Labour History

A Middle-Class Diversion from Working-Class Struggle? The New Zealand New Left from the Mid-1950s to the Mid-1970s

Labour History (2012), 103, (1), 203–226.


Internationally, the New Left is frequently regarded as an archetypal middle-class movement that had little concern with the working class. Yet in New Zealand, the New Left’s most prominent organisations were working-class youth groups or joint worker-student groups. Furthermore, when a major upturn in workplace antagonism occurred during the late 1960s and the 1970s, many New Leftists attempted to form links with these recalcitrant workers. New Leftists not only supported workplace disputes, but also organised in working-class inner-city suburbs. Significantly, some New Leftists attempted to come to grips with the changing class composition of the time. They usefully broadened class analysis to include many white-collar workers, although much of their analysis was inconclusive. However, other New Leftists dismissed the working class, narrowly defined as manual workers, as backward and reactionary. Moreover, the New Left tended to perceive workers’ struggles as peripheral in importance, as it primarily focussed on protesting against the Vietnam War, the nuclear threat, US military installations and apartheid. Overall, the New Left had an ambiguous and complex relationship with class-struggle.

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1.See for exampleDavid Caute, Sixty-Eight: The Year of the Barricades,Hamish Hamilton,, 1988, p.21;Barbara Ehrenreich andJohn Ehrenreich, ‘The Professional-Managerial Class’, inPat Walker(ed.), Between Labor and Capital,South End Press,, 1979, p.6;Irving Howe, ‘Introduction’, inIrving Howe(ed.), Beyond the New Left,McCall,, 1970, p.4;Philip Mendes, The New Left, the Jews and the Vietnam War 1965-1972,Lazare Press,, 1993, p.40;Jack Newfield, A Prophetic Minority: The American New Left,Anthony Blond,, 1967, p.18;Peter O’Brien, ‘Some Overseas Comparisons’, inRichard Gordon(ed.), The Australian New Left: Critical Essays and Strategy,William Heinemann,, 1970, p.225;Irwin Unger, The Movement: A History of the American New Left 1959-1972,Doad, Mead & Company,, 1974, pp.31-34. Google Scholar

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31.Calculated fromPenelope Hayes, The Origins and Dynamics of New Zealand’s Changing Class Structure, MA thesis,Political Studies Department, University of Otago, 2002, vol.1, p.183and vol.2, p.7and p.42. Google Scholar

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33.For the continuities and discontinuities between the two phases of the New Left, seeBoraman, The New Left in New Zealand from 1956 to the early 1980s, pp.141-47. Google Scholar

34.See for instanceJesson, ‘The Lost Causes’. Google Scholar

35.Toby Boraman, ‘June 26 1968: A Riot Outside Parliament?’, Labour History Project Newsletter, no.45, February2009, p.23, n. 8. The only other substantial reference to the protest in print is inElsie Locke‘sPeace People: A History of Peace Activities in New Zealand,Hazard Press,, 1992, p.219. Google Scholar

36.Terry Adams, Seamen’s Journal, vol.3, no.3, June-July-August1968, p.6;Dominion, 27June1968, p.1. For a fuller outline of the protest, seeBoraman, ‘June 26 1968’, pp.20-23. Google Scholar

37. People’s Voice, 3July1968, p.8;Salient, 25June1968, p.1. Google Scholar

38.Quoted inSalient, 25June1968, p.1. Google Scholar

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40.Brian Roper notes that the Arbitration Court had subjected workers to a declining share of national income in the 1960s.Brian Roper, ‘New Zealand’s Postwar Economic History’inChris Rudd andBrian Roper(eds), The Political Economy of New Zealand,Oxford University Press,, 1997, p.17. Google Scholar

41.Pat Walsh, ‘An “Unholy Alliance”: The 1968 Nil Wage Order,’ New Zealand Journal of History, vol.28, no.2, 1994, pp.178-93. Google Scholar

42.Figures from, or calculated from,John Deeks andPeter Boxall, Labour Relations in New Zealand,Longman Paul,, 1989, pp.248-49;Roth, Trade Unions in New Zealand, pp.150-51. Google Scholar

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44.Figures calculated fromMonthly Abstract of Statistics, 1968-72. For the rise of white-collar militancy, seeRoth, ‘White-Collar: Meek or Militant?’;Bert Roth andJanny Hammond, Toil and Trouble: The Struggle for a Better Life in New Zealand,Methuen,, 1981, p.164;SAL, The New Wave of Protest, p.20. Google Scholar

