Salient. An Organ of Student Opinion at Victoria University College, Wellington N.Z. Vol. 20, No. 13. September 12, 1957
Victoria Story (6) — Politics and War Overshadowed the 30's
Victoria Story (6)
Politics and War Overshadowed the 30's
Contemporary currents of political thought have always found vocal expression at V.U.C. And the noisiest impact of the slump on our ivied walls was its indirect impact through its influence on political thinking.
The rival solutions to the economic and social ills advanced by privilege and democracy led to dashes of varying intensity all over the globe. New Zealand Labour, in the wake of Roosevelt's Democrats, won a resounding victory on the slogan "Social Security," in Spain and the Far East the curtain-raisers of Fascism's bloody onslaught on enlightenment began.
The stream of cheaply-priced and often well-written political literature from the Lett Book Club, Penguin Books, and the rest, stimulated a new interest in ideas.
A Labour Club was formed at V.U.C. in 1934 (not affiliated to the Labour Party, but owing a wider allegiance to "socialism and the working class movement"), and the Free Discussions Club enjoyed a new political heyday. An Anti-war Movement was formed as a joint offshoot of the Labour Club and the S.C.M., and ran a Peace Ballot, screened Bob Sample's famous anti-war lantern-slides, and organised a lending library of pacifist and Leftist books and pamphlets.
Subjects argued in the Debating Society that year included Japanese expansion, the desirability of dictatorship, and Imperial defence—the latter the visitors' debate, with Peter Fraser on the platform. The 1936 visitors' debate was the first occasion on which V.U.C. recorded a motion of confidence in a Government. With John A. Lee and J. G. Coates as guests of honour, the College affirmed its overwhelming support for Labour.
The S.C.M. reflected the general political upsurge and became dubbed the "Slightly Christian Movement." It was largely this infection which prompted the formation of the E.U. at that time. A programme including Walter Nash on 'Problems of the Pacific," Lex Miller on "Dialectical Materialism," and a study circle led by Professor Wood on international relations, could not be expected to appeal to conservative fundamentalists.
The Literary Society took to discussing "social realism," and subscribed to the Moscow journal "International Literature."
The Drama Club produced "journey's End" and "Till the Day I Die." and heard Max Riske on "Plays and Films I Saw in Russia."
The year 1937 saw the first of Ronald L. Meek's Extravaganzas—which continued with [unclear: crescending] success until "Peter in Blunderland" in 1945. These shows set the tone for all the best V.U.C. Extravs. since—bitingly satirical political allegories with a left-wing perspective and scintillatingly witty lyrics.
By 1938 the Labour Club. Free Discussions Club, and Anti war Movement all seem to have withered away. But that year saw the establishment of a more lasting mouthpiece for V.U.C.'s social and moral conscience—"Salient."
The history of student journalism at this college is a fairly faithful mirror of the history of significant trends in student thought.
"Smad" (named from the initial letters of V.U.C.'s motto), which first appeared monthly when "Spike" was changed from a half-yearly to an annual in 1930, chronicled the ebb and flow of political controversy. "Smad" saw it as no part of its duty to comment on student activities or the influence on students of the march of human affairs. When it became weekly in 1935 "to allow discussion of current topics." a more enlightened view momentarily prevailed. But by 1937 its vision had shortened and its outlook narrowed, its pages had become cluttered with dull narratives of club proceedings without comment, its tone was one of "Olympian isolation."
The editorial committee who took over in 1936 did so with a new policy and a new name. "Smad" and its policy died. "Salient" was born with (to quote its first editorial) "a policy which [unclear: ns] to link the University more closely with the realities of the world."
The policy of the first two editors (A. H. Scotney and Derek Freeman) was maintained for more than a decade—in fact, it has prevailed, with aberrant moments, up till the present. It was most characteristically expressed in Freeman's verse:
"Send out, 'Salient,' the swift satiric point
To smart the sluggard mind awake. While freedom anywhere in bonds is pent
No compromise with falseness make.
Those freed today, tomorrow forth may leap
Some further outpost there to take and keep."
That may sound hopelessly starry-eyed to a more cynical generation. But it epitomises the crusading spirit of the '30's which found a voice in the early "Salient."
