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


page 138
W. B. Sutch, Poverty and Progress in New Zealand, Modern Books, 1941

W. B. Sutch, Poverty and Progress in New Zealand, Modern Books, 1941

page 139

In contrast with the long, if uncertain, history of the cooperative book societies, the Progressive Publishing Society had a brief but spectacular life. A joint publishing venture of the Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch societies, it was founded in 1941 with a capital of £250. It went into liquidation three years later with debts of £2482 and 65 publications to its credit.

The Wellington Co-operative Book Society had remarked in 1938 on the 'enormous . . . part that such a Society could play in the establishing of an independent New Zealand culture'.1 The prospectus of the Progressive Book Society also observed that 'so far no attempt has been made to publish any of the pamphlets that are so badly needed in New Zealand.'2 Progressive Books did not follow up this observation, but before the establishment of the PPS both the Wellington and Christchurch societies had ventured into publishing independently on a modest scale. The WCBS had been the first into print. In 1939 it published The Policy of Import Selection by J. B. Sutch, an article reprinted from the New Zealand Financial Times. A second article by Sutch, on The New Zealand Social Security Act, was reprinted for the society that year by Melbourne University Press. In 1941 Standards of Living, Wages and Prices, a pamphlet by Horace Belshaw, was published by Modern Books in cooperation with the New Zealand Institute of International Affairs. The Wellington society's most substantial independent effort, however, was Sutch's Poverty and Progress in New Zealand (1941), which had been commissioned as one of the centennial Historical Surveys series but was rejected (for reasons which are discussed later in this chapter). It had also investigated publishing two further manuscripts offered to it in 1939: F. L. Combs' Little Ann (essays on educational subjects, published by Whitcombe and Tombs in 1940) and an essay by Ian Mackay. Mackay and Combs were both to be founding members of the PPS. It appears that Modern Books' move into publishing was prompted in some part by the desires of its page 140 own members to have their work published—Sutch in particular, perhaps, who was one of the main initiators of the publishing society—along with the general interest in publishing New Zealand literature.

The Christchurch society published six pamphlets in 1941-2: The Military Strength of the Soviet Union by Winston Rhodes and Harold Fenton ('not only issued by the Co-operative Book Society but. . . written in a co-operative way'3 ); War over the Pacific by Winston Rhodes; Rich and Poor in New Zealand by W. T. Doig; The Soviet Constitution with a foreword by Rhodes; Cartoons from 'Tomorrow' by Kennaway Henderson; and The Traitor Class by Ivor Montagu which was reprinted under licence from Lawrence and Wishart for Australasia. Other titles under consideration were: 'Industrial Co-operatives in China' by James Bertram and Rewi Alley; a study of industrial and political development in Australia by Ian Milner; 'Japan Strikes Back' by Winston Rhodes; 'Who Owns New Zealand?'; 'Medical Benefits'; a history of the New Zealand labour movement; an 'exposure of the American Meat Trusts' by R.A.K. Mason; William Robertson on Onekaka; and New Zealand reprints of Together Against Hitlerby D. N. Pritt and Health and Medicine in the U.S.S.R. by Eva Black. (The society declined an offer of a manuscript on incendiary bombs.)

The formation of the publishing society followed moves to coordinate generally the work of the co-op bookshops. In 1939 a conference of the shop managers was held and a book token scheme involving the three shops and Paul's Book Arcade was announced later that year. At a second conference in Easter the following year cooperation in publishing as well as in buying and advertising was suggested by the Christchurch society, but only joint advertising resulted. The extension into publishing was again mooted in April 1941 in correspondence between Progressive Books and the Caxton Press, and the Wellington and Christchurch societies. The organisation proposed at this stage was to be called the New Zealand Publishing Society and was to involve the Caxton Press and Paul's Book Arcade as well as the three cooperative book societies.

