Race & Reaction in New Zealand 1880-1950

This article appears in Fightback’s June issue on Fascism and Anti-Fascism. Please contact fightback.australasia@gmail.com for subscription information.

Race & Reaction in New Zealand 1880-1950: A Pre-History of the Far Right

By TYLER WEST

For the most part, New Zealand has missed the kinds of ultra-reactionary mass movements which typified fascist and otherwise hard-line nationalist politics during periods of crisis in various other countries. Classical fascist movements or contemporary populist chauvinism (such as, say, ‘Powellism’ in Britain or ‘Hansonism’ in Australia) has largely failed to attain the same kind of mass following. That said, New Zealand is far from free of reactionary politics as a whole, and the social forces underlying such politics are neither absent nor silent in New Zealand. To understand those forces, and how they coalesced in the early days of their organisation, is to go some way to understanding what a New Zealand fascism might look like today.

White New Zealand Policy 1880s-1930s

The earliest forms of popular organised racist movements in New Zealand began to gain influence in the later decades of the 19th century. In his seminal work on the extreme right in New Zealand, The Politics of Nostalgia, Paul Spoonley identified leagues that formed in response to a growing fear of certain immigrants who they believed were a threat to British racial supremacy. However before getting into the organised groups who formed in response to this perceived threat, it is worth detailing the scope and scale of the legislation they fought to entrench and extend.

A significant amount of legislation passed from the 1880s to the 1930s targeted both specific groups and non-British immigrants in general. From around 1881 onward, the government enacted policies targeting Chinese, Indian, Samoan, Dalmatian, Italian, and Jewish immigrants.

A sizable number of the small Dalmatian community worked in the kauri-gum industry; on this basis legislation to restrict licensing to British gum diggers was passed in 1898, 1908, and 1910. Later, Central Europeans more generally were restricted in the post-war period. After the passing of the Undesirable Immigrants Exclusion Act 1919, people from the former German and Austro-Hungarian empires required a license from the Attorney-General to enter New Zealand. Although the legislative council found more difficulty in legislating against Indian immigrants, given British opposition as they were British subjects, the Undesirable Hawkers Prevention Bill was passed in 1896 with the aim of restricting their movement within New Zealand. In an attempt to work around this British opposition, the 1899 Immigration Restriction Act required non-British immigrants to make their applications in a European language.

The most significant series of legislative actions to be taken were against the Chinese. Beaglehole notes in Refuge New Zealand that some 21 pieces of legislation were passed against the growing Chinese community from 1879-1888 alone. The 1881 Chinese Immigrants Act initiated a £10 poll tax and restricted the number of Chinese immigrants to one per 10 tons of the vessels weight on which they arrived. This was cut in 1888 to one per 100 tons and again in 1896 to one per 200 tons, with the poll tax increased to £100 (a full decade’s earnings for the average Chinese worker). The poll tax remained in place for 63 years, only being repealed in 1944 by the Finance Act (No. 3). Naturalisation laws were altered in 1892 to be free for all immigrants bar Chinese, and again in 1908 to end any path for Chinese to be naturalised citizens. Naturalisation for Chinese only began anew over four decades later in 1952. In 1907, Chinese immigrants were required to undertake an additional English reading test. Then in 1908, Chinese people were required to undergo thumb-printing in order to acquire re-entry permits when leaving the country. They were also barred from receiving several state benefits by legislation passed in the 1890s-1920s.

The ‘White New Zealand Policy’, as it came to be known, had thus materialised out of a complex web of specific and generalised legislation largely but not entirely focused on the entry of new non-British immigrants. It formally came into being through the Immigration Restriction Amendment Act 1920. This created a requirement to apply for permanent residency before arrival, effectively placing discretion for every applicant at the hands of the Minister of Customs. This was further extended by the Immigration Restriction Amendment Act 1931 which prevented the entry of the majority of European immigrants from the continent. Although a very small number of immigrants still arrived, the arrival of Asians and Southern Europeans almost halted. It would not be until the aftermath of WWII that these policies would start to relax.

