It probably isn’t too controversial to say that left media in New Zealand has gone through some uncomfortable teething pains this decade. Although it hasn’t exactly been in a healthy state since probably the 1990s, the mix of rapid acceleration in changes to media and the structural collapse of radical leftist infrastructure over the last 10+ years have seen fit to wipe much of the slate clean. Outlets that had survived the grand upheavals of the 1980s and 1990s have finally disappeared, such as the papers which continued the legacy of the Communist Party’s Peoples Voice – the final iteration of which Unity went fully online in 2010 before finally being shuttered along with Socialist Worker in 2012.
That state of being has been bubbling for awhile (probably since around 2008 when the last big push for a large scale leftist outlet, the newspaper Workers Charter, fell apart) and got worse over much of the last decade. Although holdouts remain, indeed some seemed invigorated in 2019, some interesting newer initiatives has cropped up over the last few years. The fact that the previously rather untested (for the NZ left) mediums of podcasting and video essays are now being piloted leaves relatively open what exactly the independent left media ecosystem will look like through the 2020s and beyond.
Before I get into the article itself, I’ll just note that I’d originally intended for this to have a more listicle format but that simply wound up not happening. I also went back & forth on whether to cover the menagerie of blogs, party websites, online periodicals etc that populate the online left-wing in NZ. In the end I’ve decided not to largely because of the difficulty in actually tracking them down, classifying whether they really fit into an article like this, and even just determining whether or not they’re even consistently active enough to include. That and rewriting the whole thing after it sat in the draft file for a month is largely why this is getting posted well after I initially thought it would. Anyway, onward…
While being the oldest media of the bunch, and in a sorry state compared to the earlier glory days of mass industrial militant newspapers in the early-20th century or the explosion of new left era publishing in the 1970s-1980s, there are still more print publications than any other medium being produced in NZ (barring text-only websites, as above). I suspect that podcasts and similar cross-medium online initiatives are on the way to outnumbering print publications in this country, especially if some of the papers attached to more rickety organisations fold over the coming years. However, there’s a certain quality to print publications that leads me to suspect there’ll be a place for them in perpetuity.
It’s probably worth knocking off the oldest publication still in print first. As far as can be told that would be the International Bolshevik Tendency‘s 1917, which has been going since 1986 and remains in publication despite a messy recent split. While not purely a ‘NZ’ leftist paper, it nevertheless carries a fair amount of relevant material given the IBT originated in and is still effectively led from NZ. Although consistent, 1917 is published annually since 1997 and prior to that was only ever published biannually. Presumably this state of affairs will continue into the foreseeable future. If you want to know what a post-Spartacist (or orthotrot, though I don’t know if the term is still in use) looks like in New Zealand, this is your go-to place. Amazingly, it’s not the only place for Spart(ish) views in print in NZ though. The obscure and distantly Spart-descended Communist Worker’s Group have published Class Struggle for a fair few years (though I’m not sure exactly how long). There’s not a huge amount to say about this one, it’s probably the most obscure print publication of note. Further, nothing one could find in here they wouldn’t find in better produced and more common publications elsewhere. More of a curiosity than anything else, maybe of interest if someone really wanted an in between of the material you’d find in 1917 and the World Socialist Web Site.
There are two other print publications in the Marxist tradition being put out in NZ, both of which are much more widely read and both loosely orbiting the IST tradition in one way or another. Both are also notable for their own reasons. Socialist Review, published by the International Socialist Organization since 1997, has the (probable) title of highest distribution of any radical left magazine in New Zealand. It’s also probably the only notable publication still being street thumped at protests and pickets in any real numbers (by the organisation’s three branches in Dunedin, Wellington, and Auckland). It’s worth keeping in mind that this is still only distribution in the hundreds, and so even for NZ not a large number of readers by any stretch. The same is true of the most polarizing paper floating around: the self-titled publication of post-Workers Party outfit Fightback, which replaced the older WP paper The Spark in 2013. As time has gone on this one has tended more towards longer form material over on-the-ground reporting or day-to-day political analysis. Alongside this the paper has become inseparably associated with the ‘conservative leftism’ theory developed and promoted by one of the paper’s editors Daphne Lawless. Outside the notoriety tied to the polarized opinions on the ‘conservative leftism’ thesis, Fightback’s contents are essentially slightly longer form coverage of issues any other socialist paper might interest itself in. Both the ISO and Fightback are also avid pamphleteers, keeping that little corner of socialist publishing alive.
