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You are here: The Platypus Affiliated Society/Constant radical: An interview with Sue Bradford

Constant radical: An interview with Sue Bradford

Michael McClelland

Platypus Review 164 | March 2024

On June 6, 2023, Platypus Affiliated Society member Michael McClelland interviewed Sue Bradford. Bradford joined the Left in Aotearoa, New Zealand during the New Left era, participating in various organizations that recruited on campuses during the anti-Vietnam protests of the 1960s and 70s. After a brief absence from activism, she took part in 1981’s anti-racist campaigns against apartheid South Africa’s rugby team, who were then touring New Zealand. Shortly after, she joined the unemployed workers’ movement in the 1980s, before eventually becoming a household name as a Green Party Member of Parliament for 10 years in the 2000s. She now runs workshops for activists from a cooperative which she co-founded, Kōtare in Wellsford, where she also lives. An edited transcript follows.

Michael McClelland: How aware were you of the Left as a child?

Sue Bradford: I grew up in a household that was on the bohemian Left, so we were quite politically aware. We had parties with a lot of artists and writers and those kinds of people. When I was in primary and intermediate school, the Labour Party was a monolith in New Zealand. I didn’t have much awareness of other groups. My father was active in the Labour Party, but in a wider way. I used to go out on election days with him, taking old folks to the polling booths. He had briefly been a communist when he was young and in the military during World War II. I never knew the full story, except that he had hated what he saw in the war in Italy. He never talked about it. He actually became very hostile to communism. My mother, who was American, was supportive of the struggle of African Americans, and was Left of Labour.

MM: What did the Left look like in central Auckland in the early 1960s?

SB: My first encounter with the Left was actually in America in 1965–66, when my family went there for my father’s work. I was in 10th grade at high school in Madison, Wisconsin, where there were political groups organizing against the Vietnam War. Those were my first political meetings. African American struggles were huge as well.

MM: Can you remember the first time you encountered Marxism?

SB: After I came back from America, I went to Auckland Girls’ Grammar School. It felt like a prison in comparison to high school in America. There, it was a mature place, where I was treated like an adult at university. But coming back to New Zealand, going to school felt like being a child again, and I hated it. I soon found myself interested in history and current affairs. I was thinking a lot about Vietnam, colonization, and imperialism. I started to get interested in what was happening locally in the peace movement. At that time, there wasn’t too much activity. By the time I was 15, in the fifth form at high school, my friend Rosie and I became really interested in Marxism.

MM: You sold communist literature at high school, right?

SB: Yeah, Mao’s Little Red Book (1964).[1] The school was unhappy, but I sold a lot of copies. Rosie and I didn’t have much access to material, in general, so we asked to join the Communist Party of New Zealand (CPNZ).[2] We just knocked on their door. From that point onwards, we were within that loop because they knew about us.

MM: Have you still got your copy of the Little Red Book today?

SB: Yeah, I think so. Rosie and I marched around Auckland Girls’ Grammar, reading that book and having whole bits of it memorized. Because we weren’t allowed to join the Communist Party on the grounds that we were too young, we joined the Progressive Youth Movement (PYM)[3] and went to Communist Party study groups. Of course, there, we started to realize that communism went deeper than just the Little Red Book. Progressive Books was an influential Central Auckland Leftist bookshop at that time and was run by Len Parker, an old communist, who is still alive. He was, in some ways, a mentor to us, in terms of guiding us to books. We would cut class and go and study Marx and Engels, Lenin, Hegel, and Stalin — well, not so much Stalin.

MM: Would the PYM have understood itself as a Maoist group?

SB: Not openly. The comrades that were active in the PYM would have thought of it as Maoist, and so would those who studied with them, like Rosie and I. I don’t know if everybody would have seen it that way, because not everyone was so deeply into studying. We were also into activity and action. The PYM was very militant, particularly on fighting the Vietnam War, and in the sense of being in solidarity with our brothers and sisters all over the world.

MM: Jenny Chamberlain’s biography of you, Constant Radical (2017), mentions that you later came to reject the totalitarianism of communist China. Did Maoism remain with you over the years despite this?

SB: Maoism has certainly stayed with me. The most intense study I ever did on Marxist theory was in my fifth and sixth form years. I’ve never been so deep into theory or history as I was during that time, but that doesn’t mean all that knowledge hasn’t stuck. I didn’t stay that long in the PYM, only a couple of years; probably more knowledge has stuck from the CPNZ study groups, because they were impressive. When I joined the Workers’ Communist League (WCL)[4] in the 1980s, there were quite a few other members who had also been consciously Maoist when they were younger. The WCL felt like a direct descendent of the PYM. We were the ones who had been looking for a party, but hadn’t found one. It taught me that one of the most valuable things that a communist or socialist party-type organization can offer is a place where members can have strategic discussions: what role is the most valuable use of which member? What skills and experiences does x person have? What is their background? Should they work in the factory, or should they be a teacher, etc.? You dedicate your whole life to it.

