A. R. D. Fairburn, 1904–1957, is not usually identified with the “Right.” As a central figure in the development of a New Zealand national literature, much of the contemporary self-appointed literary establishment would wish to identify Fairburn with Marxism or liberalism, as were other leading literary friends of Fairburn’s such as the Communist R. A. K. Mason. Some critics even attempt to identify-Fairburn’s epic poem Dominion with “Marxism” despite Fairburn’s own commitment to Social Credit and specific rejection of Marxism and the materialist interpretation of history.
Indeed, the primary influences on Fairburn were distinctly non-Left, and include D. H. Lawrence, Nietzsche, Oswald Spengler, and of course Social Credit’s Major C. H. Douglas. A significant influence on his thinking was his friend from childhood, the fellow poet Geoffrey Potocki de Montalk, a claimant to the throne of Poland and a fervent anti-Communist with sympathies towards the Axis during the war.
While Fairburn described himself at times as an “anarchist,” it was of a most unorthodox type, being neither Left wing nor Libertarian. For Fairburn outspokenly rejected all the baggage dear to the Left, including feminism and internationalism. His “anarchism” was the type of individualism of the Right that called for a return to decentralized communities comprised of self-reliant craftsmen and farmers. His creed was distinctly nationalistic and based on the spiritual and the biological components of history and culture, both concepts being antithetical to any form of Leftism.
We feel more than justified then in identifying Fairburn as an “Artist of the Right.”
Fairburn was born in modest though middle class circumstances. He was proud of being a fourth generation New Zealander related to the missionary Colenso.
Rejection of Rationalism
Although critical of the Church hierarchy and briefly involved with the Rationalist Association, Fairburn was for most of his life a spiritual person, believing that the individual becomes most profoundly who he is by striving towards God. He believed in a basic Christian ethic minus any moralism.
Fairburn soon realized that rationalism by itself answers nothing and that it rejects the dream world that is the source of creativity. He was in agreement here with other poets of the Right such as Yeats and identified with his friend Geoffrey Potocki, who called poets a “spiritual aristocracy.” But at this time, Fairburn thought socialism would “free artists of economic, worldly shackles.” He was yet to discover the economic and political alternatives that would achieve this while retaining the spiritual basis of culture rejected by dialectical materialism.
Potocki had left New Zealand in disgust at the cultural climate and persuaded Fairburn to join him London, since New Zealand prevented them from doing what they were born for, “to make and to mould a New Zealand civilization,” as Potocki stated it.
Fairburn arrived in London in 1930. Like Potocki he was not impressed with bohemian society and the Bloomsbury intellectuals who were riddled with homosexuality to which both Potocki and Fairburn had an abiding dislike.
However, away from the bohemianism, intellectualism and pretentiousness of the city, Fairburn came to appreciate the ancestral attachment with England that was still relevant to New Zealanders through a continuing “earth-memory.”
In London he felt the decay and decadence of the city. Like Knut Hamsun and Henry Williamson, Fairburn conceived of a future “tilling the soil.” He now stated: “I’m going to be a peasant, if necessary, to keep in touch with life.”
In 1931 Fairburn was introduced to A. R. Orage, who had published Katherine Mansfield and was editing the New English Weekly which was bringing forth a new generation of talents to English literature, including Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot. Orage had been a “guild socialist,” advocating a return to the medieval guilds which had upheld craftsmanship and represented interests according to one’s calling rather than political party. Orage had also discovered Social Credit economics, and it is likely that Orage introduced Fairburn to Social Credit’s founder Major C. H. Douglas.
Fairburn was now reading Spengler’s Decline of the West, which identified the cyclic and organic nature of history, of the rise and fall of civilizations. Western Civilization, said Spengler, had reached its cycle of decline during which the city, merchants, and money are the focus, replacing the rural community, the knight, aristocrat, peasant, and craftsman. Spengler, drawing on parallels with previous civilizations, held that each civilization in its final or Winter cycle undergoes a last burst of vigor under the leadership of a great leader or “Caesar” type who overthrows the power of the merchant. This “new Caesarism,” according to Spengler’s fatalistic interpretation of history, is the “last hurrah” (as we might put it) of a civilization before its inevitable death.
