The Legacy of Primitive Communism

Last part of “Once Were Communists,” a series of four articles by Terry Coggan

The last article in this series argued that the system of Maori communal production could not be reorientated to production for the market without itself being fatally compromised. But this does not mean there was not a transitional period where the two antagonistic systems appeared to co-exist. The economy of New Zealand in the first half of the nineteenth century was in fact a hybrid formation in which new capitalist exchange relations were fused with a communal system of production. Such inherently contradictory formations took shape in many other parts of the world where European capitalism came into contact with traditional societies, and had a life expectancy related to the extent of capitalist penetration. Social relations as strongly rooted as those of traditional Maori society could not be expected to give way as soon as the ground beneath them began to shift.

So for a time anomaly prevailed. The land that was now producing exchange values as well as use values continued to be owned and worked in common. New means of production like flourmills and trading ships were collectively owned. (54)  The increase in wealth produced was often distributed through traditional entertaining, feasting and gift-giving that offended the Protestant ethic of the missionaries. The novel phenomenon of wage labour also made its appearance among Maori, albeit also at first in a transitional form, in that Maori who worked on European farms or public works usually did so as a collective group rather than as individuals, spontaneously re-creating a form like the artel, the Russian peasant/rural craftsmen work team. The 350 Ngati Ruakawa who built the Wellington-Porirua road from 1846 to 1849, for example, used their earnings collectively to buy tools and sailing vessels for the tribe. Governor George Grey preferred to hire Maori on such projects because it taught them “European labour discipline.” There actually seems to have been a shift towards capitalist labour relations during the Porirua construction: the work was begun with chiefs overseeing the labour of their own hapu, and ended with gangs of mixed hapu under European overseers. (55)

Yet such challenges to the authority and leadership of the chiefs, like that implied by the desire of some Maori to farm independently, were a sign that the old ways were being undermined by the economic changes. Petrie accurately observes, “Missionaries, who congratulated themselves on having engineered changes of attitude towards the laws of tapu, and government officials who sought to destroy the mana of traditional leaders, may, to some extent, have been witnesses to a natural process.” (56)

British troops storm the Maori fortifications at Rangiriri in 1863 during the war launched to seize Maori lands. Redmayne, Thomas, fl 1880s-1890s. Redmayne, Thomas, fl 1880s-1890s :Attack on the Maori Pah at Rangiriri. [1863]. Cassell’s picturesque Australasia, edited by E. E. Morris. London, Cassell & Co, 1890. Ref: PUBL-0046-4-39. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

British troops storm the Maori fortifications at Rangiriri in 1863 during the war launched to seize Maori lands. Redmayne, Thomas, fl 1880s-1890s. Redmayne, Thomas, fl 1880s-1890s :Attack on the Maori Pah at Rangiriri. [1863]. Cassell’s picturesque Australasia, edited by E. E. Morris. London, Cassell & Co, 1890. Ref: PUBL-0046-4-39. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

But after 1860 any working out of “a natural process” was curtailed by an unnatural shock. That year marked the turning point in the imposition of capitalism in New Zealand. The developments in the Maori economy, wherever they were heading, were violently derailed. If a settler colony was to be established, then like elsewhere in the world, from North America, to Australia, South Africa, or Israel, the indigenous population had to be dispossessed of the land. A good deal of progress towards this goal had been achieved before 1860 through crown purchases; now the process was accelerated by war, confiscation, and the centrepiece of the war settlement, the introduction of laws to facilitate alienation through the individualisation of title, or “dispossession by purchasing” in the apt phrase of one historian. (57)  “In the history of primitive accumulation”, wrote Marx, “all revolutions are epoch-making that act as levers for the capitalist class in the course of its formation; but, above all, those moments when great masses of men are suddenly and forcibly torn from their means of subsistence, and hurled as free and “unattached” proletarians on the labour market. The expropriation of the agricultural producer, of the peasant, from the soil is the basis of the whole process. The history of this expropriation, in different countries, assumes different aspects, and runs through its various phases in different orders of succession, and at different periods. In England alone, which we take as our example, has it the classic form.” (58)