One of the biggest losses of not having such a party now is that we don’t have those places to hear those conversations. There are young people who are at uni, or leaving uni, or are in a job, or in a union, but they don’t know where to go. Young people don’t have a co-ordinated, strategic, and analytical place to have open conversations, both in terms of where individuals are placed and also where the group is placed: ‘‘do we go and work in this or that union? Do we work in this or that group or political movement?’

MM: Do you think Maoism in general has had a lasting influence on today’s Left?

SB: It’s become an ambient idea, and, for some of us, has never gone away. Some people have come to New Zealand as migrants from countries where they had moved on from different organizing bases, particularly in Asia. Although, I’m not thinking of absolute classic Maoism. There’s no way that we weren’t trained as Maoist, originally, and there’s no question that Maoism remains an influence.

MM: After Mao’s death in 1976, some Left groups on the local and international scene began drifting towards Trotskyism. In New Zealand, for instance, the CPNZ merged with the International Socialist Organisation. Why didn’t you follow this path?

SB: Ever since my first contact with Left political groups, I was suspicious of Trotskyism. Not so much on the theoretical level, because much later on, I saw that writers like Gramsci had so much to offer. But in practice, Trotskyists just split and split and split, and they seemed to go down to the smallest possible fraction.

MM: What did you learn about mass political organizations during your first political engagements in the late 1960s and early 70s?

SB: I started studying at the University of Auckland in 1969 at the age of 16, where  I began thinking more critically. It was only when I deeply studied history and politics that I began to question some of what I had been learning as straight Maoism. Also, I became part of a group that set up the Resistance Bookshop on Queen Street.[5] I was in the first group of 12 people, and the only woman, or rather, girl, at the time. It was a highly political action and organizing base where we were selling books, printing, writing, and thinking. I was also in an active circle that was associating across the Left in Auckland at that time. Tim Shadbolt[6] and the anarchists were our friends, as well as members of the PYM. We were kind of associated with some of the people who did some of the more militant actions, like bombings, which aren’t very much known in this country. Even now, I don’t know how much to tell you, because there are some things from that time I’ve never told anyone. There are certain protections that have remained in place over time.

MM: How did your politics develop in the 1970s?

SB: I was active in Auckland from 67 to the mid 70s, in the sense that I would have thought of myself as a communist. Although never a member of the CPNZ. My activism in the early 70s had to do with the Vietnam War, but I was also in the first Women’s Liberation and Gay Liberation groups in Auckland. I was also close to the people in indigenous activist group Ngā Tamatoa, who were the first group working for tino rangatiratanga.[7]

MM: Why do you mention that you didn’t join the CPNZ? Was it taken for granted that people would join the Party back then?

SB: No, the Party was incredibly conservative, and we were the hippie generation. In the Party, there was no sex outside of marriage, theoretically. Anything like smoking dope, or much less anything else, was against all regulations. So, the Party was conservative on sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll — although alcoholism was fine. As those early years went by, I became increasingly annoyed by how women and girls were treated by the male leaders of organizations. All those Women’s Liberation issues were very real at that time. As far as the men were concerned, we were there to cook, to type, to be on the actions, or to be there to have sex. We weren’t thought of as leaders. And although there were some women leaders, for young girls it was pretty full-on in terms of what the men expected.

MM: How do you reflect on your experience of the New Left period in general? What mistakes were made? What is worth learning from?

SB: The amazing thing about that time, and which I don’t think I’ve ever really experienced in the same way since, was the sense of international solidarity in the late 60s — with protests around the world, like France in 1968, with what was happening in Vietnam, and with the Cultural Revolution in China. There was a sense of being part of something transcendent all across the world, and that young people could be part of making change in a real way that really stuck it to the man. From when I was 14 or 15, I was conscious that we were riding the crest of a wave that was breaking everything, or trying to. Since then, there have been lots of similar attempts, and not to say that people don’t understand international solidarity today, but it was so strong during that time.

The other reflection I would make regarding that time is about the importance of space and place. In later life, I discovered radical geography theory, which made me think about how important having your own space is. About having more bases on the Left, more strength we can build. That’s something we lack — our own liberated, autonomous spaces to operate from, as well as our own precursor or prefigurative organizations. Resistance Bookshop was very much that. It allowed for meetings where we were doing collective analyses, thinking about tactics and strategies, and having debates in ways that weren’t possible in PYM or elsewhere — different levels of debate than you would get with a university lecturer.

MM: Can you say more about these debates?

SB: Resistance was made up of a whole range of people, so there was no one single ideology. There were a lot of different people and groups, both in terms of who attended the actions themselves and the meetings. We’d be arguing and discussing, and then more still in the pub. Even though I left Resistance after a year or so, I remained connected to that big group of people for a long time, even though there wasn’t a formal group.

MM: During the mid-to-late 70s you were less politically active. Had you become internally disenchanted with the Left, or did other things get in the way?

SB: I followed a trap that many people on the radical Left took around that through that time, which is that I became quite heavily drug addicted. I was a junkie for a while, and I did come out of it after some years, but when I came out of it, I became the single mother of twin babies. For a few years I was totally focused on personal survival. That was the only time in my life when I’ve been really detached from politics. I was still watching and remaining interested, but I didn’t become active again until 1980.

