[OPE-L] The Development of Capitalism in New Zealand: Towards a Marxist Analysis

From: Jurriaan Bendien (adsl675281@TISCALI.NL)
Date: Sun Feb 18 2007 - 11:00:51 EST

I read that study in 1981 (I lived in NZ for 22 years), but I don't think it
was any good yet. It wasn't an analysis, it was towards an analysis. It
tells you little or nothing about the real development of capitalism in New
Zealand. It was written in the "Althusserian" days. The only great NZ
Marxian economist I know of was Ronald L. Meek, who left the country in 1946
to take up residence in Leicester and Glasgow (UK).

More interesting examples of New Zealand Marxian or leftwing research are:

- by Geoffrey R. Pearce, Where is New Zealand Going? Phd Thesis, Sociology
Department, University of Canterbury, Christchurch, 1987 (3 vols) (I worked
on this dissertation as research assistant - it provides very longrun price
data for the Marxian value-ratios for NZ manufacturing, plus a lot of other
economic, social and political data)

- by Brian S. Roper, Prosperity for All? Economic, Social and Political
Change in New Zealand Since 1935 (Dunedin: Dunmore Press, 2005).

- by Bruce Jesson, Revival of the right: New Zealand politics in the 1980s;
Behind the mirror glass: The growth of wealth and power in New Zealand in
the eighties (1987); Fragments of labour: The story behind the labour
government; "The Disintegration of a Labour Tradition: New Zealand Politics
in the 1980s", in: New Left Review, #192, March-April 1992; Only Their
Purpose is Mad, The Money Men Take Over New Zealand (1999); Bruce Jesson: To
Build a Nation - Collected Writings 1975-1999 (2005), edited by Andrew

- by Harvey Franklin, Cul de Sac. The question of New Zealand's future.
Unwin, 1985. (a social geographer's viewpoint)

- by Herbert O. Roth and Janny Hammond, Toil and Trouble: the struggle for a
better life in New Zealand. Auckland: Methuen, 1981. (a documentary history
of the New Zealand working class, with photo's)

With a few exceptions (such as Herbert O. Roth, Willis Airey, Len Richardson
and Kerry Taylor) professional historians, and particularly economic
historians, were not attracted to the Marxian paradigm in New Zealand. Bold
hypotheses and grand visions were rather rare among them, they tended to
prefer rather particularistic fact-grubbing (done very well) to a genuine
integration of social theory and historical experience. One of the few broad
scholarly economic histories is by Gary Hawke, The making of New Zealand: an
economic history (CUP, 1985) which is not a Marxist work by any stretch of
the imagination.

On the one hand, the Marxian tradition in New Zealand tended to be rather
doctrinaire, monolithic and dogmatic until the 1970s, and only during two
brief periods - in the later 1930s and in the aftermath of world war 2 - did
the CPNZ attract intellectuals. The CPNZ was founded in 1921, five years
after a united Labour Party was formed, and the communists always remained
politically marginal. After the invasion of Hungary in 1956, most of the
party intellectuals there were, left the Communist movement. In the 1960s, a
few individuals (such as Hector MacNeill and Owen Gager) became lone
Trotskyists, others founded new groups such as Socialist Forum (with which
the New Zealand labour historian Herbert O. "Bert" Roth was associated) or
founded new leftwing journals. With the fracturing of the Stalinist and
Maoist groups in the 1970s and the growth of the New Left (including the
Trotskyist Socialist Action League and the Values Party) there were some
fresh ideas, including an attempt to understand the situation of Maori
(largely ignored by the CPNZ until then), but actually no in-depth Marxian
scholarship came out of it.

On the other hand, New Zealand with its pragmatic, practical (and often
anti-intellectual) settler culture represented an oddity in the world
capitalist system, insofar as it could not easily be fitted into any Marxian
schemas imported from Europe, or from the socialist fatherlands in the USSR,
China, Albania etc. The attempt to mimick European Marxism was unhelpful.
New Zealand featured a kind of "settler capitalism", to borrow Donald
Denoon's concept, in some ways an economically dependent country, and in
other ways a politically independent country. Its political history,
although obviously informed by European influences, deviated sharply from
European models in important ways.

Spectacularly, the Marxists and Marxist-Leninists could not even agree
whether post-war New Zealand was a colony, a semi-colony, an intermediate
country, an imperialist country, or a junior partner of imperialism, i.e.
they could not agree about its place in the world market and in the
international states system, never mind articulating the social meaning of
local experience or devising an effective political strategy. The main
reasons for that were (arguably) twofold: 1) Marxist political activity
remained mostly a marginal, badly funded grassroots activity, often
characterised by sectarian bickering over doctrinal subtleties, and 2) very
little comprehensive research was done on the New Zealand economy and its

A few small Marxist groups survive today, such as the Socialist Workers
Organisation (a merger of post-Stalinists and Cliffites), the International
Socialists (a small group around Brian Roper that was kicked out of the SWO)
and the Workers Party of New Zealand (a fusion of post-Maoists and
post-Trotskyists). In addition, some socialist militants are active in
leftwing trade unions such as Unite! and the National Union of Public
Employees, or in the faltering Alliance Party. And there are some nutty
splinter groups. But very little Marxian scholarship is occurring, and a
pragmatic, liberal postmodernism has intellectual hegemony. The more
profound social criticism these days typically does not come from the
universities, which are more and more run as academic businesses. Recently,
the prolific New Zealand author Michael King published a new history of New
Zealand that sold well, but he wrote it - before his untimely death -
outside of any university, on his own accord.

I recall trying to explain to Ernest Mandel in 1984 and subsequently, that
the New Zealand Labour Party was pursuing a radical neo-liberal programme,
but he didn't really believe it - and he didn't believe that, if true, it
could persist without an enormous political backlash. But he admitted he
didn't know much about New Zealand, it was a sort of terra incognita on his
political map. His discussion illustrated to me very clearly the difference
between European and Antipodean outlooks.  In Australia, with a population
five times greater (20 million compared to 4 million) and a larger labour
movement, there has been a much stronger Marxian intellectual tradition, but
even so, its actual influence in New Zealand has been limited.


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