Interview Transcript: Tyler West, Red-Brown Zombies 3

First released 28 November, 2019. Available here.

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Ani White: Welcome to the November Local Area Network report, this month we’re doing something a little different, with guest Tyler West giving a history of the far right in Aotearoa/New Zealand. Tyler is a historian and archivist, with an interest in the history of the radical left, organised labour, social movements, fascism and fringe politics in New Zealand. He writes for various publications, along with his blog The Ice Bloc, and can be found on twitter, @comradebloc… So, welcome Tyler.

Tyler West: Hey, thanks Ani. I’m gonna jump straight into the spiel… so, due to not having a mass fascist movement during the classical era of fascism, it’s been a pretty long-held common belief that there never really was New Zealand fascism of note, or New Zealand fascists of note, or anything similar to it or adjacent to it, just very very fringe individual notables, but nothing of real note. But that simply isn’t the case, and even in the era of fascism, even before it actually, worrying trends were both present in New Zealand and popular.

So without going all the way back to initial arrival of British colonists, which is where the story really starts obviously, I think the best point is to kick off with Premier Alfred Domett, who was the premier who was serving at the beginning of, and holds a great deal of responsibility for, the Waikato War. He was a firm believer that Māori were too ‘savage’ to ever be equal to ‘civilised men’, and that was a common view at the time, but it’s one that the Waikato War helped solidify, far moreso than the ambiguous results of the Northern and Taranaki Wars, where local Māori kind of came out of the end of it without really having been fully defeated in the field. Especially, it’s worth noting, not by British soldiers either. So by the end of the 19th century, Māori resistance to British rule had been militarily defeated, after another 10-20 years of warfare at that point, and pacifist resistance, mostly famously with Parihaka, had been smashed with pretty brutal force. It became commonly accepted among Pākehā [European-origin New Zealanders] society that Māori were a “dying race”, who were doomed to either die out or be fully assimilated into white society. Obviously this didn’t wind up happening, but at the very tail-end of the 19th century, and in the first decades or two of the 20th century, it was a very common belief among Pākehā that that was the case.

The settler-colonial state continued its acts of Othering non-white inhabitants of New Zealand by switching to immigrants into the latter half of the 19th century [and early 20th]. Principally this was expressed by these Leagues that were dedicated to excluding primarily Asian immigrants at the level of civil society, and by these ever-increasingly restrictive immigration controls at the level of state policy. Eventually these policies coalesced into what’s now called the White New Zealand policy, and a short rundown of all these different pieces of legislation that led up to it would include restrictions in the gumdigging industry, which were aimed at curtailing Dalmation, or sometimes referred to as Croatian Dalmations in Croatia today, or even just Yugoslav immigration, there were acts that were passed in 1898, 1908 and 1910, aimed at doing that, gumdigging being the main industry where local Dalmations were working. There were poll taxes, and restrictions on the number of migrants based on ship tonnage, in 1881, 1888, and 1896. That eventually reached 100 pound per head, and just one Chinese immigrant allowed on a ship per 200 tonnes of ship tonnage in total. There were restrictions on the entry of “Assyrian hawkers”, which were fuctionally aimed at Levantine Arabs, that was the restrictions brought in under a bill called the Undesirable Hawkers Prevention Bill in 1896. There were requirements that non-British immigrants must take their application in a European language, enacted by the Immigration Restriction Act of 1899. And that was designed specifically to reduce immigration of non-white British subjects, in spite of opposition by British officials, who remembered that New Zealand was just another colony, and they didn’t want there to be any specific Acts of legislation that would keep out other British subjects from entering New Zealand. There were also alterations to the naturalisation laws, to reduce and eventually just end all pathways of naturalisation for Chinese immigrants in 1892 and 1908, and obviously the most famous of these laws, the ones that targeted Chinese immigrants into New Zealand, because there were just so many, and the panic around Chinese immigration was so fierce across the country, in spite of all reason, given the tiny number of Chinese people who were actually living here, even if there was something to worry about in the first place.

This framework of legislation, which made up the White New Zealand Policy, was finally formalised in a piece called the Immigration Restriction Amendment Act 1920, which created a requirement to apply for permanent residency before arrival in New Zealand, and that effectively handed the Minister of Customs direct discretion over every single applicant to come to New Zealand. Now this resulted in a near-total stop to all non-white immigration for about two decades. It was bolstered by the Immigration Restriction Amendment Act 1931, which reduced Continental European immigration, and in 1919 the Undesirable Immigrants Exclusion Act had already drastically decreased those numbers by adding barriers to people from the former German and Austro-Hungarian Empires. The 1931 act had a very specific effect of making it extremely hard for Jews to immigrate to New Zealand during the 1930s, and that was in large part responsible for an extremely small number of Jewish refugees making it to New Zealand prior to the outbreak of World War II.

