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

Political Education

Political Education

The Wellington group's major activity besides discussion circles was a weekly Friday evening current affairs session known as the 'News-Behind-The-News'. At these meetings, started in 1940 and held in the NZEI rooms in Willis Street, 'current items of news [were] analysed and discussed by a panel of competent speaker-interpreters', such as W. B. Sutch and Martyn Finlay.43 They were, recalls Finlay, Very popular', attracting 40 or 50, and sometimes up to 100, people.44 Although the format of the 'News-Behind-The-News' sessions was unique to Wellington, they illustrate what was, despite the more ambitious aspirations of some members, the principal aim and activity of the Left Book Club in New Zealand: political education. All of the groups, with the exception of the smallest and most isolated, held public meetings on current political issues, while the regular group meetings discussed not only the Gollancz publications but subjects of general interest.

The 10 public meetings held by the Wellington group in the 1939-40 year (which attracted a combined attendance of 1150) indicate the range of topics covered: 'Spain', 'Literature and Fascism', 'The British Empire', 'Defence', 'China', 'The USA', 'The Second World War', 'War Aims', 'The Centennial', 'The Workers' Centennial' and 'India Today'. The first three public meetings organised by the Christchurch group were a lecture given by J. Kerridge on 'Religion in Russia and Germany', 'The Political Situation in England' by Ian Milner, and a lantern lecture on 'China Today' presented by G. T. Alley (Director of the Country Library Service). The Auckland group reported to the second national conference in April 1940 that the Soviet Union was the most popular topic at its group discussion meetings. The Auckland China Appeal rally was the largest public meeting held, but many of the smaller groups also performed admirably. In Ruawai, according to reports in the Left News and the Workers' Weekly, 70-100 people turned out to hear Gordon Watson speak on 'What is Socialism?', while in Gisborne 200-300 listened to a talk by returned International Brigade member Tom Spiller. Debates with the local Labour Party branch on propositions such as 'That the Labour Government at the present time is tending towards State Capitalism rather than socialism' were held by several of the groups.45

While most of these meetings focused on political events in the international sphere, deriving their material in the first place from the Left Book Club publications, New Zealand itself also formed a significant subject of Left Book page 77 Club debate. Local topics included 'Defence of New Zealand', 'New Zealand Finance', 'Lessons from the Fate of the Labour Government in Australia', 'The Centennial', 'Doctors and Social Security' and 'Fascism, Can it Happen Here?'. The Dunedin New Zealand Affairs group

drew up a programme for the detailed study of the New Zealand economic system, preparatory to the working-out of a provisional plan for a socialist New Zealand. Members of the Group are engaged in personal investigation of separate branches of industry.46

The Rangiora group, focusing its interest still closer to home, held a group meeting on 'The History and Establishment of Rangiora'. (Blackball, on the other hand, preferred the broader perspective, hosting 'a series of meetings giving [an] oudine of man's knowledge and position in the universe'.47 ) Discussion of the books themselves might also be focused on their application to New Zealand: a Wellington study course on John Strachey's A Programme for Progress directed members to supplementary reading on New Zealand economic history. In its focus on New Zealand, the Left Book Club shared with Tomorrow the object of providing a forum for much-needed debate on local political, social and economic issues.

This objective was pursued further with the publication of pamphlets. The Wellington group first raised the idea of publishing with a suggestion to the national association for a series of 'short pamphlets ... on the condition of people in New Zealand, farmers, doctors, housewives', a centennial pamphlet by J. C. Beaglehole 'bringing out certain phases of New Zealand history not referred to in official publications', and a New Zealand version of John Strachey's Why You Should Be a Socialist to be written by W. T. Doig.48 In the event, four Left Book Club pamphlets were published. All were written by active members of the club: British Foreign Policy and the Second World War by A.H. Scotney (1939), The Soviet Union and Finland by B. E. Souter (1940), New Zealand Farming. What of the Future? by J.W.D. Hall (1941) and The War Behind the War by D. M. Martin (1940). The last was withdrawn from publication in June 1940 following the author's arrest and imprisonment for chairing an anti-conscription meeting. These were short pamphlets of around six pages, priced at 3d, which showed little interest in the art of publishing but rather in stimulating public debate on topical issues and providing a medium for the expression of political opinions which was not offered by the daily press. Of the first in the series, British Foreign Policy and the Second World War, 1000 of the 1500 printed had been sold by April 1940. Other titles proposed were: 'A Socialist Programme for New Zealand' by J. S. Roscoe, 'Who Pays for War?' by S. Doig, 'Civil Liberties' by Martyn Finlay, 'The Housewife and Socialism' by Elsie Freeman and 'The Needs of the Trade Union Movement', while a 1940 page 78 conference remit from the Christchurch group suggested that an investigation be made of 'Who Owns New Zealand'.

