It’s been a few weeks since the tour finished. This article is to serve as a retrospective on it as well as a set of notes, considerations, clarifications regarding future projects to be conducted from here. As such it won’t necessarily be a coherent article so much as a long series of points to consider from this point forward. From the outset, though, I must express my deep gratitude to everyone who helped throughout the tour either in organising events, accommodation, or simply useful conversation after each talk. In particular a huge thanks to the Dunedin International Socialists, the Canterbury Socialist Society, the Wellington Workers Education Association, and the Tāmaki Makaurau Anarchists for hosting me in each city. And, of course, my incredible partner for being with me the whole time (a point of thanks I’m making because I know it’ll annoy her, love you).
Left Out? – Retrospective
As a general wrap-up, I must say I’m happy with how the tour went. In all I’d say I spoke to 60ish people across the talks, and the usefulness of discussion with folk after each talk was impossible to measure. With some of my interviewees present for each talk, it was somewhat nerve wracking, but it seemed that most everyone around at the time agreed with my general analysis of the radical left over the 1990s-2000s overall. Certainly not in its entirety and without many qualifications (and a number of small corrections that can only improve on future work I do on the subject), but as a step-back assessment of the total period.
What is clear to me just from the tour is that even a relatively ‘quiet’ era like that of the late 1980s to early 2010s can ‘vanish’, as it were, without proper care taken to ensuring the preservation of work done. Furthermore, it is obvious that the period holds a wealth of useful lessons for the left of today. Many projects of today, planned and realised, have some antecedent in the recent past; something that can and will be of use going forward.
Beyond this, it seems that some projects I hold close to heart do hold a certain spark of inspiration for other fellow travelers of the left. A proposal for a new socialist media platform to rival The Daily Blog has been enthusiastically run with, and a project going under the provisional title RAMP (Radical Aotearoa Media Project) is quietly getting on its feet as of the last week or so. My own call for a serious effort at developing people’s history as its own discipline of study was seemingly well received. In particular, the idea of a series of long pamphlet/booklet length essays in the vein of Bridget Williams Books BWB Texts series. Hopefully, the tour has helped get the ball rolling in support of the digital archive of NZ leftist publications (which is slowly but surely expanding) for when I move to establish an initial line of funding and launch it online.
All told, the tour seems to have been a worthwhile endeavor. Asides making valuable connections myself, and finally meeting a number of people I’d thus far only encountered on Kiwi leftbook, I should hope it has built some steam towards the aforementioned projects. Whether they pan out is to be seen.
Considerations Toward a People’s History
I can only restate my commitment to the development of people’s history as an intellectually rigorous, politically useful, and genuinely engaging discipline in New Zealand. However there are a number of clarifications and updates on an earlier article I’d like to state out loud (as it were). Consider this a follow up to For a People’s History of New Zealand, a topic I will return to repeatedly.
- On academic rigor – It has been pointed out to me that much people’s history can and does fall into an easy trap of taking a left populist position regarding such intellectual endeavors, the effect of which being to flatten nuance in the retelling of such history. While such a method can make telling the story of people’s history easier, and certainly lend itself to some incredibly compelling works, it should be noted that such a flattening comes at a reduction in the use of people’s history for the drawing of historical lessons to inform current praxis. What is to be maintained in people’s history as a discipline of popular and critical history is the capacity to dive into the messy leftist conflicts, the missed opportunities, the clear failures. To do so is to admit imperfection and remove the rose tinted glasses with which people’s history can look better but be less useful or honest.
- PH as discipline – While it would be an impressive feat to produce a people’s history of New Zealand, be it a single book or a multi-volume tome, that is not necessarily the goal of such a project. What would be of more use is the cohering of people’s history as a discipline of historical study, something which entails the production of many varied works over a great deal of time. Such a discipline would seek not only to cohere such a view of history into one work, but to cohere many texts which could already be considered adjacent to people’s history into a more easily engaged body of work. Furthermore, it would seek to produce many pieces of work across many forms of media on the subject as a living, ongoing history. Whether that entails the production of books, essay readers, pamphlets, new journals, podcasts, online video series, documentaries, artistic exhibitions, adult education workshops, courses for school aged children & teenagers, or any other number of means to communicate the discipline is up for debate. And, at that, a matter for the future. What is important is understanding people’s history in New Zealand not as a set task with a single text as its prime goal, but an open-ended project which will seek to record, interpret, present, and reinterpret history.
- Consolidation of current projects – While I am determined in my desire to see people’s history as a discipline arise in New Zealand (and, indeed, the broader Pacific), it must be said that this is not a novel suggestion. While a people’s history discipline does not exist as such, projects tending toward it do and have for as much as a century or more. As it stands, the Labour History Project and NZ’s Road To Socialism (a project to record the oral history of socialism in NZ up to about the 1980s/’90s) are both worthy of all the support the fragmented left can muster.
There are a few things I can confirm, coming off the back of the tour. All should be considered ‘watch this space’ for now, but news should be trickling out about each one as time goes on.
First up, a new media project is underway after several different groups and individuals working on their own projects came together. While it is still early enough that the project may well peter out, I do hope it goes forward and something eventuates of it.
The digital archive progresses apace. I’m now casting around for names (I’d like to dedicate it in memoriam to someone who deserves it but perhaps hasn’t been well remembered), and am looking into website design as well as funding sources to get the whole thing on its feet. At present the archive consists of over 500 documents from a variety of publications and organisations; as well as a subsidiary 200-300 theses, journal articles, books, and pamphlets of interest to the New Zealand left. I’d estimate about a third to maybe a half could go online right away, but I want to hold back on that until a website is designed and I have a few full collections ready to go (as opposed to the many incomplete collections I currently have).
I’ve also begun work on my next research project, and have another lined up after that. I hope to have both complete by next year but time will tell. All I’ll say is that both are spinning off from the thesis research and will work to expand on the history of the radical left here since the 1990s. And, well, that’s about it for now.