45.‘Old Spirit Re-Appears’, People’s Voice, 25November1970, p.1. The Red Feds was the nickname for the pre-World War I Federation of Labour, a body which was strongly influenced by syndicalism. Google Scholar

46.S.W. Creigh andGavin Poland, Differences in Strike Activity Between Industrial Countries in the Post-War Period,National Institute of Labour Studies,, 1983, p.83;People’s Voice, 6August1969, p.8;5March1969, pp.1and8;1April1970, p.1; and17June1970, p.1. Google Scholar

47.The Friends of Brutus,‘The Chance for Jumping Sundays’, Brutus Says, unnumbered, 1969, Eph-BRoth-Politics-Brutus Says, ATL;Tim Shadbolt, Bullshit & Jellybeans,Alister Taylor,, 1971, pp.105-15. Google Scholar

48. People’s Voice, 18March1970, p.1. Google Scholar

49.Chris Trotter, No Left Turn,Random House,, 2007, p.255. TheChristchurch Pressclaimed that 5,000 unionists attended the protest, while thePeople’s Voicemaintained that 6,000 people attended.Christchurch Press, 13May1970, p.1;People’s Voice, 20May1970, p.8. Google Scholar

50. People’s Voice, 4Novemberand11November1970. Google Scholar

51. People’s Voice, 31March1971, p.8;Roth, Trade Unions in New Zealand, pp.109-10. The Act was passed in 1971, only to be repealed the following year by the incoming Labour government. Google Scholar

52.Barry Lee, email to the author, 10December2003;‘Support Boilermakers Stand’, Auckland Progressive Youth Movement (PYM) leaflet, no date, Eph-B-Roth-Progressive, ATL. The Communist Party of New Zealand claimed that rank and fi le action stopped the Boilermakers from being deregistered. SeePeople’s Voice, 30September1970, p.1. Google Scholar

53.Cliff Kelsall, letter to the editor, Auckland Star, 23October1969. Google Scholar

54.‘For Independence and Progress, Build Youth Power’, Auckland PYM leaflet, no date, Eph-BRoth, ATL. Google Scholar

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57.Welch, ‘PYM’, p.17. Google Scholar

58. Herald, 8November1971, p.3;B.P. andT., ‘Do Seamen Strike for the Hell of It’, leaflet, Roth papers, MS-papers-94-106-44/01, ATL;Roth, Trade Unions in New Zealand, p.109. Google Scholar

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60.Denny Grant andAlistair Campbell, ‘Radical Activist Congress: Otago University, August 16-18: Official Report, by the Organisers’, Red Spark, no. 4, September-October1969, p.3. Google Scholar

61.Findlay,‘The Worker/Student Alliance’, pp.4-7. Google Scholar

62.Stephen Spender, The Year of the Young Rebels,Random House,, 1969, p.179. Spender believed students had developed a politically-conscious community within universities that corresponded to the ancient Greekagora. Google Scholar

64.Farrell Cleary, email to the author, 23September2006. Google Scholar

65.Graeme Whimp, interview with author, Wellington, 26July2001. Google Scholar

66. Resistance, no. 2, no date, p.5. Google Scholar

67.SeeWini Breines, Community and Organization in the New Left,Praeger,, 1982;Richard Ellis, ‘Romancing the Oppressed: The New Left and the Left Out’, The Review of Politics, vol.58, no. 1, Winter1996, pp.109-54;Kirkpatrick Sale, SDS,Random House,, 1973. Google Scholar

68.‘People’s Union for Survival and Freedom’, inAlister Taylor,Owen Wilkes,Jim Chapple andTim Shadbolt(eds), The First New Zealand Whole Earth Catalogue,Alister Taylor, no place, 1972, p.237. Google Scholar

69.Roger Fowler interviewed inMelani Anae,Lautofa Iuli andLeilani Burgoyne(eds), Polynesian Panthers: The Crucible Years 1971-74,Reed,, 2006, p.83. Google Scholar

70.Quoted in‘People’s Union for Survival and Freedom’, p.236. Google Scholar

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72.Megan Simpson, Radical Spaces: New Zealand’s Resistance Bookshops 1969-1977, MA thesis,History Department, Victoria University of Wellington, 2007, p.99. For the New Left nature of the Resistance Bookshops, seeBoraman, The New Left in New Zealand from 1956 to the early 1980s, pp.278-86. Google Scholar