The national committee also appointed D. M. Martin as a research officer and conducted a trial public opinion survey in Wellington on the question of conscription, the results of which were published in Tomorrow. The club's interest in this area reflected a wider movement in the 1930s. While sociology is now established as an academic discipline, and social research an integral part of marketing and industry, it was in the 1930s a new and exciting idea, and expressed the same concern with truth and reality and with social rather than individual experience that underlay the documentary-realist movement in literature and art. The Left Book Club in Britain sent its members on tours of working class areas to witness the reality of 'poverty amidst plenty', a collective version of the search for authenticity which took George Orwell to Wigan Pier and which produced the reportage novel. This interest in social documentation was epitomised by the Mass Observation Movement founded in England by anthropologist Tom Harrisson in 1937. Mass Observation engaged large numbers of volunteers in observing and recording the 'collective habits and social behaviour' of the people. The results of this activity were collated, 'without unduly prejudging or selecting', and published in book form.49

Despite the hope that 'with the co-operation of other Groups future surveys can be extended to cover the whole country',50 and plans for a nationwide questionnaire on free speech, the Wellington survey was the Left Book Club's only experiment in social research in this country. But New Zealand too had its mass observation movement, or at least the beginnings of one. In 1939 C. E. Palmer, a Wellington university lecturer in Zoology, and Philosophy graduate A. G. Bagnall formed the Group Observation Fellowship of New Zealand, the object of which was

to enlist voluntary observers in all walks of life, to record systematically their observations of the behaviour and opinions of their fellows in the community. These records are to be analysed by the central organisations and used for scientifically drawn conclusions about the life of New Zealanders.51

It is not known how many people were involved in the Fellowship or volunteered to 'observe', although a report on its activities in June 1939 lamented that 76 per cent of the members belonged to 'the Administrative and Professional groups'.52 The group's only recorded activities were a survey of public opinion on 'Hitler's speech to the Reichstag, April 28,1939', and a more ambitious:

Survey of Personal Contacts—being a research into (1) the interests of New Zealand; (2) the sociological mechanisms governing the formation and interchange of opinion; and (3) Anzac Day.53

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For the first survey 37 people were questioned and for the second operation 332 'conversations' were held and 222 people 'observed', but no results were published.

Possibly it was the war which spelled this organisation's premature demise. The Group Observation Fellowship had not been the only experiment of its kind, however. Some years earlier a Social Research Society had been formed in Christchurch. This group undertook some work on broadcasting, but reports of its progress in Tomorrow in November 1935 and April 1936 reveal no further information about its activities. A more significant development in this area was the ill-fated experiment in government-funded social research, the Social Science Research Bureau. Established in 1937, the Bureau was directed by Left Book Club author W. T. Doig, a former lecturer in Economics, and was attached to the DSIR. Unfortunately, it quickly fell foul of its sponsor, and was disestablished shortly after its controversial first publication, A Survey of the Standards of Life of New Zealand Dairy farmers (1940).54

In its primary task of political education the Left Book Club in New Zealand was following the model of its parent organisation. In Britain, the Left Book Club aimed to expose the truth behind the media and government versions of political events as a means of mobilising public opinion behind the Popular Front. It also played an important role in the publishing industry, producing cheap, informative books for a large readership in a market dominated by expensive books with a small circulation and paperbacks of the 'pulp fiction' variety.

