A Middle-Class Diversion from Working-Class Struggle? the New Zealand New Left from the Mid-1950s to the Mid-1970s
Boraman, Toby, Labour History - A Journal of Labour and Social History
While orthodox New Left historiography has been challenged in many important respects in the last decade, assumptions about the relationship between the New Left and the working class have been left relatively unchallenged. Namely, it has been widely asserted that the New Left internationally was a predominantly 'middle-class' movement. (1) Furthermore, some argue that it was not only estranged from the working class, but also had an antagonistic relationship with workers, as exemplified by conservative 'hard-hat' workers assaulting an anti-Vietnam War march in New York in 1970. (2)
Several recent publications have questioned traditional perspectives about the New Left. For example, writing about the US New Left, John McMillan has queried the top-down method of many historians who have dwelled 'on the institutional history of the SDS [Students for a Democratic Society] and the powerful personalities of (admittedly fascinating) movement leaders'. (3) Van Gosse, utilising an extremely broad definition of the New Left, argues that historians of the US New Left have focussed on young, white, male-dominated student groups, and have neglected the participation of African-Americans, women, gay liberationists, Latinos, Native Americans, Asians, those within the armed forces and Vietnam veterans within the New Left. (4)
While such questioning is welcome, (5) as far as is known, the only historian who has thoroughly examined the relationship between the New Left and the working class is Peter Levy in his The New Left and Labor, which examined the US New Left. (6) This article expands on Levy's critique for the New Zealand context--for example, by exploring the broader relationship between the New Left and workers outside the New Left, and between the New Left and working class communities, rather than largely confining analysis to the student-based wing of the New Left and its relationship with unions.
In New Zealand, Bruce Jesson echoed the dominant international verdict on the New Left. Jesson was involved in the New Left Club at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch during the mid-1960s. From 19 (7) 4, he edited The Republican. While that publication was not overtly New Leftist in stance, it soon became the major journal of the intellectual wing of New Zealand's non-party aligned radical left. Jesson, well-known for his cutting analysis, became a significant socialist theoretician in the New Zealand context. As with many New Leftists internationally, he was heavily influenced by Western Marxism. According to him, the protest movement of the late 1960s--and the New Left by extension--was dominated by the 'youthful and educated middle class'.7 It was largely concerned with 'overseas liberal issues', especially those of the Vietnam War and apartheid in South Africa. (8) He argued that its highly moralistic, emotional outlook was firmly focussed on these issues rather than on domestic capitalism. It reacted against the authoritarianism, 'social conservatism' and 'traditional social and moral codes' of the older generation. (9) Its praxis was liberal and individualistic rather than socialist; it overlooked economics and class exploitation. Essentially, he argued that it was a middle-class diversion from the Left's traditional focus on class. He contended it was an unimportant and ineffectual movement in itself, but its real significance was that it foreshadowed a crucial political transition: the rightward shift to neo-liberalism in the 1980s, epitomised by the Labour Government of 1984 to 1990. (10)
Jesson believed that the working class was concurrently 'socially and politically passive', 'largely lacking in identity and self-awareness', dominated by the hegemonic ideology of the capitalist class, and 'notoriously rigid in its social attitudes'. Subsequently, working-class people were hostile to radical causes and to radicals from an 'educated and liberal background'. (11) He claimed that '"the worker has it too good" is what the Left lamented at the time [the 1960s]--meaning the working class was too well off to want radical change'. (12) According to Jesson, the working class and the New Left had little radical potential, and there was little hope for links to be made between the two. This article explores critically Jesson's thesis.
The New Left is difficult to define because it was a fluid, complex and genuinely international movement that varied significantly over time and place. (13) Yet some common themes across the New Left can be traced throughout the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. The New Left's major defining characteristics were, firstly, its search for a third way beyond Stalinism and social democracy, and secondly, its search for a third way beyond the Cold War blocs of the USA and the USSR. The New Left had many other defining qualities. It was dominated by youth. It was non-sectarian, eclectic and anti-bureaucratic. It was opposed to class exploitation, alienation, dehumanisation and racism. It emphasised extra-parliamentary methods of political dissent, including direct action. It aimed for a radical change in society, and generally favoured a network of face-to-face communities run by participatory democracy as the organisational form of a new society. Commonly, New Leftists aimed for workers' self-management of workplaces and student-teacher control of schools and universities.
A substantial grey area between the Old Left and New Left existed. This was particularly the case for the young Maoists and Trotskyists who shared the New Left's Zeitgeist, passion for action, and rejection of Stalinism, yet still had close ties (ideologically and organisationally) with the Leninist wing of the Old Left. For example, in New Zealand, the Auckland Progressive Youth Movement (PYM) had close ties with the Communist Party of New Zealand (CPNZ), a party which became aligned with China in 1963. (14) Many groups that straddled the new and the old were working-class in orientation.
