Sunday, February 17, 2008

Roger Fox 1957-2008

From the late 1970s until his sudden death last Thursday, Roger Fox was a pillar of left-wing activism in New Zealand. Roger was arrested at Auckland airport for demanding East Timorese independence, batoned and imprisoned on the East Coast during the 1981 Springbok tour, and thrown into a paddy wagon outside Auckland's British consulate after the invasion of Iraq. His first loyalty was to the union movement, but he was active in a huge number of campaigns, from the movement against genocide in East Timor to the fight for Maori land rights to the struggle to end discrimination against disabled New Zealanders. Roger stood on hundreds of picket lines, and spoke to scores of rallies and meetings.

Sometimes activism brought Roger into the spotlight - in 2005, for instance, he ended up on the front page of the New Zealand Herald after gatecrashing one of Don Brash's (in)famous speeches to the Orewa Rotary Club. Usually, though, Roger worked behind the scenes, at the grassroots of trade unions, United Fronts, and community organisations. For him, activism was about discussions in committee meeting rooms, poster runs on weeknights, door knocking in the rain, and leafleting stopwork meetings.

It was hard, unglamorous work, but Roger was indefatigable. He maintained his activism in the face of police intimidation, surveillance from the Security Intelligence Service, personal tragedies, falling-outs with other comrades, ugly encounters with Stalinist politics, and the serious defeats which the left suffered in the 1980s and '90s. Many other activists burned out, or retreated to the minutae of theory, or discovered the virtues of the free market; Roger persisted with his leaflet drops, his soapbox speeches, and his door knocking. The tenacity and energy Roger showed through so many difficult years makes his sudden death from a heart attack at the age of only fifty doubly shocking.

Roger grew up on a dairy farm in the Kaipara. After moving to Auckland to attend university in the mid-70s, though, he fell in love with city life. Roger liked to talk self-deprecatingly about his first attempt at political activism: appalled by Indonesia's genocidal conquest of East Timor, he put on a balaclava, nailed together and painted a placard, and staged a secret, one-man demonstration outside the Indonesian consulate in Auckland. 'I was completely innocent about collective action and the ABCs of the labour movement, then', he remembered.

Roger learned his ABCs during the crisis-ridden years of the late '70s and early '80s, when an unpopular but deeply cynical Muldoon government clung to power by a combination of draconian price and wage controls, redbaiting, and Maori-bashing. Roger's old friend Peter Gleeson recalled that the struggle by Auckland Maori to win back Bastion Point was a turning point in Roger's political evolution. 'When I first met Roger at university he was a fairly conservative chap', Peter remembered. 'He wore these awful long shorts and wanted to be an accountant. I think he went up Bastion Point during the occupation to find out what all the fuss was about. He found out what all the fuss was about.'

Roger's involvement in the campaign to win back Bastion Point paved the way for his involvement in the protests against the 1981 Springbok rugby tour. His marriage to a Samoan New Zealander deepened his contacts with the Polynesian community and his involvement in anti-racist politics.

In the 1980s, Roger found a temporary political home in the Communist Party of New Zealand. He was attracted by the party's militancy, and the fact that the vast majority of its members were blue collar workers with deep roots in the union movement. Roger learnt some valuable lessons from these members about the importance of workplace organising, but he quickly became disturbed by the party's admiration for Stalin and for the Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha. When the demented Hoxha killed his second in command for being a 'CIA-KGB spy', Roger raised the issue inside his Communist Party branch. 'It was like farting in church', he remembered.

Parting company with the Hoxhaites, Roger decided that Trotsky rather than Stalin represented the true spirit of the Bolshevik revolution. To the end of his life, Roger would be a stern opponent of Stalinism in the left and the labour movement, and a tireless proponent of grassroots democracy in unions, political parties, and United Fronts. Unusually, though, Roger complemented his admiration for Trotsky with a strong interest in Buddhism. Roger was particularly drawn to Theravada Buddhism, a religious and philosophical tradition which is strong in Burma. Roger would sometimes go straight from a political meeting to a gathering at his local temple; to the alarm of both his political comrades and his fellow Buddhists, he liked to argue that Buddhism and Marxism were doctrines that naturally complemented each other. 'Marxism is for the material side of my life, and Buddhism is for the other side', he explained.