MM: Was this a common story in your generation? To go from one full-on, life-consuming activity —activism — to another, i.e., drugs?

SB: In our activism, we were acting militantly. We were dedicated to changing the world. We were forming close relationships with a lot of different people, having this vibrant life where we were starting to smash boundaries around sex and gender, around who you slept with, and how relationships and families were formed. A lot of the people who went to the rural communes got heavily into drugs. But so did a lot of us who stayed in the cities, because that was the whole lifestyle we were about. We were breaking mental, physical, and other boundaries in order to change the world.

But there is something in what you’re saying. There are some people who live that “go for it” kind of life, and in this political world, it really is “do or die.” You’re just putting your whole being into this strong belief that the world can be a better place. It requires absolute dedication. I’ve often thought, even when I was really young, that it’s quite vocational. Just like it is for priests and nuns, there are sisters and brothers on the Left.

MM: How do you feel about drugs and the Left now?

SB: I’m not anti-drugs. I learned as much from drugs, especially hallucinogens, as from anything else. And I stand by that. I hate people that just go anti-drug, because it just reminds me of that old puritanical Communist Party thing. For me, drugs were about joy and liberation, and were a wonderful journey, in a lot of ways. It’s just that that journey can go quite dark if you’re not careful.

MM: When you got back into activism in the 1980s, you became involved in the unemployed workers’ rights movement, and you were a founding member of the Auckland Unemployed Workers’ Rights Centre (AUWRC) in 1983.[8] What was it about unemployment that felt so important and necessary to you, as an issue?

SB: A few things. It was personal, in the sense that my broken career trajectory from addiction and having babies had meant that I couldn’t get back to work, even though I hated being unemployed and on the dole. I had some really bad experiences as a sole mother on a Domestic Purposes Benefit. But the other side of it was that in 1981, after returning from six months in China on a student scholarship, the mobilization against the Springbok Tour was just starting.[9] I was a founding member of HART (Halt All Racist Tours) back in the late 60s and had been part of some anti-Tour actions, so my husband Bill and I knew from day one that we had to give it our all. 1981 was taken up with many arrests and getting beaten up by cops, etc. Those protests were a watershed for the Left in this country, in terms of learning what our capacity was if we put our minds to it. And our country came close to civil war, with people almost being killed. It didn’t quite get there, thank goodness, but it was full-on, and a lot of us who came out of that year still had court cases going into 1982.

I had joined the Workers’ Communist League in 1981, and at the end of 82, a small group of us from the WCL got together and had a meeting. We tried to think where to best direct our energy for the years ahead. So, a group of us from the WCL established a project to set up the AUWRC, and my whole involvement with the unemployed movement started there. But of course, the people we worked with in the AUWRC, as well as those we worked with in other groups, all came from different sectarian backgrounds, or, in some cases, from no political background at all.

MM: Why did your group consider unemployment a front-line issue?

SB: It was front-line for a lot of us on the Left, not just our group. Unemployment was rising fast. We had a Right-wing government, and we went on to have an even worse Right-wing government,[10] so unemployment was high in the early 1980s compared to what it had been previously. We were a country that wasn’t used to high unemployment; it was a big public issue. At that time it was quite shocking, whereas now, it’s just accepted that you have hundreds of thousands of people out of work. Also, because unemployed workers and welfare claimants were and are the most vulnerable workers, most organized unions didn’t offer support to unemployed or redundant workers. There was also, at that time — and partly because of the anti-Springbok Tour movement — a real resurgence and uplift of thinking around Māori and indigenous peoples’ struggles. For us, there was a link between the fact that unemployment and poverty affected Māori and Pasifika[11] people more than it affected others. We wanted to be right on the front line with those facing the hardest situations. We thought it was important that the people who did that political work actually had some experience of unemployment and life on a benefit themselves, rather than just coming at it from an academic or theoretical background. It’s a very tough area, and you’re working hard in every way. Without that kind of stamina and determination, it’s hard to keep going and keep holding these groups together.

MM: Overseas readers might not be familiar with another aspect of the 1980s, which was that the then-Labour government implemented one of the world’s earliest concentrated national neoliberal projects in a Western economy.

SB: That was massive. The AUWRC had been going for a while, and then the bloody Labour government betrayed the workers and the unemployed of this country. Hundreds of thousands more people went into unemployment, and new families into poverty. And there’s people even now that still haven’t recovered from what happened through the Rogernomics Right-wing revolution.[12] That was then cemented by the National Party in the decade after. We were fighting with and for unemployed workers and beneficiaries from that time of peak struggle right through to when our group closed down in 1999.

MM: If you had to pick one category that describes your work in unemployed workers’ organization and advocacy, would you call it an issue of social justice or an issue of workers’ rights?

