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.