Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Through longest corridors

When Lenin said that sometimes decades happen in the space of a week, he was thinking about wars and revolutions, and not about the sort of domestic, or at least semi-private dramas - broken limbs and other health scares, the protracted and bloody birth of a niece, the insane pettiness of a real estate agent, a moving truck driving at full speed into trees and a phoneline outside a new home - which have devoured almost all of my time over the last seven days, and prevented me from posting on this blog.

As a bathetic egoist, though, I can't help wondering whether there might be some strange parallel between the tumult in my own life and the state of the wider world. When I've had a moment or two to scan some headlines or eavesdrop on a radio broadcast over the past week, the news has seemed unusually dramatic. The chain reaction of revolutions which commentators have dubbed the Arab Spring, the deepening global economic crisis, massive demonstrations in Greece and other southern European nations, plans for something approximating a general strike in Britain, the long-overdue, rather spectacular and altogether unforseen launch of a robustly left-wing mass membership political party in New Zealand: all of these events seem to be part of the sort of quickening of history which Lenin's famous phrase was supposed to capture.

And it's not only in news headlines that I find evidence of chaos and change in the outside world. Several months ago I decided to try to make this blog a little less egocentric by conducting a series of interviews-by-email with artists, writers, and activists whose work I admired. After getting the thumbs up from half a dozen subjects, I fired off half a dozen e mails full of the sort of bothersomely pedantic questions I like to ask talented and unusual people. Not a single one of my would-be interlocutors has found the time to reply to me, but none of them is guilty of indifference, or even rudeness: instead, the likes of earthquakes, redundancy notices, student occupations of universities, strikes, and infectious diseases have separated them from their keyboards for weeks or months at a time.

Stumbling through the wreckage left behind by that ill-fated moving truck yesterday, I came across an untitled, unpublished and almost unknown poem by Kendrick Smithyman. The text was knocked out on in May 1969 and posted to Andy Gurr, an expat Kiwi who taught at the University of Leeds and had been influential in bringing Smithyman to that institution for a six month sabbatical in 1966. Gurr kept the poem for more than four decades, then handed it to me during a visit to his homeland last summer, after hearing that I had been busy compiling a volume of unpublished Smithyman texts.

Andy Gurr is best-known today as a Shakespeare scholar, but in the 1950s and '60s he was a committed left-wing activist, and in 1956 he played a leading role in the little-known but ultimately important 'New Zealand New Left' which emerged at the University of Auckland in response to the Suez crisis and the Soviet invasion of Hungary. Smithyman had espoused Marxism as a young man, but by the time he befriended Gurr in the early '60s he was less interested in economic and political tumult than in the secret existential crises of individual human beings. The two men had many good-natured but intense arguments about the meaning and value of political commitment, with Smithyman apparently ribbing Gurr about his socialist sympathies and interest in the Bolshevik revolution.

Smithyman's poem seemed somewhat obscure when I read it for the first time last summer, but its movements between revolution in the outer world and private adventures and transformations resonated clearly with me yesterday.

Everyone has a short story
which he does not write. Some call it
My Life. Others, An Adventure.

All of us have lives to leave.
Some of us have adventures.
We leave them to others.
To this one I leave an adventure.
To that one, I bequeath a life.

As from this very now, astonished moment,
diagrams of nervous pain between
the horizon's urban limits, and a cloud.
I look across an impoverished tradition,
an industry mechanically blocked out,
to reflect as the lightning displays again
that this is an adventure. I am at
a window on the other side of your world,
audience of a brawling difference
earnestly sensitive to a change of climate.

No more of that. Through longest corridors
advance the outcries of revolutions.
The Winter Palace is stormed. For a moment,
enlarging, a Czar of all the Russias,
I participate, resolved that I must write
this down: I lived, and ventured.
A flash of conviction, a theatrical
accelerated heartbeat. In Mount Priory Street
some jingling arms of passing, with a bell
which should have been a troika.
You sympathise and you participate;
then comes the monster of responsibility
before which windows close against the gale.