An interim committee of the New Zealand Co-operative Publishing Society, as its name became, was set in place by mid 1941. It was convened by F. L. Combs, editor of school publications for the Department of Education and former vice-principal of Wellington Teachers' Training College (1936-40). The other committee members were Sutch, R.F. Griffin, Jane Souter of Christchurch, Ian Gordon, an expatriate Scot and recently appointed Professor of English at Victoria University College, and broadcasting executive Ian Mackay. Progressive Books and the Caxton Press each committed £50 in shares to the project and Modern Books pledged £50 with a guarantee of another £50 to come. The Christchurch society at this stage welcomed the formation of an organisation which would have 'the objective of co-ordinating the publishing activities of New Zealand progressives' and would undertake 'the distribution of the more page 141 popular types of radical literature for mass consumption', but it felt unable to contribute share capital due to its own financial difficulties.4 It also expressed concern about potential overlap with its own publications. More importantly, reservations of a political nature about the proposed society also played a part in Christchurch's initial reluctance to become involved, prefiguring the conflict between the PPS and the Christchurch, and to a lesser extent Auckland, societies which would later develop. The minutes of the WCBS committee in July 1941 record that Christchurch had advised that it was only prepared to subscribe shares 'if a guarantee were given that cheap working-class pamphlets only would be published',5 and in December that year the Christchurch board expressed its dissatisfaction over the first publications of the new society (although on precisely what grounds the minutes do not elaborate). Apparendy in response to these concerns, the publishing society informed the Christchurch board in March 1942 that the individual member societies would retain the right to commission writers and publish independently any manuscript rejected by the central body. The CCBS eventually voted in March to cease its own publishing programme and in June 1942 to subscribe shares in the society.

Publishing got underway in late 1941 with the first three of a series of pamphlets on aspects of post-war reconstruction, published in cooperation with the New Zealand Institute of International Affairs. This organisation had recendy published a similar series of essays and begun a monthly bulletin in cyclostyled form; W. B. Sutch was a member of its editorial committee. In late 1942 Christchurch Co-op Bookshop manager Harold Fenton was appointed manager of the society. Organisational plans received a minor set-back, however, when the society was denied registration under the Industrial and Provident Societies Act 1908, having fewer than the minimum of seven members required to form a cooperative organisation. It was therefore formally constituted as a partnership of the three co-op book societies early in 1943 as the Progressive Publishing Society. The Dunedin Co-operative Book Society did not legally join the partnership, although it intended to do so (it was not itself officially registered until April 1945, only three months before the PPS collapsed). The Caxton Press and Paul's Book Arcade, meanwhile, had been excluded from the venture by a policy decision to include only cooperative booksellers. In this respect, perhaps, the society's left-wing ideals prevailed over its broader interest in New Zealand publishing.

The structure of the Progressive Publishing Society followed the democratic organisation of its three partners. A nine member committee responsible for overall management was elected annually by a conference of delegates from the three co-op bookshops which represented the final controlling body of the society. A range of sub-committees included a selection committee which 'was assisted by a panel of about sixty readers specially qualified in various fields'.6

page 142

Membership of the society was obtained by taking out a share in one of the cooperative book societies; a percentage of each new share would be transferred automatically to the publishing society unless otherwise directed. Membership, at £1, was 'open to all and beyond the reach of none'.7 The PPS initially chose as its logo Kiwi Books, but finding that this was already in use setded instead for Tiki Books.

The purpose of the organisation was not simply to be the publication of progressive literature. Progressive Books' manager Arthur Jackson-Thomas outlined a more detailed proposal for an organisation which would coordinate the work of the bookshops in the areas of buying, wholesale trading, national distribution, printing and the establishment of new shops:

To have a finger in practically every bookshop and news-stand in the country should be worth some trouble. If the job were done in a workmanlike manner the Society should within a reasonable period be in dominant position in the book trade in this country. If this position were attained it would seem to be of some advantage to the country to have a body which has a sense of social responsibility pre-selecting its literary fare.8

The Co-operative Book News also looked forward to the day when 'every district in New Zealand has its own Co-op. Bookshop'.9 In addition to its publishing programme the PPS took over the production of the Christchurch newsletter, which was renamed Co-op Books (after August 1944 this was published in four regional editions with local advertising and shop news), and coordinated importing and distribution for the co-op bookshops, holding the New Zealand agency for several progressive overseas publishers—International Publishers (USA), Lawrence and Wishart, Kniga, the Fabian Society (London), Current Book Distributors (Sydney) and International Book Party Ltd (Melbourne), and distributing New Zealand periodicals In Print, the Rationalist and John A. Lee's Weekly. It also investigated employing agents in London and America. Long-term plans included the establishment of a printing press, the publication of a monthly progressive review 'intended as a national forum for current topics' (a proposal initiated by the Christchurch society and clearly modelled on Tomorrow), undertaking research into 'Sociological problems', literary competitions, the establishment of new shops, and discussion circles based on the society's publications, which, the manager hoped, 'in turn, would affect profoundly the political future of this country.'10