In New Zealand the Left Book Club also responded to specifically local conditions. In part it expressed the same mistrust of a conservative press dominated by the British media and conservative political interests which was a major stimulus behind the establishment of Tomorrow. Martyn Finlay assessed the intellectual atmosphere among left and liberal circles in the late 1930s which was the context of the Left Book Club meetings and 'News-Behind-The-News' sessions:

[there was] a prevailing suspicion that there were forces at work which were not revealed generally or that could be ascertained only by literary or other detective work. So it was not so much a belief in something as a belief against something—the suspicion that there was more to British foreign policy than met the eye. It was more doubt than certainty about anything.55

To the absence of a provocative or progressive news media as the context in which the Left Book Club developed must also be added the paucity of political literature. Tomorrow welcomed the establishment of the Left Book Club in New Zealand with the comment that it 'provides us with one of the few methods of gaining reliable political information . . . where Left literature is difficult to page 80 obtain', an appreciation that was reiterated in comments from New Zealand club members in the Left News.56 The geographical isolation of New Zealand was partly responsible for this feeling of intellectual isolation, but the situation was compounded by cultural and political factors. The nature of the book trade at this time, with very few outlets for progressive literature, is discussed more fully in the next chapter. If it was difficult enough in the 1930s to buy progressive literature in Auckland or Wellington, it was much more difficult in provincial towns and rural districts. In such areas the Left Book Club provided access to political literature that was otherwise virtually unobtainable, and a medium for intellectual and social intercourse with people who shared one's political concerns. This need would have been filled to some extent, in selected areas, by the WEA's rural 'box scheme', and from the late 1930s the Country Library Service also made some literature available to rural readers, but neither of these organisations filled the political role of the Left Book Club.

A more serious impediment to the availability of political literature in these years was the existence of very stringent censorship. While restrictions on the importation of political literature under the 1920 War Regulations Continuance Act had been eased by the Labour government in 1936, another war brought renewed sensitivities and legislative measures. The Censorship and Publicity Emergency Regulations, brought into force on 1 September 1939, imposed even tighter restrictions, including within the definition of 'subversive' anything 'intended or likely to cause disaffection to His Majesty' or 'to interfere with the national effort by disruption of the morale of the civil population or armed forces'.57 An amendment to the definition of 'subversive' made under the Public Safety Emergency Regulations of February 1940 (under which Tomorrow was closed down four months later) added the clause 'likely or intended to cause undue alarm to the public ... in relation to the public safety or to the war'.58 If the legislation itself was restrictive in the scope of its definition of 'subversive', its enforcement was even more so. An ad hoc inter-departmental committee to investigate censorship practices was established by the Minister of Customs, Walter Nash, in 1940, but until that time the Comptroller of Customs followed , an indiscriminate policy of stopping anything which made reference to communism. When this committee began its work there was a backlog in Wellington alone of 143 parcels of books and pamphlets, and 183 packages of literature from the Soviet Union. It recommended for release a diverse range of books including academic studies of Marx and Marxism, such as Karl Marx by Trotsky and H. P. Adams' Karl Marx in his Earlier Writings, R. Palme Dutt's India Today, a biography of Rosa Luxembourg, and periodicals the New Statesman and Nation and New Republic. Faced with the difficulty of distinguishing between academic or educational works on Marxism and material of propagandist intent, it referred a number of titles on to the Censorship and Publicity Board.

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These included works such as The Communist Manifesto, The Poverty of Philosophy and Lenin's State and Revolution, The Post-war History of the British Working Class by Allen Hutt, and the Webbs' Soviet Communism.59

