Revolution in New Zealand (1969)

Protest of workers, students and anti-Vietnam War activists at parliament, Wellington, June 26, 1068
Protest of workers, students and anti-Vietnam War activists at parliament, Wellington, June 26, 1968

The article below first appeared in 1969 in the very first issue of the journal Red Spark, publication of the Victoria University of Wellington’s Socialist Club. The VUWSC was one of the first organisations that emerged as part of the youth radicalisation in New Zealand that began in the late 1960s and continued into the early 1970s. VUWSC activists were particularly influenced by the Cuban revolution, the May-June 1968 worker-student upsurge in France and the 1968 Prague Spring, but the issue that most moved them was the struggle of the Vietnamese masses against US imperialism and its allies (including NZ imperialism). (And 1968 was also the year of the Tet Offensive.)

A core of young VUWSC activists, including the author of this article, went on later in 1969 to found the Socialist Action League with a layer of activists who left the Progressive Youth Movement (PYM) in Christchurch. The author was a member of the SAL’s original central leadership and for a while the editor of its fortnightly paper; he dropped out of politics in the late 1970s.

The article gives a flavour of the youth radicalisation – and the general optimism – of that period. Its author would have been in his very early 20s, which also gives an indication of the relatively high political level of the young radicals of that era. It’s also interesting to compare trends between then and now in NZ (and, indeed, global) capitalism. Hugh rightly critiques the sociological notion that the new layers of white collar workers were part of the middle class and, instead, suggests that whatever their consciousness might be at that particular point in time – ie not seeing themselves as workers – they were indeed part of an ongoing process of proletarianisation. That analysis has long since been borne out – indeed, as we show elsewhere on Redline, these same layers today, far from being privileged, are often in precarious employment with poor pay and conditions. (See, for instance, here and here.)

by M.H. Fyson

The momentous events in France last year sent out a fresh ripple of revolutionary enthusiasm that spread across the world; it even contributed to the spirit of the demonstration we had here in Parliament Grounds, June 26.1 And not only some students, but even the bourgeois press – the Evening Post and the Dominion – began to speculate on the possibility of there being “another Paris” here. But as soon as it was all over, the students’ premature optimism and the papers’ premature fears melted away, and ‘normality’ returned.

We have already included two articles on the French events in this magazine, for not merely academic interest. But because of their significance for left-wing activists here in New Zealand. The basic lesson for us is this: that under capitalism, no matter how much the government intervenes in the economy, whether or not it makes an attempt to appease or ‘buy off’ the workers, the capitalist system cannot prevent social unrest from coming to the surface and creating the possibility for the overthrow of the state of the capitalist ruling class and its replacement by a workers’ state. For, in spite of the apparent resignation of the workers in the advanced capitalist countries to ca;pitalism, in fact they are still as potentially revolutionary as they ever were:ench events have proved it.

New Zealand is 12,000 miles away from France, and has a culture and a social situation which is unmistakably different, but at the same time NZ and France are both capitalist countries, and part of the world capitalist system. The general features of capitalism, as analysed by Marx, are also the general features of France and NZ, and they are both subject to the basic developments taking place in it. So no matter to what extent the NZ bourgeoisie may feel secure against the kind of upheaval that shook France, no matter to what extent socialists here are pessimistic concerning its chances, capitalism remains, and with its irreconcilable antagonisms. Let us briefly run through some of the main ones, those opposing social and economic forces which preclude any lasting peace and stability.

Alienated (or wage) labour

The broad class of employees, ie all those who do not have direct access to (ownership of) the means of production have no other choice but to sell their labour-power (physical energy, mental and manual abilities) to those who do, those who own, the capitalist class. They are forced to do this in order to exist. For a member of this class, says Marx in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, “His work is not voluntary, but forced labour. It is not the satisfaction of a need, but only the means for the satisfaction of other needs. Its alien character is clearly shown by the fact that as soon as there is no physical or other compulsion it is avoided like the plague. Finally, the alien character of work for the worker appears in the fact that it is not his work, but work for someone else, that in his work he does not be,long to himself but to another person”, ie the capitalist.


