A Middle-Class Diversion from Working-Class Struggle? the New Zealand New Left from the Mid-1950s to the Mid-1970s

By Boraman, Toby | Labour History - A Journal of Labour and Social History, November 2012 | Go to article overview

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'. …

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