This legislation was not without its critics at the time (albeit small in number); Legislative Council member Henry Scotland was an early, prominent, and vocal opponent to restrictions on Chinese immigration. However, as the democratic state was already implementing hard-line immigration policies, early organised racist groups merely needed to call for existing policy to be maintained and expanded. Both historically progressive and reactionary governments alike pursued such policies; many of the aforementioned pieces of legislation were introduced under the first Liberal government’s five successive terms in office from 1890-1911. William Pember Reeves, who represented the most radical left faction of the party (the ‘state socialists’ as they were dubbed), was a vocal proponent of severe curbs to Chinese immigration. However, the deeply conservative Reform government, who took office with the end of the first Liberal government, introduced the harshest of the White NZ Policy laws. Reform PM William Massey on the White NZ Policy:

the result of a deep-seated sentiment on the part of the large majority of the people of this country that this Dominion shall be what is often called a ‘white’ New Zealand.

Such policies alone do not make NZ any more of a proto-fascist state or any more racist than the Anglosphere or much of Europe at the time. Racism alone does not a fascist make. It did, however, form a template that some fascists in the present day still use as a basis for their vision of New Zealand, and can be considered one of the main pillars of openly ethno-nationalist politics here.

Racial Supremacy Leagues 1890s-1920s

Early racist organisations appearing at the end of the 19th century aligned broadly in purpose with the White New Zealand Policy. The cross-class support within Pākehā society for severe immigration measures formalised largely in anti-immigrant leagues such as the Anti-Asiatic League and the Anti-Chinese League. Campaigns opposed to Yugoslav (Dalmatian) and Indian immigration likewise formed at the same time around the 1890s-1920s. These organisations were far from isolated and did not require front groups to gain public support like later far right formations would. The Anti-Chinese League and Returned Services Association (RSA) forged an alliance which proved a driving civic force in support for the Immigration Amendment Restriction Act 1920, an alliance which drew effective support from both the racial purity obsessed National Defence League and the early Labour Party alike.

Several explicit white supremacist organisations existed alongside the various anti-immigrant campaigns. The White Race League formed in 1907, with the goal of establishing a ‘white race congress’ in Europe to ensure the survival of the white race, considered to be facing an existential threat from Asian immigration. This internationalist outlook of encompassing the entirety of the ever ephemeral ‘white race’ the world over, rather than merely New Zealand, made the League a somewhat unique organisation. In effect, this amounts to the white genocide meme but many decades too early for the term. However, this ideological outlook made little difference in local practice, amounting to anti-Chinese lobbying similar to the anti-immigrant leagues of the time.

The White New Zealand League is the most well-known league from the period, formed by Pukekohe potato farmers in 1925. Their activities mirrored those of similar leagues in the hosting of public talks and publishing of widely-distributed pamphlets decrying the immigration of ‘lowly Asiatics’. The initial thrust of the organisation was to pressure the government to pass legislation further cracking down on Chinese and Indian immigrants, in order to undercut the perceived threat of Asian landowners to the largely white rural farmers. This would develop over time at the behest of the League’s chief ideologue and secretary George Parvin. His own efforts to research and present various internationally-sourced articles on the subjects of eugenics, ‘scientific’ race theory, and ‘problems’ with immigrant communities in other white-dominated parts of the Commonwealth, heavily influenced the thinking and rhetoric of the League. Their most infamous pamphlet, Citizens of the Future are the Children of Today, drew on contemporary figures from Australia and the US. The pamphlet bore a credo reading as though it were a trial run of the 14 words:

Your obligations to posterity are great. Your inheritance was a White New Zealand. Keep it so for your childrens’ children, And the Empire.

In 1926, the league sent a request to 200 local bodies throughout NZ to pass resolutions supporting the League’s aims, for which they received positive replies from 160 of the bodies. According to Spoonley in The Politics of Nostalgia, those 160 bodies represented some 670,000 New Zealanders at the time (about 47% of the population).

The League produced, stoked, and kept alive a national hysteria around the supposed imminent collapse of New Zealand as a ‘white’ Dominion. The League was supported by prominent civil society groups (the RSA, for example), early nationalist groups (such as the NZ Natives Association or the National Defence League), to some extent the Labour Party, and several (particularly rural) MPs. This was largely motivated by fear from the white petit-bourgeois (small-scale business people and landowners) of competition in the local market by (typically Asian) foreigners. Although the League would largely be dead by the 1930s, Parvin remained a vocal figure in Pukekohe politics until the 1950s. The policies of the League would likewise be taken up after its demise by organisations including the RSA and the Pukekohe Federated Farmers (who argued as late as 1952 for the seizure of all Asian-owned land and their forced repatriation).