A number of historians have seen a precedent for the “tenurial revolution” the New Zealand colonial settler rulers carried out as a part of their expropriation of Maori land in the earlier and much longer process of the enclosures of common land that had necessarily preceded the rise of capitalism in Britain. (59) Marx described this process at some length in Volume One of Capital. As far as I know, he or Engels never wrote specifically about the land wars in New Zealand, or of the subsequent land legislation, but he did express his outrage at parallel situations in other parts of the world. He called the suppression of communal land ownership in India “nothing but an act of English vandalism which drove the indigenous population backward rather than forward.” (60)  And like Luxemburg later, he denounced the laws passed by the French National Assembly to dismantle the communal property in land held by indigenous clans in Algeria. Marx notes that this was the same “assembly of shame” that had suppressed the Commune set up by the workers of Paris in 1871, and that a motive for its actions, beside “stealing the land,” was “by tearing away the Arabs from their natural bond to the soil to break the last strength of the clan unions,” and thereby to avoid “any danger of rebellion.” (61)  Faced as they still were with active Maori rebellion, this was surely also a consideration in the minds of the leaders of the the New Zealand colonial settler state. Their aim in the land wars of the 1860s was not just to seize the land, but to resolve in their favour the situation of dual power that had prevailed in the country for the two decades after the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi.

From 1865 until 1873 the new law to individualise title to Maori land restricted the number of Maori owners to ten. It has been suggested that this was  deliberate policy on the part of the colonial rulers to create a Maori aristocracy with which they could cooperate in the running of the country, if not as equals then at least as compradors. This would be consistent with British colonial policy elsewhere which tried the same strategy with, among others, Indian zemindars  and Fijian chiefs. But if that were the case, the attempt had to be abandoned because there existed no noticeable outcroppings of class difference in Maori society on which it could gain purchase. The capitalist ruling class would revive the strategy over a century later when Treaty of Waitangi settlements made resources available that allowed the emergence of a Maori bourgeoisie with whom they could do business.

A gang of Maori shearers in Northland around 1900 Alexander Turnbull Library  Reference: PAColl-8620

A gang of Maori shearers in Northland around 1900
Alexander Turnbull Library    Reference: PAColl-8620

But in the last few decades of the nineteenth century Maori largely became a rural proletariat, whose labour power could be bought by employers at bargain prices because the cost of its reproduction was subsidised by the subsistence agriculture, hunting and fishing that Maori carried out on their remaining lands. The ‘tenurial revolution’ resulted in  the worst of both worlds for Maori, prising apart their communal ownership, but creating a new system which, as Monin says, “fell short of genuine ‘individualism’, as only saleable interests were created, not individual land holdings into which owners could invest labour and capital confident of receiving the benefits.” (62)  But it was not the aim of the new capitalist class to encourage the development of a prosperous Maori yeomanry. They didn’t need Marx, or Wakefield, to tell them their principal need was for a working class to exploit. They certainly planned to import a large component of it through the massive immigration schemes began in the 1870s, (63) but it has been under-estimated what an important part newly proletarianised Maori played in the forging of New Zealand capitalism. This was eloquently described by Apirana Ngata in a 1928 letter:

“When they cracked up the pakeha ‘pioneer’ who carved a home out of the forest primeval they forgot the Maori who packed the pioneer’s goods to his shack, who cut tracks, who felled, burnt, sawed & fenced the forest clearing, docked, shore, dipped and crutched his sheep, drove stock to market, killed the beasts in the works, carted out the wool, and so on. The Kauri-gum fields of the north, the timber mills everywhere, the railways and roads…Dairying in Taranaki, at Nuhaka, Ruatoki and in the far North, … fishing, including whitebait fishing, & and on a smaller scale carpentering, motor-driving, threshing, grass-seeding, droving, shepherding, domestic service, teaching, clerical & other work in the Public Service, store-keeping, laundry-work &c. The fault has largely been ours – in part that of the Pakeha…They forget the people who did everything except provide the money, the direction and the driving power.” (64)

A group of Maori gum diggers, Northland , 1914 Alexander Turnbull Library, Northwood Collection (PA-Group-00027)  Reference: 1/1-009777; G  Photograph by Arthur James Northwood

A group of Maori gum diggers, Northland , 1914.  Alexander Turnbull Library, Northwood Collection (PA-Group-00027)  Reference: 1/1-009777; G
Photograph by Arthur James Northwood

