The arguments for a people’s history of New Zealand are multi-fold. Wearing a different hat produces a different reason for why such a historical work would be such a great benefit. It is on this basis that I’ll present each set of reasoning, switching hat to give a new vector for why such a project must be undertaken. I’m not a firm believer in every one of these reasons, but each one comes from its own school of thought and political tendency within New Zealand. This is the case with all people’s history, which awkwardly straddle radicalism as a result of content and respectability out of the quality of the scholarly work which must be put in.
Most pertinent to the left is the most obvious reason of all: that to avoid repeating mistakes in strategy, tactics, or ideology generation in and generation out we must maintain a certain level of institutional knowledge as to the full popular history of this country. Even studying the previous generation of radical left-wing politics in New Zealand reveals a great deal of improvement that could be made today on the left of 5-25 years ago. That is but a fraction, and a particularly quiet one at that, of the perhaps 180 years of history upon which we may draw; going right back to the beginning of decades of bloody colonial struggle, along with the very earliest flickers of class war.
Perhaps the clearest lesson drawn from the research I did for my master’s thesis was that this history cannot be taken for granted. Events only a few years in the rear view mirror have already slipped from the collective consciousness of the radical left, unknown to a new generation rearing to fight and considered too recent to bother studying by a generation prior. And there is no reason to think otherwise. In the era of the internet why worry that anything could possibly vanish from the record. But pamphlets, magazines, entire organisations have slipped away with little trace; and, crucially, a radical left too institutionally weak to competently teach the upcoming generation of what has just been. The 1990s through 2000s were a time of often fragmented attempts at regroupment by the left, it was not an era of triumph, and precisely for that reason it simply does not occur that there might be much need to studiously record it.
The point I wish to make is that through no individual fault a couple decades of recent history has slipped away. If that can happen so readily, what hope is there for everything before it? We must endeavor toward a complete people’s history of this country in the first order simply to ensure the full history is at least recorded for posterity’s sake. From that initial foundation further arguments arise. If it is worth recording that history to ensure it is not lost, it is worth cohering it into a narrative worth reading. One that does not simply chronologically present a vast array of individual movements, moments, and people. But one that seeks to offer the complex lattice of material conditions, and the resulting social contradictions, from which arose the intertwined struggles of generation upon generation of dispossessed toward an emancipatory vision of society. It is a complex story. One that the unique conditions of New Zealand and its comparatively barren intellectual sphere will make incredibly difficult to piece together. But it must happen regardless.
Asides the goals of a scattered left pining for a good society, whichever one of many visions for that society it may be, is the purely historical value of such a project (to the extent to which anything can be purely historical). The eventual achievement of a project to produce a people’s history of New Zealand, should it be done well, will be one of the greatest contributions to the history of this country ever made. To unearth, to assemble, and to present such a history will be an incredible boon to an array of fields related to the study of New Zealand society.
That is above and on top of the simple notion that history, even (perhaps especially) niche history, is worth recording for its own sake. While a line of worth may eventually be drawn on what is worth including, so as to avoid drowning that which is important or interesting in the banal, it is a matter that should be brought forward after we can be certain that said history will not be lost entirely. Establishing with firm commitment the intrinsic value of such history alone will be a difficult task in a society that barely values history altogether as it is. We must recognise that this task is both a political and an intellectual one, that for all involved the loss of historical evidence is an irreparable tragedy.
Every movement whose publications were never archived, who were never well reported on in life, whose most ardent organisers have passed on or drifted away, are as an old silent film lost to time. With the known copies destroyed in archival fires or similar disaster while no efforts at duplication were ever thought necessary. Such a fate shrouds many of the early silent films, leaving the entirety of film as an art form worse for it. Such a fate can befall event recent events, recent movements, recent organisations. If we do not see the point in maintaining the record of what we did, whether accomplishment or failure, then what was the point of acting on our desire to see a better world at all?
The last point I wish to make, to keep said point short and avoid rambling as I tend to do in person, is one which stands equally true for the historian as it does the progressive radical. People’s history serves to tell the story of world history from the perspective of the vast masses that moved it, and conversely seeks to make history appealing and real to those masses it casts an eye upon. It is one of the greatest tools we could have, should we put in the work to acquire it and develop the skill to use it. It holds the promise of a history by and for the people who make it, the working folk of all different stripes who in more common historical accounts see themselves nowhere and their impact unmentioned. It is a history that brings the people in both as a subject and as an audience, to the benefit of both the field of study and all those who are otherwise an afterthought in its regular iterations.
People’s history is a story shared by the working people of this country and the world, it is a means of agitation, it is a narrative too long left in the cold, it is a a shot of adrenaline to a subject ever at risk of stagnation or irrelevance. The people’s history of New Zealand has been told in fragmented chunks for a long time. In scattered works on the trade unions, on women’s liberation, on the long Maori struggle, on the life and trials of newly arrived immigrant communities. It’s time to draw together what has been written, to write on what’s yet to be covered, and to weave the whole story together. To stop anything else being lost, to ensure what has been recorded is heard anew. We must make the People’s History of New Zealand a reality, together.