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Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Review: No Left Turn by Chris Trotter

New Zealand society is marked by two great fissures: that between Pakeha and Maori, and that between capital and labour. Any history of New Zealand must portray and explain both. Chris Trotter accomplishes this in his No Left Turn. Trotter's book is a welcome and impressive addition to the ideological armoury of the left.
Unlike historian Michael King who gave priority to the Maori/Pakeha divide in his best-selling History of New Zealand, Trotter concentrates on the class-based struggle between those whose social motivation is wealth and power and those who fight for equality and justice: the on-going battle between right and left.
No Left Turn takes the form of a series of essays canvassing significant events in modern New Zealand’s history, from the days of colonisation up until the end of the twentieth century.
Trotter deals first with E.G. Wakefield’s “systematic colonisation” plans which sought to recreate the class relations of Britain in the last frontier of New Zealand. This land-grabbing, money-grubbing project cost Wakefield's brother Arthur his life in the Wairau “massacre”. This occurred in 1843 as settlers sought to seize the Wairau Plain from the Maori warrior-chief, Te Rauparaha.
The second chapter exposes the role of the banker and land speculator Thomas Russell and his partner-in-crime, lawyer Frederick Whitaker, in provoking the Waikato and Taranaki land war that raged through the 1860s. Trotter calls this the “Sovereignty War” because it was the heroic last stand of Maori in defence of an independent political realm.
Although this period was one of colonisation by Great Britain, settlers from that country came from both the oppressor and oppressed classes: the latter were looking for a better life, the former had less noble motives. The same capitalist imperatives that were behind the colonisation of Aotearoa New Zealand drove all subsequent economic, social and political developments. The exploitation of the land was premised on the exploitation of wage-labour.
The working class, like Maori before them, were also warriors – class warriors. After the subordination of Maori resistance, the main battleground shifted to the urban centres. Maori joined this class-struggle as they were urbanised into the working class.
Trotter’s graphic prose does justice to the dramatic battles that ensued, like that in 1912 at Waihi where Frederick George Evans was murdered by a scab lynch-mob as striking miners and their families were violently driven out of town.
The stories of the Great Strike of 1913 and the waterfront Lockout of 1951 are interspersed with chapters on the ANZACs and Auckland as it could have been. Trotter reveals how thousands of young men were sacrificed in WWI in the interests of British imperialist capitalism in order to safeguard New Zealand's butter and meat trade. In 'The Auckland that never was' chapter he exposes the sabotage by the Sid Holland-led National government ("the crudest, most ignorant and bigoted collection of far-right reactionaries by which New Zealand has ever had the misfortune to be governed") of the public transport and urban development plans that would have created a model, human-centred city instead of the car-clogged monstrosity that Auckland is today.
Trotter’s main subject matter is the changing political landscape of the twentieth century, especially the rise and fall of Labour and its latter-day revival. Here we have a left-revisionist, revision of previous versions of New Zealand’s political history.
His assessment of the 1951 Lockout, for example, is that Jock Barnes (the leader of the wharfies and the militant breakaway Trade Union Congress) and F.P. Walsh (the leader of the Federation of Labour) were “never on different sides”. The breach in the working class ranks that they provoked was the result of their irreconcilable differences in strategic approach. They both wanted to maintain and extend the gains that had been made during the fourteen-year term of the first Labour Government (elected in 1935), but Barnes utilised militant industrial struggle while Walsh favoured political rapprochement with the government of the day. In retrospect, a combined industrial and political campaign by the working class would have been most likely to succeed, but entrenched ideological and political positions prevented this.
As Trotter puts it, those generally regarded by many on the left as the “villains” of 1951, the trade union leaders Walsh and Young along with the Labour Party leaders Fraser and Nash, sought to adapt the union movement to the “political and economic realities of corporatism”. “Their unacknowledged and unappreciated role” was, Trotter writes: “To keep the milk of Labour’s social and economic reforms, by separating out and sacrificing the cream of the labour movement.”
The book ends tantalisingly with the coming to power of the Labour-Alliance coalition on 6 December 1999. “The Left was back in power.” The “Epilogue” outlines the right’s reaction to this unwelcome (to them) turn of events. Labour’s conciliatory response showed that: “Though Labour, the Alliance and the Greens had won, New Zealand capitalism had not lost.” The coalition government “would need to emulate the strategy of the Roman general Fabius Maximus, and learn how to ‘make haste slowly’.”
The controversial judgements in No Left Turn will undoubtedly spark much debate on the left. The book will certainly attract critical commentary from the right. It will be interesting to see what labour-historian turned Tory-propagandist, Michael Basset, for one, makes of Trotter’s foray into historiography.
A further book by Chris Trotter on the twenty-first century chapter of the left-right struggle is bound to be in the offing. Let's make sure this will not conclude with a description of the victory of the right in next year’s general election. The lesson of No Left Turn is that the left must be united in struggle if we are to defeat the right.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Trotter writes: “To keep the milk of Labour’s social and economic reforms, by separating out and sacrificing the cream of the labour movement.”


Really? I thought the cream was sacrificed, and the milk lined up for later sacrifice. Trotter should have considered how effective the right-wing would have been later, if Barnes et al had been successful in 1951...

A good book, but I would have to disagree about Walsh and cronies - they were truly repulsive class traitors! The turning point in the 51 lockout was when unionists did not remove them (by force if necessary).

A similar turning point was exposed in Matt McCartens biography "Rebel in the Ranks" (pp85-86) where he relied on Labour exec's to sort out Prebble's dishonest breaches of meeting procedure Prebble had used to avoid losing reselection as Auckland Central candidate in the late 1980's.