The very proletarianisation of Maori and the partial falling back into subsistence agriculture helped sustain those elements of the old communal way of life that stubbornly persisted in Maori communities. If colonial capitalists of Richmond, Sewell and McLean’s generation had hoped that Maori communism would quickly disappear after their assault on its economic base, they were disappointed. Until well into the twentieth century, their successors were still not confident they had killed off the beast. The Northern Advocate in October 1917 expostulated that “The communal system, in terse fact, allowed to continue in the midst of a democracy, becomes a gross anomaly, a detriment to the whole body politic, and perpetual bar to the full capacity of national progression. Little surprise can be felt, therefore, at the advocacy of communism’s total abolition as the only means of bringing the Maori into line with their bounden obligations.” (65)  In 1934, Justice Smith of the Native Affairs Commission was concerned that Apirana Ngata’s land development schemes “… should not be used to give the Maori a basis of communal bias which would detract from the work of individual farmers.” (66)

The legacy of primitive communism

Marx and Engels came to the conclusion that “If the Russian revolution becomes the signal for a proletarian revolution in the West, so that the two complement each other, the present Russian common ownership of land may serve as the starting point for communist development.” (67)  Some Latin American revolutionaries, taking their lead from this judgement, have seen a similar role for what remains of the indigenous agricultural communes of that continent. (68) Could the tradition of common ownership of land among Maori “serve as the starting point for communist development” in New Zealand? To an indirect extent this tradition survives in the trusts and incorporations under which most Maori-owned land is farmed today, although these bodies have no organic continuity with traditional common ownership forms such as that Marx and Engels saw in the Russian Mir. They have been introduced at various stages and in various guises since the destruction of Maori communism in the nineteenth century largely as a way of overcoming the obstacles to economic development created by the fragmentation of titles. Some have seen them as vehicles that would allow the preservation of traditional ways. Writing about the adoption of Apirana Ngata’s incorporation schemes by Waikato Maori in the 1930s, for instance, Michael King says “Maoris – including Ngata and Te Puea – saw it as a way of enabling the Maori to retain a communal life based on Maori values.” (69) Trusts and incorporations, like forms of collective ownership as diverse as cooperatives and joint stock companies, arose historically as a more or less unconscious and ultimately vain attempt to resolve the contradiction between socialized production and private appropriation within the framework of the capitalist mode of production. They are an example of the way in which the embryo of the new society grows in the womb of the old, but, as Marx said of cooperative factories, “they naturally reproduce, and must reproduce, everywhere in their actual organization all the shortcomings of the prevailing system.” (70) It is utopian to say, as a 1987 New Zealand Planning Council Report did, that “incorporations, trusts, tribal trust boards, and other forms of group management” can be “a path to making tribal lands communal again.” (71) For that to happen there needs to be a socialist revolution – that was the condition that Marx and Engels attached to their projection of the future course of development of the Russian commune.

Maori workers lead a haka (traditional war dance) on the picket line during a strike against forestry company Carter Holt Harvey, October 2005 Photo: Terry Coggan

Maori workers lead a haka (traditional war dance) on the picket line during a strike against forestry company Carter Holt Harvey, October 2005    Photo: Terry Coggan

On more than one occasion, a Maori worker with whom I was having a political discussion or was trying to interest in some communist literature has said to me, “Well you know, Maoris are natural communists.” They were wrong in one sense: Maori as Maori are no more natural communists than they are natural entrepreneurs, (or natural warriors for that matter, Steven Pinker and his “warrior gene” notwithstanding). Communism is the outcome of social processes, not a genetic trait.  But these workers were referring to those communal activities and attitudes that have survived in Maori communities despite a century and a half of integration into the mainstream capitalist economy, including the urbanisation of much of the Maori population after World War Two, and the class differentiation within Maori society that has occurred in recent decades. Engels noted similar survivals in those parts of Northern Europe where the traditions of the old Mark communities had not entirely disappeared, and said they left “a weapon in the hands of the oppressed, ready to be wielded even in modern times.” (72)   The consciousness that “we were once communists, we can be again,” is a weapon all workers can wield in the modern class struggle. That consciousness is more easily attained by workers who are Maori because in historical terms they are less distant from the living world of the first communism than other components of the working class.