In spite of the really incredible barriers to entry that were already in place before World War I, public support was still in favour of even tougher restrictions, which led to the formation of an organisation called the White New Zealand League in 1925. Crucially 5 years after that piece of legislation which effectively stopped all non-white immigration into New Zealand, bar extremely specific circumstances. This League was notable than others which existed going back decades – they all had names like the Anti-Chinese, or Anti-Asian, or White Race Leagues – for three reasons. First, it was formed well after the 1920 act had passed, despite the fact that by then, as I just said, it was near-impossible for anyone not of Anglo ancestry to actually move to New Zealand, it was very difficult even for people from Continental Europe, although it did happen. The second is the sheer scale of its support: when it sent out a letter to 200 local bodies over 1926, asking them to support the aims of a white-only nation, 160 of them, representing about 67,000 people, which is almost 50% of the population, replied to that letter positively. Third is its explicit support for eugenics, and “scientific” arguments for white supremacy, which others had done, especially the White Race League at the start of the 1900s, but far less forcefully, and with far less reach than the White New Zealand League managed to get. Nothing more clearly states the forcefulness of their argument, and their commitment to what we would today recognise as outright white supremacy, as the League’s 14-word-esque motto, “Your obligations to posterity are great, your inheritance was a white New Zealand, keep it so for your children’s children, and the Empire”.

Now this deeply, deeply xenophobic atmosphere at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries led to the infamous murder, in 1905, of an elderly disabled Chinese miner, Joe Kum Yung, in Haining Street Wellington. The killer, Lionel Terry, was an ex-military British migrant from a middling merchant family in Britain. He’d just finished a tour across the length of the North Island, promoting his anti-Semitic and virulently Sionophobic verse-cum-manifesto The Shadow. A letter he submitted to the press the evening of the murder stated that he’d committed the murder to promote his manifesto. So there’s no real questions surrounding the murder itself, and his intentions with it. And New Zealand, in spite of fertile ground for it, never really had a traditional fascist in the 1930s, which is where the myth has New Zealand has never swung to that kind of extreme, or that that kind of extreme thinking of the right has never been popular in New Zealand, comes from.

There was the New Zealand Legion, which was born of a coalition of right-wing forces during the Great Depression, but it didn’t evolve into becoming a fully paramilitary organisation, and despite the fact that it organised itself with military distinctions, it was broken into divisions and whatnot, it didn’t really have any revolutionary aims. It was fairly committed to democracy, and it didn’t peddle anywhere near as much as anyone else in other parts of the world, an actual fascist mythology.

The Social Credit movement did become quite large at this time, and that harboured a considerable anti-Semitic underbelly. It did actually have a fairly considerable amount of influence on the Labour Party, at the time of the first Labour Government in 1935, and because Social Credit was very widely believed in a lot of farming communities, and the Social Credit movement going into this unspoken alliance with Labour around the mid-1930s was a big part of why small farmers supported Labour for the first couple of governments, from 1935 onward towards World War II. Social Credit did remain a fairly serious force in New Zealand politics via the formation of the Social Credit Political League in 1954, right through into the 1980s, and until 1972 the party leadership at least tolerated anti-Semitism without much complaint within its rank, alongside much more openly supporting white rule across Southern Africa, which is something that people don’t really remember about Social Credit, when they think back to its position as this quasi-third party during the First Past the Post era, was that it was actually quite in favour of maintaining all contact with Apartheid rule in Southern Africa. After the rise of Bruce Beetham though, many of the Old Guard did split from the party into various other organisations in the aftermath of him taking power in 1972. But anti-Semitism continued to stir in the party well into the 1980s. I’d really suggest a book called Social Credit: Inside and Out by Michael Sheppard, that has a chapter as a Jewish man in a high-ranking position in the party, of experiencing anti-Semitism within Social Credit through 1970s and into the start of the 1980s. The loss of leadership in Social Credit led to the founding of the New Zealand League of Rights, a cousin to the Australian organisation of the same name, which had on-off existed in New Zealand earlier for a few years, but in reality it was with that exodus of Social Credit members that it actually came into being as a fully-functioning and definitive organisation that you can point to and say it’s definitely active, it’s definitely meeting from this point onward.

