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

War and Peace

War and Peace

The Spanish Civil War had generated enthusiasm and political optimism within the left, inspiring the hope of the imminent triumph of socialism over fascism throughout Europe. But by the end of 1938 the atmosphere was rapidly changing. As the civil war dragged on, and the liberal democratic governments seemed unable, or unwilling, to check the encroachments of Hitler in Europe, the political fervour was counterbalanced by a growing pessimism. Franco's official victory in March 1939 only confirmed what had for some time been apparent. The mobilisation of international socialist forces, in the form of the International Brigade and the material support provided by organisations like the New Zealand Spanish Medical Aid Committees, had been unable to counter the power of international fascism. It was now becoming clear that, in terms of its immediate political objectives—intervention by the western democratic powers in Spain and a collective security agreement between Britain, France and the Soviet Union—the Popular Front had failed. In Europe, first Austria and then Czechoslovakia were sacrificed for the wishful but misguided policy of appeasement.

Disillusionment on the left was compounded by the non-aggression pact between Germany and the Soviet Union which was signed in August 1939. After its initial bewilderment the Communist Party explained away the pact on tactical grounds: with the failure of collective security, Russia had been forced into an alliance with Hitler in the interests of self-preservation. The argument of justified self-protection was later advanced in defence of the Soviet Union's actions in eastern Poland and Finland. A more reasoned explanation was that the pact was consistent with the Soviet Union's policy of collective security and its opposition to the war plans of the imperialist powers. Despite this retrospective rationalisation, however, the German-Soviet pact had had its effect in undermining the political certainties of the Popular Front period and the breadth of support for the Soviet Union within the wider progressive movement.

The Popular Front strategy lost further ground with the communist movement's conftised reaction to the war when it finally came. This time the New Zealand Communist Party faithfully followed the policy directive of the Comintern. At first it declared its support for the war, but only a month later, in October, did an about-face and came out in opposition, reverting to the earlier 'imperialist war' analysis. This position was maintained until mid 1941. Among page 18 Party members and sympathisers this was for many a time of confusion, of 'historical disorientation'. In the words of one member of the Australian Communist Party: The thing we had fought for, talked for, written for—the stand against fascism—was now a reality... and the Soviet Union was not part of it'.21

The actual membership of the Communist Party in New Zealand was not adversely affected by these vacillations in policy, and sales of the People's Voice took a dramatic leap in the first months of the war: from 6760 in July 1939 to 8300 at the beginning of November, and to over 10,000 in February 1940.22 But the Party's anti-war stance compromised to some degree its position within broader progressive and liberal circles, and did nothing to advance its campaign for affiliation with the Labour Party. A broad, inclusive anti-fascist alliance of the Popular Front kind was no longer tenable while the Communist Party refused to support a war against Hitler. It was also completely out of step with government policy and general community feeling. In 1940-1 communists, and pacifists, bore the brunt of the government's new-found powers under wartime emergency regulations to curtail freedom of speech in the interests of public morale and army recruitment. Local councils withdrew permits for street meetings in Wellington and Christchurch, and throughout the country public meetings were disrupted as both communist and pacifist speakers were arrested on charges of subversion. While the communist movement thus found itself further isolated from the political mainstream, the everyday social disruptions of wartime contributed further to a dissolution of the level of left-wing political and cultural activity of the late 1930s.

The communists did not remain in the political wilderness for long, however. In Australia the Communist Party's opposition to the war had led to its being banned between June 1940 and December 1942. In New Zealand an order declaring the Party a subversive organisation was drafted in early 1941, but was not immediately put into effect. In July 1941 the Attorney General advised the Commissioner of Police that the proposed banning order would be deferred, in the expectation that with Russia's recent entry into the war the communists would begin to behave themselves.23 When Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, the Party revised its policy once again, admitting its mistake in not initially perceiving the anti-fascist nature of the war, and now declaring its total support for the allied war effort and for the opening of a second front in Europe. The next two years saw a resurgence of the anti-fascist fervour of the 1930s, which reached its peak with the prolonged siege of Stalingrad from which the German army was finally turned back in November 1942, and a renewal of Popular Front-style cultural activity. Membership of the CPNZ rose dramatically: from an estimated 690 in 1941 to 1700-1800 in 1943 and perhaps 2000 by mid 1944.24

