Standing to reason, Denis Welch

To Build a Nation: Collected Writings 1975-1999
Bruce Jesson (ed Andrew Sharp)
Penguin, $35.00,
ISBN 0143020528

New Rights New Zealand: Myths, Moralities and Markets 
Dolores Janiewski and Paul Morris
Auckland University Press, $34.99,
ISBN 1869403452

I first saw Bruce Jesson in the Newtown community hall in October 1979. A throng of Lefties had gathered for the first Marxian Political Economy Conference, an ambitious attempt to develop a theoretical basis for New Zealand Marxism uncontaminated by whatever the current line was on the Soviet Union or China or Albania (the conference poster featured Karl Marx in a black shearer’s singlet with a sheepdog at his side). There were to be a couple more of these conferences in the following years, but, alas, despite the theoreticians’ whistle, the Left never got in behind.

In those days Jesson enjoyed an almost mythical status as an independent thinker and commentator unaligned with any party or sect. This was largely because, though his name was widely known, hardly anyone had met him. So it seemed in Wellington anyway. His words came out of Pokeno, like Lenin’s out of Zurich, in cyclostyled typewritten tracts containing essays so original, clear and penetrating in their analysis that they made the Great Socialist Struggle – which at the time consisted of a considerable number of meetings – seem like a doddle.

Jesson turned out to be a small mousy man with a shy manner and a jerky way of speaking; words would tumble out in a mumbled rush and then subside before the next surge. He was no orator, that’s for sure; he would never lead a revolution by force of personality alone. But he was luminously intelligent. I felt then, and feel still, that he was probably the brainiest person I’d ever met, particularly because he had the gift of being able to articulate complex ideas in plain-spoken language – a facility to which all journalists aspire.

His dogged publication of 60 issues of the Republican for 20 years remains an undersung feat, not least because he had the bad luck to publish as the Left was in general decline. But then, perhaps only at such a time could a voice like his have arisen. The real tragedy is that since his death his work has not been carried on – indeed, it appears to have left no visible trace, such is the reduced state of socialist politics and theory nowadays. We have edged a little closer to being a republic, that’s all.

At least we have his writing. Some of us still have every copy of the Republican ever published; for everyone else, To Build a Nation: Collected Writings 1975-1999 will serve as an excellent introduction to the Jessonical canon. More a Selected than a true Collected it contains a wide range of Republican essays and a couple of dozen Metro columns, though not, regrettably, the two editorials he wrote for the Listener in the late 70s, one of which, headlined “Listen, Pakeha!”, was several years ahead of its time. For putting so much of him into one book we have to thank not only Penguin but the Bruce Jesson Foundation; David Lange, who chaired the foundation’s board of trustees, wrote the foreword to the book just before his death and helped to bring Bruce to the attention of a wider public; and Andrew Sharp, an unlikely choice of editor – as Peter Lee says in an afterword – but whose editing both honours and celebrates Jesson.

Reading these articles through, I am struck by nothing so much as the resemblance to George Orwell’s writing. Both men were sceptical socialists; both viewed liberalism with scorn and despair; and both have that vigorous, frank, no-nonsense approach to their subjects, as if the truth were manifestly plain to any decent person. Muldoon’s ideas, writes Jesson, were “self-evidently absurd”. Labour’s policy on foreign investment was “completely bloody meaningless”. Several times, in unmistakably Orwellian tones, he uses the phrase “it stands to reason”.

The comparison is probably pointless, because it leads nowhere, and you soon start thinking of all the differences between the two; but it helped me to see Jesson as more of a moraliser than I’d thought him to be, and more of a dogmatist, too. In his prose you simply don’t come across the usual rhetorical qualifiers like “To be fair” or “I readily concede that” or “Point taken, but”. Jesson was not a point-taker. He had strong views and he expressed them unequivocally, as in the following incisive example, written in July 1981:

The protest movement was dominated by the intellectual framework of liberalism and inspired by a sense of moral outrage. Because of this, the radicals within it derived their socialism from their own (limited) emotional preoccupations. They were unconcerned about relating either their socialism or their activism to the dynamics of change and were in a sense indiscriminate about the issues they campaigned about. They campaigned about whatever appealed to them; relevance wasn’t a problem; and overseas liberal issues appealed to them more than the crisis that was developing within New Zealand society.


