Wednesday, January 30, 2008

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.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

They like Bob Jones!
Got the wrong blog Maps?

1:18 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As to the 'Questors' suggestion that the ideology of economic nationalism is somehow uniquely rooted in the soil of this country', well, yep, Canada has exactly the same intellectual tradition and plenty of people who subscribe to it and look back to the glory days of the 50's and 60's to show how social democracy is supposed to run. In Canada we call them 'left nationalists' (sometimes disparagingly) though the ideology is the same: social democratically mediated capitalism, independent economy and stability and wealth for all (ahem) Mind you, Canadian left nationalism is also tinged with an often chauvinistic and illogical anti-Americanism.

8:15 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

My father (who always supported National and also liked Muldoon BTW!) knew Sutch when Sutch taught at the WEA - he liked his views and his ideas then- also he met the Communist poet Mason; and the poet Fairburn (harder to define if one is defining people).

Canada must have a lot of parallels to NZ...I sold a few copies of Douglas's books to Canada as they are or were instituting a form of his politics in Canada.

While a powerful goal is to change capitalism in totum: I am not so sure that Douglas and others did any good even for NZ under capitalism - there was something in Muldoon's Think Big ideas. The Lange Govt was the most vicious Government we have ever had - the Unions (spokesmen for Labour) lied to us (or got their facts badly wrong) in 1985 (I was in the then Post Office Union) that Labour would not de-nationalise. They didn't lie so much that Muldoon was impossible to talk with! Apart from anything he was well known, as well as being very truculent, to have taken to drink...

The unions are in many cases in cahoots with big business -a prime example was Skinner, head of the (then -60s to 80s?) Federation of Labour or FOL (he started his career working in my street here - in dairy - it was few doors from where I am now - and by being in control of many Unions he made very big money from workers subs - for which very little was done for et working people)) and there are others -I don't trust trade unions - they (in many cases) aid and abet capitalism. I have seen these guys from the inside when I was in the freezing works.

Bruce Jesson I knew to nod to (I used to see him around and we used to wonder why he was reading books about Marxism and Revsionism etc on the same train I got - me from the Freezing works and me he from the Railway Workshops (he later started a Republican Journal - which was very theoretical and sometimes very interesting - I believe he was sincere) - where [the Railway Workshops] I and Hone Tuwhare (poet and socialist) were educated!!) - he (Jesson - I know - I need to edit this more!) impressed me but I am not sure of him (I maybe mean his views - which is o.k. - I allow myself to self contradict!)) - he I think tried to change things from "inside" but he would have (or was likely to have been) (eventually) corrupted -but I am sure started with very great and interesting views (as did many Labour Party people and also National and union people....they start well but (in not all cases but many) become corrupted or "diverted"))

I agree however with a lot in this post - of course many of the ideas came from outside NZ and there is nothing wrong with that..ideas spread. And yes the Maori movement is also very (vitally) important - I see Justin as a great case of a Maori who has taken on board socialistic ideas without throwing out his Maoritanga - and Dave Beddgood, who is a European Kiwi, as I am, also looks to Chile and Argentina and works for the people as well as being here in the NZ struggle - (they have) has been amongst people struggling for a better NZ - albeit with perhaps different views from me (we are all in this and other life struggles in our own ways) ... but certainly they are in there, struggling.

Sutch was the victim of injustice - he may have been a spy (but he was treated very badly by the SIS) but the idea of him being of much use to either the rat bags in the US or the USSR or whoever is silly in my view...I have a friend who wrote a book about Sutch - he had some trouble getting it published - it is online somewhere I think.

In the end of course it is true that "parliamentary democracy" etc is useless and these reforms etc (of course they can assist working people in the short term) - are only bandages on the sick body of capitalism. A body that is getting sicker by the day.

It is also obvious we need good books /information (there are some already about history but we need more) about the New Zealand working calss struggles (such as the 1913 strikes etc) (and about other countries - their working classes who are our brothers and sisters - such as Canada and the US - an example in the US was the book "Peekskill USA" by Howard Fast* (who was Communist himself) (a fascinating account of the struggle to allow Paul Robeson to sing in the face of right wing opposition and viciousness) - but such books are not frequent enough - the edition I had was quite rare...Hollywood wouldn't allow to many people too easily to get to know that the author of "Spatacus" (made into a "blockbuster") was a communist - but here at least we need a history (or many books on the history of) of the NZ working class.

