I’ve been meaning to write a review of this since I set the blog up, I read it something like 3-4 years ago and it was a major step in building a serious scholarly interest in NZs history – and particularly that of this country’s radicals. The 1987 retelling of the life of one of NZs most fascinating labour militants, Welsh/Irish immigrant communist Jim Edwards, is a collaborative work. Based on interviews conducted by David Ballantyne in 1951, a year before Edwards’ death, the book itself was edited by Graham Adams decades later with advice from labour historian Bert Roth and Jim Edwards junior (for whom a different biography also exists). Further, the introduction is written by famed NZ historian Michael King.
The book is laid out in a unique manner, with segments of Edwards’ retelling his own life interspersed with sections of biographical info filling in the gaps by David Ballantyne. The effect of this is to give an incredibly thorough examination of Edwards’ life – bouncing back & forth between personal recollection and impersonal contextualization. Further, it is also not a linear retelling of his entire life. While the events are chronological, they essentially begin with Edwards arriving in New Zealand aboard the Arawa at age 21 in 1913. The first chapter is spent bringing Edwards from his younger years through the 1910s and 1920s to the grim years of the Depression. It takes him through his time in the Salvation Army, as a strike breaker & scab during the Great Strike of 1913 (actions later to be greatly regretted), membership in the Socialist Party, an anti-conscription and free speech agitator during WWI, his marriage and quickly growing family, labour militant and notable Labour Party figure in the ’20s, and finally into the Communist Party & unemployed workers movement by 1931.
It’s important to note how much is covered in the first chapter alone, as the next seven chapters are dedicated to the period of 1931-1934 at the height of the Depression. For a few years Edwards became the effective leader of the Unemployed Workers Movement, likewise at this time he peaked as likely the most widely recognized and wildly popular communist in New Zealand history.
In reality, relations between Edwards and the Communist Party leadership were never good and eventually he would be expelled from the party. Perhaps the most entertaining section of the book is the two chapters dedicated to Edwards epic six-week flight from the police after his erroneous blaming for the Queen Street Riot. Entertaining for how incredibly inept the police pursuit was and how much this was simply down to non-cooperation with investigators. While police scoured the country for Edwards, he was more often than not at parties or taking visitors, sometimes staying at residences within blocks of or on the same street as the local police station. One gets a feel for the creation myth of a bona fide folk hero.
The book is rounded off with with a short chapter bring Edwards through the later 1930s, his years in the army during WWII, and the years after the war. It is, though short, an incredibly engaging biography – animated by a genuinely fascinating subject, and aided by its unique style of telling his story. I can’t help but feel the current crop of younger socialists in NZ would do well by becoming familiar with figures like Edwards – often complex people equal parts inspiring, flawed, and endlessly interesting. I will always encourage those who have the interest in and passion for socialist politics to take the time to engage with its rich and diverse library of theory, history, and culture. But at the same time, I think there is a certain grounding that learning the lives of people like Jim Edwards that can’t be gained from the theoretical insights and epic historical tomes alone. To learn not only the broad strokes history of New Zealand, to not only peel back its layers and try to understand what mechanism have brought us to now, but to try and understand the lives of the people who lived it, can only be an enriching experience for those who take the time to do so. I truly hope that those young socialists, if they don’t pick up this book itself, do go out and find some of the many little auto/biographies like it that populate the shelves of local libraries and second-hand bookstores across NZ.
I find it fitting to leave the reader of this review with the words Edwards himself opens the first chapter with.
I am a worker and the son of a worker. I am not ashamed of my class. It is the class that built the world’s roads, ships and factories, its houses, libraries and schools. It has made everything that is good in the world, it has fed and clothed the world, while all the robber class has done is hold up the job so it can collar the profits.