Clearly explained in Marx’s Wage Labour and Capital. No capitalist in his right mind will employ any worker unless he can make a profit out of doing so – unless he brings more to him in terms of increased revenue than he has to pay him in wages. The difference between the increased revenue of the firm and the increased wages bill, though it is created by the worker (by his surplus labour) is expropriated by the capitalist for his own use. So much for exploitation being an ’emotive’ term inappropriate to social science. It is Marx’s great achievement that he showed it to be a basic fact of economic life under capitalism. So it should come as no surprise to us to find that the rich get richer and the poor, at least relative to the national wealth, poorer.

In New Zealand, 1956-61, the propertied classes diminished considerably:
Number of employers fell by 6,000 (8.3%)
Number of self-employed fell by 12,200 (15.2%)
Number of wage and salary earners increased by 97,000 (15%)

In 1956, wage and salary earners made up 80% of the actively engaged population, yet they freceived only 68% of private disposable income (ie after tax). In 1961, they made up 84% of the economically engaged population, yet they now received only 70.6% of private disposable income. They had increased by 4% of the total population, yet their share of the national income had increased by only 2.6%. In other words, the wage and salary earners’ share is steadily declining, inequalities are increasing.2

Class struggle

The capitalist is spurred on not only by greed but by the cut-throat competition of other capitalists, and therefore he finds it necessary to keep wages down as low as possible. Each worker, for his part, has only his wages to live on, and therefore he must struggle against the capitalist to maintain his wages, let alone increase them. In the course of this struggle, the worker becomes aware of his exploited and alienated condition. He finds that only by uniting with other workers can he struggle effectively. Thus the common interest of the workers provides the real, rational basis for the emergence of class consciousness. The capitalist also finds that he requires the assistance of those whose interests are in accord with his own, who likewise want to ensure that the workers are kept in their place. He finds that this requires (1) a state machine – police, laws, labour department etc and (2) an ideology, which seeks to confuse the workers as to their real condition, to divert them from the pursuit of their real interests.3

Class struggle manifests itself in combinations of various forms. It appears in the isolated struggles of workers, individually or in groups, against the boss. On this level, it is an unceasing feature of economic life under capitalism, frequently leading to strikes. In 1966, for instance, there were 145 strikes in New Zealand. It manifests itself in the more overt conflicts between workers and the state – open revolts of a substantial segment of the working class, such as occurred in NZ in 1890, 1912, 1913 and 1951. It appears in the political struggles of the workers’ parties (in NZ,Labour, and Communists) against the bourgeois parties (National).4 It appears in the theoretical struggles of Marxists against the ideology of the bourgeoisie. The highest level of class struggle is, of course, revolution – when the workers seize state power from the capitalist bourgeoisie.

The increasing scale of industry

Competition among the capitalists is the most powerful spur to the introduction of higher forms of technology. The more complex becomes the technology, the greater is the need for larger scale productive enterprises and for enormous financial resources. The big businesses buy up the smaller ones and the efficient buy up the inefficient. Laissez-faire capitalism becomes monopoly capitalism and imperialism.

It is widely held that this removes competition but, as Lenin pointed out in his Imperialism, competition in fact rises to a new level – international trust versus international trust, one capitalist nation against another, importers versus exporters, one whole branch of industry against another for the same part of the consumers’ budget. The ‘rationalisation’ and ‘planning’ which occurs is still not designed to meet human needs; instead it is simply for the purpose of maximising the capitalists’ profit, and for trying to keep capitalism off the rocks of social revolt.

The new middle classes. . .

The increasingly complex technology and the larger scale of economic organisation demand new sorts of employees: more office workers, more technicians, more university graduates. The industrial proletariat proper is diminishing relative to the total labour force, and the propertied classes also. It is widely accepted among sociologists that these new social layers are essentially a ‘new middle class’, a class which, says C. Wright Mills, refutes the Marxian proposition that society is becoming increasingly divided into two great classes, propertied and propertyless, bourgeoisie and proletariat. This ‘new middle class’, believes Mills, is the blotting paper which absorbs the spilt fluid of class antagonisms.

