Monday 13 July 2015

Memory and Forgetting: Why Knowing Labour’s History Is So Important.

The Spirit Of Progressivism: The Czech-born writer, Milan Kundera, wrote that: “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting”. In a curious way, the Labour Party was founded to keep the memory of the Liberal Party’s achievements, and of its vision of an economically just and socially progressive New Zealand, alive.
IT WAS 99 YEARS AGO, this week, that the principal elements of the New Zealand Left began arriving in Wellington. At a time of extraordinary social stress, they were gathering in search of unity and a clear way forward. Yes, the trade unions were well represented, but they were by no means the only progressive voices present. The New Zealand Labour Party, which was born 99 years ago, in July 1916, saw itself, rather, as a vehicle for the “democratic public” – that fraction of New Zealand society for whom political participation has always meant more than simply endorsing the decisions of the powerful.
The trade unionists and journalists, clergymen and temperance campaigners who came together that July were both alarmed and appalled at the imminent introduction of military conscription. They saw it as evidence of just how completely the war was swallowing New Zealanders’ civil liberty. The ruthless brutality of Bill Massey’s government; it’s willingness to deploy deadly force against its opponents; was raising doubts about the true purposes of the war.
What, exactly, were so many young men dying to defend? What had become of progressive New Zealand? Of “God’s Own Country”? The relentless din of wartime propaganda made it difficult to remember the 20-year-long Liberal Era of John Ballance and Richard Seddon. Censorship and sedition trials made it difficult – even dangerous – to object to what had taken its place. War mania had rendered rational argument impossible. The “democratic public” of New Zealand felt themselves to be (and, almost certainly, were) a beleaguered minority.
Over the course of the next twelve months much will be written and spoken about the formation of the New Zealand Labour Party. The celebration of the party’s centenary will be used, as all such occasions are, to bolster the authority of those currently in command of both the party and the wider labour movement. Every effort will be made to convince the Labour Party members and trade unionists of today that their present leaders are worthy successors to the men and women of 1916.
That is why it is so important that New Zealand’s left-wing historians spend the next twelve months acquainting today’s progressives with the facts of Labour’s history. They must loudly give the lie to those who attempt to deny the radicalism of Labour’s past; and who argue that moderation and compromise have always been the party’s watchwords. The blatantly political purpose of such historical revisionism is to promote the idea that the extreme timidity and ideological conservatism of today’s Labour Party is nothing out of the ordinary; that Labour has always been timid and conservative.
Nothing is more likely to ensure Labour’s demise than the triumph of this right-wing revisionist account of its history. Labour’s future depends upon how truthfully her struggle on behalf of the “democratic public” is retold. The progressives of today deserve to know how a beleaguered minority, in spite of vicious government persecution and constant media vilification, eventually transformed itself into a radical majority, and how that radical majority changed this country forever – and for the better.
The Czech-born writer, Milan Kundera, wrote that: “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting”. In a curious way, the Labour Party was founded to keep the memory of the Liberal Party’s achievements, and of its vision of an economically just and socially progressive New Zealand, alive. Over the course of the next year the struggle to prevent Labour’s huge contribution to the history of New Zealand from being forgotten, or, worse still, misrepresented, must be waged unceasingly.
If the “democratic public” is ever again to become a radical majority, then the memory of how it fought – and won – the battles of the past needs to be kept alive in the hearts and minds of every progressive New Zealander.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 10 July 2015.


Anonymous said...

Labour was radical in 1916, yes. But that radicalism died with Harry Holland. Savage and Fraser were a good deal less radical than the early years of the Liberal Government. Nash even less so.

Anonymous said...

P Twyfords attack on the Chinese people in the buying of property in Auckland is a blatant racist attack on them. At the moment it would seem that A Little is supporting him. The Labour Party should be attacking the Auckland city council for not freeing up land for housing and transport development. That the Labour Party is going down the racist highway is a clear and definite sign that they have lost their way and any worker or fair society idealism they once held for our country is lost to them. They are simply endorsing W Peters racist xenophobic statements that he makes from time to time. Shame on the Labour party shame, shame ,shame.