page 19

Russia's entry into the war had brought Communist Party policy into line with the war aims of the allied governments, and the Party now became, if not quite respectable, tolerated to a greater degree than it had ever been before. (This tolerance did not, however, extend to the People's Voice which was suppressed from July 1941 to July 1943, to be replaced by RAK. Mason's 'non-Party' In Print and several underground, mimeographed editions of the People's Voice) Within the labour movement and in the public mind generally, hatred or fear of communism was modified, for the time being, by respectful gratitude to the Russian people for their heroic effort in turning back the armies of fascism, and relieving the military pressure from the British and French forces in western Europe.

The Society for Closer Relations with Russia, formed in July 1941, provides a measure of the change in the political climate in the years 1941-4. The New Zealand Friends of the Soviet Union had to all effects collapsed as a national organisation at the end of 1936 (although some branches continued to be active). A combination of factors had brought about its demise, including Gordon Watson's resignation as editor of the Soviet News, the diversion of Labour's success in the 1935 election, and the impact of the Trotsky trials which prompted some resignations from the national executive. The Society for Closer Relations with Russia was formed only a month after the Soviet Union's entry into the war, following a private meeting in Wellington called by Labour MP Horace Herring and an inaugural public meeting on 21 July which was chaired by the member for Dunedin and speaker of the House, W.E. Barnard, and addressed by the MP for Nelson, Harry Atmore. By September 1944 it had 35 branches (some replacing existing Aid for Russia Committees). Although, like the FSU, it was supported by the Communist Party, the SCR emphatically declared itself to be non-sectarian and non-partisan, organisationally and ideologically: 'The S.C.R. ... is not committed to Marxianism, and consequendy is not called upon to justify the existence of the Soviet system.'25 Its constitution defined its primary aim as the promotion of 'closer cultural, diplomatic and economic relations between the New Zealand people and the people of the USSR'.26 (The statement 'To do everything to help secure victory against the Nazis and Fascist aggressors' was removed in a revision of the constitution shortly after the end of the war.) It sought to achieve its objectives through lecture tours and public meetings, screening Russian films {Mission to Moscow, Moscow Strikes Back, The Battle for Russia, Soviet Women at War and the like) both at its own meetings and through commercial cinemas, and through its journal the New Zealand Soviet Bulletin, and it lobbied the government for the opening of diplomatic relations between New Zealand and the Soviet Union. It organised a Seeds for Russia campaign and supported other relief efforts such as 'Mrs Churchill's "Aid to Russia" Fund' and a clothing appeal organised by the National Patriotic Fund page 20 Board (the SCR contributed with a knitting campaign). The Christchurch branch held weekly Russian language classes. The SCR also published occasional pamphlets, the first of which was the text of C. G. Scrimgeour's last 'Man in the Street' radio broadcast, entitled You and the Soviet Union. 'Scrim' became an executive member of the society.

A few years earlier the Labour Party had banned its members from joining the FSU; the president and vice presidents of the national executive of the SCR were one ex-Labour and two Labour Members of Parliament: Barnard (who had followed John A. Lee out of the Labour Party in 1940), Harry Atmore and Clyde Carr. At the first public meeting of the society held in Wellington in August 1941 the Internationale was played alongside the New Zealand national anthem and speeches were made by Reverend Percy Paris, a Methodist clergyman, and W. H. Gould, Professor of Education at Victoria College. The inaugural meeting in Christchurch later that month was chaired by the city's mayor, and addressed by Harry Atmore, union leader John Roberts and Winston Rhodes. Donors to the Christchurch branch's seeds campaign included organisations as diverse as the Canterbury Federation of Women's Institutes, the Women's Division of Federated Farmers, the New Brighton Trotting Club, several branches of the New Zealand Returned Services Association, and the Christchurch City Council. Perhaps a more remarkable sign of public recognition of the Soviet Union in response to the heroic efforts of the Red Army was when the RSA, bastion of conservatism and militaristic patriot-ism, sent a message of support to the Russian ambassador in London in November 1941. A year later, as Stalingrad valiandy held out under siege by the German army, Russia's national day, which the New Zealand Communist Party always faithfully celebrated, was publicly observed: officially sponsored functions were held and the Red Flag was flown from civic buildings. By the end of 1943, with the crisis passed, passions had cooled somewhat, but 7 November was marked by a message of gratitude to the Soviet government from New Zealand's Deputy Prime Minister.