Now through the 1970s into the 1980s, the League of Rights was pretty inarguably the largest and most influential force on the far right in New Zealand. It formed numerous front groups to act in coalition with more mainstream conservative organisations, on issues from homosexual decriminalisation, to abortion, to promoting sporting contacts with Apartheid South Africa. The League peaked at upwards of 1,000 members and paying supporters in the 1980s, and it had an operational budget estimated at 50,000 NZD around the time of the 1980s. They had certain elections year where they had an election pamphlet, and they would print 100s of 1,000s of copies of it. They had a pretty substantial propaganda outlet for an organisation that wasn’t that popular, but did certainly have 1,000 or 2,000 supporters across the country.

In his 1987 The Politics of Nostalgia, sociologist Paul Spoonley identified almost 100 far right organisations formed in New Zealand just between 1954 and 1987. Many more obviously formed in the interim 32 years, although I’m not aware of any major survey of them existing. The first of these, though, founded in 1954 was a group called the League of Empire Loyalists, and they acted mostly as a loose support network for the British organisation of the same name, but I think they really need to be raised here because they are a direct parent of a much more familiar organisation to us here now, the New Zealand National Front. Alongside the National Front, Colin King-Ansell National Socialist Party brought this indisputably organised neo-Nazi, genuinely fascist politics to New Zealand in the late 1960s. Although they were distinct from the more generally reactionary groups, like the League of Rights, or a lot of single-issue groups such as the pro-Apartheid lobby organisations, the Neo-Nazis embedded themselves in the extreme right of New Zealand politics from this point on, and I think crucially it needs to be said there have continuously been neo-fascist and neo-Nazi organisations operating in New Zealand from about 1967-68 onward inarguably, that kind of politics from that point onward, which is now more than 50 years.

Much more can be said on that, but in a short overview of New Zealand’s far right it seems fitting to end on the last bump for New Zealand fascism, and that’s the rise of a white power street gang movement in the 1990s. Now groups like this had existed going back to the very 1970s, with names like White Lightning and things like that, that would appeal to apolitical, kind of reactionary, young white persons, it’s got a very hard-edged sound to it, and comes about at the same time as heavy metal is getting big, it’s got some of that hard edge to it that would appeal to someone if they didn’t know better about the Jewish question or something like that. I say that because much of the white power bonehead was only ever quasi-political, it was a very deeply reactionary response by dispossessed by white working-class youth to the economic turmoil of the 1980s and 1990s, but nevertheless even a lot of people eventually saw the road out and left the movement. Organised fascism in the late 1990s and 2000s grew out of it nevertheless, and pulled a lot of people from that era who never saw the light of day and dropped it, or perhaps remained involved in gangs in New Zealand but dropped the white power element, because they just didn’t believe it anymore. The most notorious in this period, I think, is certainly the South Island prison gang Fourth Reich, founded in 1994, and effectively shuttered in the early 2000s. Members of Fourth Reich would go on to commit at least 3 ideologically motivated murders, and they have numerous assaults and murders attributed to their members or to them as an organisation on top of that, in the period that they were active. Now Fourth Reich largely dissolved into its own violent tendencies, it couldn’t go on anymore, pretty much all of its members wound up just being put in isolation because they were too violent. But the likes of the National Front, which was buoyed also by all these new recruits from the 1990s, they continued well into the 2000s in New Zealand.

Now although fascism in New Zealand has withdrawn in recent years, to an extent up until fairly recently, it was only 15 years ago that the National Front was run out of Wellington after a spate of assaults against immigrants, and vandalism of Jewish graves, before being beaten into retreat by a massive anti-fascist protest in 2004, which has basically gone in history as a legend of the time. Indeed within the last decade or so, prominent white power veteran Kyle Chapman, who traces himself back to that 1990s surge, formed the now-defunct Right Wing Resistance in Christchurch, which became notorious for conducting street patrols of immigrant neighbourhoods, and conducting armed survivalist training out in the bush. Now realistically, these groups struggled for relevance post-World War II, but they’ve always hovered way closer than people like to think to the mainstream of New Zealand politics, to major organisations and movements, than anyone likes to think. And as the Fourth Reich in particular, but various other smaller organisations like the National Front demonstrate, the risk of extreme violence has always been more real than anyone wants to admit.