. . . or additions to the proletariat

Marx did not differentiate classes from one another primarily on the basis of status, wealth, education, function or ideology; for whether a man5 is a carpenter or a clerk, whether a man is placed high or low on the status scale of his society, whether a man thinks of himself as working class or middle class is not basic to his social behaviour. More basic is the situation in which he exists socially, the social conditions of his existence. In a society based upon the private ownership of the means of production these are necessarily the facts of alienated labour, exploitation, class conflict and the decline of small private property in the means of production. Thus wage and salary earners are united by their common subordination to the rule of capital; they both produce profits for the capitalist, they both have to sell themselves to the capitalist, the labour of both groups is alienated labour. The proletarian condition is their common condition.

Of course, the ‘new middle classes’ do generally look upon themselves as not being ‘workers’; their pay rate is usually better, and they usually consider themselves as better than workers, and as an integral part of the bourgeois order. But some of them are waking up to the realities of their situation – their alienation and their link with the proletariat. Only last month there were strikes of bank and postal workers in Britain; though it is developing very slowly in New Zealand, in Europe ‘white collar unionism’ is showing encouraging signs of progress. Ernest Mandel’s article in this issue shows how and why students are the focal point in the proletarianisation of the middle classes. Higher paid, skilled workers are commonly thought to be becoming more and more middle class, but in Western Europe it is precisely such workers who are leading the agitation for workers’ control in industry; they are coming to realise that their higher training and their higher cultural level is incompatible with being mere minions of the capitalists.

Marxism versus vulgar economic determinism

C. Wright Mills offers to us a good example of that special erudition which makes Marx out to be a vulgar economic determinist who held that the proletariat rebelled primarily because of its poverty. Assuming Marx to be right on that point, Mills then shows that, for modern capitalism, Marx’s theory is no longer applicable; poverty among the proletariat has been ameliorated in the advanced capitalist countries, and also the proletariat is a smaller portion of the population than it was in the last century. We have already cast doubt on Mills’ second reason. As for the first, nothing could be further from Marx’s whole position than the almost uni-causal theory of revolutionary motivation which Mills attributes to him. This ‘Marx’ is easy to refute. Poverty may be the prime operative factor in certain situations, but in others it may equally well be an actual hindrance to the emergence of movements of social rebellion. And this is just what happened in New Zealand on more than one occasion, and most noticeably during the Great Depression. The presence of 100,000 unemployed rendered the strike weapon virtually useless; the humiliation and boredom of the unemployed, and the extreme poverty of the workers of those years, caused them to become severely demoralised.

Marx always recognised that social rebellion has many origins, and that poverty is only one of them under certain conditions. An actual outbreak of such rebellion can begin for various reasons, eg from an attack on the democratic trade union rights won by the workers in the course of many years of struggle. This happened in 1951, when the Holland government’s Emergency Regulations turned NZ into a police state. It can result from a decline in wages relative to the national income – this was the initial cause of the 1951 strike.6 It can result from the impetus of momentous overseas events. It can result from class antagonisms which are exacerbated by national, racial or cultural oppression. Behind all these are of course the general conditions of proletarian existence in capitalist society, which we have already had a look at.

Significant developments

Many people will agree with us that NZ is a capitalist society, and that the basic features of capitalism also characterise NZ – exploitation, alienation, increasing inequality and so forth. But they won’t go with us to the point of saying that we should start organising for a revolution. We think that these people are overlooking certain promising changes in the present NZ situation.

Industrial speed-up: Certain industries in this country are expanding and becoming increasingly competitive, and the capitalists in them are looking for ways to cut costs. But with strong unionism it would be suicidal for them to simply cut wages. They have discovered the ideal way to get around the problem – in such a way as to increase their profits at the same time as they appear benevolent in the eyes of the employees – ‘productivity agreements’. These give the worker a financial incentive to work harder; it may at first appear to them as a bonus from the employers, but the employer knows that in fact the reverse is the case. In these schemes, in return for producing twice as much, the worker gets paid less than twice his former wage. The percentage increase in the wage is never more than 100%; in fact it is only occasionally anything like it, and some give the workers no more than an extra 10%. The capitalist pockets the rest. It does not require any imagination to see that the introduction and operation of these schemes leads to increased industrial unrest; it is this which contributes more than anything else to the current unrest in the freezing industry, where these schemes are being widely introduced.