Distant Early Warning: Joe Kum Yung and Lionel Terry

In establishing the tactics which these erstwhile defenders of the white race were willing to utilize, it is important to cover the 1905 murder of retired Chinese miner Joe Kum Yung by committed racist agitator Lionel Terry. Yung was an elderly retired miner who’d lived in New Zealand for 25 years, crippled from an accident and unable to earn his way back to China. Terry was a recent immigrant, having only been in the country for four years when he shot Kum Yung. Son of a successful English merchant, he’d spent time in the military and traveled to Southern Africa where he fought as a mounted policeman in the Second Matabele War. He also spent time in Australia, Canada, Dominica, Martinique, and the US. His, in his own words, deep hatred for ‘black and coloured races’ was well established by the time he immigrated here. He wrote what is likely one of the first far right tracts produced in New Zealand in 1904 while working for the Lands & Survey Department in Northland, The shadow. Published by Terry himself, the book was mostly verse with a long introduction preaching the need for racial purity and arguing for something approaching a kind of vaguely pre-Strasserist racial class war. From July-September 1905 he undertook a 300km trek from Mangonui to Wellington, distributing The Shadow and giving anti-Chinese lectures along the way. Upon arriving in Wellington, he sought audience from government officials and parliamentarians to hear his views, who heard him out but made no promises as to his proposed policies.

Ten days after arriving, Terry walked onto Haining St and shot Joe Kum Yung in the head, handing himself into police the morning after. If any motivation went into the selection of Kum Yung specifically as the Chinese man he would kill that night, it was likely his age and disability. The day after the killing a letter he sent to The Press was published.

I will not under any consideration allow my rights and those of my brother Britons to be jeopardised by alien invaders: to make this perfectly plain I have this evening put a Chinaman to death.

Terry was convicted and sentenced to death on the 21st November that year, but it was commuted to life imprisonment in a sanatorium on the grounds of insanity a week later. For a time after his imprisonment, he had considerable public sympathy, if not for his actions then for his views. Though dying in 1952 at Seacliff Mental Hospital in obscurity after decades of imprisonment, he has become something of a low-key martyr for some corners of the far right. Terry represents both the logical conclusion of the Sinophobic hysteria of the era, and a distant early warning of the kinds of vulgar nationalism which continue to hold a certain public sympathy over a century later. Likewise, the shooting set a precedent of what could be an ‘acceptable’ amount of political violence without damaging the overall appeal of the ideology. Though sporadic, acts of violence against political opponents and various communities would dot the far right into the latter end of the 20th century.

Jewish Refugees and Anti-Semitism 1930s-1940s

The common conception of New Zealand as a country that avoided popular fascism is often either attributed by the left to the First Labour Government or by the right to a cultural affiliation for a ‘fairness’ driven rational capitalism. The Savage government oversaw the most wide-ranging period of economic and social reform yet experienced in New Zealand, matched only by the reforms of the right under Douglas and Richardson. To put it in very moralistic terms, efforts to ameliorate the suffering experienced during the Depression to some extent robbed potential far right movements of their social base among the petit-bourgeois and possible reactionary working-class allies. At a very surface level this is accurate enough, at least to suffice the question without really thinking about it too much. At most the New Zealand Legion has been suggested as, if not a directly comparable organisation, one which filled the socio-political role of such movements for the local context. However, such an explanation skates over the fact that not only were the socio-economic factors prevalent but a virulent racial politics was at best far from uncommon.