73.Polynesian Panther Party, ‘What We Want’, inStephen Levine(ed.), New Zealand Politics: A Reader,Chesire,, 1975, p.226. Several commentators, such as Caute and George Katsiaficas, claim that the Polynesian Panthers main inspiration, the Black Panther Party in the US, was part of the New Left. SeeCaute, Sixty-Eight, pp.23-24;George Katsiaficas, The Imagination of the New Left: A Global Analysis of 1968,South End Press,, 1987. Google Scholar

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76.Farrell Cleary, email to the author, 23September2006. Google Scholar

77.See for instanceSteve Wright, Storming Heaven: Class Composition and Struggle in Italian Autonomist Marxism,Pluto Press,, 2002, p.89. Google Scholar

78.Findlay,‘The Worker/Student Alliance’, p.6. Google Scholar

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80.Pete Bradley, ‘The Radical and the Education System’, address to the Dunedin Radical Activist Congress in 1969, reprinted inRed Spark, vol.2, no. 1, 1970, p.3. Neil Pearce claimed that the student-dominated ‘issue movements’ of the 1960s and 1970s exhibited‘contempt for “ordinary people”’.Neil Pearceet al.,‘All Dressed Up and Nothing to Picket’, The Republican, no.26, February1979, p.6. Google Scholar

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83.For overviews of this current, seeRichard Neville, Play Power,Paladin,, 1971;Peter Stansill andDavid Mairowitz(eds), BAMN: Outlaw Manifestos and Ephemera 1965-70,Penguin,, 1971;Julie Stephens, Anti-Disciplinary Protest: Sixties Radicalism and Postmodernism,Cambridge University Press,, 1998. Google Scholar

84.Shadbolt quoted inSalient, 22July1970, p.5. However, Shadbolt also said in the same interview‘there are so many old people who have young minds and are prepared to listen’. Google Scholar

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87.D.L. inThe First New Zealand Whole Earth Catalogue, p.11. However, at least one underground publication, Cock, edited by anti-Vietnam War protesterChris Wheeler, showed some ambivalence towards class, as it published several articles that expressed the views of some rank-and-file members of the Seamen’s Union. SeeCock, no.12, August1970, p.27; no. 15, December1971, pp.3-4; no.16, February1972, p.12. Google Scholar

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89.Shadbolt quoted inJackman, The Auckland Opposition, p.110. Google Scholar

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101.Tim Shadbolt quoted inJackman, The Auckland Opposition, pp.110-11. Google Scholar

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103. Red Papers, no. 1, May1976, p.2. There were too many academic publications on class to list in full, particularly those examining class in the nineteenth century. For a list, seeJohn Martin, ‘Whither the Rural Working Class in Nineteenth-Century New Zealand?’, New Zealand Journal of History, vol.17, no.1, 1983, p.21, n. 1. To give some idea of the range of views on class during the post-World War II period, seeDavid Bedggood, Rich and Poor in New Zealand,George Allen & Unwin,, 1980;David Pearson andDavid Thorns, The Eclipse of Equality: Social Stratification in New Zealand,George Allen & Unwin,, 1983;David Pitt(ed.), Social Class in New Zealand,Longman Paul,, 1977;Rob Steven, ‘Toward a Class Analysis of New Zealand’, Australian and New Zealand Journal of Sociology, vol.14, no.2, 1978, pp.113-29and148. Google Scholar

104.SeeJesson, ‘The State of the Unions II’, p.14. Google Scholar

105.Bedggood, ‘Marxism and the University’, pp.46-47. Google Scholar

106.John Macrae andDavid Bedggood, ‘The Development of Capitalism in New Zealand: Towards a Marxist Analysis’, Red Papers, no. 3, Summer1978/79, pp.129-33and140. See alsoBedggood, Rich and Poor in New Zealand, pp.68-72. Google Scholar

107.Bedggood, ‘Marxism and the University’, pp.48-51. Google Scholar

108.According toSmith in hisWorking Class Son, p.148.Bruce Jesson also reported that Shadbolt said ‘stuff the workers’.Bruce Jesson, ‘The Second Radical Activists Congress: A Report’, New Zealand Monthly Review, no. 116, October1970, p.9. Google Scholar

109.Tim Shadbolt, Tim Shadbolt: A Mayor of Two Cities,Hodder Moa,, 2008, pp.43-55. Google Scholar

110.Murray Horton interviewed inRebels in Retrospect. Google Scholar

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Author details

Boraman, Toby