Continuing economic instability: The position of New Zealand governments is in a certain respect even more awkward than that of their European counterparts; the economy is dependent on the receipts from a very narrow range of exports and is therefore at the mercy of their price fluctuations on the world market. The NZ government has negligible control over these prices, whereas the more industrialised countries can through state ‘planning’, deficit budgeting, pump priming and so forth, have a certain amount of limited success in taking the sharp edges off economic fluctuations. But in New Zealand, when receipts go up, there is a sudden increase in prices – the relative level of wages declines, the dollar doesn’t go as far. When receipts fall away, there is an immediate cut in production, due to lack of foreign exchange to buy imports (NZ industry is highly dependent on imported raw materials). This leads straight away to unemployment, a government campaign to hold down, and if necessary reduce, wages and salaries, in order to save the capitalist from losing his profits. In New Zealand, these fluctuations are particularly sharp and sudden, and whichever way it goes, up or down, the workers’ contentment is rudely jolted; either way, the weaknesses of capitalism are exposed to them.

The racial question: Middle class New Zealanders tend to fall for the belief that theirs is a harmonious multi-racial society, maybe because they have never been inside the Regent Hotel, never had a good look at Auckland’s incipient ghettos, never asked themselves what lies behind the high crime rate for Polynesians in the cities here, never noticed just how widespread racialist assumptions are amongst white New Zealanders.

It is doubtful whether this question would be important if it were not for the fact that Maoris and Islanders in the cities here are confined almost entirely to the wage-earning class. They are coming to the cities at a rate far exceeding that of pre-war years, and having been carefully neglected by the education system, and generally culturally deprived, they can only take on lower-paid mainly manual work. On becoming wage workers for the Europeans, to the old forms of exploitation is added another. Admittedly, they know that city life is for the most part preferable to the rural or Island life that they have come from, but this knowledge does not have much bearing on their present problems. What concerns them now is their poor conditions when compared with the wealth that they see about them, their long hours of work, their being objects of prejudice on the part of shopkeepers, landlords and the like, their unwillingness to ‘integrate’ with a culture that is not their own. The Polynesian people in New Zealand cities are downtrodden and most of them know it.

If we consider together with the facts of their origins in tribal societies, it is not hard to see why they make such exceptionally good trade unionists. As an instance of this we can recall the demonstration at parliament last June, when about 70% of the workers there were Maoris and Islanders. Middle class academics are for the most part out of touch with them (as are middle class people generally) and they just do not realise what a great powerhouse of revolution they are.

The petty-bourgeoisie: There are various classes in capitalist society which are not part of either of the two major classes – small, self-employing businessmen, small farmers, lower-salaried workers who are hardly aware of their ‘proletarianisation’. These are the petty-bourgeoisie. These classes in New Zealand can hardly be said to have much revolutionary potential; indeed, for the most part, they go along with the ruling capitalist bourgeoisie; but to what extent do they constitute a barrier to revolutionary developments?

They do not object to some aspects of the capitalist regime, and so many of them will seek for changes in it to their own advantage and to safeguard their own interests. To this end many of them support the Labour Party, and I think it is true to say they predominate over its working class component.7 This gives them added power to put the brakes on potentially revolutionary developments in the working class; that is, through the party they are politically and ideologically leading the workers into the confines of mild parliamentary reformism. In addition, because they see the working class as a threat to its precarious socio-economic position (an illusion fostered by the capitalists) the petty bourgeoisie, in New Zealand as elsewhere, constitute the social basis for capitalist reaction against the workers, for the fascist type of reaction which plays upon their social insecurity.

However, the petty bourgeoisie are constantly at odds with the advance of capitalist industry; their basis in small property is being steadily eroded. And separated from the principal antagonism in capitalist society (the struggle between the capitalist bourgeoisie and the working class) they have little understanding of social forces and little sense of their class identity; they are therefore not capable of attaining an independent ruling position in society. The two main classes alone are capable of this. So instead the petty bourgeoisie follow that class which seems to them to offer the best prospects. Under capitalism, this means the capitalist class. But if the proletariat looks like winning, most of the petty bourgeoisie will follow it. This has been the lesson of all revolutions against capitalism to date. So we must not assume that because this reformist, dilatory mass is so large and weighty in New Zealand that revolution is not possible.