But there is no way we can be just NZ - we are linked to all other countries. This is not to disparage Jesson etc -
"anatomylesson" - makes a good point as does anonymous here.

Yes - Te Whiti - collective fool that Te Whiti.

*Link to the book by Fast:

12:24 am  
Blogger Oliver Woods said...

Firstly, thank you very much for the extended comments on my blog! As you seemed slightly concerned on the blog, I want to assure you that this sort of discussion is more than welcome for me. Indeed, I relish such an opportunity to get down and dirty with different ideological conceptions in NZ.

Before I address the post or the comments in general, I'll just note that I've started a discussion on my blog regarding this post - and have already vaguely started a rebuttal there :). I'll expand it within the next few days, as it requires a fair bit of thinking on my part, something I'm usually loathe to doing on weekends!

I will attempt to respond as methodically as possible, as a lot has been written that requires a response regarding the blog, my own ideological understanding and my perception of history (all history is built around perceptions - and can be viewed through very radically different lenses, so criticising others takes on history often is a pointless exercise).

I am not hopelessly nostalgic for the pre-1984 reform era, although my blog may sometimes give this impression if you do not read it regularly. This is because I do not believe the pre-1984 era gets a fair go. Left wingers pathetically attack the entire model, as if it wasn't social democracy, and right-wingers naturally don't like controlling capitalism.

I believe that the pre-1984 years within the economic sphere were actually far better for much of the New Zealand population than they are today.

Of course, there were many unsavoury aspects to the 20th century before the reforms. In particular entrenched social, political and simple alientation of Maori and also the small communities of migrants in the country, alongside very retrograde social perceptions and discrimination against homosexuality, non-comformists and such like, which was all unnecessary and more a reflection of the times (superstructure, if you will) than the economic system/mode of production. I have never been a believer in the bizarre deterministic fatalism that grips some Marxists, who pray for more and more vile capitalist regimes to drive workers to revolt. I'd rather people didn't have to die or for millions of unemployed to prowl the streets for us to to build a bright socialist future.

However, I believe the social democratic/economic nationalist economic framework that marked the time was far better than our present free market liberal economy. We were far more prosperous relative to the rest of the world because of our welfare state, our nationalist economic policies (which reached their apex under Think Big and other strategies excellently copied from the hugely successful Asian Tigers, a set of nations I have no problem of New Zealand imitating).

I am one of those people who thinks security and stability are just as important as (constitutional) liberty. I believe that The State is often a far better allocator of resources than The Market in many areas: both are creations of people, and The State, within the confines of a democracy, is infinitely more responsive to society than The Market is.

To give you a vague idea of where my politics developed from, I have always been a strong believer in state developmentalist strategies ever since my very early teens. I was a democratic socialist by the time I was at intermediate school, and approaching more radical and structured anti-capitalist ideological foundations during my high school years (For some time I believed that Maoism - adapted to New Zealand conditions - was the finest way to build New Zealand into a society at the forefront of human development).

I think if you had gone back a little bit longer in my posts, particularly to my early ones which were very ideas-driven, and saw ones like ( along with those linked to on the most recent post on the blog, you'd realise that I am not hopelessly driven by the past. I am driven by the possibilites of the future. I just want to use my blog to highlight hypocrisy, and in particular right now try and dispel the myth that Rogernomics and Ruthanasia have developed our society (in some easily statistically measured areas, we have actually gone backwards).

Your post proves to me what I have always agreed with: that communalism was inherent in the pre-Cook New Zealand Mode Of Production (though it was hardly unified - after all the conception of Maoridom as one society). I am also a believer in Hartzian theory, something that is going to play an important part in my post-graduate research this yaer focusing around social democrats within the National Party in the early 90s. Hartzian theory is better known as the 'social fragment' theory in New Zealand, the idea that as we were being colonised, a certain 'fragment' of European society became represented here. We were lucky enough to get a fraction that was on the left - socialism without ideology as far too many people have called it for more than a century - and as you noted with your historical examples (obviously there are many more), New Zealand has a proud history of quasi-indigenous socialism and workers struggles.

My continued involvement with RAM, which is approaching a year soon, might demonstrate that I am incredibly eager for the formation of a new form of politics in New Zealand which puts people before profit. But at the same time, I recognise that within the confines of our current situation, adapting historical figures and strands of ideas to the modern day battle between free marketeers and statists, globalists and nationalists, we can give socialism a Bolivarian-esque make over, just on Kiwi terms (one of the reasons I rarely use the words socialist or communist) :).