From the late seventies until the end of his life, Roger was affected by the strange, cruel disease known as manic depression. Roger’s illness meant that he rarely worked for a wage; he liked to think of himself as a professional activist. I remember a heckler approaching an anti-war protest outside the US consulate and shouting ‘Get a job, you bloody lefties’; Roger’s immediate response was ‘Sorry, comrade – I’m on strike for life against the Protestant work ethic!’ Roger’s illness gave him a deep empathy with other vulnerable and marginalised members of society, and he worked tirelessly to befriend and politicise mentally ill and physically disabled people. After he joined the Alliance several years ago the party recognised his insights by making him its Spokesperson for Disabilities.

During the eighties and nineties Roger was repeatedly hospitalised, but in the last years of his life he suffered far fewer of the uncontrollable highs and deep lows associated with his condition. In the past couple of years he seemed to have reached something like a point of balance, and to be more at peace with himself than ever before. Roger took great pride in his wide circle of friends and his beautiful, gifted daughter. He talked optimistically about the future.

I got to know Roger after joining the Anti Imperialist Coalition, a United Front of groups and individuals that coalesced in the aftermath of 9/11 to oppose George Bush’s imperialist War of Terror as well as Osama bin Laden's atrocities. Roger threw himself into the AIC with a passion. Our Wednesday night meetings were, he said, the highlight of his week, and he would prepare meticulously for them. Roger was particularly excited by the involvement of Auckland’s Middle Eastern communities in the new movement. He was soon leafleting the local mosque and bringing members of the Iraqi and Pakistani communities to our meetings. We were not surprised by this - Roger was renowned inside the AIC for his ability to make new political contacts and get them along to meetings. Almost every week he would have a new face to introduce to us.

Roger was also renowned for thinking one or two steps ahead of the rest of us. If we organised a successful street meeting, Roger would be discussing the need for a march. If we distributed a leaflet, Roger would be talking about the prospects for a newspaper. If we persuaded a union to pledge support for the anti-war movement, Roger would be making the argument for a general strike against the war. At the beginning of 2002, when the movement against the invasion of Afghanistan had dissipated and Bush’s foreign policy seemed triumphant, Roger was already predicting the invasion of Iraq and talking of the need to prepare for the rise of a massive new anti-war movement.

Roger’s intensity could sometimes mean he made mountains out of molehills. I remember him standing in front of the AIC demanding that we take a vote on the ‘crucial question’ of the arrangement of the plastic chairs in our meeting room. Roger was adamantly opposed to the ‘bourgeois’ practice of arranging the chairs in a large circle – he wanted them in rows instead. ‘The circle symbolises completion’, Roger complained, ‘and we want this organisation to grow. I should have the right to sit in the back row, and read the newspaper, and pick my nose, without everybody else seeing me...that’s labour movement discipline, and besides, this circle seating reminds me of the therapy groups in psych hospital’. The meeting dissolved into laughter; Roger was eventually able to crack a smile.

I had my last conversation with Roger after one of last year’s protests against the police invasion of Tuhoe Country and the imprisonment of the Urewera 16. After marching to a big rally outside Mt Eden Prison, some friends and I ducked into a nearby pub for a few beers, then trekked back to Queen Street to our car. On our way back we spotted Roger outside the Town Hall with a small group of Tuhoe who were waiting for a bus back to the Ureweras. In between finishing off some of their food, Roger was giving his new friends and everybody else within earshot a good-humoured lecture about the way to defeat the New Zealand state and free the Urewera 16. ‘We can’t rely on the media or on John Minto or any other big leader’, Roger insisted, waving a half-eaten orange in one hand. ‘We need the grassroots. Democracy, direct action, and LABOUR MOVEMENT DISCIPLINE! It’s ordinary people that change the world.’

That last sentence ought to go on Roger Fox's gravestone.

You can find the details of Roger's funeral and other tributes to the man here.


Blogger Richard said...

This is tragic that Roger has died - I really liked him! I didn't know him as well as I would have liked - what generosity, courage and determination he had - I prevaricate - cant decide if politics is valid one moment - am a raving commie the next - am nothing the next - then I'm a nihilist - but Roger was consistent and dedicated - he had a great passion for what he was doing and obviously also a great moral sense and a great compassion.

He was also a good looking and highly intelligent young man, with a family, and with so much ahead of him - this is very sad. He cared so much!

My deep felt condolences to his daughter and other members of his family.


11:30 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Statement by the Waitemata branch of Unite! union, to be read at Roger's funeral:

Despite the high levels to which scientific and technological knowledge has advanced, the day has yet to arrive when every human being living on planet Earth has access to to the material and spiritual resources needed to live a healthy, happy, fulfilling and creative life. When that day comes, the mass misery caused by blind market forces and the colossal waste of life and resources caused by destructive wars will be a thing of the past.