To you, I have to say, Please take
my life. And you, Accept, sir, my short story
about when I seemed to matter as a state,
burden of much threatened culture. Little
Father, they wail; the thunders deafen me.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

'in 1956 he [Gurr] played a leading role in the little-known but ultimately important 'New Zealand New Left' which emerged at the University of Auckland in response to the Suez crisis and the Soviet invasion of Hungary.'

Hmmm, I don't think he was a major figure in the early NZ New Left. What's your source? People like Bert Roth, John Colquhoun, Owen Gager, Jim Delahunty and Con Bollinger definitely were. Gurr as far I am aware never played a part in Auckland Socialist Forum, the major early New Left group in Auckland. Did Gurr write anything for New Left journals or the NZMR?

Also, don't think the New Left was all that important. It was pretty ephemeral.

Also, to bring out the pedantic historian in me some more, I don't think there is a need to italicise 'the NZ New Left' - it definitely did exist! It's not the figment of my imagination, nor me importing irrelevant terms from overseas, as some have argued against my work.

your old sparring partner, Toby.

4:46 pm  
Anonymous Scott said...

I concede that your knowledge of the Kiwi New Left is vastly superior to mine, Toby, and I'm sure that most or all of your points about Gurr are correct, but I got the impression that the man did play a crucial role in the movement in Auckland, not because he published a lot or made stirring speeches or chaired committees, but because he owned a car.

According to Gurr, very few of the other members of the Auckland student union had a set of wheels, and the left-wing faction on the union's exec was able to use this fact to their advantage. They'd drag meetings out until the last buses and trams were about to leave the central city, and then, as soon as the right-wingers on the exec had apologised and left, take a vote on one or another crucial matter! After the vote was won Andy would give everyone a ride home!

Seriously, though, it'd be nice to be directed to something by yourself or another scholar of the Kiwi New Left which discussed the scene at Auckland uni in 1956 and thereabouts. Talking to Gurr last summer I was really surprised by the intensity of political activism on campus back then - I had in my ignorance assumed that student protest had only really kicked off in the '60s...

5:12 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The poem is incomprehensible even after multiple reads.

Poetry for the people LOL

6:01 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, hardly anything has been written about that period. The best sources would be interviewing people like Gurr. And rummaging through papers and Craccum and so on. And reading the history of AUSA.

My own knowledge of the Auckland New Left at that time is pretty limited, as ran out of time and wasn't able to find enough people to interview. I fuzzily recall that people told me it revolved around a social scene. People would meet at regular parties and at a few cafes. The two main groups of the Auckland NL were the Auckland Univ Socialist Society (who helped form a NZ Radical Univ Federation, and put out a publication called Perspective) and Auckland Socialist Forum, which was not campus based yet more social democratic. But both these groups were formed a few years after 1956.

The NZ New Left was pretty unique in that it was not campus dominated.

There was definitely an undercurrent of dissatisfaction with the status quo by the late 1950s, a latent cultural, social and leftist discontent that was to burst open in an exuberant fashion from the late 1960s. The big protests of the mid to late 1950s would be things like the campaign against capital punishment, the CND and the 'No Maori No Tour campaign' of 1959-60. Quite a few people in the NL scene were of course into the existentialists and beats.

6:34 pm  
Anonymous Pete O'Keefe said...

Liberty brings development and progress because humans everywhere are allowed to express themselves and bring GOOD changes where things were once crap. Liberty supports quality products because the consumer gets to decide what is good by purchasing it and companies that sell crappy products go out of business. State control is where one retard with power decides crap for you thus leaving you miserable. Communism = misery at all times, liberty = the ability to choose to make your life HOW YOU LIKE IT. Communism come out of the desperation of poor people who lived under another state controling tyrant. The communists have to force their view on others by taking government control.