Although refugee humanitarianism is raised as a major pillar of liberal iterations of New Zealand national identity, it would be ahistorical to claim this as the case for much of the 20th century. In the years leading up to the outbreak of war, New Zealand accepted just a thousand refugees from Europe. Bolivia, with a comparable population of around 2.5 million to New Zealand’s 1.6 million, took in fourteen thousand refugees in the same period. This is in no small part because there was no willingness to wind back enforcement of the White New Zealand policy. Refugees were not yet distinguished from other immigrants as any particularly special case, and so still had to meet the extraordinarily strict entrance criteria in place. This was compounded by a direct antipathy toward Jewish immigration. The Comptroller of Customs in the mid-1930s, quoted by Ann Beaglehole, “Non-Jewish applicants are regarded as a more suitable type of immigrant.” Then Minister of Customs Walter Nash put it more tactfully in expressing his concern that “There is a major difficulty of absorbing these people in our cultural life without raising a feeling of antipathy to them.” In 1937 an Aliens Committee was established to consider restrictions on refugees, partially in response to mounting applications by those fleeing Europe and partially in response to the number of pro-Nazi organisations appearing. This led in June 1940 to the policy of “not granting entry permits for aliens to enter New Zealand except in most exceptional circumstances”, effectively closing the door to all further refugees. In October the same year the Aliens Emergency Regulations came into effect, allowing the deportation and internment of ‘aliens’.

Admiration for European fascism was likewise far from uncommon as the 1930s progressed, a topic covered by both Spoonley and Beaglehole. Some publishers were openly sympathetic to the Nazi cause, and major figures on the Australasian far right wrote prolifically to a growing audience at the time. AN Field, son of Reform MP Tom Field, took his place as one of the earliest far right ideologues in New Zealand, and was a strong influence on the social credit movements of Australia and New Zealand. Eric Butler, who would go on to found the Australian League of Rights (and later its Kiwi cousin) likewise began his long career in the 1930s publishing anti-Semitic tracts. Anti-Semitic and pro-fascist sentiment wasn’t restricted to the reactionary fringe however. A radio program for the Hitler Youth was carried on the New Zealand Radio Record listings right up to 1938, among other shortwave broadcasts from Berlin. John A. Lee spoke of his admiration for certain aspects of Hitler and Mussolini’s doctrines in parliament in 1938, and had pamphlets published on the matter as late as 1940. German social clubs drew Kiwis sympathetic to the Nazi cause, and some came under explicitly fascist leadership.

While far from uncommon, this was likewise not universal. A visit by Count Felix von Luckner, part of a two-year diplomatic world voyage sponsored by the Nazi government in 1937, was met with mixed responses. While his lectures were well enough received, his overall visit to New Zealand never escaped a cloud of suspicion and hostility from many who considered him little more than a propagandist for Nazism.

Beaglehole summarizes of the period that “Suspicion of foreigners, and of diversity, was still very much a feature of the New Zealand to which the refugees came.” Most anti-Semitism in New Zealand at the time was, however, diffuse and without organised expression. The one major exception to this was the internal politics of the exploding social credit movement.

Two Movements: New Zealand Legion and Social Credit League

Although fascism is an inaccurate term to give either the New Zealand Legion or the Social Credit League, both are important aspects of reactionary political history though for different reasons. Looking at both gives more an indication where the greatest potential for fascism lay in the 1930s.

New Zealand Legion

nz-legion-cartoon

Cartoon depicting NZ Legion leader Campbell Begg

The Legion came into existence as the effort of a number of dissident Reform supporters, largely farmers, who had become increasingly disillusioned with the ‘socialistic’ response of the sitting conservative government to the worsening Depression. Initially it appeared as the New Zealand National Movement in 1932, after little success renaming to the Legion in 1933 and appointing Robert Campbell Begg the leader. The period saw the growth of new conservative parties and organisations well to the right of the ruling Reform/United Coalition throughout the early 1930s. This was in response to (comparatively mild) interventionist measures being used by the government in response to the economic crisis. The Legion rested on core values of nationalism, individualism, personal morality and sacrifice for the nation; Begg identified moral decay and a corrupt party system as the reasons for the country’s crisis. As to the latter, the Legion proposed to abolish formalised parties and interest groups altogether, returning to a mythologised political dynamic from before the formation of the Liberal Party.

In economic terms the Legion was torn between factions within the organisation who supported proto-Keynesian interventionism, social credit monetary theories, and laissez-faire free market economics. Much of the leadership were free market purists. However, the Chairman of the Legion’s Economic Research Committee, Evan Sydney Parry, was enamoured with the American New Deal and praised Fascist Italy as an exemplar of ‘sane planning or state collectivism’. He was responsible for much of the Legion’s economic policy and produced reading lists for all members which covered writers from founding social credit theorist Major C.H. Douglas to Keynes to the Fabians G.D.H. Cole and Sir William Beveridge.

