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The degree to which socialism in New Zealand has been of significance in mainstream politics is debated, as varying definitions of socialism and communism make the extent of its influence difficult to measure. New Zealand has a complicated assortment of socialist causes and organizations. Some of these play a considerable role in public activism - some commentators claim that New Zealand socialists are more prominent in things such as the anti-war movement than in promoting actual socialism itself. Other groups are strongly committed to radical socialist revolution.
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The extent to which socialism plays a part in modern New Zealand politics depends on which definitions of socialist are used, but few mainstream politicians would describe themselves using the word "socialist". The term "social democrat" is more common, but the more general "left-wing" or "centre-left" are used far more frequently.
Nevertheless, socialists of various types are still to be found in modern New Zealand politics. The Labour Party, the Progressive Party, and the Alliance all have some links to socialism in their history, but under a New Zealand definition, they would generally not be considered socialist today. More likely to receive this label are the small socialist or communist organisations that exist outside the mainstream political world - examples include Fightback, the International Socialist Organisation and Socialist Aotearoa.
Milburn argues that socialist theories were introduced by immigrant workers with experience in the British labour movement. Their ideas were not widely accepted, however. The Liberal government that was dominant 1891-1912 rejected socialism but it supported unions and the Liberal Government of New Zealand set up the country's welfare state in the 1890s and fought the large land holders. She argues that governmental activism cannot be attributed to the influence of the small socialist movement.
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The growth of socialism as an ideology in New Zealand only began to occur around the beginning of the 20th century. Some historians, however, claim that a sort of "non-ideological" socialism was born shortly after the establishment of self-government, and flourished in the late 19th century. This, they say, was mostly in the form of a "paternalistic" government which believed in the need to speed the country's economic growth, rather than in the form of an ideologically leftist government. These historians argue that because of New Zealand's small size and its focus on agriculture, the newly established government was forced to assume responsibility for many things that would otherwise be undertaken by private enterprise - railways, banking, insurance, and many other things that New Zealand's small business sector could not yet afford. Premier Julius Vogel was a notable advocate of government projects of this nature. Later, the Liberal Party was accused by its opponents of being "socialist", although most within the party rejected this. One commentator has claimed that until the Russian Revolution of 1917, New Zealand was the most socialist country in the world, although many believe that this is overstating the case.
Ideological socialism, when it arrived, mostly stemmed from Britain or other British colonies. Much of socialism's early growth was found in the labour movement, and often coincided with the growth of trade unions. The New Zealand Federation of Labour was influenced by socialist theories, as were many other labour organizations.
In 1901, the New Zealand Socialist Party was founded, promoting the works of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. The group, despite being relatively moderate when compared with many other socialists, met with little tangiable success, but it nevertheless had considerable impact on the development of New Zealand socialism. In particular, Edward Hunter (sometimes known under the pen name "Billy Banjo", and a member of both the Socialist Party and the Federation of Labour), was a major figure in the spread of socialist ideas to the unions.
The growth of unionism eventually led to the establishment of a number of socialist-influenced parties. Originally, the working class vote was concentrated mainly with the Liberal Party, where a number of prominent left-wing politicians (such as Frederick Pirani) emerged. Later, however, there were increasing calls for an independent workers' party, particularly as the Liberals began to lose their reformist drive.
The second organised party to gain a seat in Parliament (after the Liberal Party) was the small Independent Political Labour League, which won an urban electorate in Wellington in the 1908 elections. Later, in 1910, the IPLL was reformed as the Labour Party (not to be confused with the modern party).
The growing drive for unity among left-wing groups resulted in a "Unity Conference" being called in 1912. This conference aimed to merge the various left-wing parties in New Zealand, including both the moderate Labour Party and the hardline Socialist Party. The Socialist Party, however, refused to attend the conference, and the new United Labour Party consisted only of the Labour Party and a number of independent campaigners.
Premier William Massey's "heavy-handed" suppression of the Waihi miners' strike prompted another attempt at unity in 1913. This time, the Socialists were willing to attend. A new group, the Social Democratic Party, was formed, merging the United Labour Party and the Socialist Party. A faction of the United Labour Party refused to accept the decision, however, and continued on under the same name. Later, a decision by the Social Democrats to support a strike of dockworkers and coal miners resulted in a number of Social Democratic leaders being arrested, leaving the party in disarray – in the 1914 elections, the remnants of the United Labour Party actually won more seats than the "united" Social Democrats.