By mid 1944 the end of the war seemed at last to be in sight, and attention focused on the coming peace. The subject of post-war reconstruction was widely debated in the left-wing press in New Zealand as elsewhere, and confidence in the possibilities of a social reorganisation on socialist lines was high. These hopes were not to be met. In the immediate post-war years reconstruction of a more immediate kind occupied both governments and people. War shortages lingered to the end of the decade and also hindered any prospect of major social changes. Within the left, the widespread radicalism of the 1930s and early 1940s quickly receded, and the progressive alliance forged in the interests of anti-fascist unity did not hold. By November 1948, 23 branches of the SCR (which had now page 21 changed its official title to the New Zealand Society for Closer Relations with the USSR) had either folded or existed in name only. From the late 1940s the Stalinist regime was no longer held in the uncritical admiration of 10 years earlier (although it retained the allegiance of the Communist Party for some time to come). Rising living standards in New Zealand from the late 1940s, combined with the frustration of continuing wartime restrictions on consumer goods, contributed to the country's disenchantment with the Labour government, which was voted out of office in 1949, and did not provide so fruitful a recruiting ground for the left as had the depression and the Popular Front years. And after the heady days of the early 1940s, public and government reaction to the Communist Party and fellow travellers changed swiftly and radically. In 1947 the Labour Party imposed a ban on its members joining the SCR (three of that organisation's national executive members were thereby forced to resign) and Robert Semple published his Why I Fight Communism pamphlet. SCR conferences and reports made frequent comment on the 'hysterical' and 'carefully organised campaign against the U.S.S.R'.27 The Cecil Holmes 'satchel affair' in 1949, which had an element of farce as well as serious political implications, was only one example of the government's efforts to discredit the trade union movement (in this case the New Zealand Public Service Association) by accusing it of being communist-led.28 The chill of the Cold War was beginning to be felt.

Some of the cultural activities which were generated in New Zealand by the heightened atmosphere of the Popular Front and Stalingrad years did not survive the war and its aftermath. Others survived throughout the 1940s and beyond. They were to reflect in their development these changing political conditions, as well as post-war social and cultural changes in New Zealand.

21 Carter, 'The Attitude of the New Zealand Communist Party to Foreign Affairs 1930-41'. MPhil research essay, University of Auckland, 1981; '"History was on our side"', p.116

22 Hasler, 'New Zealand Communists', p.64; Taylor, The Home Front, p.212

23 Ibid., p.223

24 Hasler,'New Zealand Communists', p.55

25 New Zealand Soviet Bulletin, Jan.-Feb. 1946 (v.1, n.1), p.4

26 New Zealand Society for Closer Relations with the USSR. Constitution. New Zealand Society for Closer Relations with the USSR. Lower Hutt Branch. Records, 1945-1946. Ms Papers 3826. Alexander Turnbull Library

27 NZSCR, Wellington branch. Newsletter, 3 Mar. 1948; Christchurch branch annual report, 1947-8. NZSCR. Christchurch Branch. Executive minutes and other papers. H. W. Rhodes. Private collection

28 Cecil Holmes was a PSA delegate at the National Film Unit. When a satchel containing a membership card and other papers identifying him, and implicating PSA president Jack Lewin, as Communist Party members was uplifted from his car by a senior public servant in the Prime Minister's department, the papers found their way into the hands of F. P. Walsh and from there to Walter Nash and the press. Holmes was dismissed by the Public Service Commission (he was later reinstated) and Lewin retained his office only through the intervention of the Prime Minister. H. O. Roth, Remedy for Present Evils. A History of the New Zealand Public Service Association from 1890. Wellington: NZPSA, 1987, pp.124-5