By May 1941, 91 titles had been released from suspension, but there were still 109 books and periodicals on the banned list. The Prime Minister, Peter Fraser, had declared in January 1941 that no literature deemed to be against the war effort, including communist literature, would be allowed into the country. Over time the list of proscribed books became shorter and booksellers became increasingly cautious, but the controls on literature remained both stringent and secretive throughout the war. The Censorship and Publicity Board had been established under the 1939 regulations as the supreme authority on censorship, but in reality, as historian Nancy Taylor has commented, censorship effectively passed to the Prime Minister (who chaired the board) after April 1940. In January 1941, on the same day as Fraser's declaration on communist and pacifist literature, the journal of the carpenters' union remarked that not only the British Communist Party paper the Tribune and the 'economic and political works of all Marxist classical writers', but, 'All literature originating in the Soviet Union, even a magazine dealing with the technique of fruit growing in the Arctic, has been stopped.'60 Winston Rhodes noted in May 1942, in a tone somewhere between derision and disgust, that the censor had seen fit to impound a Left Book Club tide by Sir Richard Acland ('the work of a thoroughly English liberal') and a book by H. G. Wells.61 (Challenged on this in the House the Prime Minister replied candidly that he could 'not honesdy vouch for' the censor having heard of H. G. Wells or Sir Richard Acland.62 ) Booksellers complained that New Zealand's wartime censorship was more restrictive than Britain's.

Censorship restrictions were only one manifestation of the political climate of the war years, when the People's Voice was suspended for two years and numerous charges of making, publishing or distributing 'subversive' statements were heard in the courts. Many of these were against communists but they were not the only people who found themselves on the receiving end of the government's and society's sensitivity. Conscientious objectors, and European refugees deemed 'aliens' (that is, of German nationality), suffered detention and other infringements of their liberties more extreme than were imposed in Britain. In this climate freedom of speech, not surprisingly, was a major issue of concern to the Left Book Club. The majority of remits to the club's 1940 conference, aside from those dealing with constitutional and organisational matters, focused on the issues of 'free speech and civil liberties' and 'censorship and broadcasting'. The only other issue-based remits were two against conscription, while a remit to the 1939 conference urged the government to relax its policy on acceptance of European refugees. The 1940 conference also passed a resolution stating:

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That this Conference of the N.Z. Left Book Club Association views with grave concern the existence in New Zealand of infringements of free speech and assembly, and of threats to undermine other civil liberties. It emphatically expresses its determination to maintain the Left Book Club Association as a forum for the widest possible expression of opinion.63

The Left Book Club's identification of the need for a critical literature on New Zealand, which prompted its experiments in publishing and social research, was sharpened by the restrictive conditions imposed by war.

43 LBC (Wellington group), second annual report, p.2

44 Finlay interview

45 Workers' Weekly, 5 Nov. 1937, p.3, 9 Dec. 1938, p.4; LBC (Wellington group), second annual report; Left News, Aug. 1939

46 Left News, Oct. 1938, p.1019

47 Report of National Committee . . . 1939-40: Summary of Group Reports, pp.3-4

48 Report of National Committee . . . 1939-40, p.5

49 Mass Observation (1937), quoted in S. Laing, 'Presenting "Things as They Are": John Somerfield's May Day and Mass Observation', in F. Gloversmith (ed.), Class Culture and Social Change. A New View of the 1930s. Sussex: Harvester Press, 1980, pp.153, 156

50 LBC (Wellington group), second annual report, pp.2-3

51 'Mass Observation. NZ Organisation Formed', Workers'Weekly, 5 May 1939, p.4

52 'Group Observation', Salient, 21 June 1939 (v.2, n.11), p.3

53 Ibid.

54 Tomorrow, 20 Nov. 1935 (v.2, n.4), p.16, 15 Apr. 1936 (v.2, n.20), p.26; J. H. Robb, The Life and Death of Official Social Research in New Zealand 1956-1940. Occasional Papers in Sociology and Social Work, 7. Wellington: Department of Sociology, Victoria University of Wellington, 1987

55 Finlay interview

56 Tomorrow, 26 May 1937 (v.3, n.15), p.452

57 Statutory Regulations, 1939, p.569

58 Ibid., 1940, p.63

59 The principal source for this discussion of wartime censorship is N. M. Taylor, The New Zealand People at War: The Home Front. Wellington: Historical Publications Branch, Department of Internal Affairs/ Government Printer, 1986, pp.997-1013

60 'Censorship!', Union Record 15 Jan. 1941 (v.1, n.19), p.5

61 Co-operative Book News, May 1942 (v.1, n.5), p.5

62 Quoted in Taylor, The Home Front, p.1007

63 'What is the Left Book Club?', Tomorrow, 3 Apr. 1940 (v.6, n.11), p.351