Anarchist publishing continues to kick around, albeit in very anemic health. The main anarchist publication in NZ is Wellington’s AARGH! which has been trucking along generally biannually since 2014 and shows no signs of slowing. It’s published by The Freedom Shop, which occupies a corner of the Newton Opportunities for Animals Op-Shop, while also being stocked by Dunedin’s Black Star Books. In a way, this makes the paper unique in being primarily physically distributed through shopfronts. Speaking of, it’s worth noting that The Freedom Shop and Rebel Press continue to produce pamphlets, zines, and books (with Black Star Books stocking its own catalog as well). This gives anarchists in Wellington and Dunedin a surprisingly resilient infrastructure for distribution given the near absence of a particularly active anarchist scene in either city. One last entry, though rarely publishing these days, is the Aotearoa Workers Solidarity Movement‘s newssheet Solidarity. Most of AWSM’s content is focused on bread & butter reporting on industrial disputes and active campaigns, only being a short broadsheet there isn’t much room for anything else. If one is interested, whoever is still with AWSM has been decent enough to make Solidarity quite easy to find via LibCom.
Beyond magazines and papers of varying style and quality, there are also a small handful of intellectual initiatives sprouting out of the radical left which it would be amiss to ignore. The deceptively named Labour History Project Bulletin is not, in fact, a periodical for supporters of the Labour History Project to keep up to date with the organisation’s activities but is only a step away from a fully fledged scholarly journal in its own right. The bulletin is fairly regularly published and, unsurprisingly, has a strong focus on labour history and the points at which other fields of study cross with labour history in NZ. Joining the LHP Bulletin is the peer reviewed Counterfutures journal, which has been in publication since 2016 and counts a who’s who of NZs left-wing scholarly world among its editorial and advisory boards. Counterfutures is cross-disciplinary and explicitly presents itself as an intellectual center for left-wing intellectual development in NZ. It emerged from the same intellectual and political circles as the Kotare research & education center north of Auckland some years back and more recently the left-wing think tank Economic & Social Research Aotearoa.
Over the last few years a small but vibrant scene of video essayists and podcasts has begun to emerge locally, especially in the last year or so. It hasn’t been the easiest start, and a body of failed or shuttered projects lays at the feet of those projects which continue today. I suspect that over time not only will this new left media scene expand its viewer/listener base to eclipse the old print publications, but integrate various mediums into single multi-media projects. I also suspect there are many more promising projects to arise and collapse before this new frontier really shapes itself up.
Of the two new mediums being experimented with, the video essayists (or YouTubers in less wanky terms) are the smaller grouping by far. Three main figures have emerged to stake Aotearoa’s place in this world, and of these I’ll get the largest out of the way first. Gutian is the longer running and most subscribed of these channels, but is more a ‘breadtuber who happens to be from NZ’ than ‘a NZ breadtuber’ so to speak – with all (barring maybe one or two videos) of her content being on international issues and breadtube infighting. Check out her material nonetheless. Byron Clark and Conquest of Dread both started post-March 15th, with a focus on fairly good production quality and slower content output. Of the two, CoD has something more of an interest in cultural criticism while Byron’s material has thus far entirely focused on monitoring the strange world of NZs online far right. Neither should be pigeonholed as such, I must say, and both (Byron moreso than CoD) are more generally interested in making content which shines a light on NZ and the wider Pacific for a medium in which very little content is made on the region. Their work is, in that sense and in my view, admirable.
Moving from video to audio, the realm of podcasts is a bit more varied with both more projects in general and more defunct projects littering the field. Without dedicating any more time than necessary to it, I’ll just mention my own defunct podcast Freezing in Godzone which flashed in and out of existence with a few episodes in 2017. Matching Dunedin’s entry into the failed (or stalled is perhaps a nicer term) podcast world is Wellington’s Left Hook Media which had a similar run in late-2018 through 2019. Both had a fairly common format of interviews/’movement news’ cut with more study groupish episodes, which is overall probably one of the most common formats for left-wing podcasting as it has emerged over the last decade or so. This is shared by the now-defunct but much more substantial Shit Hot People’s Politburo, which had a much longer run of a year or so and a little shy of a few dozen episodes over 2018-2019. More so than either of the previous podcasts mentioned, the Politburo held a very clear ‘movement news’ orientation with pretty much all of their episodes mixing skits with interviews & coverage of political issues to which the extra-parliamentary left had taken an interest.
