Friday, 25 February 2011

To the North, to the North

January’s Artforum has an interesting short essay by Joan Kee (not, unfortunately, available online). She subjects Ryu Hwan-gi’s 2002 painting Soldiers Longing for Return to the kind of close reading socialist realist works rarely receive, and comes up with some valuable reflections along the way. Prune the inevitable prose tics of Pyongyangology (Kim Jong-il as the “diabolically shrewd heir”, “one of the world’s most secretive countries…”) and there’s writing with real insight and use.

Ryu Hwan-gi is one of the DPRK’s foremost artists, and Kee reads this work against the resistance of its generic conventions to interpretation:

Socialist-realist works have an uncanny way of plunging their viewers into a narrative and then leaving them there without hope of an exit. This tends to close down interpretation so the work can be read only within the bounds of allegory.

Soldiers Longing for Return slips this particular allegorising knot, Kee suggests, by way of its size, depicting this scene on what is, for a socialist-realist work, a relatively modest, small-scale representation. That, and its stray details from domestic life, make “a case for an alternative domesticity cast squarely within the frame of the martial.”

I won’t rehearse any more of Kee’s argument here; it’s worth you looking up the essay to follow her thoughts there.

Instead, I’d like to leave a stray detail of my own, one which came up through this reading of a reading. Do we need finer distinctions within the groups of work we call socialist realist? Kee’s right that it’s worth registering the fact that “so many paintings produced outside the neo-liberal metropoles remain firmly wedded to socialist realism”, although I don’t find her political account of that continuity convincing. More important, perhaps, are distinctions which touch both problems of representation and of ideology.

Debates about Socialist Realism (the boy meets tractor school of film, as the joke goes) have lost most of their intensity on the left in recent decades because the Stalinist state capitalisms which were the approach’s patrons and producers are mostly gone. The line that the two qualities socialist realism had was that it wasn’t socialist and wasn’t realist fits that era, but repeating it again now won’t take us further.

More precise, maybe, to read this image with the Juche idea as the masterplot we’ve got in mind, instead of the Russian and Zhdanovite narrative the term Socialist Realism carries along inside itself. If Socialist Realism of the ‘classic’ kind carried out the ideological work of romanticising and celebrating a non-existent freedom (murals of happy workers decorating factories where bureaucratic exploitation flourished), North Korean art more often contributes to reinforcing a sense of history at a standstill, representing the present as endless re-runs of the first years of the Korean War. The repetition of martial themes in North Korean art is one thing; their exaggerated grotesquery of war’s dangers and destructiveness is quite another.

It’s a Sea of Blood, as the title of the famous film and opera goes. Labelling something propaganda is a first step; specifying the aims and influences of that propaganda, as any good advertising student knows, requires more detail still.

Against that context Ryu’s image and its turning of “the very private space of the bedroom into a public space.” What we’re being hailed as here, though, I don’t fully know.


There’s an in-depth Al Jazeera documentary on the DPRK’s film industry you can see here.

And meanwhile the struggle to think about what Courbet called “real realism” continues: Gene Ray’s essay on "Dialectical Realism and Radical Commitments: Brecht and Adorno on Representing Capitalism" in the last Historical Materialism is very fine, and a good antidote if you’ve started at too many monumental lies for too long.

Friday, 11 February 2011

Stood Loyal Right Through

For a hundred and fifty-one days a lockout
The kids and Mum get a knockout!
The union funds pay, then run out
Hey, when will men have liberty
To stand together in unity?
A thousand votes but the company:
Lockouts! Knockouts!
Watch out, they’ll get the cops out!

This weekend is the start of a series of sixtieth anniversaries, all part of the complex story of how in 1951 Waterside Workers’ Union members were locked out of their job for 151 days. The lock-out and its supporting strikes – massive struggles in their own right – were part of one of those shameful episodes which give the lie to the idea that New Zealand history is a story of peaceful negotiation and social consensus. Lives were lost, democratic rights abolished, and people persecuted, all in the effort to smash the threat that the WWU’s confidence, militancy and idealism posed to the Cold War order.

So, it’s sixty years this Sunday since WWU members started to refuse overtime; sixty years Monday week since Holland’s National government declared a State of Emergency, suspending the most basic of democratic rights, and criminalising aid and publicity for the wharfies.