At times the movement held an air of crypto-fascist aesthetic in its fanatical crusade for ‘national unity’ and desire to abolish interest groups and the party system. But this was underpinned by its individualist ethos, arguing that ‘party dictatorship’ had curtailed the freedom of MPs. Furthermore, the emphasis on national unity and greater autonomy from Britain was merely an extension of this individualism to the scale of the nation-state – an orientation toward national independence. As Pugh puts it in his 1969 thesis on the Legion, they desired for New Zealand a return to “a ‘free age’ assumed to have existed before Vogel’s borrowing policies and Seddon’s state paternalism.” This nationalist ethos was reflected in the organisation on a national level. Though it peaked in 1933 and collapsed through 1934, for a brief window of around six months the Legion peaked at 20,000 members spread across 700 branches organised on a national level into 18 Divisions. For reference the Labour Party had 30,000 members at the time, while the Social Credit League numbered about 4,000; though Begg was well off his predicted 400,000 members, the Legion was for a time a major civic force. Indeed, their early public meetings in major centres such as Dunedin, Nelson, Wellington and Auckland averaged 2,000 attendees. They also did well in smaller towns, meetings in places like Gore and Hastings drawing 500 people were not uncommon.

The Legion had some fascism-adjacent elements, but the historical consensus (for which I agree) is that they were not fascist in any sense of the word. The New Zealand Legion embodied a (frequently incoherent) conservative radicalism that was willing to dabble in militarist tendencies, but in the end was still dedicated to the parliamentarian system. They left little behind when they collapsed in 1934, and conservative reaction funnelled through various conservative formations before eventually channelling into the newly formed National Party a few years later. The Social Credit League had a longer lasting impact. But the Legion was unique in its mass organisation on militaristic lines and nationalist character.

Social Credit League

While not as dramatic a surge as the Legion, social credit theory experienced an explosive growth in New Zealand across the mid-1930s. To do so, it is necessary to understand the class basis for social credit organisations among the rural petite-bourgeois. By the end of the 1920s, the class alignment of the major parties had entered a period of disoriented fracture. This was especially so for the rural petite-bourgeois (largely small farmers) who changed allegiance several times. As an organised political force, small farmers had formed part of the liberal-labour coalition which underpinned the long lived Liberal government of the 1890s-1900s. They had benefited greatly from the busting up of big landowning monopolies and other land reforms over the 1890s. However, they began to drift away and assert political class independence as early as 1899 with the formation of the original New Zealand Farmers’ Union.

Rural political support across the entire farming community was heavily influenced by the Farmers’ Union, which redirected considerable support away from the progressive ‘lib-lab’ coalition toward considerably more conservative politics. This pivot toward open support for property ownership and capitalism entailed in turn a growing hostility to trade unions and socialist ideas and was vital in redirecting support from the Liberals to Reform leading into the 1911 election. During the Great Strike of 1913, Massey’s Cossacks – the mounted strike breaking militia mobilised by Prime Minister William Massey to smash militant workers’ pickets – drew largely from young small farmers. But by the 1922 party dissatisfaction had returned in the form of the newly established Country Party, founded on a mixture of agrarianism and social credit theory by dissidents in the Auckland Farmers’ Union. Though never a major party, it peaked at 2.34% in 1931, it contested five elections from 1925 to 1938 and party leader Harold Rushworth held the Bay of Islands seat from 1928 until retiring in 1938. The party tended to align with Labour in parliament out of a mutual distrust for the financial and banking industries. Though Labour began altering policy to accommodate small farmers from 1927 onward, rural petite-bourgeois support for Labour wouldn’t occur until the mid to later-1930s.