Finally, in 1916, it was agreed that the Social Democrats and the United Labour Party remnants would all be amalgamated into a single group, the New Zealand Labour Party. The new Labour Party was explicitly socialist, and was based around goals of redistribution of wealth, nationalization of industry, and elimination of conscription. Labour's first leader, Harry Holland, was strongly socialist in his beliefs, having been associated with the Socialist Party and with the striking miners in Waihi. Holland believed that the militancy at Waihi was a sign of impending class warfare. While the Labour Party gained some electoral success, it continued to trail the Liberal Party and the Reform Party until the replacement of Holland with Michael Joseph Savage. Savage, although also involved in the earlier Socialist Party, was more moderate than Holland, and Labour gained considerable support. Assisted by the Great Depression, Labour won a decisive victory in the 1935 elections.
The early socialism of the Labour Party gradually faded, however. Two years after the Labour Party lost the 1949 elections, the goal of implementing "the socialisation of the means of production, distribution, and exchange" was removed from the party's policy platform. This is sometimes seen as the end of any real claim to full socialism by the Labour Party. The shift away from socialism had not come about without dispute, however – Labour Party politician John A. Lee was harshly critical of the changes, and had eventually left to establish the Democratic Labour Party in 1940. The party was considerably more socialist than Labour, but performed poorly. Many members eventually left the party, mostly due to Lee's perceived autocratic style.
Even before Holland's replacement, and especially after Labour's 1949 policy change, many people had come to the conclusion that the Labour Party had moved too far away from its socialist roots. Only two years after Labour's foundation, the New Zealand Marxian Association was established. It would later clash acrimoniously with Holland. The Marxian Association itself would fall prey to internal division – in 1921, a number of members who supported the Russian Revolution departed to form the Communist Party of New Zealand. The remaining Marxians, who denied that the Russian Revolution represented genuine socialism, gradually declined in influence, and the Association collapsed in 1922.
In 1930, however, former members of the Marxian Association (backed by members of the Socialist Party of Australia) established the Socialist Party of New Zealand (distinct from the earlier New Zealand Socialist Party). This group denied that the Labour Party (or even any of the parties before it, except for the Marxian Association) represented genuine socialism. The new Socialist Party still exists today, although has slightly modified its name (becoming the World Socialist Party of New Zealand).
The Communist Party, meanwhile, was active in attempting to gain support in the unions. The Auckland region's Trade Council was a significant bastion for the party in the 1940s. The party faithfully followed the official position of the Soviet Union, and therefore adopted Stalinism - this was criticised by the Socialist Party, which claimed that Stalinism was not socialism at all.
When the Sino-Soviet split occurred in the 1960s, the Communist Party was sharply divided between supporters of the Soviet Union (led by the "revisionist" Nikita Khrushchev) and supporters of China (led by the radical Mao Zedong). Eventually, the Maoists triumphed, and supporters of Khrushchev were expelled. The expelled members eventually established the Socialist Unity Party, although there is debate how that group should properly be classified. The Socialist Unity party eventually suffererd its own split, with some members departing to found the modern Socialist Party of Aotearoa.
In 1969, a group called the Socialist Action League (now the Communist League) was established. The League has proven to be one of the more durable parties, and contested two seats in the 2002 elections. Numerous other parties have been established since then, but few have proven as stable.
After Mao's death, the Communist Party rejected the reforms introduced by Deng Xiaoping. Instead, they followed Albania, which was led by Enver Hoxha. The leadership of the party believed that Hoxha was the only communist leader to keep "real" communism, but the group's determination to follow the narrowest path available alienated many of its supporters. The party gradually declined. After the collapse of Albanian communism, the party adopted the Trotskyism it had once harshly condemned, and merged with a newer group known as the International Socialist Organization. The resultant party was called the Socialist Workers Organization. Later, however, many supporters of the International Socialist Organization withdrew from the new party, reestablishing their old group. As such, some see the Socialist Workers Organization (SWO) as a continuation of the old Communist Party. The SWO, known then as Socialist Worker, voted to dissolve itself in January 2012.
Other groups continue to promote socialism as well. In the 2002 elections, four candidates were put forward an umbrella group (known as the Anti-Capitalist Alliance) consisting of the Workers Party of New Zealand, the Revolution group, and other left-wing activists. The International Socialist Organization is also active at some universities.
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There are around twenty political parties or organizations in New Zealand which follow socialist or communist policies. It is often difficult to gain a clear picture of socialist parties in New Zealand - mergers, splits, and renamings leave the situation confused. In 2013, only Socialist Aotearoa, Fightback and the International Socialist Organisation held regular public meetings and maintained regularly updated websites.