This will be another relatively short review, this time because the book is a collection of essays and interviews; and I’d rather give it a broad overview than go into any one essay. However, this text is perhaps the most unique I’ve reviewed thus far. Published in 2002 it aims to plug the gaping holes in serious historical analysis of socialism in New Zealand with an eye to the unique characteristics left wing politics developed here. Though there is definitely a wealth of literature on the history of left-wing radicals in New Zealand, it is exceedingly rare for any one book or series to make a determined effort at drawing together this history in its entirety.
Roughly following a chronological line, the topics of the essays range from early reformists like the local Knights of Labour and William Pember Reeves through to the New Left and the unemployed movement of the 1990s. The approach of the book is academic rather than sectarian and has an underlying aim throughout of, to namedrop the final piece in the text, “writing the left into the picture.” It’s an admiral goal, and one I hold close to heart as someone who hopes one day to become an historian of this very subject. Beyond this, much of the work across this book holds vital lessons for today’s radical left. Those looking to pursue reform and electoral politics, whether they are reformists themselves or not, could make great use of the reassessments of the legacy left by the Knights of Labour and ‘state socialist’ Liberal MP William Pember Reeves. Syndicalists and those sympathetic stand to gain from the experience of the IWW in the turbulent years of working class struggle that immediately preceded the First World War. Some essays deal with specific aspects of socialist practice. The experience of the left with the police from the 1910s-1950s; how the CPNZ oriented itself to Maori struggle up to the 1950s; and the intersections of class, gender, and culture which defined the unemployed workers movement of the 1980s-1990s.
Beyond its simple use value to the Kiwi left as an education tool, On the Left is an interesting and enjoyable read in and of itself. The various essayists are accessible writers. Alongside this some of the essays, such as Len Richardson’s biography of socialist miner/poet ‘Billy Banjo’ or Lyman Tower Sargent’s short history of utopian literature in New Zealand, are a treat to read. It is wonderful to be able to recommend this book not only as a very useful resource for the left here in Aotearoa, but as a collection of essays which each are a fascinating read independent of the rest. While not quite a must-read for the Kiwi left, it is on that twofold basis that I cannot but greatly recommend On the Left: Essays on Socialism in New Zealand to Kiwi comrades as a decent read for both education and pleasure.