Outside parliament, a growing interest in social credit theory – which had partially been articulated by the Country Party – saw the development of the Social Credit Association over the 1930s. The movement surged in support over the first half of the decade, from 6 branches nationwide in 1931 to 225 in 1935. It was helped in part by a campaign against the Reserve Bank Bill in 1932-’33, and a national tour by the originator of social credit theory Major C.H. Douglas in 1934. Social Credit secured an informal alliance with Labour over the mid-1930s, in some ways mirroring the alliance of the working class and the old rural petite-bourgeois which supported the Liberals in the 1890s. It entailed the rural petite-bourgeois suspending their opposition to trade unions while the Labour Party entertained monetary reforms into the 1935 election. The alliance was brief, and was largely moribund by the later 1930s, though some individual Labour ministers remained sympathetic to social credit ideas. Among them John A. Lee, Frank Langstone, Walter Nash, and William Jordan; Langstone even ran for the Social Credit Party in 1957. In 1942 Social Credit decided an independent electoral front was needed and formed the short lived Real Democracy Movement to contest the 1943 election with 25 candidates. It was a stillborn effort, however, as the RDM dissolved following a weak result of just 0.53% (4421 votes). The foray into electoral politics would be completed by the transformation of the Social Credit Association in 1953 into the Social Credit Political League.

It is now the point to discuss why Social Credit must be considered in a discussion of potential fascism in 1930s New Zealand. In The Politics of Nostalgia , Spoonley records a number of instances of anti-Semitism within Social Credit from the 1930s right through to the 1980s. Conspiracy theories around the financial industry and the banking system were common in New Zealand well beyond the rural petite-bourgeois during the 1930s-1940s. But it was in the pages of publications aligned to the social credit movement such as Plain Talk , Why, New Zealand Social Credit News , and the New Zealand Social Creditor that the link was explicitly made in essays and opinion pieces with “the Jewish problem”. Plain Talk is particularly noted as being the primary distributor of anti-Semitic material during the period, producing tracts with such titles as Is There a Jewish Peril?, The Hidden Hand Revealed and material on the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion”. Various papers were responsible for running explicitly anti-Semitic and sometimes pro-fascist pieces (for example a 1935 article in Why praising Hitler, simply attributed to ‘Pro-Nazi’). Although Plain Talk was the only openly fascist publisher at the time, anti-Semitism was rife in the pages of a number of magazines, and within Social Credit at large.

At the time the most important author for both far right politics and the rural petite-bourgeois in general in New Zealand was Nelson born journalist A.N. Field. Son of the Reform MP Tom Field, he began his political publishing as early as 1909 with the conspiratorial magazine Citizen. He continued to write various tracts and books from Nelson from the 1910s right through to the 1960s. While his work was predicated on monetary conspiracy right from the start, it is his publications in the 1930s that pushed open anti-Semitism. Texts such as The Truth About the Slump (1931), The Money Spider (1933), The World’s Conundrum (1934), Today’s Greatest Problem (1938), and The Truth About New Zealand (1939) all mixed social credit theory and anti-Semitism. Also noteworthy are publications like Unmasking Socialism (1938) and Why Colleges Breed Communists (1941), further throwing anti-socialist polemics into the heady mix of crank economic theory and anti-Semitism. Anti-socialism held a position as a central pillar of right-wing reactionary politics, with the invocation of creeping socialism being a key feature in the wider conspiratorial worldview. This proved enduringly useful to groups and figures on the reactionary right given its common political ground with more mainstream conservatism. Though not the only anti-Semite writing in New Zealand at the time by far, A.N. Field is notable for his systematic application of a ‘world Jewish conspiracy’ to New Zealand conditions and the international attention he received in doing so. His books, alongside international acclaim, were wildly popular within Social Credit.

The contraction of the rural petite-bourgeois over the coming decades shrunk the support base for Social Credit, and at any rate few in the movement held revolutionary aims. Many, despite holding conspiratorial anti-Semitic world views and suspicious of the government, had no interest in moving beyond a reformist response to this perceived threat. But it was within the Social Credit Association, and the many figures and smaller social credit organisations that revolved around it, that coherent fascist ideology formed with the capacity to mass publish that message to a wide audience. The support base and membership existed among the rural petite-bourgeois for a genuine fascist movement, while the conspiratorial theory and widespread racial prejudice of the era was conducive to fascist ideology spreading into wider society at large. Though no truly fascist mass movement existed in New Zealand during the 1930s, the conditions for one certainly did.

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