiwi common sense. Intellectual history is a lot more complex.
I think Quest for Security also needs to reconsider its belief that the blueprint for New Zealand in the twenty-first century could be found in WB Sutch's briefcase in the 1950s. The immediate postwar decades were a special period in New Zealand history, the like of which we will probably not see again. A worldwide capitalist boom built on the back of World War Two and New Zealand's status as Britain's farm meant that Kiwis briefly enjoyed one of the best standards of living in the world. Successive governments were able to use the boom conditions to build a protected, Kiwi-owned economy based on tarrifs and import substitution. We were even manufacturing our own car for a while.
But all these things came at a price: in the postwar decades New Zealand was subordinated politically to Britain and the United States, and a partner to Cold War follies like the neo-colonial wars in Korea, Malaysia, and Vietnam. Our society was culturally impoverished and - in its official expressions, at least - homogenous, with the conservative rural regions setting the tone. Maori were subjected to assimilation, and were losing their culture at an accelerating rate. Women were confined to the bedroom and the kitchen.
Even if we wanted to replicate the society of the '50s in the twenty-first century, we would surely be unable to do so. After the end of the postwar boom and Britain's entry into the European Community in the '70s New Zealand's economy went into freefall. The welfare state, the protected economy, and other gains of the era that had begun with the election of Savage and Lee in 1935 could not be preserved within the terms of a capitalist economy. The bosses found their saviours in Roger Douglas and Ruth Richardson, who put the economy through an acid bath to eliminate unproductive capital. A leaner, meaner, internationalised economy emerged, and today not even the left social democrats of the tiny Alliance Party advocate turning the clock back to the '70s. In the new conditions, nationalisation rarely makes sense for capitalism - there are exceptions, of course, like Air New Zealand, but they are and will be rare.
I've written a little here and here about the consequences of the internationalisation of the Kiwi economy for left-wing political strategy.