Salient: Victoria University Students' Paper. Vol. 29, No. 12. 1966.
John A Lee th tragedy of N radicalism
John A Lee [unclear: th] tragedy of [unclear: N] radicalism
John A. Lee was a great disappointment. In his first (and last) political speech for 17 years, he did little more than offer an apology of New Zealand of which even the most Right-wing labour MP would have been ashamed. The most obvious reason for this is that he is a sad reflection of the degeneration of political acumen which has occurred since the flush of labour's victory in 1935. In this historical context Lee's political philosophy is little more than the culmination of the true ideological roots of Labour in New Zealand. His reputation for radicalism is just that.
In no ideological sense could Lee be viewed as a radical in the socialist tradition. This is seen no more clearly than his present commitment to "progressive humanitarianism".
"At no stage in New Zealand's history," Lee began, "had any party seriously attempted to challenge the existing social system." But he evoked no real sympathy from the audience until his seemingly dutiful references to Labour "bureaucrats". John A. Lee stands, simply, as a symbol of the crass intolerance of a Labour government in power. His expulsion is the cross born by all who dare to speak out with conviction, fearless of the consequences. Other men have been dealt with summarily for deviation, but few have been so publicly humiliated as was Lee. Yet, like many heretics, Lee has emerged and in so doing has eclipsed the reputation of those at whose hands he suffered.
What was it that forced his expulsion? Perhaps we will never know. We know Lee's own vivid account in Simple On A Soapbox. Labour Party historians have given us the official apologia. Much was antagonism of a personal nature, but perhaps the key to it lies in Lee's own economic theories of social credit, and the bitter frustration he felt when his pleas were ignored. Basically Lee's socialist panacea was the socialisation of credit and tacked on to this was the "water and gas" socialism of the Fabians who sought the extension of state control in public utilities.
A colonial society like New Zealand could not rely on private investment for economic development, hence the burden fell upon the State with its apparently limitless sources of finance. The argument in New Zealand politics was not, as is commonly believed. Socialism versus Capitalism, but how far and how much should the State support and maintain private industry. Lee's own task in the first Labour Government was the extension of State housing, which resulted in the multi-thousand-pound building enterprise of Sir John Fletcher and the greatest urban blight in the South Pacific.
Key Labour policy
The key policy of State "socialism" for Labour was that of industrialisation through import selection of raw material for the manfacturing sector, and therefore, it was assumed, not only create full employment, but develop an alternative to New Zealand's incipient low-wage pastoral economy. This industrialisation model was later used to solve the recurrent balance of payments crisis which have plagued us from the end of the Second World War. It is now commonly accepted, both by radical and conservative economists, that this policy has done little more than perpetuate what it was supposed to alleviate—our total dependence upon our primary [unclear: produ] for our overseas income.
These issues, and [unclear: rela] topics, were avoided in [unclear: La] discussion of New Zealand economic situation. His [unclear: ca] gation of the "[unclear: Jeremia] and complacent [unclear: accepta] that somehow we will "[unclear: co] through," offered no satisfaction to intelligent [unclear: observ] of New Zealand politics [unclear: a] economics. His approach the whole problem was [unclear: tic] in the worse sense. [unclear: T] had no conception of [unclear: j] what constitutes a full-[unclear: sc] social and economic [unclear: expan] for New Zealand. His [unclear: a] proach to New Zealand [unclear: h] tory was equally [unclear: ecl] From Vogel to Holyoake, [unclear: me] Prime Minister has [unclear: indu] in progressive reform, [unclear: a] Lee's bouquets, not [unclear: surr] ingly, went more to "[unclear: unn] nised" conservatives [unclear: th] those of the party [unclear: wh] rejected him.
Move to right
Most politicians when [unclear: s] pelled from a socialist [unclear: pa] become the upholders of [unclear: t] true faith, and become [unclear: rad] critics from the left. [unclear: H] John Lee it has resulted a further move to the [unclear: rig] Accurately pointing out [unclear: so] of the more salient [unclear: featu] of the present political [unclear: set] Lee did not conclude, as [unclear: c] might have expected [unclear: fr] someone who threatened stability, that it was [unclear: undes] able in its present static [unclear: for] On the contrary, he went great lengths to expound [unclear: h] well off we are due to [unclear: t] foresight and reforms of [unclear: c] leaders. The Welfare [unclear: St] we were told, was the [unclear: ccumulated] policy of every government over the last hundred years (with the exception the Forbes-Coates Government, 1928-33). The political " revolution " which [unclear: h] altered the face of our [unclear: soci] during this century has suited in the narrowing of abyss that had separated [unclear: o] socialists from the [unclear: capita]
State control or Socialism?
