This is how memory works. . . until loyalty to Labour gets in the way

This is how memory works. . . until loyalty to Labour gets in the way


by Philip Ferguson

Only three weeks after the peculiar DominionPost opinion piece in which Victoria University history associate-professor Jim McAloon misremembered a lot of Labour Party history – all the inconvenient bits that tell us a lot more than the whitewashed version he presented – another well-meaning leftist has been struck with false recovered memory syndrome.

In a piece ironically titled “Memory and forgetting: why knowing Labour’s history is so important”, veteran left political commentator Chris Trotter not only forgets and misremembers Labour’s past but does the same with Richard Seddon’s Liberal Party.

Seddon, for whom Chris seems to have such respect, was this country’s leading Sinophobe – historians’ politesse for leading anti-Chinese racist – for decades.  He introduced racist bill after racist bill to cut off Chinese immigration and make those already here feel as unwelcome as possible.

In relation to Labour, Chris Trotter claims that progressive opposition to World War 1 and the oppressive policies of the Massey government brought together the forces that formed the new party in 1916.  More important, however, was that the working class had suffered a substantial defeat in the industrial sphere in 1913 and, lacking a way forward in the workplaces, fell back on parliament and parliamentary politics, just as they had after the defeat of the 1890 maritime strike.  Labour has long thrived on working class defeat in the industrial arena.

After the 1890 defeat workers turned to the new Liberal Party and helped put it very quickly into government.  By the time World War I broke out, however, the Liberals were clearly just one wing of the political forces at the disposal of New Zealand capital.  Class had come to the fore in NZ politics, replacing the cross-class unity represented by the Liberals: the unity of workers with the liberal middle class and those capitalists opposing both big industrialists in sweated industries and big landowners.  The fundamental divide between the working class as a whole and the capitalist class  as a whole had come to the fore once the Liberals broke up some of the landed estates.  So now, when workers lost in the workplace and fell back upon narrow parliamentary politics, they had little choice but to form a party of their own.

Chris suggests “New Zealand’s left-wing historians spend the next twelve months acquainting today’s progressives with the facts of Labour’s history. They must loudly give the lie to those who attempt to deny the radicalism of Labour’s past; and who argue that moderation and compromise have always been the party’s watchwords. The blatantly political purpose of such historical revisionism is to promote the idea that the extreme timidity and ideological conservatism of today’s Labour Party is nothing out of the ordinary; that Labour has always been timid and conservative.”

Today, it’s hard to believe that someone of Chris’ generation – and as a founding leading light of the NLP and Alliance, Chris has direct experience of Labour perfidy – can be making these kinds of claims.  It’s certainly true that the very early Labour Party was good at the flowery phrases about working class internationalism and even class struggle.  But it’s not their harmless holiday speechifying that counts – it’s what they did in practice.  And the historical fact is that the party that banged on, at the level of rhetoric, about the ‘brotherhood of man’ was in the forefront of racist campaigning against Chinese workers.  Shortly after World War I, they were even prepared to unite with the head of “Massey’s Cossacks” to do so.

Throughout the 1920s, having successfully worked with the Liberal and Reform parties to dispose of the Chinese, the Labour leaders turned to the next tasks: moderating the rhetoric, creating a more top-down party and removing opposition to their left.

In the next couple of weeks we will be publishing several feature-length pieces on this, pieces that were originally written as academic research papers by radical postgrad sociology students at Canterbury in the late 1980s and were later published in NZ Monthly Review, a left magazine with which Chris is no doubt familiar.  Indeed he may have well read these pieces back at the time, well before his recent bout with false recovered memory.

Chris also writes: “The Czech-born writer, Milan Kundera, wrote that: ‘The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting’.”  The struggle for human liberation is actually much more than that, but I certainly agree that an important part of it is the struggle of memory against forgetting.  Unfortunately, Chris is on the wrong side of that struggle.

Instead of forgetting the treacherous history of the NZ Labour Party, let alone covering up for it, we need to remember it.

We need to continually confront the liars and dissemblers and delusionists who want us to forget the vicious anti-Chinese racism of the early Labour Party, the repression of the first Labour government during and after World War 2, its postwar assault on radical trade unions, its deregistration of the Carpenters Union in Auckland and its introduction of peacetime conscription.  Then, of course, there was its preference for ‘Aryan immigrants’ as opposed to Jewish people trying to escape repression in Nazi Germany in the 1930s.

We need to keep telling workers about the assaults of the second, third and fourth Labour governments on working class living standards, the maintenance of anti-working class and anti-union laws by the fifth Labour government and their refusal to raise benefits even during a period of continuous government surpluses.

And, of course, their joining in the invasion of Afghanistan etc etc etc.

For some introductory reading that is based on remembering rather than forgetting, check out this list of Redline articles on the Labour Party.


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