6:38 pm  
Anonymous Pete O'Keefe said...

And Lenin was a bad man.

That by itself does not prove atheism but it is highly probative of same.

9:08 pm  
Anonymous Scott said...

Interesting info Toby. I wonder how the makeup of the Kiwi New Left would compare to that of the British movement, which seems to have been an unstable but very creative mixture of middle-aged communists driven out of their party in 1956 by the revelations of Stalin's crimes and the invasion of Hungary, and a layer of younger people, many of them students, who were politicised by the Anglo-French invasion of Egypt in the same year. The ex-commies often lived in the north, and just as often had close connections to working class communities and the labour movement; many of the younger folk were inhabitants of the 'golden triangle' which had as its three defining points Oxford, Cambridge and London.

There certainly were Kiwi communists driven out of their party by the outrages of 1956. Sid Scott, Elsie Locke, Hone Tuwhare, and Connie Birchfield were all notable thinkers who became refugees from 'official' communism in 1956. Maureen Birchfield's biographies of Connie and of Elsie Locke and Sid Scott's excellent autobiography make it clear that the party's dissidents were, like their British counterparts, casting about for alternatives to Stalinism in the mid-50s.

Unlike EP Thompson, John Saville and co., though, the Kiwi dissidents don't seem to have created a cohesive ideology, let alone a political movement, after quitting the party. Sid Scott laid out some interesting left-wing criticisms of Stalinism in his autobiography, but was soon beginning a rapid and rather sad journey to the far right of the political spectrum (when Brett Cross and I ploughed through Scott's papers at the University of Auckland one afternoon last year, the rapidity of this political migration quickly became clear to us: by the late '60s, the longtime intellectual voice of the Communist Party of New Zealand was writing letters to members of the National government demanding the censorship of communist election material!)

Connie Birchfield seems to have written little after leaving the party in 1956. Hone Tuwhare made some fascinating remarks about the failings of Stalinism after 1956 - he compared the invasion of Hungary, for example, to the invasion of Maori and other indigenous societies in the nineteenth century - but he was probably more interested in writing poetry than in articulating a systematic left-wing alternative to the creed he had rejected (fair enough, too, considering the quality of some of the poetry he created).

Elsie Locke seems to have thought the hardest about how to rescue socialism from the Stalinists, and it's a great shame that some of her writing on this subject has never been published (are you reading this comment, Brett/Atuanui Press? Hint, hint...) But after 1956 Locke seems to have given her political energy to a (very wide) range of single issue campaigns, rather than to any new socialist organisation or movement.

Andy Gurr talked a good deal about political tumult at the University of Auckland in 1956 and thereabouts - he mentioned a massive brawl between right and left-wing students over the invasion of Egypt, and a series of quite militant protests over plans to move the university out of the central business district - but he didn't give the impression that current or former communists played much of a role in these events. The Princes Street branch of the Labour Party seems to have been much more influential...

11:52 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Unlike EP Thompson, John Saville and co., though, the Kiwi dissidents don't seem to have created a cohesive ideology, let alone a political movement, after quitting the party."

Yes that is right. For some reason the people you mention never got together and formed a coherent movement. They floated around like individuals. There was a loose NL scene, and a few groups like the ones I mentioned.

In terms of the lack of theory, that was a real prob. with the NL in New Left. There were intellectuals amongst the NL dissidents but they did not write much theory. Of course, ex-CP NL dissidents like Con Bollinger and Jim Delahunty did contribute heaps to various movements, and Bollinger wrote a couple of books (one a history of the Seamen's Union) but never any coherent or innovative theory. Socialist Forum was not an intellectual group, and their newsletters and pamphlets I found rather timid, mild and disappointing, almost afraid to mention socialism type stuff. The Auckland SF seemed to me more a social democratic social club (it was a meeting place for various activists including Tom Newnham of CARE) and sadly, from my perspective, they later vigorously tried to argue against and sometimes even paternistically suppress the activity of the later New Left partic the Auckland PYM (the PYM were an object of much scorn for the moderates).