Muldoon was a trickster - and for all the negatives, as Bill English once said, paraphrasing Deng Xiaoping's description of Mao Zedong, he was "two thirds good one third bad". The more I read his writings and read fair accounts of him, the more I realise he was the closest we've ever got to overthrowing free market capitalism in this country. For all the bluster of the Labour Party, the unions and the far left in New Zealand, is it not ironic that he remains one of their most reviled figures?

Thanks for bearing with my comments - I hope this shall turn into a dialogue!

Kia kaha,

11:14 pm  
Blogger Oliver Woods said...

Oh and as Richard Taylor noted (in his excellent and very historically interesting comment above), Canada is very similar to NZ. I draw my political influences from the Red Tory and NDP lines, take from that what you will!

11:16 pm  
Blogger Richard said...


A lot said here - but I hope you don't think I think Muldoon was "good". He wasn't shall we say 'evil' but he was still very right wing - e.g. his continued support of the Vietnam war and his cynical approach to apartheid - his encouragement of the 1981 Springbok Tour.

My view of him is affected by my very negative view of the Labour Party and their mates the National Party (the are just two sides of the same useless coin) and in fact all parliamentary parties since him - in contrast he almost seems human - but in no way was he "progressive" - in fact along with Holyoake I reviled him (he was not liked by anyone I knew on the left in the 60s to the 80s), and I still do - but I think the leaders in parliamentary politics we have had since are even worse.

If you are offering Muldoon as a saviour then you are in trouble on square one.

11:53 pm  
Blogger Oliver Woods said...

Hi Richard,

I strongly agree with much of your post, particularly the part that Labour and National being flipsides of the same coin.

I don't think that Muldoon was an 'evil' person - I think that by far of any conservative leader, and including many labour ones as well, as you noted he seems more human than a lot of them.

I think you noted in your own post that he was right wing, yet noted his 'cynical' support of the Vietnam War, implying that he was a pragmatist. Muldoon's worst mistake was the Springbok Tour, which unfortunately these days seems to overshadow everything about him.

Remember that Muldoon, unlike much of his Cabinet and his own Party, did not support Apartheid. He found it very repulsive. John Marshall, on the other hand, supported Apartheid - once going so far as to say that he saw no evidence of racial problems when he visisted the country! (This is all documented in Barry Gustafson's biographies of both Muldoon but also in better detail in his one of Holyoake). Muldoon, in his pragmatism, made the disasterous error of letting the tour go ahead (though let's not forget that Norman Kirk had promised a South African tour of New Zealand in 1971 before he was elected!) under extremely heavy pressure from his party and cabinet. Many within the inner halls saw it as a compromise between keeping Muldoon's welfare statism going in economic policy in return for throwing a bone to the conservative/rugby playing National Party backbone.

But Muldoon was human. Although a pragmatist, his bedrock of values were social conservatism (though he did liberalise abortion in this country), the welfare state and a redemptive belief in using 'any weapons necessary' to fight for the social betterment of the New Zealand people - I use a quote from him on my blog (from his book The New Zealand Economy):

"Economic management is not a matter of textbooks and algebraic equations. It is people: their reactions to stimuli, to adversity, and to one another."

The simple fact that he seriously believed this fact, and was willing to discard monetarist/IMF/Treasury/Reserve Bank/neo-liberal advice on this is a huge testament to his character, something most of the left seem to utterly idiotically ignore.

He was a state capitalist, but in New Zealand, he was willing to use every policy tool he could to shield our population from being hurt from the global recession and to make sure that our standard of living did not slip.

It's just that the amount of shit people give him honestly is far beyond any other recent PM in NZ's history. I can understand why - as you noted, he was a reviled figure on the left - the man was very good at creating artificial dichotomies in his speeches and public discourse, and people were deceived into thinking he was so profoundly different to the Labour Party because of his own extremist oratory criticising everyone on the left.

But why don't we abuse Lange for ruining the entire welfare state? Why don't we abuse Bolger for privatising so much vital infastructure and tearing away at our social fabric?

Thanks for your continued comments anyway Richard, it's always interesting to hear from someone with far more human experience than me on the left regarding this sort of thing :). I am very jealous of you even seeing Bruce Jesson - he died when I was in my early teens.


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