Ani White: Thanks for that Tyler, and just on a biographical note, I was a teenager living in Wellington at the time of those attacks on the Jewish gravestones in 2004. It was a pretty scary time, you had National Front who had quite a base in the Hutt, working with Destiny Church which is a very conservative Christian church here, ironically with a strong Māori and Polynesian congregation, working with white supremacists against the gays at the time. It was the time of the Civil Union Bill, and they were organising around that, among other things. And on the flipside, my school at the time, Wellington High, mobilised against the right. So Destiny was actually using our school halls during the weekends, and as a fairly liberal school with openly queer students, people weren’t happy about that. So there were a number of smaller protests against Destiny using our halls, it was a funny time, the principal supported our right to protest, she said, but continued to take Destiny’s money, it was quite an interesting case of liberal hypocrisy. And then more notably, when Destiny and the National Front held their Enough is Enough rally against Civil Unions, there was a schoolwide walkout as part of a mass counter-protest, so it was a scary time but also a fairly inspiring time, with these mobilisations happening in my formative years. And after a number of clashes, which got smaller but there were some quite militant clashes particularly between anarchists and the National Front, as you say Kyle Chapman retreated to Christchurch, and the National Front in the Wellington region thankfully crumbled.

So, I have a question about that, you kinda touched on it, but in 2004 the National Front and Destiny seemed like a real threat, they turned out eventually to be a bit of damp squib, when Destiny’s first electoral attempt failed miserably, but do you have any thoughts on their strength in 2004 relative to now, so are they stronger now with the international rise of the far right, the alt right, as it calls itself?

Tyler West: I don’t know if they’re necessarily stronger, in raw numbers. Definitely Destiny’s back at it again now, and the Destiny congregation is much smaller now than it was back then, I think it’s about half the size than it was back then. And while you definitely have all of these kind of newer generically far right, but echoing a lot of the specifics of fascism without the aesthetic, people around, they definitely exist probably in greater numbers in New Zealand now than they did 15 years ago, but with things like the National Front retreating, and either crumbling when it lost its webhosting domain entirely, or going underground, they don’t seem to be as well-connected now as they were then, even though you have these much more loose coalitions drawing together, I think geographically they’re more spread in their abilities to do things though, and going back to my point about the League of Rights latching onto more generically conservative movements that existed in the 1980s, I think it’s worth nothing that a handful of luminaries from the old National Front days, as well as these newer young alt right kids, and these conservatives who are going down a much darker path, like the small circle of New Zealand right-wing YouTubers that exists, they are themselves figuring out how to latch onto things in the same way that the old League of Rights used to. Like you see a lot of them turning up at demonstrations about gun reform, and those happen all the over place in relatively small numbers, like a few dozen people, but they are happening all across the country, whereas the National Front could draw 50 people to something but only that. They had to fly people in, or do it in Wellington where they had the requisite people there already, to even get a handful of people to a particular event whereas these new groups don’t have to fly people in from all over the place. They have these more decentralised but probably somewhat larger networks wherever they happen to live.

And regarding the international rise of various far right groups, I think they’re taking a lot of inspiration from that, I don’t know if it’s necessarily making them stronger, but it might be a factor in emboldening them now, because they can point to various governments that people don’t have the same ultra-polarised opinion now that they did of Apartheid governments back in the day, cause they just don’t know as much. They know that for example, Hungary’s government is bad, but it’s not like there’s a mass campaign against New Zealand sporting contacts with Hungary at the moment like there was in the 60s and 70s and 80s with South Africa. So I think they can draw inspiration from things, and do it a little bit more covertly, and without drawing quite as much attention to themselves, and that in and of itself might be a bit more dangerous, in terms of their ability to grow than was the case in the early 2000s, where they were using neo-fascist imagery – even though from time-to-time Kyle Chapman would try and clean that up, but it would never work – but they were using fascist imagery and whatnot, and presenting an extreme figure in order to draw in these dispossessed white kids, who most of them would probably stick around then bugger off when they realised that this was actually kinda fucked, but that was the only place they were really recruiting from, and that was always a diminishing pool, cause it was so subcultural.

Ani White: Yeah that fits with my impression, that there are these newer groups, but it hasn’t necessarily been a substantial growth, and certainly the older groups are weaker than they were in 2004, particularly National Front and Kyle Chapman’s Right Wing Resistance and that.

But also, this month we’ve been discussing Red-Brown alliances, is there any notable history of that in our Aotearoa/New Zealand?

