‘Communist’ a convenient term of abuse

Some excitable types say Jacinda Ardern is some sort of communist, but New Zealand socialism has remained predominantly democratic, writes Victoria University's Associate Professor Jim McAloon on the 100th anniversary of the Russian revolution

The Bolshevik revolution in October/November 1917 was a defining event in the twentieth century, but its impact in New Zealand was at first limited. Mainstream newspapers greeted it with a degree of alarm. The Dominion described the revolution as a coup “by an Anarchist group headed by the notorious Lenin, and with a separate peace as the first plank in its policy programme”. Lenin having been assisted to return home by Germany, he was described as a “traitor and paid agent of Germany”and these characteristics were by respectable opinion imputed to Bolshevik sympathisers generally. The radical press, on the other hand, castigated the “lies” of “reactionary militarists” and praised Lenin as a true revolutionary and the Bolsheviks, generally, as upholding internationalism against imperialism. 

By the end of 1918, Russia, after a year of revolution and civil war, was presented in New Zealand as the example not to follow. Moderates in the employers’ organisations warned that labour and capital needed each other; “the red road of Bolshevism leads straight to destruction”. At the very end of 1918, a prominent farmer characterised the Queensland Labor government, with a programme emphasising state enterprises in competition with private business, land reform and electoral reform, as dominated by Bolsheviks. In the same vein, the New Zealand Herald hoped the two main parties, Liberal and Reform, would merge to defend “the national interest” against Labour “extremists and their Bolshevik doctrines”.

As the 1919 election approached, Labour candidates emphasised their commitment to reform through parliamentary methods, while pointing out that the Bolshevik revolution was an understandable consequence of centuries of Czarist oppression. With some justice, they noted that right-wing organisations refused to debate Labour’s policies but relied on guilt by association: the Bolsheviks are socialists, Labour are socialists, therefore Labour are Bolsheviks. Thus the word ‘Bolshevik’ and its later synonym ‘communist’ became a convenient term of abuse for any progressive Labour politics. It would remain so for decades; Robert Muldoon deployed it enthusiastically in 1975 – remember the dancing Cossacks? – and some excitable types in 2017 imagined Jacinda Ardern as some sort of communist.

The Labour Party’s formation in 1916 had not pleased all New Zealand socialists. Some continued to believe socialism could not be achieved through parliamentary means; a number of radical bodies, some in trade unions and some in various Marxist study groups, remained or emerged and would eventually form the Communist Party of New Zealand in 1921. The Communist Party’s formation was a low-key affair, however, and there was little expectation that the Petrograd events of 1917 would soon be repeated in New Zealand. 

While the Communist Party maintained a small core of support in some of the West Coast coalfields and among seafarers, it and the Labour Party became increasingly divergent. Initially, a few Communists may have remained in the Labour Party, and the Hastings branch of the Labour Party wanted to affiliate with the new Communist Third International in 1921. As late as 1925, the Communist Party sought to affiliate with Labour, but Labour’s conference that year determined that no member of the Labour Party could belong to any other party. This was an understandable position, given Moscow increasingly determined the attitude of local communist parties; by the early 1930s, that attitude would be of uncompromising hostility to social democratic parties. Labour and Communist activists would contend for influence in some parts of the labour movement, and especially among unemployed workers’ organisations in the early 1930s, but communists remained very much a minority in the New Zealand left.

Not that this relieved the Labour Party of the burden of suspicion. Right through the 1920s, Labour’s political meetings were subject to police surveillance. The reports are still in Archives New Zealand, and as late as 1926 the party leader, Harry Holland, was being watched – this when he was officially Leader of the Opposition. Imported books and magazines were subject to political censorship, and a future Labour prime minister, Walter Nash, was fined in 1921 for importing communist literature (later in the decade, incredibly, a secret policeman would describe the mild-mannered Anglican Nash as a “socialist, of Bolshevik tendencies”). 

The Bolshevik revolution’s immediate impact on New Zealand, then, was indirect. From the mid-1930s, as the contest between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, and then between the Soviet Union and the capitalist West, shaped world politics, New Zealanders would in many ways be affected by the legacies of that crucial episode in 1917. But more immediately, communists remained a small and increasingly isolated part of the New Zealand left.

Some of New Zealand’s most creative writers were for a time communists – notably Elsie Locke and Hone Tuwhare – but the party’s rigidity alienated them. Some communist trade unionists, like Angus McLagan and Fintan Patrick Walsh, took that rigidity into later careers in the mainstream labour movement during and after World War Two. In the decades after the war, many New Zealand communists, including Locke, were disillusioned by the Soviet repression of the Hungarian uprising in 1956.

The New Zealand party itself split into factions aligned to Moscow and Beijing in the mid-1960s; some members of the Moscow-aligned Socialist Unity Party were influential trade unionists, but their influence rested on their skill as negotiators and workers’ representatives, not ideology. New Zealand socialism remained predominantly democratic.

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