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A Popular Vision: The Arts and the Left in New Zealand 1930-1950

The Popular Front in New Zealand

The Popular Front in New Zealand

In New Zealand general public awareness of international political events in the 1930s was to some degree muted by distance, and by the distraction of internal politics, as the Labour government pulled the country at last out of the depression, introduced major legislative and social changes in its first term of office and was re-elected to a second. However, intellectual, liberal and left-wing circles reflected the course of international left politics and the development of a progressive alliance against fascism.

The Communist Party of New Zealand adopted the united front policy belatedly, due to the opposition of certain of the local Party leaders, in December 1936. A disastrous showing in the 1935 general election, in which it put up candidates for four seats, and pressure from the Communist Party of Australia, were two of the factors which prompted its delayed acceptance of the Comintern line." The main thrust of the CPNZ's united front strategy was its continuing, and unsuccessful, effort to gain affiliation with the New Zealand Labour Party. It put up no candidates in the 1938 election, and lent its public support to the reelection of the Labour government. The new strategy also involved the Party in Traction' work in organisations such as trade unions and the Workers' Educational Association, and in more closely-linked 'fraternal' organisations such as the Friends of the Soviet Union and the Spanish Medical Aid Committees. Through these channels it sought to further the immediate object of the Popular Front and its own long-term political goals. The Party newspaper, the Workers' Weekly, became the People's Voice in July 1939 (a year after a conference decision to this effect; promptness was clearly not a Party virtue). The change of name showed the development of the Party's self-image and an effort to broaden its appeal.

Party membership in New Zealand remained comparatively tiny, but it followed the pattern of other communist parties in experiencing a steady increase over the 1930s. In 1932 the CPNZ had about 80 members. In 1939 its membership was estimated at 300; in 1941, at 690.12 (Membership of the Communist Party of Great Britain rose over this period from 11,500 in 1936 to 17,500 in 1939, reaching 56,000 in 1942.13 ) These years also saw some input from the Party into cultural activity. Although there was considerably less Communist Party-generated cultural activity here than in either Australia or Britain, nevertheless the Party had a higher profile in the left-wing cultural initiatives in New Zealand in the 30s and the early 40s than its numbers alone warranted.

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The Friends of the Soviet Union was one of several 'extra-political' organisations that were established in New Zealand in the 1930s as part of the international anti-fascist movement. Although its establishment pre-dated the Popular Front, the FSU provided a medium for the conjunction of political and cultural activism, and for the intercourse of Communist Party members and fellow travellers, intellectuals and political activists, liberals and socialists, which became the basis of the united front policy. An international organisation based in Berlin, it was established in New Zealand in 1932, with 26 branches in existence by the end of the first year.14 The primary activity of the FSU in New Zealand was the distribution of information about the Soviet Union through lecture tours, the sale of literature and its monthly journal the Soviet News, as a counter to the 'slander campaigns'15 being waged against the Soviet Union by the conservative press. Although the organisation had close links with the Communist Party, and carried the underlying agenda of laying the basis for the socialist revolution in New Zealand, its public manifesto issued in 1935 was endorsed by academics, professionals and trade union leaders.16 Among those who were involved with the society, either as members of its national committee or as public supporters of its cause, were two Auckland University College professors, WA. (Arthur) Sewell of English and R.P. Anschutz of Philosophy; George Lawn, lecturer in Economics at Canterbury University College; Winston Rhodes; Alan Free, a Wellington lawyer; K. M. Baxter, Wellington and national secretary of the printing workers' union, later secretary of the Federation of Labour, and a former communist; and a handful of clergymen. The editor of the Soviet News was C. Gordon Watson, a Victoria graduate in Classics, who, along with R.A.K. Mason, is one of New Zealand's few examples in this period of the intellectual turned political activist. Watson joined the Communist Party in 1933, was elected to its national executive in 1934 and gave up the certain prospect of an academic career to devote himself to the cause of socialism, as a memoir published by the Communist Party in 1949 records. He worked full time for the FSU until 1936 when he left the Soviet News to become editor of the Workers' Weekly, and visited Russia and England in the late 30s. He was to make a greater sacrifice when he enlisted in 1942, for he was killed in action in Italy in the last year of the war.17