Comrade Roger Fox was one of many who were convinced that the only force which can transform society toward this end is the global proletariat, not only through consciousness of its own exploitation but conscious of its historical role. Conscious that is of its power when united and organised to change things.

And Roger was one who took upon himself the task of changing consciousness by challenging fatalistic ideas and by organizing for the tasks ahead. The primary task he assigned for himself was that of building a thoroughly democratic branch in a union nominally formed to organize unemployed and beneficiaries along with casualised and low paid workers.

His clear understanding was that beneficiaries are members of the working class, that their interests and those of employed workers are identical, and therefore we should stand together, march tpgether and organize together in the struggle.

He also clearly undertood that to achieve ultimate victory it was essential for the ordinary membership of unions to exercise democratic direction over the officials.

In seeking to do this in practice he encountered resistance and hostility from the bureaucray, and this placed him under considerable personal stress. Despite the risk that in retrospect this may have placed his very life at risk, he persisted in this struggle with dogged determination.

When the task is finally accomplished of building fully democratic unions capable of transforming society, Comrade Roger will be remembered and honoured for having placed himself right at the forefront of that struggle.

11:53 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Farewell Roger! You were a great mate, and a brilliant conversationalist. I was a close friend of Roger, and flatmate a few times. We had our disagreements, but one thing is for sure....he really cared about people, and was for the underdog. Thanks to his illness he was always accepting of outsiders, of the disabled, of the unpopular. He will be greatly missed.

Jason Sanders

10:06 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Some people pass quietly through life, unobtrusively doing their thing while not getting too caught up in the big affairs or ideas of our world. When these people leave, people say 'he was a nice, quiet guy' or 'she was so easy-going, she never made a fuss'. These things will never be said of Roger Fox. He did make a fuss and he was far from quiet. But unlike the unobtrusive soul, Roger had an impact that went far beyond himself. I know, his life, though fleeting and not close to mine, had a true affect on me. I'll remember you Roger, and not as a easy-going, quiet guy.
James H.

9:11 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Roger challenged me on a few things but I still felt he cared about me (and others), I didn't feel hostility from him at all - he was perhaps a bit dubious of me! - he was dedicated and did a lot more than many in the world...he did as much for people as he could. He was also someone I wont forget - he certainly had a strong presence also. A remarkable individual.


1:55 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Roger's funeral was quite remarkable, and a testament to the man's qualities - I'll post a report on it with some pics tomorrow. I remember Roger calling Richard 'a demoralised CP element' and Richard calling Roger 'My passionately paranoid friend, Mr Roger Fox'. Of such stuff are true friendships made...

6:17 pm  
Blogger maps said...

PS Sorry last comment from me...

6:18 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Were perhaps both right - although I wasn't quite in the CP...

Hovered on the periphery...passionate strong and demoralised by turns...Roger was insightful

I remember that great night we all sang the Red Flag etc at his house

Greg B knew him - I just remembered - same disorder is why - liked -

Wonder if he knows?


9:34 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Where is the Great Palimpsester and Great Steaming Cervantic Innovator?

Comrade Jack - the NZ James Joyce / Flaubert?

(The differences and the informationces are spreading...)

9:39 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is tragic that Roger died so young. He was only 50, and had already done a lot for the underprivileged and oppressed in NZ...but he had more to offer. He always cared about other people, and as has been said, had a real presence and colourfulness as an activist. I can tell you he often had that as a friend too.
I just wish he was still here as we'd drifted apart in recent years (though we still saw each other socially now and again), and I would love to have the chance to be good friends again. I can never forget his friendship, the help he gave me when I was sick, and the laughter we shared. He was a truly unique man, and many tears have been shed in recent days. ~Jason S.

10:44 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

mark tui

roger will be sorely missed not just by our family but throughout the communities he thought so hard for. i will never forget his courage and bravery, and i will always be thankful for all the things that he passed down on to me throughout my lifetime. you truely are an inspiration to us all and i hope there will be more people out there like you who actuallly cared and tried to make a difference in the world, you truely were one in a million. I love you uncle.

12:14 pm  
Blogger Dave Brown said...

Support you Mark. True words.
You and Meto will always keep strong.

9:42 pm  
Blogger Marvin said...

This is very sad to heard Roger pass away suddenly. Roger was a good friend and always cared about other people. I was flatmate of Roger one year, flating with Roger one year was a extraordinary experience in my life.

Marvin from Taiwan

6:51 am  
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