The Spanish War, Munich, social security. Labour's education programme, the place of New Zealand in Hitler's world-strategy (as seen through the eves of Count von Luckner), student confidence in the Government (as still reflected in the 1939 visitors' debate between Dr. McMillan and Mr. S. G. Holland) . . . these were the issues about which the Left got excited and which filled "Salient" in those days.
It did not fail to evoke a reaction from what "Spike" described as "the usual group of noisy students." Persistent objections to "Salient's" policy by this group, though rebuffed by a vote of confidence in the editors at the 1939 Stud. Ass. A.G.M., led to the editorship being voluntarily passed to the chief critic W.S. Mitchell) for two, issues. The tone and content of these is not recognisable different—evidently the majority of contributions tended in one direction, and a conservative editor found his job rather heavy going against the current.
War came—fulfilling repeated left-wing warnings of the inevitable fruits of appeasement. The early war period saw heated discussions on the extent of legitimate civil rights in wartime, and on conscription and pacifism. A "Society for the Discussion of Peace, War. and Civil Liberties" was formed, and the President of the Stud. Ass. had to resign his post when he was sent to a military defaulters' camp.
"Truth" kept up the attack with a blazing article headed: "Stop the Red Rot!"
But with the growth of the resistance movements in Europe and Hitler's attacks on Russia (bringing London and Moscow into a sudden and mutually unexpected alliance), the V.U.C. Left saw their whole policy of the '30's as vindicated.
The 1941 Stud. Ass. A.G.M. carried a "Manifesto" which summed up this attitude—and stands as a permanent expression of the faith of the 1930's looked back on from the shadows of the 1940's.
"A spectre is haunting New Zealand," it began; "—the spectre of the University Red. He is unpatriotic and addicted to foreign philosophies; his attitude to political and social problems is irresponsible and immature; he is defeatist and unwilling to defend his country against aggression.
"Prague University, even under Czech democratic government, gained a certain notoriety for the 'subversive' left-wing views of its students. But when, after the outbreak of war, the students drove the Nazis out and built barricades in the grounds, the Gestapo could not force its way into the college and had to call on the Army. They shot about a hundred students, sent many more to concentration camps, and closed the University.
"Perhaps this all goes to confirm that students are apt to advocate action when more mature minds would rather wait, and that they are inclined to forget that these rations may have prejudicial effects on their future lives. All this was no doubt pointed out by the Czech Fascists who had advocated the disciplining of Prague University for many years and who were now sensibly collaborating with the Nazis.
Past copies of "Spike," "Cappicade." "Salient." and its predecessor "Smad" are to be bound, the V.U.C.S.A. Exec, decided at a recent meeting. At present, despite many efforts by the Records Officer, these papers repose in unhappy confusion in the V.U.C.S.A. attic—[unclear: Rcci] Room. It has not been announced where they shall be displayed. It is to be hoped it will be somewhere convenient, the Library or the Common Room.
"Similar things happened in Poland. Norway. Holland. . . . Everywhere the Nazis found students among their most irreconcilable enemies. Something of the same sort in China must have been responsible for the decision of the Japanese High Command to bomb universities as military objectives. . . .
"It should not be difficult to understand the reason for this hostility. It is not the cringers and lick-spittles who fill the concentration camps of Dachau and Buchenwald, but people who think and say what they think. Both of these dangerous habits are acquired at Universities, not by all students, but by a sufficient number to give such places a bad name. Fascism, moreover, by the conditions of its existence, is driven to implacable hostility to alt true culture and learning. . .
The Manifesto goes on to contrast the role of the University here and in Europe as a haven of free speech, with that of its right-wing critics. "In this connection." it says, "it is interesting to compare the cruel and futile campaign for the persecution of pacifists that has been conducted by some organisations, with the free and open discussion of the subject that has continued at V.U.C. throughout the war. The result has been that pacifism at this college has declined in the face not of persecution but of arguments of a superior logical force."
There follows a list of things about which V.U.C. students protested during the '30's and early in the war—suppression of opposition by the Government which later sold France, support for the Finnish Mannerheim who later became Hitler's ally. . . . "For all these things we were attacked and for none of them we apologize. For on these maters the 'University Reds' were right and their enemies were wrong.
"Therefore we, the students of Victoria College, deplore the slanders which have from time to time been brought against us, and pledge ourselves to maintain those principles of freedom for which British. Soviet, and Allied youth are giving their lives."