Similarly, class is a complex phenomenon that cannot be defined neatly or rigidly. As Jesson pertinently wrote, 'the purpose of class analysis is to explain the complexities of social existence, not to explain them away'. (15) For the purposes of this article, class is defined in Marxist terms as an exploitative social relation rather than a gradation based on social rank that is determined by qualities such as level of education, income or status. Specifically, the working class is defined as those who must sell their labour power in order to survive. Class composition changes dynamically over time as the proletariat makes and remakes itself, and as capital continually acts upon the working class by, for example, reorganising the workplace and society to increase production, consumer demand and profits, and to co-opt proletarian resistance. In other words, class is an ever-changing process and not a box into which we can simply categorise people. (16)
The New Left reacted to, and was a product of, major transformations in class composition, in particular the expansion of skilled and unskilled white-collar office labour during the post-World War II long boom. Internationally, many New Leftists, such as John and Barbara Ehrenreich, thought that these developments represented the formation of a new middle class, particularly among professionals and managers. The major function of the 'professional-managerial class' was to reproduce capitalist culture and capitalist class relations. Accordingly, students were being trained at university in how to manage the proletariat, and the New Left was a middle-class rebellion against their alleged technocratic vocation. (17)
Other New Leftists, in contrast, thought these changes represented the recomposition of the working class, and not its decline. The operaismo and autonomia strands of the Italian New Left--better known as 'autonomist Marxism' and popularised recently by Antonio Negri, among others--suggested that there was no middle class, arguing that differences in status between workers did not justify categorisation into separate classes. Some autonomists, such as Negri, believed class conflict had extended beyond the factory wall, and the multifarious struggles of the 'social worker' included not only those of workers, but also youth, women, queers, and the unwaged (students, unemployed and domestic workers) against the omnipresent 'social factory'. (18) Thus the New Left was considered part of the working class. This was also the case for New Leftist proponents of the 'new working class' school in France and the US. They argued that enlarging corporate and state bureaucracies had created an increasing demand for technical, skilled white-collar workers. These 'knowledge workers', such as researchers, 'professionals' and technicians, were being trained in tertiary institutions or 'knowledge factories'. They then entered the workforce as a better-paid and higher-status fraction of the working class. This fraction was claimed to be at the forefront of revolt during the 1960s and 1970s, as exemplified by the New Left. (19)
Much of this international debate over whether the New Left was middle class or working class centred on the class location of students. In New Zealand, the class location of students was not debated as intensely as it was internationally for several reasons, including the low proportion of student or academic theorists in the New Zealand New Left. The primary reason why this subject was not extensively discussed was because the New Zealand New Left was unique in that most of its prominent groups were not campus-based, and hence contained a high proportion of workers rather than students. Examples include Socialist Forum, the Progressive Youth Movement (PYM), the Resistance Bookshops--which were not just bookshops, but also meeting places and centres for activism--and the People's Unions. In contrast, student-based groups dominated the New Left in most 'advanced' capitalist countries, such as the March 22 Movement (France), Vietnam Solidarity Campaign (Britain), Zengakuren (Japan, an abbreviation for Zennihon Gakusei Jichikai Sorengo, or National Federation of Student Self-Government Associations), Students for a Democratic Society (USA, Sydney and Melbourne), the West German SDS (Sozialistischer Deutscher Studentenbund or Socialist Student League), Students for Democratic Action (Brisbane and Adelaide) and the Monash University Labor Club (Melbourne). While New Zealand New Leftists did not comprehensively debate the role and function of universities, they did offer some valuable, yet fragmentary, attempts to explain the changing class composition of the period, such as the relative decline of manual labour, and the rise of service-based, managerial and white-collar labour in general. It is beyond the scope of this article to examine how some New Leftists included the unwaged (particularly unpaid domestic labour) as an important if not crucial part of the working class, and raised new quantitative demands such as wages for housework and equal pay, as well as new qualitative demands such as the 'refusal of work' and the desire to festively revolutionise everyday life.
This article proceeds as follows. Both periods of the New Zealand New Left are considered: the cautious early New Left of 1956 to the mid- to late 1960s, and the boisterous later New Left of the post-1968 period. Particular questions that are explored include the New Left's class composition, its perspectives on class (especially how it defined and sometimes redefined class to include or exclude white-collar workers, and whether it viewed the working class as having potential as an agent of social change), and its practice in terms of its links or lack of links with workers outside the New Left. Instances of co-operation and conflict between New Leftists and other workers are highlighted.
The Early New Left
Perspectives on, and Relationship with, Class
The early New Zealand New Left arose during an extended lull in class-struggle. It was a direct product of dissatisfaction with the Labour Party and the CPNZ, particularly after two major international events in 1956: the USSR's suppression of the Hungarian workers' revolution and Khrushchev's revelations of Stalin's brutality. Dissenters formed New Left groups, the largest, longest-running and most significant of which was Socialist Forum. (20) The early New Left was also shaped by the crushing defeat of the radical wing of the union movement during the 1951 waterfront lockout, and the post-war economic boom. A Keynesian class compromise was thus enforced and established. Workers were offered benefits such as full employment, cheaper consumer goods, a welfare state, and rising living standards, in return for increasing their productivity and not destabilising the status-quo. This compromise appeared to be delivering results; during the 1950s and 1960s, New Zealand's standard of living was among the top half-dozen countries in the world. (21) Class antagonism still persisted in a muted form, however. The latent discontent with the class compromise--especially with that of productivity speed-ups, with the alienating nature of work (particularly assembly-line work), and with how the 'prosperity' of the period was disproportionately enriching the capitalist class eventually erupted in the late 1960s and 1970s.
Nevertheless, strike activity was subdued after 1951. Consequently, many asserted that class struggle was antiquated. Arnold Nordmeyer, then the leader of the Labour Party, claimed in 1963 that there was 'no place today for what used to be known as the class struggle'. (22) While early New Leftists rejected the view that New Zealand society was classless, they largely accepted that class conflict was outmoded. Jim Delahunty, a founder of Wellington Socialist Forum in 1958, commented that during the …
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Publication information: Article title: A Middle-Class Diversion from Working-Class Struggle? the New Zealand New Left from the Mid-1950s to the Mid-1970s. Contributors: Boraman, Toby - Author. Journal title: Labour History - A Journal of Labour and Social History. Issue: 103 Publication date: November 2012. Page number: 203+. © 2009 Australian Society for the Study of Labour History. COPYRIGHT 2012 Gale Group.
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