A few days ago, I was in conversation with Cam Slater and Olivia Pierson on Reality Check Radio. In the course of that ‘robust’ discussion, I informed my co-conversants that the excruciating ideological squabbling we now refer to as “The Culture Wars” is all depressingly familiar to those on the left over the age of 65. That around 40 years ago, within the left, the very same bitter feuds that today are dividing the whole of society, were ripping the left apart in the 1980s and ’90s. Olivia demanded to know why I had failed to stop the rot (which was a very generous estimation of my political influence at the time!) and I had to explain that then, as now, those who attempted to defend the radical political traditions of the Enlightenment simply did not have the numbers.

In many respects, the left’s predicament was rather surprising. After all, the massive protests of the 1981 Springbok Tour had been a triumph of left-wing organisation and commitment. To those watching on from the right of the political spectrum, the NZ left must have seemed a very dangerous beast indeed. They were wrong. The Springbok Tour protests had exposed some critical fault lines running right through the heart of the left-wing community. By far the most dangerous of these was race.

The latest New Zealand movie, Uproar, notwithstanding, the anti-tour movement was a very Pakeha affair. HART – Halt All Racist Tours – was a loose coalition of communist, socialist and trade union individuals and organisations, with very little in the way of Maori input – at least, not in the sense we talk about Maori input today. Yes, there were Maori in HART, but the overwhelming majority of them subscribed to the exactly same left-wing beliefs as their Pakeha comrades.

As the tour unfolded, however, that changed. young Maori activists, most particularly those based in Auckland, were quick to note the irony of tens-of-thousands of Pakeha marching through the streets in defence of Black South Africans. Where were the demonstrations of similar size against the dispossession and immiseration of New Zealand’s indigenous people, they asked. Racism’s ugly countenance was every bit as recognisable in Aotearoa as it was in South Africa.

It was a cleverly laid ideological trap, and most of the Pakeha anti-tour activists fell headlong into it. Only a handful on the left grasped the full import of these Maori activists’ ideological legerdemain. The anti-tour protests had been inspired by the Enlightenment idea that all human beings are equal. Apartheid, by insisting that Whites were superior to Blacks, and that this entitled them to more of everything, except misery, violated violently a core principle of civilised existence. That’s why people marched. What the Maori activists were preaching, however, was not human equality, but indigenous rights. They weren’t interested in building a society of equals. What they wanted was their land back – along with the power that had been taken with it.

This very soon became clear in the writings of one of the most prominent Maori activists of the time, Donna Awatere. (That she later became an Act MP is just one of those crazy quirks of human history!) Awatere’s series of articles entitled “Maori Sovereignty”, published in the feminist magazine Broadsheet, made it crystal clear to anyone who understood the history of the 19th and 20th centuries that what was being proposed had very little to do with leftism of any sort, and everything to do with what we would now call ethno-nationalism.

Truth to tell, the young Maori activists of 1981 had understood the Black South African struggle against Apartheid a lot better than many Pakeha. What the lily-white anti-tour marchers saw in Apartheid was a monstrous affront to human dignity. What the Black South Africans saw was White colonialism – pure and simple. That’s what the Maori saw, too: a settler society that believed it had conquered, calmed and assimilated the ‘natives’ – to the point of turning them into Brown Europeans. If they wanted to recover their lost lands and their lost power, that settler society would have to be ‘decolonised’ no less thoroughly than South Africa.

Hence the full-scale assault by Awatere, and others, on what they called “The White Left”. So long as the left was understood to be a movement dedicated to the emancipation of all humanity: men, women, black, white, gay, straight; and to the creation of new, global culture, in which human beings could be entirely themselves – rather than citizens of a nation state, members of an economic class, examples of a particular ethnicity, or prisoners of gender stereotypes – then the re-creation of the Maori world, overthrown by the British colonisers, would be impossible. Ergo, the White Left had to be re-educated. They had to be made to see themselves as the beneficiaries of an evil system of colonisation, based on the notion of White Supremacy. No different, in its essence, from White South Africa’s Apartheid.

And they succeeded. The left was broken, beyond repair. It disintegrated into precisely the  ethnic, gender and cultural identities that the original socialists believed were holding humanity back. The vision of what the world could become, if only human beings embraced what united them, rather than what divided them – the original socialist vision – faded and died.

So, that’s where it all began, and from there “Identity Politics” (as it is has come to be known) has made itself the new orthodoxy of the New Zealand left. So much so, that something like the Anti-Apartheid movement of the 1970s and ’80s simply could not be built in the 2020s. Like the “School Strike 4 Climate” movement, which, in its first idealistic flowering drew in tens-of-thousands of secondary-school students, it would very rapidly be torn apart by ethnic and gender divisions – to the point of winding itself up as a reprehensible example of “White Privilege”.

Did the “Old Left” go down without a fight, Olivia? Hell, no! But it couldn’t fight a war on two fronts. The Cold War, it should be remembered, was still going strong in the 1980s, and defending the non-aligned left against the charge that we were all Stalinists, Maoists or Trotskyites was a full-time job. Having those you marched alongside suddenly turn ’round and accuse you of refusing to acknowledge and confront your own racism, and the racism of your colonial forebears, well, that didn’t make life any easier.

A lot of friends were lost in that first, left-wing, culture war – and much else besides. Was it really just a coincidence that the internecine strife just happened to coincide with the imposition of Rogernomics and Ruthanasia?

Let me end with a quote. Words which I’d invite the reader to consider carefully in the light of my little history lesson. They’re from from Najma Sharif, one of the many pro-Palestinian intellectuals who rushed to the defence of Hamas as news of its butchery in Southern Israel began turning the stomachs of civilised people everywhere:

“What did y’all think decolonization meant? vibes? papers? essays? losers.” 

Perhaps it’s time we New Zealanders asked ourselves the same question.

Known principally for his political commentaries in The Dominion Post, The ODT, The Press and the late, lamented Independent, and for "No Left Turn", his 2007 history of the Left/Right struggle in New...