SB: Both. I’ve been involved in activist work around the question and definition of  “work,’’ and around solutions to unemployment, over many years since 1983. It’s a core focus for me, even now. For example, I have been involved in work around solutions like basic income, i.e., the “Fully Automated Luxury Communism” territory associated with Nick Srnicek, Alex Williams, etc.[13] Back in the 80s — and even now — I believed that for those who wanted to participate in the paid workforce, there should be a right to work, with the ability to join a trade union and be paid at least the minimum wage. The AUWRC was trying to act as a union for unemployed workers. Although, because there was a lot of sectarianism in the 80s, there were huge fights within and between unions, and between the unemployed groups.

MM: There’s a quote attributed to the British economist Joan Robinson which goes, “the one thing worse for workers than being exploited in capitalism is not being exploited in capitalism,” i.e., being unemployed. Fredric Jameson, meanwhile, said that if Marxism’s critique of capitalism had to be reduced to one word, it would be the word “unemployment.” If unemployment is the worst kind of misery under capitalism, as Robinson suggests, and yet at the same time is central to the Marxist critique of capitalism, as Jameson poses, where does that place you as an anti-capitalist? Where do you position yourself in this tension between limiting immediate misery and ending capitalism?

SB: That’s the story of my life. It’s a balance that requires you to make an analysis every step of the way. I’ve never lived in a revolutionary or pre-revolutionary situation, but I’ve been conscious of revolution and thinking about the potential of it since I was 14. When you’re not living in a revolutionary or pre-revolutionary situation, finding a balance between reform and looking further ahead is a constant activity. The AUWRC offers one of the best examples of this principle. I was in that group for 16 years with people who did a lot of acting and thinking. Our work around unemployment and welfare included alternatives and solutions for the people we worked with, as well as offering ways of helping them to understand what their situation was about in the broader sense: what capitalism did, and why it meant they were unemployed, and why they were treated so badly, etc. We were conscious of the need to campaign for immediate reform, but also the need for long-term solutions. The first years were rough, but as they went by, we acquired a stable core that lasted for years. We got more and more politically and economically sophisticated. Although we weren’t a think tank or a political party, we were still able to think and put out a lot of material. We even ended up with our own printing press, just like Resistance Bookshop back in 69.

MM: When you talk about this connection between reform and revolution, it sounds like you’re addressing a dialectical relationship. But would you put it in Marxist terms? Is the dialectic and contradiction at the forefront of your thinking?

SB: In their most basic form, always. The biggest things I learned from my early learning of Marxism were historical and dialectical materialism. Don’t ask me to try to explain them nowadays, though. Dialectical materialism in particular is still one of the most incredibly useful tools. Whether you’re doing an academic study, out on the street, trying to build an organization, doing a big action, or forming and sustaining a big coalition, it’s useful to have time to reflect and analyze what you’ve done so you can consciously try and learn from your experience and take those learnings forward. The idea is to put the dialectic into action. This comes by way of trying to think strategically and identify contradictions. These tools of collective analysis are some of what we do at Kōtare Research and Education for Social Change, which gives activists — such as Treaty Justice groups — the opportunity to come together and think. I’ve been involved with Kōtare since its beginning, in 1994, and the AUWRC helped set it up.

MM: You’re interested in Paulo Freire and his pedagogical practices. Do you use those at Kōtare?

SB: Freire’s ideas influenced us in the unemployed movement, before we set up Kōtare. Freire’s pedagogy and the form of structural analysis was brought to Aotearoa[14] by Catholic priests in the early 1980s, having come out of liberation theology.

MM: What capacity did the New Zealand Left have in the 80s for resisting the seismic innovations of capital, such as that era’s neoliberal reforms? Was the Left successful? Or did capitalism win?

SB: Capitalism won. Without a problem. The Left was fractured in the 80s, and then the unions had a near-fatal death blow with the Employment Contracts Act at the beginning of the 90s.[15] The unions that had been the main bulwark against — or in contest with — capital were tremendously weakened, partly because the unions refused to fight strongly enough, which was part of a bitter sectarian Left fight: half the unions wanted a general strike, and the other half just went along with it. Groups like ours, and other trade unions, were fighting, but we never had the strength or money. It was only the organized unions that might have been able to slow things down, but their leadership sold out.

We fought as hard as we could in the 80s. The unemployed groups were active at our peak. We had about 31 groups around the country, with a national organization. Sometimes it felt like we were the only people flying the flag, especially on the militant Left. We tried to make our actions relevant. Even if we didn’t have the numbers, it was about being clear about the purpose of each action. It wasn’t about winning. We never won. Being unemployed and a beneficiary, you don’t, on the whole, win. One of the only “wins” we had — one that’s still talked about today, among the younger generations — is that we probably stopped mass “work-for-the-dole” from happening.[16] Both Labour and National governments started to bring in such schemes, and we resisted. Apart from that, we faced a steady barrage, and things just kept getting worse.  But we knew that we were on the front-line in the fight against capitalism and colonialism, so we tried to coalesce with indigenous, women’s, union, and church movements. We were conscious of building coalitions. In some of the biggest actions of the 90s — like against the Asian Development Bank and APEC — we were at the heart of the organizing base.[17]

MM: That brings us to how the Left can leverage power in the unemployed workers’ movement, given that unemployed workers can’t withhold their labor in the same way that the employed can. Can this consolidation of heterogeneous forces on the Left, along with the sort of educational efforts you mentioned, go the whole way?