He was also an accomplished aphorist (“Niceness is our national weakness”; “Individualism is the class consciousness of the middle classes”; “The role of a commentator is to be wise after the event”) and, especially in the later years, a wry observer of himself. “No doubt I have overstated the case,” he remarks in one essay. “I often do.”

As Lee says, his Marxist thinking was profoundly influenced by, first, the Frankfurt School and then Lukacs; he also absorbed some of Gramsci’s ideas; there is no sign, however, of post-socialist analysis along the lines of, say, Habermas or Gorz, even though Jesson unconsciously echoes the former’s ideas when he writes that, in the brave new world of the New Right, “reality has to be expressed in financial terms”. Habermas calls this the “colonisation of the life-world”; Marx anticipated it when he identified capitalism’s inexorable tendency to commodify and reify.

Lee’s loving afterword gives us some final glimpses of Bruce – philosophising while out fishing, reading Hegel in the Onehunga Workingmen’s Club, saying in the last weeks of his life that the “last 200 years since the Enlightenment may well be seen as a democratic jolt between two periods of barbarism”. Whether or not posterity remembers us that way, Jesson unquestionably qualifies as one of the jolters. His enormous intellect never stopped ticking as he steadfastly wrote us towards a more enlightened world.

Morality gets a bad press these days. Look at my own disparaging reference to moralising a few paragraphs ago. Morality, to many in the media/politics beltway, evokes images of red necks and bigoted views. To that extent the word has been co-opted by conservatives who cling to “family values” in the teeth of rampant homosexuality, slack posture and excessive child worship by the parentally correct. It is one of the intentions of Dolores Janiewski and Paul Morris, co-authors of New Rights New Zealand, to show that morality plays a larger part in nation-making than we generally give it credit for. Moral issues are neglected, they say, in the focus on politics and economics. Drawing rather a long bow, they illustrate this thesis with biblical analogies – eg Roger Douglas was Moses leading us towards the promised land.

This is a somewhat overwhelming book. Think of it as a long train journey with stops at every little station; hardly anyone gets off but more and more people keep getting on, crowding the reader’s carriage. Such is the extent of the authors’ research, as they explored what has happened to this country since 1984, that it seems they cannot bear to let any of it go: their pages are packed to the ceiling with facts, links, references,  background information and acronyms. This might have been made more bearable – because they have a good case to make – if they’d eschewed the use of quotation marks not just for passages or phrases but single words. A typical sentence begins: “His ‘reluctance to go for the jugular’ left him ‘vulnerable’ to those more ‘power-hungry’ and … .” The record for one sentence is six of these quotes; it’s as if Janiewski and Morris are overly fearful of making unsupported statements.

They’re not really, though, because in a terrific final chapter they speak more assertively, summarising their central argument – namely, that the New Right economic revolution faltered in New Zealand because it clashed with a “new rights” revolution that empowered women, gays, social liberals et al. The latter movement drew on the grand old Kiwi tradition of egalitarianism, whereas the former favoured inequality and a move away from social security of the cradle-to-grave type. Hence “we have not returned to the edenic garden of the welfare state and protected markets nor [continued] to march forward towards the New Right market utopia.”

The New Right, the authors conclude, is therefore also our New Left – a clumsy hybrid. “At the same time,” they warn:

the comparison with the United States suggests that a New Right that only focuses on market freedoms is more fragile and fleeting than one that includes moral conservatism at its ideological core, a conclusion that may now be reshaping the strategies of opposition parties ….


Denis Welch is a New Zealand Listener writer.


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