Part of a march of over 20,000 protesting government legislation that took away the right of Maori to assert claims to areas of foreshore and seabed, Wellington, May 2004 Photo: Terry Coggan

Part of a march of over 20,000 protesting government legislation that took away the right of Maori to assert claims to areas of foreshore and seabed, Wellington, May 2004.   Photo: Terry Coggan

An outstanding legacy from the Maori people to the New Zealand and international workers’ movement is the example of the fight they put up against the violent onslaught of capitalism known as the land wars. As a 1989 resolution of the Communist League stated: “As we look out to the struggles of workers and farmers the world over and make common cause with them, and as we draw inspiration and learn from all those international working class struggles that have come before us, so we also look back to and draw inspiration from the armed Maori resistance to the land-grabbers as the first struggles of working people in this country against exploitation and oppression. They represent the point of departure from which the modern working class struggle has developed in this country.” (73)  During all the time since the land wars, Maori  have never stopped fighting for their national self-determination, first on one front, then on another.  Workers who are Maori bring the rich experience of that struggle to the workers’ movement, and have been doing so since they began joining trade unions in the late nineteenth century.

If Maori are not natural communists, proletarians are. They constitute the universal class whose historic mission it is to abolish class society. It is in the vanguard of the workers’ struggle to overturn capitalist rule – for the dictatorship of the proletariat – that workers who are Maori can reclaim their communist heritage.


Notes to Part Four

  1. Petrie, op. cit., p. 200-03.
  1. M.K. Watson and B.R. Patterson, “The Growth and Subordination of the Maori Economy in the Wellington Region of New Zealand, 1840-52”, Pacific Viewpoint, vol. 26, no. 3, 1985, pp. 521-45, p. 538. A somewhat later instance is given by Monin: “In the Tauranga district, for example, where earlier Maori had agreed to do roadwork only on the basis of special contracts awarded to tribes, by 1883 they preferred working for wages under a Pakeha contractor.” op. cit., p. 142.
  1. op. cit., p. 274.
  1. Richard Boast, Buying the Land, Selling the Land. Governments and Maori Land in the North Island 1865-1921. Wellington 2008, op.cit., p. 3.
  1. Capital, Volume 1, MECW vol. 35, p. 707.
  1. M. P. K. Sorrenson, “Ko Te Whenua Te Utu – Land is the Price: Essays on Maori History, Land and Politics,” Auckland University Press, 2014, pp. 149-66.  Boast, op. cit., pp. 42-43.
  1. The third draft of his 1881 reply to Vera Zasulich, in Teodor Shanin (ed.), Late Marx and the Russian Road, New York, 1983, p. 118.
  1. Marx’s remarks are from his notes he took when reading Kovalevsky’s writings in 1879, quoted in Anderson, op. cit., chapter 6.”
  1. op.cit., p. 38.
  1. They did also briefly experiment with indentured labour from the Pacific Islands, notorious for its role in the establishment of agrarian capitalism in Queensland in the same period. In 1870 a certain Captain Cadell brought 23 indentured Hawai’ian Islanders to Auckland to work in Brissenden and Walker’s flax mill. John Nicholson, The Incomparable Captain Cadell, Allen and Unwin, NSW, 2004, pp. 247-48.
  1. Quoted in Steven Webster, Patrons of Maori Culture, University of Otago Press, 1998, p. 40.
  1. The Treaty of Waitangi Companion, eds. Vincent O’Malley, Bruce Stirling and Wally Penetito, Auckland University Press, 2010, p. 229. The same day’s edition of this newspaper contained reports of the “chaos and anarchy” across the other side of the world in Russia. Ten days later it reported the victory of the revolution. After a couple of days to digest the news, it signalled its alarm in a November 12 editorial: “Russia, as represented just now by Maximalist [Bolshevik] assumption of power, is adopting the manifestly unjust method of grabbing everything that savours of wealth and passing it on to the people, quite irrespective of any unfairness that might be occasioned.” See
  1. Ibid., p. 244.
  1. The Preface to the 1882 Second Russian Edition of The Communist Manifesto. MECW. Vol. 24, p. 426. See also Marx’s reply to Vera Zasulich a year earlier.
  1. see for instance Adolfo Gilly, The Mexican Revolution, New York 2004, pp. 46-48.
  1. Michael King, Te Puea, Auckland 1977, p. 156. This certainly seems to have been Te Puea’s aim. Whether it was Ngata’s is less clear.
  1. Marx, Capital, Volume 3, MECW, vol. 37, p. 438.
  1. Maori Land, New Zealand Planning Council, Planning Paper 29, 1987, p. 47.
  1. The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, op. cit., p. 251.
  1. “The international working-class struggle and the fight for Maori economic, social and political equality”, in The Working Class and the Fight for Maori Rights, Auckland 2008, p. 12.

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