SB: No. In the 90s, we were trying to form coalitions because we didn’t have a party.

MM: When you say a party, what do you mean?

SB: I mean a communist, socialist, anarchist, or syndicalist party.

MM: An extra-parliamentary party?

SB: Yeah, on the Left — which I say, because these parties can also be on the Right. The Building Our Own Future project (BOOF) in 93–94 was one of the biggest Left extra-parliamentary groups we were part of.[18] BOOF was trying to build radical Left power across different constituencies and sectors. Part of that aim was forming a People’s Charter, which both gave us a commitment to and a concrete vision for a different kind of Aotearoa. We learned a lot through that year-long project,  and we can still learn from it today. The big difference between now and that time is that in 93–94 there were a massive range of groups doing stuff, with different ways and some political edge. That isn’t the case now; there are far fewer groups. People sometimes say we should be building an extra-parliamentary movement, or movements, but it’s hard to do that when you don’t have enough bases. For example, in 2010 some of us formed Auckland Action Against Poverty (AAAP),[19] which was, in some ways, the descendant of the AUWRC. During the years I was active with AAAP, we did anything to foment and nourish any political unemployed and beneficiary group, anywhere in Aotearoa, but no such group ever eventuated.

MM: If “practice” here means the formation of active political groups, and “theory” means education, was there an asymmetry between theory and practice?

SB: Yes, that’s why I returned to university and did my PhD in 2014, which was about the lack of a coherent Left think tank in this country — a question we had thought about particularly in the 90s. “Think tank” can be an unfortunate term for some Leftists, but I mean it in the sense of how Die Linke in Germany has the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung.[20] We saw it as fortunate for the German Left to have a place where policy work, thinking, and education could happen. Of course, they in Germany have a different system that pays for it through their political processes. We have nothing like that here. But during the 90s, we had often talked about the idea of providing a place where the Left can think together beyond any party formations or sectors. We wanted something that would be intrinsically linked to trade unions and community-based groups, so that it would not be divorced from praxis.

MM: I found it interesting that one of the people you interviewed in your PhD thesis responded to the Left’s “lack of trust” in any “specialized or smaller group” seeking to represent it by pointing out that this had once been the historical role of the party: “acting as a memory for the class, looking at the lessons of class struggles . . . and playing a consciousness raising role.” What do you make of the Left’s lack of trust in specialized or smaller groups whose job is to act as a memory for the class?

SB: The person quoted is absolutely right about that role of the party. That’s why it’s wonderful to hear about Platypus, because I had no idea about anyone trying to hold onto history in any way. It’s so important that we don’t lose our histories, whether that be written, oral, or any other form of history that helps us to learn from the past. That is, and was, a role that extra-parliamentary parties can play.

There has always been a lack of trust that has come with divisions on the Left, and every sectarian fight leaves its own wave of burnt people in its wake. The biggest fight I was ever part of was that of the WCL vs. the SUP in the unemployed and union movement. Unionism has issues around trust. Working in a union is hard, both because of internal politics and also being on the front line, fighting the employers. Nonetheless, a few of the people on the SUP side later became some of my closest friends, almost comrades, you could say. People have their different traditions on the Left and yet they come together anyway. When this happens, the differences disappear because they realize that if you open your eyes and decide to cross sectarian barriers, what you hold in common is far greater than what might have ideologically divided you at some earlier point in history. We in the WCL were aware of that. Ever since the WCL folded in 1990, I’ve been dedicated to strengthening the power of the radical Left in this country, in a non-sectarian way.

MM: Speaking of unions, you mentioned earlier that “the story of your life” was the tension between reform and revolution. One manifestation of such a tension would be the need for trade unions and the need for revolution. Would you agree with that?

SB: It’s one way of looking at it. In the unemployed movement, we were aware that if we succeeded in doing away with unemployment, we were doing away with ourselves. But we thought that was a good outcome. So, there wasn’t a vested self-interest in trying to keep the unemployed group going. I don’t see why a union wouldn’t necessarily have that attitude, either. There are different philosophies of unionism, and one of the problems with unions at the moment, is that they’re deep in transactional unionism rather than thinking about the longer term, and asking themselves, “how does that help us in the longer term to build a counter-power to capitalism?” That sort of question needs to be a part of unionism, and until we are living in a society beyond capitalism, unions are one of the most, probably the most, important kind of organization.

MM: In your thesis, you identify yourself as belonging to the “transformational” Left, rather than to the reformist Left.

SB: That was a code word for “revolutionary,” for those of us who openly oppose capitalism and colonization. There are all these big arguments on the Left between those who seek to build prefigurative politics and organizations inside the shell of a rotten system, and I’m in that track as well. It doesn’t mean clinging to old organizational forms for the sake of it, but rather that, in rehearsing the future, you learn, and you try and live differently, so that you eventually make that future. There’s no use waiting for a utopia that will never come.

MM: In a sense, your job as an activist has been to put yourself out of a job.