It’s worth noting that both Left Hook Media and Shit Hot People’s Politburo consisted of entirely Organise Aotearoa in their regular host rosters, though neither was in any official way tied to OA. Conversely, I actually think podcasts like Left Hook and the Politburo are fine examples of what I think will continue cropping up down the line – podcasting as the organic means of pursuing ‘movement media’ arising out of an activist scene plugged into various movements or struggles at any one time. I might have my pretty openly held disagreements with the people involved with each, but I think functionally both are pretty good local examples to follow down the line in creating independent left media focused on propagating news regarding existing struggles. Props to that.
A couple more possibly defunct (but also quite possibly just on hiatus given other activity) podcasts are around that’re worth mentioning as well. The eco-socialist Just Transmissions crew put out a handful of episodes in the first half of last year, including a shortish interview with Greens MP Catherine Delahunty. I take the sudden stop in episodes is mostly to do with co-host & lefty veteran Teanau Tuiono’s mayoral run on behalf of the Green Party in Palmerston North last year. Similarly the feminist action group Fem Force Aotearoa put out a couple episodes of a podcast last year that haven’t been followed up, and it likely has to do with Fem Force gearing up for the major campaign they’ve been waging to get the current abortion legislation being proposed through. Even if neither is rebooted, you should check out the Just Transmission co-hosts on twitter and Fem Force’s activities. Both are up to worthy and commendable shit that’s worth supporting.
With all that down, y’might be wondering whether there are any active independent podcasts among the extra-parliamentary left in NZ at the moment. The answer is yes, in fact there’re a couple floating around. No discussion of lefty podcasts in NZ could go by without paying ones dues to At The Drive Thru which once upon a time was The Egonomist and has hundreds of episodes + years of posting under its storied belt. At The Drive Thru is more than anything else a pretty straight down the middle news & analysis podcast, which mixes a fair bit of international affairs in with covering stuff happening in NZ. I wouldn’t be surprised if its influence isn’t in some way imprinted upon a more recently launched podcast, 1/200 which plays in a similar current affairs from a lefty perspective wheelhouse – albeit with pretty frequent guests on a menagerie of topics. Of late it’s set up a website and is looking to become more of a multimedia platform. Something I personally think is great, and wish ’em well in the endeavor. The last call in this article goes to the sci-fi socialist politics & pop culture oddballs Where’s My Jetpack?! The commie cosmonauts of this project only kinda fit in with the New Zealand podcast world, with one host being based in Australia but from NZ, and I’d imagine a fair chunk of the listenership being from NZ. But I’m claiming them anyway, because I happen to be a sci-fi nerd and I like the sprawling mixture of political analysis, sci-fi kulturkritic, long form interview, and old timey radio play they’ve developed. If every leftist podcast scene has at least one project by & for cultural analysis weirdos, this happens to be the one for NZ.
I see podcasts and multimedia projects that incorporate them being something that’ll develop pretty strong roots in the extra-parliamentary left in this country, marking the next transition of independent lefty media. In a way, that would be living up to the promise that the left-wing blogosphere seemed to make in the 2000s. It shouldn’t be forgotten that at one point The Daily Blog could have been just that, being as Bomber was a figure who’d worked in public TV & radio. I’d like to think that the kind of collaborative media project the short lived but ambitious Worker’s Charter tried to build circa 2005-2008 could well be realised today, in a different format but spirit more or less intact. Maybe that’s just a pipe dream on my part though. I do believe a gap exists for some kind of movement podcast which does mostly on the ground coverage or post-action reports, perhaps along the lines of what 1/200 is aiming for. I wouldn’t suggest, in saying that, that only the online is the way forward however. At present the socialist movement probably lacks the institutions for a single paper of the scale or ambition that Worker’s Charter had 15-odd years ago, let alone the kind of flourishing of papers that occurred in the ’70s or ’80s. But such a project would be worthwhile, and tied into a larger media network which takes advantage of the forward steps being made elsewhere even moreso.
It wouldn’t be me if I didn’t offer a couple reading suggestions for those interested in the topic. Toby Boraman’s article in the first issue of Counterfutures, The Independent Left Press and the Rise and Fall of Mass Dissent in Aotearoa since the 1970s, is the most direct work on the topic one could hope to find. It’d be worth reading his chapter The New Left in New Zealand in 2003’s On the Left: Essays on Socialism in New Zealand and his book on anarchism in NZ Rabble Rousers and Merry Pranksters. Erik Olssen’s classic on the great unrest of 1908-1913, The Red Feds, has a fair amount on the papers being produced by the industrial militant unions at the time. I’d also recommend Christine Dann’s Up From Under: Women and Liberation in New Zealand 1970-1985 which similarly covers the feminist independent media of the time.