The heroism, dedication and courage of the men and women who fought that battle deserves celebration whatever its wider significance or consequence – reading reminiscences and accounts of the Lock-Out is an education in the power of ideas when combined with organisation, and a reminder of the astounding moral and intellectual resources workers’ organisations can summon in their defence. It’s a reminder, too, of the ruthlessness of those with power when their power and authority is threatened: Holland’s government made it an offense to provide food for locked-out workers’ families, and outlawed and censored any reporting or advocacy of the WWU’s side of the story (the vast bulk of journalism, liberal and otherwise, was perfectly happy to self-censor anyhow).

There is wider significance to this story, though. It’s one of those terrible defeats which contained within it the lineaments of a victory: if the watersiders hadn’t fought, what then for workers’ organisation and rights in the years following 1951? If National hadn’t faced 151 days of militant union activity, what confidence might they have had then, proceeding unchallenged? More than these mitigating factors, the WWU’s battle kept alive an ideal and example of self-activity and a vision of workers’ control in a Cold War-world determined to obliterate any trace of that tradition. Rosa Luxemburg, just before her own death, wrote about this peculiar kind of defeat:

What does the entire history of socialism and of all modern revolutions show us? The first spark of class struggle in Europe, the revolt of the silk weavers in Lyon in 1831, ended with a heavy defeat; the Chartist movement in Britain ended in defeat; the uprising of the Parisian proletariat in the June days of 1848 ended with a crushing defeat; and the Paris commune ended with a terrible defeat. The whole road of socialism – so far as revolutionary struggles are concerned – is paved with nothing but thunderous defeats. Yet, at the same time, history marches inexorably, step by step, toward final victory! Where would we be today without those “defeats,” from which we draw historical experience, understanding, power and idealism? Today, as we advance into the final battle of the proletarian class war, we stand on the foundation of those very defeats; and we can do without any of them, because each one contributes to our strength and understanding.

An important reason to celebrate, then, is to keep alive the memory of those men and women from whom we draw “historical experience, understanding, power and idealism.” The ‘enormous condescension of posterity’ has been more than usually condescending with this story; more often than not it’s been positively slanderous. Some years ago reviewer Don Aimer tried to wrap his contempt for the watersiders and their example in feminist garb:

It was all very well for the males to write up the dispute as a sort of industrial charge of the Light Brigade, an act of courageous defiance against intolerable odds in the face of fascist oppressors, but it caused a great deal of family disruption (interesting to contemplate were the values which required young people to give up their studies to earn money so that their fathers could remain staunch), marriage splits and hardship which continued in years for some cases.

Some concern, this, which erases the record of women’s involvement in the struggle as organisers, agitators, and leaders. Women were central to the lock-out, in both more traditional domestic roles and supporters, and as they developed or learnt new roles as fighters and campaigners. Women organised rallies, confronted police violence, spoke for the watersiders’ cause: they were, in other words, activists and active subjects in their own history, not the objects for our pity and pious ‘concern.’ Rona Bailey, who took great personal risk supporting the WWU, remembered: “People have asked me since whether I regretted being involved in all this because of the strain and stress. My reply was always ‘Never!’ It was a privilege to be involved in the struggle, and a phenomenal learning experience as well.” The distinguished feminist playwright Renee, whose play Pass It On pays tribute to the women fighters of 1951, recorded “today I think of all the women who stood loyal right throughout those 151 days and after. And I say to you, those women were not just marvellous, they were walking bloody miracles! Pass it on.”

Walking down Cuba Street in the weekend I imagine the scene sixty years ago, when unionists were attacked by police for holding a peaceful march, and batoned and beaten for trying to express their views.


For a hundred and fifty-one days, they shut up.
The secretary’s put in the lock-up
The country is told there’s a muck-up
They lock us out, then call it a strike.
The union is wrong unless it moves right
And working men must never unite
Or they’ll lock out, knock out,
Watch out, they’ve got the cops out.

Who did defeat the watersiders, then? One way celebrating and commemorating this great struggle can contribute to “our strength and understanding” is if it prompts us to reflect on these questions.

The standard liberal answer to this, usually, is that the watersiders were out of touch with the values of the mainstream of their society and, mislead by a waywardly militant leadership, they found themselves fighting an impossible struggle. Even the poet Bill Sewell, in his beautiful collection The Ballad of Fifty-One, echoes this line:

The men in the sitting-room
In shirtsleeves and braces,
a smoko getting out of hand,
and Jock full of headstrong phrases,
his head, his head, in the sand.