The New Zealand section of the FSU was active for only four years, and was not a large organisation, although its membership was considerably higher than that of the Communist Party at the same time. By mid 1933 it had by its own account about 1100 members, but in May 1935 its estimate was 800.18 The Labour Party regarded it with hostility as a tool of the Communist Party in its task of furthering the world revolution, and, along the way, of destroying the Labour Party, and in 1934 banned its members from joining the organisation. The Labour Party need hardly have worried about the FSU's real danger as a page 16 subversive organisation, although its fears of guilt-by-association may have been justified in the lead-up to election year. But the FSU was significant as an expression of the support for the Soviet Union outside the ranks of the Communist Party, and of the cooperation of the Party with the intellectual and professional liberal-left. Another indication of the political sympathies of the time is the publication in the Soviet News of two poems about Russia: 'The Plan' by Denis Glover and Tor the Litde Ones' by Frank Sargeson.19 A.R.D. Fairburn, on the other hand, gave a decidedly less than enthusiastic response to the FSU's version of 'Writers Take Sides', a questionnaire about the Soviet Union, the responses to which were published in the Soviet News in March 1935.

In the later 1930s the Spanish Medical Aid Committee performed a similar role to the Friends of the Soviet Union as a vehicle for establishing a Popular Front alliance between the Communist Party, intellectuals and the labour movement in New Zealand. The organisation was founded in Dunedin in November 1936, and over the next two years seven more branches were formed. (One of its founders was Otago University student Alex McClure, who was one of two New Zealand students killed in Spain.) Its purpose was to coordinate material support for the Republican cause in Spain, or as its motto stated, Tor Spain and Humanity'. SMAC branches held public meetings, radio appeals and film screenings (The Last Train from Madrid, Love Under Fire and Blockade) and distributed posters and leaflets. Aid for Spain was also collected in New Zealand by non-partisan organisations such as the Red Cross and the Salvation Army, the National Relief Fund for Spanish Refugee Children, and through international fundraising efforts such as the Quaker Spanish Relief Fund. But the Spanish Medical Aid Committee was the most active and the most broadly-based of the relief organisations. Despite its being strongly supported by the Communist Party and quickly labelled a 'Communist front', trade union officials, academics and professionals were active members, and in contrast with the FSU it enjoyed the public support of a handful of Labour MPs (although not the official endorsement of the Labour Party, which set up its own relief fund in competition). Its national president until June 1938 was Dunedin Labour MP D. G. McMillan. Branches elected Popular Front-styled executives. The Dunedin committee's secretary was Ted Hunter, a union official and member of the Labour Party, and later of the Communist Party. In Wellington the president of the SMAC was Victoria University College lecturer in History, J.C. Beaglehole; its chairman was an official of the Dairy Workers' Union, C.H. Gough; and its secretary a Communist Party and FSU member and president of the National Council ofWorking Women, Elizabeth McGowan. Academics such as Winston Rhodes (secretary of the Christchurch branch), Willis Airey, R.P. Anschutz, Arthur Sewell and Horace Belshaw, and Labour MPs including A. Martyn Finlay, Ormond Wilson and Elizabeth McCombs were publicly associated with page 17 the organisation, and it was officially endorsed by the trade union movement (which provided the bulk of its financial support). Its material achievement was sending three New Zealand nurses to Spain and funding an ambulance and a field laundry truck.20

12 N.M.Taylor, The New Zealand People at War: The Home Front. Wellington: Historical Publications Branch, Department of Internal Affairs/Government Printer, 1986, p.211; Hasler, 'New Zealand Communists', p.55

13 J. Klugmann, 'The Crisis of the Thirties: A View from the Left', in J. Clark et al (eds.), Culture and Crisis in Britain in the Thirties. London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1979, p.27

14 Rhodes, New Zealand and the Soviet Union. An Historical Account of the NZ-USSR Society. Auckland: New Zealand-USSR Society, 1979, p.3

15 Objects of the Friends of the Soviet Union (New Zealand), quoted in ibid., p.4

16 The manifesto was printed in Soviet News, Mar. 1935 (v.3, n.10), p.2

17 C. G. Watson, Gordon Watson, New Zea-lander: 1912-45. His Life and Writings. Ed. and with an introduction by E. Locke. Auckland: New Zealand Communist Party, 1949

18 Soviet News, June 1933 (v.1, n.12), p.[2], June 1935 (v.4, n.2), p. [2]

19 Ibid., Oct. 1935 (v.4, n.5 & 6), p.20, Feb. 1935 (v.3, n.9), p.14

20 Skudder, '"Bringing It Home"', ch.6 & 7; Taylor, The Home Front, pp.10-11