Tyler West: I’d say kind of. I’m not aware in any of my study of any organisations going down the Larouche path for example, in New Zealand. You occasionally find there’s a handful of people who wound up in New Zealand’s new right in the 1980s, but that was more of a libertarian thing than a far right thing, who were members of the Trotskyist orgs or occasionally the old CPNZ member in the 60s. But there was never anything particularly formal, and not on a large scale, or with notable organisations pedalling in that stuff when they really shouldn’t be, like you meet see in the US with say the Party for Socialism and Liberation having dealings with far right characters from other countries, that you could write off if you were really charitable, as just not known, but it’s something that they should really be looking into and not doing. Or, for example, in Russia where you actually have formally Red-Brown organisations with a Strasserist or National Bolshevik background. But I do think that on the populist left, post-social democratic, it wasn’t that they were formal Red-Brown alliances, it was more that these movements were left-wing movements but in name only, and they were so broad-church that you did have people who were pushing anti-Semitic stuff, or pushing Sinophobic stuff, coming in and not really being chased out without as much energy as they should’ve been. Personally, that for me is the TPPA Movement, cause that was where I cut my activist teeth, and then decided that maybe I wasn’t quite the organiser that I thought I was when I was 18 and thought really highly of myself, but I remember for example Right Wing Resistance turning up to a demo, and while the local International Socialist Organisation (ISO) and the local anarchists weren’t having a bar of it, you had a fair chunk of the crowd who were pissed off when a bunch of us chased the Right Wing Resistance guys away, it was like four of them, and it was like thirty of us, but when the anarchists were throwing glitter on them and spitting on them and harassing them, and the ISO guys ran around rarked up the ground to chant and tell them to fuck off, you did have a fair chunk of the crowd who were standing nearby, who were like “oh no, they’re just good patriots, they’re here for the same reasons as us”.

Ani White: Yeah, we talked about that in our interview with Daphne as well, that happened elsewhere in the country. I know in Wellington there was maybe two of us trying to force some fascists out, and the organisers didn’t support us in that, but we had the impression that it’s not necessarily straight-out Red Brownism but there is in Daphne’s terms a certain amount of Conservative Leftism, which doesn’t offer really a defence against fascism, even if it’s not explicitly fascist or aligned with fascism.

Tyler West: Yeah, and I think that is where I agree with Daphne, cause you can see this same sort of thing happening with the movement against state asset sales around 2010, if you go through old press releases and arguments on forums and in Facebook groups, you do find the odd photos of dudes with National Front gear, or Right Wing Resistance gear turning up, where they’ve got like a swastika tattoo, and no-one’s really doing anything about it, even though the formal socialist organisations usually will chase them out, or at least get in their faces and make sure they have a bad day. I think what happens is that the body of those movements tends to be a more generic populist social-democratic [ideology], they’re usually social-democratic but in a very incoherent nostalgic way that just wants some of the gains that were made in the post-World War II era back, and don’t really have much of an analysis beyond that, and they can lend themselves to not really recognising when someone is making a coded anti-Semitic argument, or a coded Sinophobic argument, because they’re just there to pull back something that used to exist, and not really there because they have an extremely thought-of position on the movement they’re in, whereas with pretty much any socialist group, they’ll take a position on a movement, and usually at least the leadership will have a pretty thought-out position on it, whether or not you agree with the position it will be a thought-out position, on what it is and how you should interact with it, and that will flow through the membership, usually. But I think where you have something approaching Red-Brown is where you have all of these people who are well-meaning, but they are only there because they’re old-school Keynesian-era liberals, or they’re social-democratic in inclination, but themselves are not really involved in the Green Party or the Alliance back in the day for example, or involved in actual political organising, they’re just kinda there cause they support the movement, you can get a layer of people who might not really recognise far right stuff when it appears, cause far right stuff even at its most obvious, is at least going to try and wear the skin of the movements it’s in. And I think that’s is a danger, not taking seriously how many people like that could earnestly mistake this stuff for being genuine social-democratic patriotism, and not see why that actually could be a dangerous thing.

Ani White: Do you think after Christchurch [March 15th far right terrorist attack], there might be more awareness of this on the broad left, do you have an impression of that?

Tyler West: I think overall yes, I think there will be. Because when you have a big wide broad movement, I think more people are gonna be aware that yes this can happen here, and has a history here, and although not really looking out for it within the movements they’re in, they might not see how they actually agree with a reactionary group, who for opportunistic reasons or just because the movement is pretty broad, and has broadly acceptable things that pretty much anyone can pick up on, [they might] not see how they agree with someone who is covertly trying to recruit with fascists, or just might have picked a grab-bag of coded anti-Semitic conspiratorial ideas, but I think most people will recognise those ideas at face value more often now. So they’re not necessarily on their guard looking out for it, but they’ll see it when it happens. I do think that’s gonna be the case.

Ani White: Thanks for coming on Tyler, you can access more of Tyler’s work at The Ice Bloc, and on twitter @comradebloc… and as always kia kaha comrades, good night and good luck.