Anthon said...

Well put Chris: the sad desire by some to re-cast Labour as a "gentler, more caring, party of neo-liberalism" needs to have the white-hot, destructive gaze of history shone onto it. We were radical once: we need to be so again. What that means in today's setting is a vital debate: but always on the foundation of the past to keep us 'remembering'.

Anonymous said...

My Auckland Labour list MP , believes that she must have a good following on her twitter and face-book accounts "to get the message out". She has a trendy apartment in a trendy part of Auckland. She has never held a job in her life outside of the beauracracy of Government. She was the advocate in the Cunliffe debacle that employees who earn up to $150,000 per annum and have up to 3 children should get tax and living subsidies paid for by the tax's of workers who earn less than a third of that. She is deafening silent when-ever MPs perk are bought up for public comment. She always supports MMP. She always supports the Greens even though they are anti mining and deep sea drilling, hence anti jobs. The trendy Greens in her electorate always support her with their electorate vote. She is not really interested in anything outside of her cosy and pleasant world and I seriously doubt she wants to see a change of Government. The labour Party has many troughers like that representing the modern Labour Party, that is why the points raised in your excellent article will fall on deaf ears and the piffle that the Labour Party has become.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous @ 14.07

Twyford wasn't criticizing the Chinese. If anything he was criticizing the government for allowing so many overseas Chinese to purchase NZ properties. Hardly racist or xenophobic. Kubernetophobic perhaps.

Anonymous said...

Growing up on the West Coast, home of Labour, I of course supported them. However they forgot their Working class roots and became a party of university dons. I never left Labour they left me. Labour was the party of Savage and that well known Chinese Johm A Lee. Shame on them. All they can do is flail around

SHG said...

the battles of the past needs to be kept alive in the hearts and minds of every progressive New Zealander

Unless their surname sounds Chinese. Them we don't want.

Anonymous said...

SHG, The present entrenched group of Labour party MPs are not "progressive" and now it seems we have a racist streak through them. Twyford is a English name no-one has ever stopped them from buying lands, farms or houses in NZ.

Davo Stevens said...

@Anon 15.11: Hmmm! A good description of the National party hacks! Do I need to remind you of the number of Gnat pollies who have never had a job? Tricky Nicky Smith is one, Bill English is another. The list is long and tedious.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Yes, that if Twyford tried to buy a house in China.........
It's ham-fisted I must confess, but we deserve to know if overseas people are buying up houses and forcing up the prices so that young New Zealanders can't afford them. I don't care where they're from, we shouldn't allow it to happen. It's all very well to say we should free up land around Auckland, but it's farmland mostly. And that's how we make our money. Cities in New Zealand aren't just plonked in the middle of anywhere, they're usually put on the coast around a reasonable harbour and close to good farmland.

Philip Ferguson said...

The early Labour Party was also virulently racist against the Chinese and tried to outdo the Liberals and Reform in who could be most anti-Chinese.

See, for instance, chapt 9 of my PhD thesis on the White New Zealand policy, which the Canterbury University library has digitalised. The PhD can be read here:

I'm also putting it up chapter by chapter on the Redline blog. See here:
I only have the first 8 chapters up so far, but chapt 9 should be up in about ten days.

I could've written more about the virulent anti-Chinese racism of Labour, but I needed to deal with the Liberals, Reform, the RSA (whose number one platform point was support for White NZ), the NDL, eugenics movement and so on in that chapter.

Early Labour weren't too fussy about who they collaborated with either. They invited Andrew Russell, the head of "Massey's Cossacks" as their special conference guest to one of their annual postwar conferences - I forget off-hand whether it was 1919 or 1920 - in order to work out joint action against the Chinese. Russell had just founded the right-wing nationalist National Defence League at the time.