SB: Absolutely. We’ve often talked in workshops at Kōtare about the poverty industry, and how easy it is for advocacy groups like AAAP and others to fall into the dangerous trap of thinking, “we’re wonderful because we’re doing this work for people, and it gives us a place in society.” Structurally, it would be far better if we lived in a society where groups like AAAP weren’t needed. It’s a matter of keeping a clear vision and having a sense of coherence between a vision for a better society and what you actually do in the day-to-day. It’s the same for unions.

MM: When you say that from day one you had these self-conceptions, it sounds like your Leftist principles stem from the idea of freedom as self-transformation.

SB: No, because that’s too close to the “self-transformations” of Green politics and the Green Left, for whom true liberation comes from self-transformation, such as achieving higher consciousness through Zen Buddhism, etc. It also depends on what you mean by “freedom.”

MM: Just to clarify, I don’t mean it in the neoliberal individualist sense.

SB: Yes, us elders keep seeing all these individualized younger people who have been brought up under neoliberalism, with student debt, social media, and all the other things that affect younger generations. Trying to think outside of capitalism is hard to do. All of us are impacted by the fact of white privilege, where we’re situated, our gender, etc. It’s a matter of being conscious of all those privileges, so that we can analyze context with both the short and the long-term goals in mind. That’s where reform goals and revolutionary goals become coherent and linked. It’s about trying to strengthen relationships between humans, and doing that in a way that isn’t negative, i.e., not totalitarian and at the barrel of a gun — even though we know power comes out of the barrel of a gun.[21]

MM: Given the specter of totalitarianism, one wonders what liabilities the Left might reproduce when there is no longer a mass working-class movement for socialism nor a party to preserve the historical memory of such a movement.

SB: Unless we have working-class people, who are the most exploited in capitalism, participating in a party, the Left will not do well — for material reasons.

MM: After the publication of your PhD thesis in 2014, you helped to form a Left-wing think tank called Economic and Social Research Aotearoa (ESRA). Part of ESRA’s program was the objective of “developing an intellectual armoury for the radical left, based on high quality research and the development of theory relevant to the antagonisms and contradictions of our place and time.” Can you tell me about the trajectory of ESRA?

SB: ESRA was a direct result of my thesis. About half the point of the thesis was to explore the potential for setting up a radical Left think tank, and so I formed a group of people who were interested in working on a development project. That process began in early 2014, and in that group we did a lot of public meetings. It was extraordinary, when I look back on how many meetings we did around the country, and we got interest from a lot of people on the Left. By the time I finished my involvement with ESRA a few years later, there were about 800 people on our contacts list.

It was hard to get money. We were using old community development principles, ones that I’ve always worked with, in terms of looking to supporters for donations, even if they can only give a bit, and to build support across many people rather than large donors — though we would’ve liked them. We were doing our best, but after a few years, inner tensions and some acute interpersonal issues meant that ESRA imploded, and I, along with a group of people that had come from a similar activist and ideological background, left ESRA.

We could have stayed, and had this huge fight with those on the other side within the organization. But because I’m a publicly known person in New Zealand, my being involved in that kind of split would have stayed quiet for only about 24 hours; the fight would have been out on social media and then into the mainstream media, which would have been bad for the Left. Those of us who chose to leave had spent a weekend talking, thinking, and debating what to do: “This is terrible; here’s this whole project we’ve put years of our lives into, and they’re just blowing it up.” But it just wasn’t possible to stay; what was going on wasn’t tolerable.

MM: What caused the fracture?

SB: It was partly the role of one or two individuals, which I can’t talk about in detail. I can see mistakes about how we developed the organization. The core of the debate concerned whether ESRA would be a think tank that worked with and served trade unions and community-based organizations. That had always been the concept for the people on my side of ESRA. On the other hand, those who opposed us within ESRA saw it as an elite little unit that belonged within the universities — or, one university in particular. ESRA was becoming little more than a way for a lecturer and his students to get published, and at a very high level of theory and writing, at the academic and postgraduate level. Whereas for us, the focus was on working with and for people and workers, for revolutionary change on the ground. The fracture of ESRA was a dreadful thing. It wrecked my life for a few years, because I had put so much into it. Other people had bad times because of the break-up, and some more than others were damaged by it.

MM: You addressed in your thesis the risk that, because of such an organization’s need for funding support, there would be the potential of its becoming embedded in New Zealand’s higher education system, and not in grassroots activism.

SB: It was a prize example of many things that had been raised in my thesis by participants. It was clear that ESRA would be a hard thing to do, but that didn’t stop us from trying. Quite a big group of people did try, and some poured their lives into it. The people on the other side of that debate would say the same thing. ESRA is still going, but from what I can see online, it doesn’t produce much, and it’s not connected to the wider network of Leftist groups in New Zealand. There may still be good people connected to it.

MM: You’ve had a number of years since then to reflect. What have you learned? What gives you hope for future projects?

SB: It’s unlikely I will be part of another project again. It would be hard to get my hopes up. But I hope that in the long run something like what ESRA was originally aiming for might develop.

