Hard Going: All attempts to intrude regulations pertinent to the general welfare of all New Zealanders beyond the farm gate has invariably been met with ferocious political opposition. Whether it be the public’s “right to roam”, the doomed “Fart Tax”, the Emissions Trading Scheme, or, in just the last few weeks, the Health and Safety Reform Bill, the cry of New Zealand’s cockies has been – "They shall not pass!"
IT WAS GENOCIDE of a special kind. Relentless mass killing inspired not by ethnicity, or religion, but by the victims’ social and economic position. “The liquidation of the Kulaks as a class” was one of Joseph Stalin’s greatest crimes. Farmers around the world looked on in horror, and their instinctive hostility towards the collectivising tendencies of city-based socialists congealed into an implacable hatred.
As a political designation, “Kulak” is derived from the Polish word for “fist” – as in “tight fisted” – making it, from the very beginning, a term of abuse for those farmers who had worked harder and smarter than their neighbours, produced a surplus, sold it on the open market, purchased some basic agricultural machinery with the proceeds, hired a little help – and made a profit.
Even in Tsarist times (when Poland was a part of the Russian Empire) the Kulaks were objects of envy and suspicion. After the Bolshevik Revolution, however, to be classed (and the word is used here advisedly) as a Kulak all-too-often meant persecution, confiscation, and, with the advent of “the collectivisation of agriculture” in late 1920s and early 30s, arrest, deportation, enslavement in the gulags [Soviet forced labour camps] and death.
With the Revolution’s ruthless elimination of the old Russian aristocracy, the Kulaks – though only marginally better off than their neighbours – had found themselves elevated to the status of the new capitalist class in the countryside. The smarter Bolsheviks had wanted to harness the drive and entrepreneurial flair of the Kulaks to secure the volume of exportable agricultural surpluses required to make socialism affordable for the rest of the USSR’s population.
Stalin was having none of it. The great Soviet experiment could not be held hostage to the capitalistic proclivities of its peasant farmers – no matter how economically productive. Agriculture must be collectivised and industrialised. Peasants must become workers. “Now”, Stalin boasted in 1929, “we have the opportunity to carry out a resolute offensive against the kulaks, break their resistance, eliminate them as a class and replace their production with the production of kolkhozes [collective farms] and sovkhozes [state-owned farms].”
"Do Not Trust Him! This Czech poster, from the 1940s, depicts the Kulak as the most hardened enemy of Socialism.
Except, of course, when collective solutions were manifestly in the farmers’ interest – as was the case with the guaranteed prices and massive state subsidies that underpinned New Zealand agriculture from the 1930s to the 1980s. Like so many other Kiwi capitalists, farmers have never had a problem with socialising the costs and privatising the profits of their endeavours.
Well, hardly ever. When, in 1972, the National Government suggested the compulsory acquisition of the entire New Zealand wool clip, the parliamentary candidate for the Southland seat of Awarua, a farmer named Aubrey Begg, thundered that: “If this measure is allowed to proceed, we might as well paint a hammer and sickle on every barn door in New Zealand!” (And he was the Labour candidate!)
The farmers’ great fear of socialism is nowhere better displayed than in their unwavering refusal to recognise workers’ rights. Such recognition would only open the door to the trade unions – long resisted (think "Massey’s Cossacks") as both the harbingers and hand-maidens of every socialist burden ever imposed upon the long-suffering cockie.
One imagines the fate of the doomed kulaks looming large in the farmers’ fevered imaginations when, in 1936, the First Labour Government passed the Agricultural Workers Act. No doubt its provision of a minimum wage, four weeks paid holiday, and radically improved housing, for all farm workers, was regarded as proof positive that the Kiwi Kulaks’ one-way trip to the gulags was imminent!
Though the word “Kulak” may have faded from twenty-first century cockies’ vocabulary, their visceral fear of trade unionists and the socialist aspirations they embody, has not. Which is why any and every attempt to intrude regulations pertinent to the general welfare of all New Zealanders beyond the farm gate is invariably met with ferocious political opposition. Whether it be the public’s “right to roam”, the doomed “Fart Tax”, the Emissions Trading Scheme, or, in just the last few weeks, the Health and Safety Reform Bill, the cry of New Zealand’s cockies has been the same as the cry of the communist defenders of the Spanish Republic: ¡No pasarán! – They Shall Not Pass!
The rest of New Zealand must understand that allowing farm workers to manage their own health and safety would open the door for trade unionism – and socialism!
And what could possibly be more dangerous than that?!
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 25 August 2015.