Of these plans only the literary competition came to fruition. A novel and short story competition was launched in June 1944, with prizes offered of £100 and £15 respectively. Details of the nature and number of the entries are not recorded in Co-op Books, and unfortunately the manuscripts are not among the surviving PPS papers. The winner of the short story section, which was judged page 143 by Oliver Duff, editor of the New Zealand Listener, WJ. Scott and Winston Rhodes, was Anton Vogt with 'The Accident'. The novel competition was to be judged by Professor W.A. Sewell, G. H. Scholefield, the Parliamentary Librarian; and Professor G. von Zedlitz of Victoria University College; the results had not been announced when the society folded. It was also hoped to be able to pay higher than standard royalties which would enable New Zealand writers to make a living out of their writing. However, the society's marginal financial situation allowed it to start offering royalty payments only at the end of 1943, and initially not on all books published.

By 1944 the PPS claimed to have 'two thousand odd members'11 —a figure which probably represented the total membership of the cooperative book societies rather than the publishing society alone. In the absence of complete records it is not possible to assess the social composition of its membership. But in its management the publishing society reflected its Wellington and WCBS base in its strongly professional-academic character and the absence of any trade union or WEA representation. W. B. Sutch was its first chairman. Its first elected committee, chosen in May 1943, was chaired by A.H. O'Keefe, former chairman of Progressive Books and recendy-elected president of the New Zealand Public Service Association. The other members of the committee were: R. F. Griffin; Ian Mackay (chairman 1944-5); journalists Les Edwards and H. L. Verry, the latter a member of the Communist Party; R. A. McKay, a printer; public servant and Wellington Left Book Club executive member, M. L. Boyd; and controversial radio personality 'Uncle Scrim', alias the Reverend C.G, Scrimgeour, who was also a member of the WCBS management committee in 1941-3. Other members of the PPS executive at different times included: J. C. Beaglehole; WJ. Scott; Jane Finlay; William Robertson; Hubert Henderson; Blackwood Paul; Janet Wilkinson (later Paul) who worked for the War History Branch of the Department of Internal Affairs; Ron Meek, a former student at Victoria and then research officer for the PSA, and a Communist Party member; R. S. Parker, Professor of Political Science at Victoria College; L. D. Webster, a journalist; Wellington teachers' college lecturers A.J.D. Barker and Ray Chapman-Taylor; J. L. Ewing of the Department of Education; Jack Lewin, vice-president of the PSA from 1944 to 1946 (and president in 1946-51); Tahu Shankland, a broadcaster and Unity Theatre member; S. Hirschfield, a manufacturer; and economist Wolfgang Rosenberg as the society's accountant. The society's selection committee, its chairman, R. F. Griffin, noted, included 'a woman teacher of qualifications', a university lecturer, a solicitor 'with positive political views', an accountant 'who is also a secretary in high places', an advertising manager, a journalist and two booksellers.12

page 144

Like the cooperative book societies the Progressive Publishing Society was established as a practical experiment in cultural democracy. It was to be 'a cooperative democracy in publishing':13 a non-profit making, popularly-owned, democratically-run publishing company, committed to the publication of progressive and New Zealand literature. A promotional booklet entitled Freedom to Publish. Evidence in a Case for Appeal, distributed free to prospective members as part of a membership campaign in 1944, outlined the motivation behind its formation. Prefaced by a quotation from Milton's Areopagitica on the moral and spiritual worth of literature, it argued that a genuine freedom of the press depended not only on the absence of censorship—of, that is, the privilege of those in control of the press to say what they choose—but on access for all to the medium of print. While 'the printing presses of the world are operated by only a minute percentage of the world's people' and the decisions even of liberally-minded publishers are dictated by profit the 'mute inglorious Miltons and the village Hampdens are only mute because no-one will take a risk on their glory'. The sole reason the co-op bookshops were not stocking many New Zealand books was that there were so few being published. 'New Zealand literature languished for want of publishers' and the Progressive Publishing Society would fill this need by publishing on the principle not of profit but of 'worth'. It was to be a publishing society which 'is owned by the people and ... publishes for the people'.14

The implicit connection in theoretical terms between the socialist and 'nationalist' ideals which inspired the Progressive Publishing Society is suggested most explicitly in a statement by W. B. Sutch in the Co-operative Book News:

It's a strange thing—or is it?—that the publications read by New Zealanders are either predominandy produced in another country or are the newspapers belonging to the most conservative groups in this country. Those in the first category are not of New Zealand while those in the second represent only a fraction of New Zealanders.15

Both socialist and nationalist ideals here contain a populist element, in the vision of a culture which is owned by the people. Sutch also saw the PPS as realising a synthesis of left-wing and nationalist ideals in terms of the nature of its publications. New Zealand, he argued, was urgendy lacking in literature that would 'venture to analyse or to describe the New Zealand people and New Zealand institutions.' Until this time, with the exception of the Caxton Press and occasional publications of the individual cooperative bookshops, New Zealand publishers

have published text-books (of a kind), books on birds or Maoris, or missionaries, occasionally an adventure story. . . . even our radical literature is produced page 145 mainly overseas.... we all know so little about New Zealand. For example has anyone yet written a 'Tory M.P.' or a 'Traitor Class' on this country?16

It was Sutch's intention that the society would stimulate a progressive New Zealand literature of this kind. Freedom to Publish also expressed a progressive political purpose in this sense, although in broader terms, addressing its appeal to 'all those who believe in the future of New Zealand literature, who prefer progress to reaction, who care more for the welfare of the people than for the status quo'.17

But just as the cooperative book societies represented a range of interests and sought to maintain a balance between literary and political priorities, so the Progressive Publishing Society heard a parallel debate between 'New Zealand' and 'left'. The society was perceived as, alternatively, a commitment to the publication of good New Zealand literature generally, or more specifically as a publisher of left-wing literature. The two visions were not always harmoniously combined. Ultimately, though, it was not internal division which was responsible for the society's premature end. Nor was it any lack of a need for a publishing society of the PPS's philosophical principles and interests. Its failure was the result of the same economic and market limitations encountered by the cooperative book societies, compounded by excess of enthusiasm and lack of management expertise.

1 New Zealand Co-operative Book Society, Ltd. 'Meeting Books on New Terms', 1938. Roth collection

2 Progressive Books Ltd. Prospectus, 1937. Robert Lowry Papers. Ms Papers A-194: box 1, folder 4. University of Auckland Library

3 Chairman's report, Oct. 1941. Christchurch Co-operative Book Society. Minute books, 1938-1970. Acc 90-259. Alexander Turnbull Library

4 Ibid.; 'Urgent Appeal for Action', Cooperative Book News, Sept. 1942 (v.1, n.9), p.1; Wellington Co-operative Book Society Ltd. Management committee minutes, 12 May 1941. Wellington Co-operative Book Society Ltd. Papers, 1938-1970. Ms Papers 1122: box 5/1. Alexander Turnbull Library

5 Ibid., 14 July 1941

6 'Democracy in Action', Co-op Books, Apr. 1944 (v.1, n.6), p.1

7 [Progressive Publishing Society], Freedom to Publish. Evidence in a Case for Appeal Christchurch, Auckland, etc: Whitcombe and Tombs, 1944, p.12. Neither the Progressive Publishing Society nor the cooperative book societies appear to have been modelled on similar organisations overseas. It is possible that the Fellowship of Australian Writers was aware of the recent formation of the PPS when it established a Co-operative Publishing Company in 1943. However, this organisation did not get off the ground. See J. Devanny, Point of Departure. The Autobiography of Jean Devanny. Ed. C. Ferrier. St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1986, pp.261-3

8 'Proposed Bookshop Society', [1942], pp.[3-4].WCBS Papers: 3

9 'ACo-operative Bookshop Union', CBN, Jan. 1942 (v.1, n.2),p.4

10 Freedom to Publish, p.14; CB, Nov. 1943 (v.1, n.1), p.6; H. E. Fenton, The New Order, Ourselves, Education and the Cooperative BookSocieties', CBN, Sept. 1942 (v.1, n.9), p.2

11 Freedom to Publish, p.8

12 R. F. Griffin, 'SelectingManuscripts', CB, Sept. 1944 (v.1, n.11), p. [6]. As surviving PPS records are incomplete, the full executive membership of the society is not known.

13 Freedom to Publish, p.5

14 Ibid., pp.4, 7,14

15 W. B. Sutch, 'National Co-operative Publishing. Joint Action by Bookshops', CBN, Feb. 1943 (v.1, n.3), p.3

16 Ibid., p.4

17 Freedom to Publish, p.11