Public postures, private lives, Erik Olssen

Waiting for the Revolution
James Edwards
David Ling, $24.95, ISBN 0 908990 51 0

Never a White Flag: The Memoirs of Jock Barnes  
ed Tom Bramble
Victoria University Press, $29.95,
ISBN 0 86374 344 5

When I was an undergraduate in the 1960s, the “Great Depression” and the “1951 Lockout” constituted defining events in the history of the class struggle and, more generally, the history of the “Labour movement”. The Great Depression represented the moral and economic bankruptcy of capitalism, the Lockout the accuracy of the Marxist diagnosis of the state as the puppet of the ruling class. Complex shades of grey were permitted, but the main issues were clear.

Nearly 40 years on, this version of events seems less compelling. Capitalism has survived and New Zealanders are vastly more prosperous. The waterfront industry, like almost everything else, has been restructured. The Communist world, once centred on the Soviet Union, has also disintegrated. Across much of Europe national and religious enmities flourish again, although not long ago they were widely viewed as archaic forms of false consciousness.

Between 1889-90 and the First World War a working class, conscious of itself and armed with a sense of its historic destiny, organised itself and became a major influence in New Zealand society and politics. Like other labour movements, it was convinced of its cause – the need to radically reform or even abolish capitalism – and its essential rightness. All injustices derived from the labour market (the fact that unions kept others out of that market was considered unimportant). Yet the rise of the Labour movement did much to civilise capitalism, establish the welfare state, and ensure that the unemployed came to be viewed as victims with basic human rights.

The Depression helped to unify Labour movement and bring it victory in 1935. But before long the wharfies in New Zealand’s main ports, many of them veterans of the class struggle, came to symbolise grasping greed not only to employers but to a majority of New Zealanders, including many socialists and most members of the Labour Party. For that reason the Holland Government’s draconian response cost it little support. The widespread belief that the Labour movement’s cause was not necessarily that of suffering humanity proved fatal, compounded by the Labour Party’s inability to find a viable compromise. The crushing defeat of the wharfies and their allies, the ongoing resentments and hatreds which gnawed at Labour’s heart, weakened the union movement and corroded the historic links between unions and party. By the 1980s many Labour MPs scarcely knew a union leader by name! That fact may explain why there was nothing to stop or even slow Roger Douglas.  Whether it was desirable to stop or slow him is, of course, another question.

It is against this background that we should consider two new books about major figures in the New Zealand Labour movement. James Edwards, son of Jim Edwards, the famous or notorious leader of Auckland’s Unemployed Workers’ Movement, who was a central figure in the Auckland riot of 1932, has written a bitter-sweet memoir in which the phrase, Waiting for the Revolution, assumes a deliberate ambiguity. The political here becomes personal. His father, the firebrand of  “the Left”, now appears as something of an irresponsible dreamer, always pursuing some half-cocked vision of entrepreneurial success or social reconstruction, while leaving his poor wife and children to provide for themselves. Jim Edwards never wrote his own memoir – although James has written a sympathetic account.

Jock Barnes, by contrast, explodes from history to re-tell his story. Like the Bourbons of old – and he resembles them in this sense only – he has seen much and learned nothing. In the 1940s and early 50s he personified the wharfies and the spirit of working-class destiny. He was undoubtedly able and dedicated, nevertheless he led his battalions to defeat and played his part in engulfing the Labour Movement in civil war. Tom Bramble, his editor, is convinced he did the right thing. Yet the memoir reveals a man of self-righteousness, a man who substitutes clichés for analysis, a man who still blames his many enemies for everything that went wrong. He had lots of enemies, certainly, and anyone who manages to read his memoir from beginning to end will understand why. They will also understand why others followed him. I’m not sure if Barnes had any children, but one wonders what sort of memoir a child of his might write.

The lives of prominent individuals can never explain historical change, but they afford insights. These two very different memoirs give revealing insights into two periods of unusual significance in our history and, in their own distinctive ways, tell us something of the strengths and the weaknesses of the Labour movement. Edwards’ memoir also provides an unusual insight into a family’s dynamics, and his account of running away from home offers a vivid glimpse of the wider society. By linking the private and the public, however, Edwards has written the more valuable book; Barnes, by contrast, has produced a blast from the past.

Erik Olssen is Professor of History at the University of Otago. 

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Posted in History, Non-fiction and Review
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