Marxian socialism in New Zealand

We continue our series on the spread of socialist ideas in other parts of the world.

New Zealand is a small country, slightly larger geographically than the United Kingdom; but, at the end of the 19th century, when socialist ideas first penetrated the country, the population was still less than two million, of whom most were workers, small-scale farmers and Maori tribespeople. Not surprisingly, political parties were, and are, small.
    Probably the first source from which Marxist and socialist ideas and activities sprang was the New Zealand Socialist Party, founded in 1900 (or 1901 according to some accounts), and of which not a great deal is known. Although it was not, and did not claim to be, a Marxist party, there were Marxist elements in it. It had the merit of introducing to New Zealand the works of Marx, Engels and Kautsky, as well as literature from socialist parties in Britain and North America. It even distributed the writings of Daniel De Leon and Karl Liebknecht. About the same time, there were readers of the Western Clarion, the then journal of the Socialist Party of Canada, of the International Socialist Review published in the United States by Charles H. Kerr & Company, and of the Socialist Standard. Indeed, evidence of the Socialist Standard in New Zealand early last century, was the discovery, some years ago, of a bound volume of the first six years (1904-1910) of the journal in the Wellington Branch public library. On the inside of the cover is inscribed the name of the original owner and date: H. Anderson, Petone, 1911. Anderson was a long-time member of the socialist movement in New Zealand.
    Nevertheless, most politically-minded workers in the country favoured a non-theoretical, reformist Labour Party. Surprisingly, however, it was not until 1916 that the various labour politicians, and trade union groups, actually united to form the New Zealand Labour Party. By 1919, the party had eight seats in the New Zealand Parliament.
    But as early as 1911, there was correspondence in the Petone Chronicle in which at least one socialist writer advised socialists to write the word “Socialism” across their voting papers; and another who stated that nationalisation was not socialism. On October 21, 1912, “a number of Marxian students” met at Ranfurly Hall, Sydney Street, Petone, and formed the Petone Marxian Club. Optimistically, its first resolution passed that evening was: “That this club meet every Monday night at 8.00pm up to the day of the revolution.” At its fifth meeting, it was moved: “That this club adopt the object and principles of the Socialist Party of Great Britain.” The resolution was adopted without dissent. Although the Petone Marxian Club, in fact, had a limited existence (it held a total of 61 meetings), it did sow the seeds for further socialist organisation in New Zealand.
    A few former members of the Petone Marxian Club carried on with socialist propaganda, but with the outbreak of hostilities in 1914 they encountered severe restrictions on their activity. Conscientious objectors, socialists and other opponents of the war were hounded. Communication with the Socialist parties of Canada and Great Britain was maintained with the greatest difficulty. And as the war progressed, so all socialist publications, including the Western Clarion and the Socialist Standard, were banned and suppressed. The bourgeois press was also subject to strict censorship. It was not until late in 1918 that any kind of socialist activity could get started again.
    On December 28, 19l8, a conference of socialists was held at the Trades Hall, Christchurch, at which it was moved: “That a Socialist Party of New Zealand be formed.” An amendment was then put, and carried: “That a Marxian Association be formed.” Having formed the Association, it was agreed that it adopt the Object and Declaration of Principles of the Socialist Party of Great Britain. To obtain membership, the following pledge had to be signed: “I hereby undertake to render political support to none other than a Marxian Revolutionist, endorsed by the New Zealand Marxian Association, at all elections of candidates for public office in New Zealand.”
    A number of those who helped found the NZMA were former members of the Socialist Party of Canada who, as opponents of the war, had fled that country. Others were mainly seamen and coalminers. Throughout 1919, the NZMA made considerable progress. Meetings were held in many towns, especially in mining centres. There were branches in Petone, Christchurch, Millerton, Huntly, Wellington, Auckland and a number of mining centres on the South Island. In 1919, the Marxian Association invited Moses Baritz, a member of the SPGB, to speak on its behalf. He caused quite a stir, and challenged the Labour Party leader to debate. From the time that he landed in New Zealand he was shadowed by the police. On January 28, 1920, Baritz was deported from the country. John McDonald, a member of the Socialist Party of Canada was also invited, in 1921, to New Zealand to speak, not by the Marxian Association, but by the Wellington branch of the newly-formed Communist Party of New Zealand. It was unlikely, however, that he knew that at the time. In Wellington, he spoke at a number of meetings. Later, he travelled to Auckland where the first controversy of his tour erupted. He was asked to speak from the platform of the local Labour Party, which he refused to do. “Jack” McDonald then moved to the West Coast, where he spoke at eleven meetings. Most were in coalmining areas. At all the meetings, McDonald advocated the ideas and object of the Socialist Party of Canada and the SPGB. This did not augur well for the Communist Party of New Zealand. By the middle of 1922, the New Zealand “Communists” were in disarray, and McDonald had left for San Francisco.
