It should seem rather odd that someone whose background is in the anarchist scene would write a favourable enough review of the writings of one of the most prominent left nationalists in New Zealand. But Jesson is a fascinating case. Although for the most part I wouldn’t put myself in his political camp, his writing as both journalist and (dare I say it) left intellectual probe into a variety of issues still unresolved on the NZ left. To Build a Nation – Collected Writings 1975-1999 was released in 2005, a few years after his death in 1999. The book is a collection of his essays and articles published primarily in his Republican journal and the Auckland Metro in the latter quarter of the 20th century. It opens with a short but detailed biography of Jessons life entitled Bruce Jesson: The Making of a Patriot, written by the books editor Andrew Sharp. Covering both the social context of Jessons upbringing, and his political development from his high school years onward. With a surprising amount of discussion on the theoretical underpinnings of Jessons thought, the introductory bio alone is a fascinating insight into the political scene of 1960s-1970s Auckland and Christchurch.
The matters dealt with in the snapshot of his writings reprinted in To Build a Nation are a testament to the breadth of issues Jesson put serious thought into on the New Zealand left and New Zealand in general. He shines in his polemics against the parties and movements of his day, uncovering in plain speak problems that persist even today. In the opening biography, Sharp quotes from an article Jesson penned in 1973 for the short lived Spartacist:
“a fringe of political misfits, but each member of it radicalises as an individual, not as part of a class or community . . . They cannot interact with society; they can only appeal to people to join them on the fringes.”
This is a biting and valid critique today, let alone 44 years ago when it was written. Clarity and a certain level of depth remained his strongest features throughout. The New Zealand Constitution: British, Monarchic, and Undemocratic written in 1975 still holds up as a clear-thinking critique of New Zealands monarchy from a republican position. His analysis of the Labour Party likewise is well worth going back over today. In a 1983 essay entitled Looking at the Labour Party: Where Have All the Workers Gone? he states in the most blunt terms possible his position on the party:
“Labour is not a radical organisation; nor has it the capacity to become one. Labour exhausted its reforming zeal more than forty years ago, and has ever since functioned as a moderate party of the status quo . . . it hasn’t the emotional or intellectual resources to sustain a coherent left-wing.”
What follows is an insightful analysis of the anti-intellectualism within the party, and its degrading connection to the working class, well worth rereading today. Other articles articles along the same vein from the same time, from a year before to the final months of the Fourth Labour Government, are all worth revisiting to understand the party today.
Jesson far from restricted himself to matters of republicanism or the various parties of the New Zealand left. A 1985 article, The Homosexual Law Reform Debate: Niceness Wilts before Bigotry reveals a deserved contempt for both the conservative Christian right and the liberals who prepared to abandon ship at the first sign they might have to fight. He touches on a theme consistent throughout other works, of the tendency to mistake the mask of ‘bland conformity’ for some inherent enlightened reason in New Zealand society. Quite rightly, he considers this more a mask for deeper bigotry and an excuse for anti-intellectual indifference than any intrinsic aspect of New Zealand society. On the growing Maori movements of his day, he was one of the early notable Pakeha adopters of the radical sovereignty cause. Various pieces from around 1982-’83 engage quite favorably with the newly invigorated movement, and are worth a read if only for the fact that much of the writing would not be particularly out of place today 35 years on. Particularly the article Waitangi: A Pakeha Issue Too, penned for the Metro in 1983, in which his own position is made succinct and clear in the final lines:
“So far, [Donna] Awatere’s Pakeha readers haven’t responded to this direct challenge to their own identity, no doubt because they haven’t understood it. However, the truth of her assertions is demonstrated at Waitangi every year, where – surrounded by the regalia of British imperialism – Pakeha New Zealand celebrates the day that it became a colony.”
All this is not to say I am without criticisms of Jesson. His analysis can only go so far when constrained by the limits of left nationalism, as interesting as that analysis may be. His later writings toward the end of the 1990s betray this in his overly soft (though not uncritical) stance towards Winston Peters and NZ First. Specifically the articles The Vindication of Winston, Floating Around the World on Demented Tectonic Plates, and The Jester Steals the Crown come to mind. That said, the era is not without more interesting pieces like Dull Boys, and the wide gulf between the two figures is clear in the final essay in the collection, To Build a Nation.
Though his writings were not always as penetrating as they could have been, that comes from a retrospective position. I cannot, nevertheless, but recommend this book. Nearly two decades on, his ideas touch on underlying issues both within the New Zealand left and in New Zealand history, society, political institutions and economics more broadly. As a tireless republican, persistent writer, and journalist with an intellectual streak, his work is among the most worthy of engagement to have been written in the latter half of 20th century New Zealand.