The Politics of Nostalgia: Racism and the Extreme Right in New Zealand (Paul Spoonley, 1987)

Reactionary politics are not a particularly well researched aspect of New Zealand political history. What makes The Politics of Nostalgia such a uniquely useful text is its pairing of that history with a thorough sociological analysis on its material underpinnings. Paul Spoonley adapted the book from his thesis and several years research that took place alongside it, and for a book that retains much of this academic structuring it’s a surprisingly clear read. Overall it covers the reactionary racist right from around the 1890s right up its writing in the mid-1980s, although the section leading up to the ’30s is very short. His sociological background is clear in the long running analysis of the ‘old’ rural petite-bourgeois, its conflict with the ‘new’ urban petite-bourgeois, and the political divide between working class and petite-bourgeois right-wing reactionary groups. This materialist analysis grounds the book and gives a certain weight to it overall, balancing the seriousness of the topic with a realistic view of how influential (or not) these organisations actually were.

In terms of the historical worth, The Politics of Nostalgia stands entirely alone in New Zealand literature at large. The biographical work on important figures among New Zealand’s far right such as Eric Butler, AK Field, Colin King-Ansell, and Kerry Bolton among others would by itself makes it a worthwhile read. The six biographies throughout the book straddle generations of far right activity from the prewar years, to the height of the welfare state in the 1950s-1960s, to the crises years of the 1970s-1980s. The matter of the class divide between ‘petite-bourgeois extremism’ and generally working class neo-fascism also provides interesting reading. In particular, the chapter on neo-fascism is insightful, being written at the beginning of the neo-nazi movement that only began to wind down in recent years with the collapse of the Right Wing Resistance. Perhaps the most useful piece of historical research is the chapter on the League of Rights, from its Australian origins, to its relationship to Social Credit, to its campaigns and front groups. All demonstrate how organisations with anti-Semitic, deeply reactionary racial and gender politics, can gain hundreds of members and thousands of supporters in modern New Zealand.

At some point, I’ll have to review a book I don’t strongly recommend to all Kiwi leftists or people simply interested in New Zealand history, politics and society. Alas, it’s not that time yet and I do consider The Politics of Nostalgia to be a must-read for New Zealand comrades. The book is an immensely useful resource on two levels. First is simply the historical detail, this text being the authoritative analysis of the far right in New Zealand (even if some thirty years of far right history now stands between the book and today). Secondly is the sociological analysis of reactionary politics, which is perhaps among the best I’ve yet read when it comes to introductory materialist explanations of fascist ideology. I must add that those looking for a more in depth look at the sociology of fascism should not be put off by ‘introductory’ either, for while the chapter outlining Spoonley’s framework is accessible it does not simplify the content to be so. Beyond that, The Politics of Nostalgia is also very readable as a fascinating and little explored area of New Zealand history.

Revival of the Right: New Zealand Politics in the 1980s (Bruce Jesson, Allanah Ryan and Paul Spoonley; 1988)

Another in the regrettably brief period of critical literature on right wing politics in New Zealand around the end of the 1980s-early 1990s, Revival of the Right is oddly in between a regular book and an essay collection. The structure of interconnected essays by Jesson, Ryan, and Spoonley allows for each to focus on one particular area of right wing politics in New Zealand at the time. Asides some introductory and closing pieces, the body of the book consists of three such essays.

Jesson focuses on the rise of the New Right, and particularly the unique socio-political dynamics of it as an intellectual movement in New Zealand which in some respects set it aside from the New Right in other parts of the advanced capitalist world. His analysis elaborates on the interesting tendency of this nation’s New Right to pair hardline right-wing economic policy with otherwise liberal social policy (nuclear free legislation, homosexual law reform, etc). While Fragments of Labour gives a far more detailed analysis of the intricate contradictions which wrought the Fourth Labour Government, this essay is perhaps best read as an appendix on one of these contradictions not given as much attention in the book.

Ryan’s essay on the ‘moral authoritarianism’ of the 1970s-1980s is by far the most unique piece in the entire collection. It covers the organisation of what she deems the moral right, typically Christian conservative organisations which formed specifically in reaction to the women’s and gay liberation movements among other signs of moral decay in society. Though dimly remembered now, moral authoritarianism was a well organised force at the time with the backing of conservative churches across the country. Beginning in the early 1970s with the founding of groups like the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child and the Family Rights Association. Activities of moral authoritarians are traced alongside the social movements they had risen against, contextualizing the movement to its social situation. The essay fills a vital gap left by Spoonley’s earlier works which touched on the interaction of the far right with such groups but not the groups themselves.

Spoonley’s essay covers ground largely already covered in The Politics of Nostalgia, but with a particular focus on the British identity politics of the far right in New Zealand. It is a needed (if unintended) reminder that reactionary racial identity politics as they’re deployed today have not always been so. ‘White identity’, as it were, has not always existed as it does. It bears remembering that far right politics evolves and adapts over time despite the seeming rigidity that tradition or reaction would seem to place on such a political framework. In a small postscript addendum to the essay at the end of the book, Spoonley describes the means and social base by which a future movement could harness both libertarian politics and Pakeha resentment to Maori; it takes little imagination to see how perceptive the prediction was.

Overall, Revival of the Right is a fairly unique book. While not as thorough an examination of the New Right Jesson’s other works, nor as thorough an analysis of the far right as Spoonley’s other works, it’s a very worthwhile read to track down. Allanah Ryan’s essay is, in my opinion, the most useful of the essays and in many respects the most interesting. For both her part in laying out the history, politics, and strategy of the criminally under-researched reactionary family politics of the 1970s and 1980s; and for the useful connections each of the main three essays make with the subjects of the other essay; I cannot but recommend this book. It’s a great find for anyone interested in New Zealand history, and a very useful resource for the left in general. Luckily, this is one of those books that despite its obscurity I come across fairly often and fairly cheap in second hand bookstores!