It is a shame that they never developed theory, as I know people like Delahunty were into Marxist theory (Delahunty told me he was a fan of Karl Polyani).

Bert Roth made an absolutely massive contribution to labour history in NZ - his collection of material is absolutely amazing and thorough. But his contribution was not made as part of a group or as a school of history, unlike the First NL in the UK. And i don't think his history can be called bottom-up history.

The main contribution the NL made to theory in NZ was through people like Bruce Jesson (he was involved in the New Left club at the Univ of Canty in the 1960s) and Owen Gager. Jesson would probably be the most important NL theoretician. But this was not coherently expressed until as late as the mid 1970s through journals like the Republican and the Red Papers. (These weren't NL publications but you can say the NL contributed to the emergence in a roundabout way).

9:55 pm  
Anonymous Scott said...

I read through To Build a Nation, a posthumous selection of Jesson's essays and articles, recently. If that man - and by all accounts he was a lively and likeable man - is the Kiwi New Left's pre-eminent theorist, then the Kiwi New left deserves its relative obscurity. Jesson's texts never got much beyond fragments of autobiography and well-meaning cliches. His reactions to the rise of feminism and Maori nationalism are sympathetic enough, but astonishingly shallow. His arguments are unambitious and yet very laboriously constructed. Whenever he wants to use Marx to back up his view he turns to an oft-quoted, much-misunderstood, highly controversial text like the Communist Manifesto and treats it like some set of simple, eternally true commandments. He shows very little awareness of the complexity of scholarly debates about either New Zealand history or about Marx and the history of the left. He's probably the sort of intellectual a small isolated provincial society could be expected to generate.

Gager had read a lot more than Jesson, and he prefers suddenly attacks to Jesson's lumbering advances, but there's a sort of kookiness and inconsistency in his writing which makes it difficult to use. In his chaotically constructed book Towards a Socialist Polynesia he mixes up some excellent insights with pages of pointless vituperation, and fails to maintain a clear and consistent analytical vocabulary. The result, for many readers, must be confusion.

Can't we found someone better to be the big theory gun of the New Left? Perhaps Elsie Locke's little-read political and theoretical texts would look good if they were brought together in one volume?

10:37 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Those who slander Bruce Jesson do so at their own peril.

10:20 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Elsie Locke a theorist? I haven't read the pieces you refer to, but if her work like Peace People is anything to go by, more of the same old NZ empiricism without any analytical vigour.

Critical comments on Jesson are welcome, as people have created an aura about him that his work was beyond criticism. I'd agree with most of your analysis (but we do come from different traditions). I'd love to write a critique of Jesson one day, particularly his pessimism and attachment to the worst of Western Marxism. Nevertheless, Jesson did write some useful stuff occasionally. I found his analysis of the left useful. He wrote some quite amusing and cutting analysis of the vulgar Leninism of the Socialist Unity Party ('boring the unions from within' ha), Socialist Action League etc. But yes I do find his Marxism a bit superficial, automatic and detached from class struggle. And his attachment to left nationalism is bizarre, but I find the NZ left's ingrained romantic attachment with left nationalism bizarre anyway. Plenty of room to criticise that holy grail. The irony about Jesson is that for all his talk about developing theory for unique NZ conditions, he just uncritically imported Western Marxist analysis and applied to it to NZ. His critique of the NL and protest movement in NZ echoed stereotypical comments overseas that it was middle-class, individualistic, anti-socialist etc (it was much, much more complex and contradictory than that).

So yep the NL in NZ did not produce an outstanding theorist. But to throw it back at you: has the left ever produced an outstanding Marxist or even socialist theorist??

1:21 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

whoops I mean the left in NZ of course.

2:18 pm  

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