Preserving Aotearoa/NZ’s revolutionary literature

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Radical Aotearoa Digital Archive (or RADAR) is a project to preserve the publications and media of the radical left in New Zealand. This archive is intended to serve as the central hub for efforts to digitise the many print publications of the radical left in New Zealand produced over the years – from the major newspapers & magazines, to individual pamphlets or leaflets, and eventually perhaps even rare books. Daphne Lawless, member of the Fightback editorial group and former editor of Socialist Worker Monthly Review and UNITY (2005-2011), was invited to give a talk to the launch of RADAR in Dunedin, New Zealand, on 2 February – the following message was read out.

Revolutionary greetings to comrades and friends at the launch of RADAR. I would have liked to be there, but travel expenses with a wife and toddler in tow were prohibitive.

For my sins, one of the many tasks with which I have burdened myself is cataloguing and sorting the Red Kiwi Library – the books and periodicals collection of the Communist Party of New Zealand and its successor, Socialist Worker, of which I was a leading member. To some extent, for me this has been similar to sorting through the effects of a deceased relative. Nostalgia, combined with occasional delight of discovery, and sadness for what might have been.

I caught myself wondering on several occasions – is this what nearly 100 years of revolutionary socialist activism in Aotearoa/New Zealand amounts to? A hundred or so boxes of paper, much of it nothing but trash, most of the rest only of interest to sad obsessives like… well, like the people who’ve made it here today?

“Publishing the revolutionary paper” has been a nostrum of Lenin’s school of revolutionary politics since its beginning. The idea was not only the question of getting The Truth (or, in the Russian, pravda) into the working class’s hands, but that writing, producing, distributing and financing the paper were the “scaffolding” around which a revolutionary party might be built that would seize state power.

Far too often, though, The Paper (and revolutionary publishing in general) became not a tool for building the party; rather, the party becomes a mechanism for keeping The Paper alive, and thus giving a few committed socialist writers/editors something to do with their spare time. You’ve got to wonder: what is the point of a “revolutionary paper” which is funded by the revolutionaries themselves, rather than by the audience they hope to reach? The financial question is a political one.

I was part of the last major attempt at a mass socialist paper in this country, Workers’ Charter. I personally believe it was an excellent broad-left paper. But the working masses who read it clearly did not think it was vital enough to support it financially – and we quickly ran out of our own resources.

Clearly basing our activity around a paper publication would be woefully insufficient in the Internet era. (Workers’ Charter didn’t even have a website!) Gone are the days when we could sneer at social media and websites as “petty bourgeois”, the kind of thing that REAL WORKERS don’t waste their time with. Workers under 30 are digital natives. And workers over 30 are increasingly having to catch up with them. (One interesting tangent is how the online growth of conspiracy theory can be traced to people who grew up pre-Internet getting online late in life – without having developed the ability to recognize trolling, scamming and disinformation.)

To be frank, these days a Facebook post will probably reach as many workers as standing on a street corner selling a newspaper – and it takes less time, effort and expense. So is revolutionary publishing dead? Well, as I see it, it’s a lot like the music industry, and not just because it seems to rely in practice on exploiting the labour of the young and enthusiastic. No, it’s because it requires alternative revenue streams to function. Crowdfunding, Patreon and similar online initiatives are one possible solution to this. But there’s also the issue that it’s hard to get people to pay money for a non-physical good. So, the link between support for the content and handing over some capitalist currency so it can keep being produced needs to be re-established.

I would also say that one advantage that paper has over electrons is permanence. Electronic publications can be reproduced infinitely at no cost. But storage and bandwidth do cost, and are impermanent. On my office desk now are CPNZ publications going back to 1934. They sat in various offices for 85 years, gathering dust but otherwise intact. Can we be sure that the YouTube videos and podcasts which are now the cutting edge of leftist media outreach will even be still available in 10 years, let alone 85? The impermanence of the online medium is actually considered a benefit for people who don’t want to have their teenage Xena: Warrior Princess fan-fiction following them around as adults. But that’s the opposite of what socialist publishing needs.

Because there is another major problem in the actually existing socialist movement, and that is the lack of continuity. Over the last 10 years in New Zealand politics, all but one of the major revolutionary socialist groups collapsed. To make a broad summary: the “baby boom” generation who’d been carrying these organisations on their backs for 50 years were not able to continue, and the “Millennial” generation weren’t interested in carrying on in the old ways. (And there weren’t nearly enough of the in-between sort, like myself.)

New organisations and media projects have arisen. But there’s no organisational continuity. The “tacit knowledge” that literature on education in organisations talks about hasn’t been passed down. And most of the “explicit knowledge” contained in publications isn’t read by the younger generation. They don’t think they need it. It’s almost like 1969 again – “never trust anyone over 30” (and also, all the people who were anarchist hippies yesterday seem to be turning into Marxist-Leninists!) We seem to be re-inventing the wheel in some cases.

Which is where RADAR comes in, by at least providing some kind of permanence to electronic revolutionary publications in Aotearoa/New Zealand over the last 25 years. I hope that there will be synergy between this project and my own of making the “Red Kiwi Library” available to the movements once again. There’s a hell of a lot of dusty old polemics sitting in my office that could use scanning. Since the revolutionary groups have either collapsed or ossified, it seems to be left to us (amateur) historians and archivists to keep the ideas of the past alive.

A website of ancient blog posts, or a bunch of dusty old boxes of books, might not be a great legacy, but they are what we have. And you know what they say about people who forget the past.

The struggle continues.

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