    As elsewhere, the Bolshevik coup d’Etat had a profound effect on radicals in New Zealand. The so-called October Revolution, of which both socialists and non-socialists in New Zealand had almost no knowledge, due to press censorship and all suppression of news from Russia, generated confusion among many members of the NZMA. Sections of the organisation dropped out, and the Association became divided into “right” and “left” wings. The “leftwingers”, who were pro-Bolshevik, were dubbed “long livers”, presumably because of the way that they ended their speeches and manifestos; they demanded that the New Zealand Marxian Association affiliate to the Comintern, the Third (Comnunist) International. Although in a minority, they were supported by two executive committee members and the Association’s General Secretary, T. W. Feary. The emphatic refusal of the other members to accede to their demands was the culminating factor which caused the “long livers” to resign from the organisation. It also dealt a crippling blow to the socialist movement in New Zealand, and caused the demise of the NZMA in 1922.
    The years 1921 to 1928 were a period of “prosperity” in New Zealand. There were jobs for the workers, and lucrative profits for the employers. From 1929 onwards, however, unemployment grew rapidly as the worldwide economic depression deepened. Throughout the years of “prosperity”, individual socialists continued to propagate their ideas. In 1930, they – together with a number of former members of the Petone Marxian Club and the New Zealand Marxian Association – formed the Socialist Party of New Zealand. Seamen members of the Socialist Party of Australia, working on New Zealand ships, played a large part in the formation of the SPNZ. The Socialist Party of New Zealand immediately adopted the Object and Declaration of Principles of the previous Marxist organisations and the SPGB.
    Although progress was not as rapid as some had hoped, or expected, branches were organised in Auckland, Petone, Wellington and elsewhere. Outdoor speaking stations were acquired; and debates with the Communist Party and other organisations attracted good audiences. Despite tremendous difficulties, the SPNZ managed in January 1934 to produce a journal, the Socialist Review. But with worsening conditions, and increasing unemployment among its members, the Socialist Review ceased publication by June the same year. There was no money.
    When the war broke out in 1939, the Socialist Party of New Zealand issued an anti-war statement, in which it declared:
“The Socialist Party of New Zealand declares that no interest is at stake in this conflict which justifies the shedding of a single drop of working-class blood; and it extends its fraternal greetings to workers of all countries and calls upon them to unite in the greater struggle, the struggle for the establishment of socialism, a system in which the ever-increasing poverty, misery, terror and bloodshed of capitalism shall be for ever banished from the earth.”
The SPNZ’s anti-war statement immediately attracted the attention of the Labour government’s security service. The Party was not banned, but the home of the General Secretary, Rolfe R. Everson, in Petone, was raided by the police and all his correspondence, literature and library of books were seized and taken away. The lodging house in which the overseas secretary, Peter Furey, was living was next raided by the police, although none of his literature was taken, as it was noted that although it was similar to that owned by the General Secretary, it was less in volume. Nevertheless, both Rolfe Everson and Peter Furey were warned by the government that “holding these (socialist) opinions was one thing, but expounding them could lead them to jail”. According to Everson, the raids were largely prompted by the statement in the Party’s anti-war manifesto: “that no interest is at stake which justifies the shedding of a single drop of working-class blood”. New Zealand’s Labour government thought otherwise. Everson’s literature and books were held by the police for many months and when they were finally returned, he was further warned “not to expound these (socialist) ideas from the public platform”. The members of the SPNZ were closely watched by the police, all of which created difficulties for propagating socialist ideas. The party continued to resist the war effort, and to propagate its ideas as best it could. Indeed, in 1943, it printed on “begged, borrowed and stolen” paper – which was strictly rationed – an election leaflet.
    In December, 1944 the Socialist Party of Australia and the Socialist Party of New Zealand managed to produce a joint journal, Socialist Comment and Review, which was printed in Australia as the Australian government relaxed its ban on newsprint. “This was a joint effort, the SPA doing the lion’s share of the work,” according to the SPNZ. The thirty four issues were distributed in New Zealand.
    During the great waterfront lockout and bitter strike of 1951 the general secretary of the Waterside Workers Union was imprisoned. Ron Everson (brother of Rolfe and also an active member of the SPNZ), a member of the strike committee, was elected acting general secretary. It was illegal to print anything in defence of the waterside workers, and Ron Everson’s house was raided by the police looking for the copier the union was using. Almost all members of the SPNZ were active members of their respective unions. Even opponents of the SPNZ in the unions recognised that they were “the real socialists”.
    In 1953 a small number of SPGB members who had arrived in New Zealand from the UK, settled in Wellington where they helped build up the membership of the SPNZ through holding public meetings and other forms of activity. From 1971 to 1982 the SPNZ again published its own journal, Socialist Viewpoint, and in 1971 contested its first parliamentary election. In 1975 it put up seven candidates.
    The SPNZ which, as in Australia, later added the word “World” to its name, continued the task of advocating socialism. In the 1996 general election it again put up a candidate. A series of reprints of socialist and Marxist classics was published by Charles Fackney as “Common Ownership” publications. Currently the WSPNZ has a twice-monthly half-hour radio programme; it also has its own headquarters at Weymouth Road, in Manurewa. More details of current activities can be found on the party’s website

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