Paul Janman and I visited Dave Bedggood, retired University of Auckland
sociologist and tireless activist for the Marxist left, at his house in the
kauri forests of Titirangi. After leading us to a basement decorated by a large red flag, Dave
opened box after cardboard box, unloading newspapers, relics of the 1980s and
‘90s, with names like Redletter and Workers Power.
In a poem
about a journey through a part of England devastated by Thatcher’s closures of
mines and factories, Michael Hoffmann sees posters for old socialist meetings
and demonstrations peeling from half-demolished walls, and feels glumly
nostalgic. It would be easy to feel the same way, reading the reports from
picket lines outside long-demolished factories and the polemics against extinct
left-wing parties in Dave’s newspaper archive.
Zealand and almost everywhere else, the late eighties and nineties were a
period of disappointment and defeat for the left, and especially the radical
left. As Thatcher and her avatars like New Zealand’s Roger Douglas globalised
and deindustrialised the economies of the West, trade union memberships
collapsed, support fell for left-wing parties, and Marxists had to cope with
the jibes about the triumph of capitalism, the end of history, and the idiocy
of the very notion of socialism.
archive might offer us a few glimpses of the future, as well as a view of the
past. In the aftermath of the Global Financial Crisis of 2008, commentators in
the mainstream media have begun to talk, in perplexed or alarmed voices, about
a revival of interest in Marx’s vision of capitalism as a contradictory and
unstable system. Thomas Piketty’s long and technical book Capital in the Twenty-first Century, which piggybacks on some of
Marx’s critique of capitalism, recently made the top of bestseller lists in the
United States, shouldering aside romance novels and cookbooks. In the People's Republic of Donetsk crowds are allegedly raising hammer and sickle flags and singing the 'Internationale’.
Paul and I have
taken images and texts from Dave’s archives and used them in our contribution
to A Sense of Place, the group
exhibition that will open in a few days at the Papakura Art Gallery.
The curators of A Sense of Place, Ioana Gordon-Smith and Talia Smith, had asked us
to show some material related to the film and book we have intermittently been
making about the Great South Road, which flows through Auckland’s traditional
industrial suburbs towards battle sites from the Pakeha-Maori wars of the
nineteenth century. We’d come up with the idea of piling up historical material
– old newspaper articles, counterfeit banknotes issued by King Tawhiao, blurred
photographs of battles, chunks of scoria used on the road south - in the
gallery, and of stashing more of the stuff in airtight caches hidden at
important sites along the road. With their curious mixture of passionate celebration
and Marxian analysis, the articles about obscure strikes at long-extinct auto
plants and workshops along the Great South Road that stud Dave’s newspapers are
Paul and I
had worried that Dave might not approve of our visit to his home and his
archive. He might consider us antiquarians, who were interested in the past
rather than the future of the radical left. Worse, perhaps, he might consider
the alternate history we have created for our film, in which Maori
resist British imperialism successfully in the nineteenth century and revolution spreads through Europe at about the same time, as a whimsical
diversion from the serious business of analysing the real patterns of the past.
have had a sometimes difficult relationship with alternative history, or
counterfactual history, as it is nowadays often called by academics. In 1872,
just after the defeat of the Paris Commune, the non-Marxist revolutionary Louis
Blanqui wrote a treatise called Eternity
by the Stars from his prison cell. Blanqui’s book insisted that the
universe was made up of an almost infinite number of worlds, in which humans
have made history in an almost infinite number of ways. In some worlds
revolution had triumphed; in others monarchs, or capitalists, or both, reigned happily.
arguments both fascinated and exasperated Walter Benjamin, who decided that the
notion of alternate worlds smacked of the bourgeois arcade, where any number of
luxury goods can be bought or sold, and no purchase is more imperative than
another. Blanqui had, it seemed, reduced history to whimsy. EP Thompson was as
hostile to alternative history as Benjamin, describing it as a “waste of time”.
In a piece for the London Review of Books, Slavoj Zizek lamented the domination of anthologies of
counterfactual writing by right-wingers, and suggested that Marxists ought to
contribute more to the genre.
Bedggood wasn’t displeased by talk of alternate histories. When Paul broached
the topic he reached into one of his boxes, and produced a copy of Roger Comic, a graphic novel he helped
produce at the end of the ‘80s. Roger
Comic was published by the Socialist Alliance, which united most of New
Zealand’s far left groups at the end of the ‘80s, but it was composed by Dave
and a couple of comrades at the University of Auckland. Dave credited George
Baxter, a university technician and trade union delegate, with creating many of
the book’s cartoons.
Roger Comic was a response to the austerity
programme that the Lange-Douglas government adopted shortly after taking power
in 1984. Bedggood and his comrades address Kiwis disoriented by the spectacle
of a Labour government privatising industries, closing post offices and railway
workshops, and knighting aggressively anti-union businessmen like Bob Jones.
they explain the historical background to Rogernomics, the authors offer a
series of lessons on subjects like the creation and crisis of New Zealand’s
welfare state, the failed attempts to diversify the country’s economy in the
‘60s and ‘70s, the global breakdown of capitalism in the ‘70s, and the attempt
by politicians like Thatcher and Douglas to restore
profitability by privatising state assets and cutting wages in the ‘80s.
In its final
pages, though, Roger Comic moves
beyond pedagogy to speculative fiction, by imagining a workers’ uprising
against Rogernomics. After a series of attacks on their picket lines and
demonstrations by armed cops, workers occupy factories and offices, set up
councils to run their workplaces, and create a militia. Roger Douglas, who was
complicit in some of violence against workers, is put on trial.
Like much of
the material in Dave Bedggood's archive, Roger
Comic makes both poignant and exciting reading in 2014. Examining this obscure artefact, leftists will remember sadly that the various strikes,
demonstrations, and electoral adventures by the opponents of neo-liberalism
never quite coalesced into something unstoppable, and that Roger Douglas’
renovation of New Zealand has never been reversed. But Roger Comic also reminds us of the energy and intellectual muscle of the radical opponents of Rogernomics. The audacity of its vision might just resonate with members of the generation that has come to maturity in
the aftermath of the Global Financial Crisis.
Paul and I
will be showing pages from this extraordinary work at the Papakura Art Gallery,
and stashing a few of them beside the Great South Road.
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]