This misses the context and dynamics which led to the lock-out, though. One vital lesson for us from the ’51 is that we don’t pick whether to fight or not: the other side will do that for us. The question is always how that struggle is pursued. Having identified a union not prepared to go along with the Cold War consensus, New Zealand’s employers and the government were determined to provoke a fight with the watersiders in order to see them defeated. Sid Holland, in his own words, set out a challenge which had to be read as a provocation:

And I issued them what would be interpreted as being an ultimatum. And said that the government would be loath to take any extreme action, but we felt that, if conditions of emergency did exist, that we would require the powers of such a proclamation to deal with the situation.

Contrary to the liberal view, it’s a fantasy to imagine that a workers’ movement committed to democratic organising and political independence could have avoided a show-down.

The WWU’s leader Jock Barnes summed this up well, in his introduction to Dick Scott’s history, 151 Days:

"As surely as night follows day, an offensive by the Holland Government against the workers of New Zealand was inevitable. And years of inspired press propaganda had made it clear that the New Zealand Waterside Workers Union would be objective number one. Its record of progressive thought and militant policy, not only for its own members but for the working class as a whole, had made that certain ... The intended blitzkrieg developed into a long and costly offensive. While thousands of workers, their wives and children, suffered dearly, money power took some mighty blows. It is still licking its wounds. The boss is always the worker’s greatest organiser, and he educated tens of thousands of workers in the fundamentals of capitalist economy... The working class can thank those who fought for the conditions they still enjoy. Every day suffered by a miner’s wife and children, every further day that a freezing worker, watersider or seaman stood and fought back, reduced the chances of a general offensive."

More uncomfortable reflections follow this. Reading around the history of the lock-out, it’s soon clear that the National government would never have been able to sustain its attacks had it not faced a divided union movement, a supine parliamentary Labour opposition (Nash was “neither for the watersiders nor against them”, a position as baffling then as it is now), and a mainstream union leadership – in particular around Fintan Patrick Walsh – more concerned with neutralising the political challenge they saw in the WWU than with facing the threat the government’s offensive posed to all workers.

All this suggests, then, that most of the lessons we’ve learnt from 1951 are wrong. One of those lessons, for decades now, has been that unions can’t win in head-on confrontations with the government. Reflecting on the divisions within our own side – and the politics which hampered effective solidarity being sustained in that struggle – throw up questions of relevance for today. Tom Bramble, who edited Jock Barnes’ memoirs Never A White Flag, draws out the political conclusions from these questions:

Can it seriously be proposed that the New Zealand union movement has benefited from this cautious strategy? Union membership continues to fall, workplace union organisation is in disarray if not collapsed in many former strongholds, and cynicism about unionism is widespread. Over the long term, passivity is far more damaging to the union movement than defeated upsurges, for it saps the very life from the unions and lends no lessons to union activists other than frustration and resignation.

This 60th anniversary year is one in which we face new anti-union legislation, a Tory government, and uncertain economic times. I pay tribute to the bravery of the women and men of the ’51 and, in their examples, activity, and legacy, I think we can all look for lessons in our own time.


The images I’ve scanned from my copy of Dick Scott’s classic 151 Days: History of the Great Waterfront Lockout and Supporting Strikes (Wellington: New Zealand Waterside Workers’ Union, Deregistered, 1952).

The quotes from Bailey and Renee are taken from pp. 44, 48 of David Grant (ed.), The Big Blue Snapshots of the 1951 Waterfront Lockout (Christchurch: Canterbury University Press, 2004), as are the lines of the anonymous poem “151 Days” (p. 21), although I first learnt these from Tony Simpson’s older Road to Erewhon.

Don Aimer’s lines are from New Zealand Books March 2005, p. 19, and are chosen only because I have them easily to hand: there are worse sentiments expressed by others elsewhere.

Tom Bramble’s questions are from p. 26 of his excellent introduction to Jock Barnes, Never a White Flag (Wellington: Victoria University Press, 1998).

Bill Sewell's The Ballad of Fifty-One was brought out by HeadWorx in 2003, just before his tragically premature death. The quote I've taken is from p. 69.