MM: What about other projects on the Left?

SB: The second part of my thesis, which I hadn’t been expecting, but which came through to me strongly, addresses this craving or need that was felt by many people on the Left in this country for a party, or parties — that there was still a huge gap for either an extra-parliamentary or a parliamentary party, and that that gap weakened us immensely. That’s still the case now. If there was a party-building project that I could be part of, I would be part of it tomorrow. There are many of us in that position. I met them during my thesis process, but also through my work since then. There are far more people in the anti-capitalist, anti-colonialist Left in Aotearoa than any of us realize, but we haven’t found a way of bringing ourselves together. If I could be part of helping with that, I would. I’m always open to talking to anyone that’s interested in that kaupapa,[22] either in theory or in practice.

MM: In 2020, you called for a basic income to be delivered to all New Zealanders in the wake of COVID,[23] and at that time it appeared like neoliberal governments were willing to spend their way out of the disaster. Even New Zealand’s Labour Minister of Finance, Grant Robertson, at one point appeared to flirt with the idea of a basic income, although that never eventuated.[24] How do you feel about this now? Did it seem a contradiction that some sections of the Left used “grassroots” politics as a way to appeal to the state? Or did you agree with them?

SB: In the last 30 years or more, we on the Left haven’t been part of serious debates about the role of the state, which is a real lack. In the unemployed movement, we used to have huge fights with the anarchists over it, which were never resolved. Since then, I’ve not been part of any decent discussion about the state, including the 12 years I spent in the Green Party, trying to get that party to look at its policies around the role of the state versus community, cooperatives, or other forms of organization. You’d think there would have been interest within the Greens, but no. I never once got a decent debate going inside the Green Party about its policy or other processes regarding the state.

For the last 30 or 40 years, I’ve been strong on the potential of both the state and the community sector — including indigenous peoples’ organizations. There’s a role for both the state and community sector, and the state could do more to play an enabling role for the community and indigenous sector. For example, in the late 90s, I was part of a project to set up community-owned banking, but without capital, that’s just impossible. There’s many overseas examples of what could be done with the state in a way that enables community and prefigurative development. In countries like America, the UK, Ireland, and even Australia, there are a lot more examples of state-enabled community economic development. I’m into building not just political power, but economic power on the Left, and access to capital and control of banking always has to be part of that.

MM: The state has been a recurring point of contention throughout the Left’s history: the reign of Louis Bonaparte, the Second International and the revisionist dispute, the liquidation of Old Left mass-party politics in the era of Stalinism and the New Deal, and the influence that the U.S. Democratic Party has in fomenting Left opinion worldwide today. Did you ever witness grassroots Left demands becoming official policy by Left governments in such a way that might have worked against the Left?

SB: What Left governments in this country? We haven’t had a Left government in my lifetime. The last time we had a Left government was in the 1930s.[25] I used to be very critical of Keynesianism, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve thought that the Keynesian politics of the 1930s was an advance on what we’ve got now, e.g., housing.

MM: I mean so-called “left-liberal” governments. Jacinda Ardern called herself a social democrat, for instance.[26]

SB: In the 10 years I spent as a Green MP writing, speaking, and advocating on issues relating to workers and housing and welfare, I constantly put up what I saw as radical demands. These demands included building 10,000 state houses a year, or putting massive capital into the community and indigenous sector to enable them to build houses, or calling for a form of basic income. Those are quite radical demands. Basic income is a total reform of the welfare system; the welfare system would be gone. Behind that is total reform of the tax system, towards redistributive tax. You can’t look at basic income without looking at tax and work. In the Green Party I tried to put radical policies forward. They’ve still got some good policy, but they just don’t have the people who will either promote radical policies or do anything meaningful.

MM: It would be interesting to see what effect an extra-parliamentary party would have on the Greens, let alone Labour.

SB: It’s a big question for some of us. It’s all theoretical, but the question is whether it would be worth more to set up an extra-parliamentary party or to set up a parliamentary party, because on the one hand there’s disenfranchisement for people who still see a place for an extra-parliamentary party, but on the other hand there’s the disenfranchisement of having no one to vote for. Much of the Left is just binned off from the Greens, and the Māori Party is limited. If I were Māori I would be into the Māori Party, but I’m not. So, both are needed.

MM: I liked where you ended your thesis, quoting your research participant Paul Maunder. He told you, “we’re in the swamp, we’ve got the decline of capitalism and that just produces incoherence for a hundred years . . . as something else slowly works through.” You conclude your thesis by hoping that your research would help that “something else,” in all its “variety, beauty and danger,” to emerge. After over 100 years of defeat and counterrevolution on the Left, where do you think this “something else” is likely to come from?