The Students: Universities in this country before the war were havens for the youth of the upper and upper-middle bourgeoisie, and those who did not have enough money had to go part-time. Since the war, however, morre people have been able to afford it, and also the developing economy has demanded more graduates, The universities have expanded rapidly, and the former haven has been invaded by people from lower down the social scale. The ‘hautes’ may not like it at all but there is not much they can do about it, unless like Mr Muldoon they want NZ to develop in such a way that educated people are not much needed. Ernest Mandel’s article in this issue has shown what the expansion means – it leads eventually to the ‘student revolution’. Provided that the universities continue to expand we can expect something similar here too – with its radicalising influence on social discontent generally.

Towards the revolution

We don’t think this all adds up to a successful socialist revolution – other factors are involved without which it would be unlikely, if not impossible. Overseas events, particularly the possible success of a workers’ revolution in one of the advanced capitalist countries, are of immense importance. For this would prove to people in a way which Marxist propaganda on its own never can, that proletarian socialist revolution is perfectly feasible here too. In France last year they had victory almost in sight – the fact that the mass strikes and demonstrations did not grow over into a revolutionary seizure of state power was not due to any inherent defect on the part of the workers, but was due to the betrayal of the French Communist Party leadership. We consider that upheavals will be repeated in spite of such betrayal and disappointment, the workers of France and Europe will turn to the genuinely revolutionary parties, and that unless there is a nuclear war which ends everything the chances are now better than ever before that victory will be achieved.

Another factor of vital importance in workers’ revolution is the presence of a significant section of the working class with a fighting tradition. We have this in New Zealand – workers in several important ndustries have a fine tradition of militant struggle, notably watersiders, miners, freezing workers, drivers and seamen. The most problematic factor in New Zealand, as it is overseas, is the creation of a revolutionary leadership which has the loyalty of the mass of the workers, and which can lead the most socially aware workers – the vanguard – to a revolutionary class consciousness, and organise them as a revolutionary fighting force.


1. On June 17 the government announced a nil wage order – in those days governments set annual wage rises. On June 26 workers protesting the nil wage order and student protestors converged at Parliament. This moment in time represented the renewal of militant workers’ protests after a long period of quiescence following the defeat of the radical section of the union movement in the 1951 waterfront lockout and the arrival of an era of student and student-led protests on a series of social and political issues.  It came very shortly after the massive worker upsurge in France in May-early June 1968, French events of the May-June ’68, which were of great importance in the subsequent founding of Red Spark, the VUWSC and the SAL.

2. Decades on, of course, these figures seem almost egalitarian; capitalism has produced far greater inequalities since. But it is interesting to note that even in the late 1950s/early 1960s, at the height of the long postwar economic boom, NZ society was becoming less equal. It should also be noted that Labour was in power from 1957-1960 – even back then it happily presided over growing inequality.

3. This is a rather simplified view of the Marxist analysis of ideology, making bourgeois ideology sound like a capitalist conspiracy. For a more developed Marxist view see: How capitalist ideology works.

4. The Labour Party was not a workers’ party at the time Hugh was writing. It was very much a bourgeois political party; indeed, it was their mistaken analysis of the Labour Party that was a major factor in killing the SAL in the later 1980s. For a Marxist analysis of Labour see: The truth about Labour, a bosses’ party.

5. Keep in mind that this was written in 1969; rather than change ‘man’ to ‘person’, we have left the original wording.

6. The bosses locked out the workers thus 1951 is generally referred to by the left as the 1951 Lockout.

7. This was undoubtedly true, and an important insight by Hugh. But it also contradicts his earlier statement about Labour being a workers’ party (see endnote 4). When the SAL was formed later in 1969 it was very much hegemonised by the conservative and conservatising influence of the US Socialist Workers Party. Under its political tutelage, the SAL adopted the dogma that Labour was a ‘workers’ party’, albeit a ‘bourgeois-workers’ party’, based on the unions. This formulation about Labour parties was specifically rejected by Lenin, in whose name it was adopted; the formulation was decades out-of-date, ignored which class Labour served (the capitalists) and which class made up most of its membership (the petty-bourgeoisie). For over three decades the group called on workers to vote Labour, even during the height of ‘Rogernomics’. As noted above, in endnote 4, their fundamental error on the Labour Party was a primary cause of the group’s unravelling in the mid-late 1980s.

Further reading:

There’s an account of the June 26 protest and the forces involved over at libcom, see here.