John A. Lee, the [unclear: polit] commentator of today, is longer concerned with [unclear: th] who would point to the [unclear: "I] practicality" of [unclear: Socia] Instead, he points to [unclear: T] Shand and says that [unclear: he] responsible for one of [unclear: d] most important "[unclear: Sociali] industries, hydro [unclear: elect] power. What we do, in [unclear: eff] Lee says, is turn on [unclear: t] electric light and say "Do with Socialism." [unclear: Socia] who are convinced of [unclear: t] increasing relevance of Socialism should repudiate the claim that State [unclear: cont] equals Socialism. Yet this the creed of Labour, and " rejection" of [unclear: Social] amounts to no more [unclear: tha] lack of committal to the tension of State control. [unclear: T] poverty of such defences Socialism remain [unclear: someth] of an oddity, and are probably more fruitfully [unclear: examine] in the light of religious [unclear: l] liefs than an "end of [unclear: ideolo] in the New Zealand [unclear: cont]
As a writer, John Lee [unclear: H] contributed much to [unclear: a] knowledge of the past. [unclear: I] fact he is rooted in the [unclear: p] His outlook to social and economic problems of [unclear: to] would offer no inspiration students, and his [unclear: precono] tions have long been [unclear: g] credited. His ignorance the developments in [unclear: mod] [unclear: tragedy] of radicalism page 7[unclear: ommunism] can be no more [unclear: an] a hope that the days of [unclear: talin] are more preferable because in those days, good [unclear: nd] evil were clearly discern[unclear: le].
Reality more complex
But reality is more complex. The tragedy of Lee, as with the New Zealand Left [unclear: a] general, was the constant [unclear: oncern] for self-righteousness. [unclear: a] denouncing Communism, [unclear: abour] was purifying its own [unclear: etrayal;] in denouncing social [unclear: emocracy] the Stalinists were [unclear: eansing] their own conciences of the purges. For Lee, Labour's betrayal is its [unclear: pudiation] of the glory of the [unclear: ast] and the "Red Flag"; the thetoric at the red dawn" is nostalgia for times and [unclear: attles] past. His refusal to [unclear: ce] the present with nothing [unclear: ore] than the platitudes of [unclear: umanism]" is symptomatic [unclear: f] the refusal of those who [unclear: ollow] in the shadow of [unclear: abour's] original pioneers to [unclear: o] any further than a Wel[unclear: re] State run by the [unclear: ational] Party.
No longer is there the fire [unclear: f] campaigns where tempers [unclear: ere] lost and interjections [unclear: fe]. The "simple on the [unclear: apbox"] is no more, and Lee defuses to attack the ossification of politics today. He can no longer visualise the society [unclear: e] once fought for in terms [unclear: f] Socialism. The fact that [unclear: ocialism] is not the reformist [unclear: ccumulation] within the capitalist social structure has not [unclear: een] fully recognised, and equally strong is the desire [unclear: ot] to recognise it. A Socialist [unclear: overnment] will not be one which will keep putting off essential measures. Socialisation of existing industry, for example, to be effective, must [unclear: e] the result of quick and [unclear: ecisive] action. To prolong [unclear: his] move will ensure that [unclear: here] will be no inducement [unclear: o] make the necessary investments and improvements, and [unclear: o] maintain efficient management. It was this that Labour refused to tackle.
A radical break
Socialists today must recognise that the transition to Socialism means a radical and complete break with the whole constitutional and parliamentary framework in its present form. John A. Lee had this opportunity with the [unclear: Democratic] Labour Party, but failed to create a strong enough movement (admitted[unclear: y] unlikely in difficult war[unclear: ame] conditions) which could be committed to structural reform. The weaknesses in Lee's own ideology contributed to this failure, but his honesty and courage in fighting for his aims are something from which every politician can learn. The greatest danger to Lee's convictions came from the trade unions, whose block vote was decisive in his expulsion. Today we have Lee speaking of the syndicalist nature of the trade union movement, and siding with the State in the determination of wages for workers on public works. Lee's justified bitterness has again forced him into a Fabian defender of the State.
Workers' rights denied
His denial of the rights of the workers against the State is coupled with his own desire for freedom of expression. His views on Vietnam were a pathetic attempt to avoid the cartharsis of his own political tragedy. His oblique reference to the Sinyaski-Daniel trial and his own position as a writer, were juxtaposed in an attempt to use one paradigm of Communism to justify American counter-revolutionary intervention against peasant guerrillas. In turning full circle, Lee is denouncing the social conscience of his novels of oppressed youth in the slums and workhouses of colonial New Zealand. The crisis in Lee's own conscience is that of the crisis of conscience of New Zealand Labour. The tragedy of John A. Lee is the tragedy of New Zealand radicalism.