SB: I see it coming from people across generations in this country, or in any country. I see potential and hope all the time. Among those who take part in our workshops at Kōtare, there are plenty of people across generations, including many in their 20s–30s who know the urgency of the climate and economic crises, and that these will affect them far more than us older folks. The willingness to work across generations is important, as it means sharing historical memories and knowledge, and learning from each other, and building together in a way that will always remain as each generation passes on. It also means providing opportunities for roles that a party might fill. However, there still aren’t baby steps being made towards the next stage in this country. I’ve had to accept that I might be gone before anything, even baby steps, emerges. I hope it happens before I’m gone, but who knows? I hold onto that hope because if we don’t build counter-power, we are just going to be smashed by capitalism. Whatever comes next, it’s not going to be good so long as there isn’t the will to organize inside and outside Parliament, as well as beyond all the forms of our country’s institutions. |P

[1] Also known as Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung.

[2] The CPNZ aligned with China after the Sino-Soviet Split in the 1960s, which was unusual for a communist party during that international controversy. It led to the founding of New Zealand’s Russian-friendly splinter group, the Socialist Unity Party (SUP) in 1966. Bradford’s contact with the CPNZ took place after the CPNZ-SUP split.

[3] The PYM, while not formally a junior wing of the post-1966 CPNZ, had key Communist Party members driving its formation and activism. It attracted a wide group of members beyond the CPNZ, particularly student activists and others involved in anti-war campaigning.

[4] The WCL was a Maoist “liberationist” group formed in 1979 out of Wellington’s Marxist-Leninist Organisation and the Hamilton-based Northern Communist Organization. It provided a home for communists who left the CPNZ when the latter group broke from China and formed a new alliance with the Party of Albania. The WCL dissolved into the short-lived Left Currents in 1990.

[5] The main street in Auckland’s central business district.

[6] Tim Shadbolt is a former New Left student activist known for his approach to agitation, resulting in his founding of Huia Commune, his membership in the Hell’s Angels, and his 33 arrests at various protests. In later life, he became mayor of Waitemata City and eventually Invercargill.

[7] Māori sovereignty and land rights.

[8] The AUWRC was an effort by various members on the activist Left to bring support to those directly affected by rising unemployment during the organization’s existence between 1983 and 1999.

[9] The 1981 Springbok Tour protests are canonized in New Zealand popular memory as a definitive moment for the New Zealand Left, and were sparked after the conservative Prime Minister Robert Muldoon vowed to allow apartheid South Africa’s all-white rugby team, the Springboks, to tour New Zealand, despite concentrated opposition from anti-racism groups. In an effort to disrupt the tour and raise consciousness surrounding racism in New Zealand’s national sport, more than 150,000 people took part in over 200 demonstrations in 28 centers. 1,500 protesters were charged with offenses.

[10] Robert Muldoon’s National Party government gave way to a Labour government led by David Lange in 1984 after the former declared a snap election and lost.

[11] Pasifika New Zealanders are a pan-ethnic group of New Zealanders who migrate and descend from the indigenous peoples of the Pacific Islands.

[12] A term named after then-Minister of Finance Roger Douglas, who spearheaded the economic policy of New Zealand’s Fourth Labour Government, which included deregulation, privatization, tight monetary policy to control inflation, a floating exchange-rate, and reductions in the fiscal deficit.

[13] See, for example, Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek, “#Accelerate: Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics” (2013), available online at <>.

[14] Māori name for New Zealand, translated to “land of the long white cloud.”

[15] The Employment Contracts Act, passed by the National government in 1991, deregulated the labor market and did away with the system of “national awards” that had previously meant each industry had its respective guaranteed minimum pay and conditions, and that unionism was compulsory. The changes meant that each employee agreed to either an individual contract or a single-employer collective agreement.

[16] The Community Wage, known as a “work-for-the-dole” scheme, was a program introduced in 1998 by Jenny Shipley’s National government as a way of incentivising beneficiaries to seek work arrangements by assigning them temporary community employment in return for an additional $21 per week. The program was scrapped in 2001 under Helen Clark’s Labour government.

[17] Large anti-globalization rallies took place in central Auckland against meetings of the Asian Development Bank and APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) in 1995 and 1999, respectively.

[18] BOOF was a coalition project coordinated by AUWRC between 1993–1994, and funded by the Conference of Churches of Aotearoa-New Zealand. It organized, in part, local meetings in 10 centers towards a nationally-mandated “Peoples Charter.”

[19] Bradford’s involvement in the organization ceased in 2016, but the organization is still active.

[20] Rosa Luxemburg Foundation.

[21] A phrase coined by Mao Zedong in 1927, at the beginning of the Chinese Civil War.

[22] [Māori] program, principles, foundation for action, etc.

[23] Sue Bradford, “Basic income and COVID-19: Let’s get serious,” Democracy Project (April 4, 2020), available online at <>.

[24] See Thomas Manch and Henry Cooke, “Coronavirus: Finance Minister considers universal basic income to ward off economic peril,” Stuff, March 24, 2020, available online at <>.

[25] The First Labour Government, headed by Michael Joseph Savage from 1935 until his death in 1940, and continuing under Peter Fraser until 1949, was responsible for a wide range of reforms influenced by Keynesianism, setting the direction for New Zealand economic and welfare policy until the 1980s.

[26] See Tim Murphy, “What Jacinda Ardern wants,” Newsroom, August 31, 2017, available online at <>.