The When And The How: Chris Trotter reads Marx in the Art Room of Heretaunga College, Upper Hutt, circa 1973.
IN A RADIO INTERVIEW, earlier this week, I was asked how I became interested in politics. The question threw me for a minute, and I’m afraid the answer I gave was more about when – rather than how – politics first grabbed me.
Truth to tell, it wasn’t really politics that grabbed me, but Bob Harvey. The young advertising executive’s astonishingly effective campaign ad for Norman Kirk’s Labour Party in the weeks leading up to the 1969 general election transfixed my 13-year-old self. That state-of-the-art split-screen montage of Kirk running up the steps of Parliament, while Labour’s chart-topping campaign song enjoined New Zealanders to “make things happen this year” left an indelible impression. Nearly fifty years later, I can still sing that song!
That was the “when”. The “how” was different.
The three years between the 1969 and 1972 general elections saw the flowering of the New Zealand counter-culture. There was something in the air – and it wasn’t just the smoke from cannabis reefers. The universities were where most of the action was, but even in the nation’s high schools, the whiff of revolution was unmistakable.
I say “whiff” – but that is just a metaphor. The real vector for revolutionary ideas was the printed word. My art teacher was enrolled part-time at university and would bring copies of the student newspaper back to the art room. There, her senior pupils would devour them from cover to cover.
It was the first time that I had ever encountered the possibility that there might me more ways of looking at the world than from the very limited perspectives of the daily press. Was the Vietnam War a noble struggle against communist aggression? Or, just the latest manifestation of western imperialism? Should politics be kept out of sport? If so, then why was the South African government politicising rugby? Was atmospheric nuclear testing safe? Or, were the French recklessly contaminating the pristine environment of the South Pacific?
When, in November 1972, the New Zealand electorate threw out the only government I’d ever known, and the incoming Labour Party took bold action on all of the issues debated in the student press, it really did feel to me like a revolution.
Perhaps that’s why, in the early months of 1973, I could be found on the mezzanine floor of the school library reading The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Recalling that moment, I find myself amazed that a New Zealand secondary school library actually possessed a copy of The Communist Manifesto! Most of all, though, I recall the sense of the world suddenly being made intelligible.
Don’t get me wrong, reading Karl Marx – the 200th anniversary of whose birth, on 5 May 1818, is being celebrated across the world next weekend – didn’t make me want to rush out and join the Communist Party of New Zealand. What it did help me do, however, was understand capitalism. Not in the way a professional economist understands capitalism (which is hardly at all) but as a dynamic historical process that is constantly shaping and reshaping our world.
I may only have been a callow youth of 17, but I knew great writing when I pulled it off the shelves:
“Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air”.
“All that is solid melts into air”: nothing I have read about capitalism in the ensuing 45 years (and I’ve read a lot!) comes anywhere close to capturing the essence of the system’s power to disrupt and transform as that spine-tingling phrase. As we plunge, headlong, into the age of robotics, artificial intelligence and catastrophic job-loss, only a fool would argue that Marx and Engels called it wrong.
So, now you know the “when” and the “how” of my becoming both a student of, and a participant in, the art of politics. For nearly half-a-century, I have watched with a mixture of pity and awe as history has proved the authors of The Communist Manifesto correct.
So much that I believed solid has melted into air.
I’m still thinking about the “why”.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of 27 April 2018.