However, Fairburn felt that the vitality of the individual could be the answer to a reinvigorated culture, rather than the rise of new Caesars. This belief reflects two major influences on Fairburn, that of the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche and of the English novelist D. H. Lawrence, who looked to the heroic individual.
While Fairburn agreed with Marx that capitalism causes dehumanization, he rejected the Marxist interpretation of history as based on class war and economics. Materialistic interpretations of history were at odds with Fairburn’s belief that it is the Infinite that touches man.
Fairburn met the Soviet press attaché in England but concluded that the USSR had turned to the 19th century Western ideal of the machine. He did not want a Marxist industrial substitute for the capitalist one. Hence Fairburn’s answer amidst a decaying civilization was the vital individual: not the alienated “individual” thrown up by capitalism, but the individual as part of the family and the soil, possessing an organic rootedness above the artificiality of both Marxism and capitalism. Culture was part of this sense of identity as a manifestation of the spiritual
Not surprisingly, Fairburn was increasingly distanced from his communist friends. He was repelled by communist art based on the masses and on science, which he called “false.” He writes: “Communism kills the Self—cuts out religion and art, that is today. But religion and art ARE the only realities.”
Fairburn also repudiated a universal ideal, for man lived in the particular. New Zealand had to discover its own identity rather than copying foreign ideas. Another communist friend, the New Zealand poet Clifton Firth, wrote that the “New Zealand penis was yet to be erect.” To this Fairburn replied: “True, but as a born New Zealander, why don’t you try to hoist it up, instead tossing off Russia? Why steal Slav gods? Why not get some mud out of a creek and make your own?”
The 18th century artist and poet William Blake appealed to Fairburn’s spiritual, anti-materialist sentiments, as a means of bringing English culture out of decadence. Fairburn also saw in D. H. Lawrence “a better rallying point than Lenin.” He was similarly impressed with Yeats.
To R. A. K. Mason, the New Zealand poet and communist, he wrote: “our real life is PURELY spiritual. Man is not a machine.”
In 1932 Fairburn wrote an article for the New English Weekly attacking materialism. He feared that the prosperity that would be generated by Social Credit monetary reform would cause rampant materialism devoid of a spiritual basis. He saw the aim of monetary reform as being not simply one of increasing the amount of material possessions, but as a means of achieving a higher level of culture.
Fairburn wished for a post-industrial, craft and agricultural society. The policy of Social Credit would achieve greater production and increase leisure hours. This would create the climate in which culture could flourish. Because culture requires sufficient leisure time beyond the daily economic grind, not simply for more production and consumption, as the declining cultural level of our own day shows, despite the increasing quantity of consumer goods available.
In June 1932 he wrote to Mason that if the Labour Party rejected Social Credit economics, he would on returning to New Zealand start his own movement:
If I were in NZ I should try to induce Holland [Labour Party leader] and the Labour Party to adopt the Social Credit scheme. Then, if they turned it down, I should start a racket among the young men off my own bat. A Nationalist, anti-Communist movement, with strong curbs on the rich; anti-big-business: with the ultimate object of cutting NZ away from the Empire and making her self-supporting. That party will come in England hence, later in NZ. I should try and anticipate it a little, and prepare the ground. Objects: to cut out international trade as far as possible (hence, cut out war); to get out of the clutches of the League of Nations; to assert NZ’s Nationalism, and make her as far as possible a conscious and self-contained nation on her own account. I should try, for the time being, to give the thing a strong military flavor. No pacifism, “idealism,” passive resistance, or other such useless sentimentalities. Then, when the time came, a Fascist coup might be possible.
But Social Credit and Nationalism would be the main planks and the basis of the whole movement. Very reactionary, you will say. But I am quite realistic now about these things. No League of Nations, Brotherhood of Man stuff. “Man is neither a beast nor an angel: but try to make him into an angel, and you will turn him into a beast, idealism is done with—over—passé—gone phut.
Behind the labels, of course, all this would be a cunning attempt to get what we are actually all after: decent living conditions, minimum of economic tyranny, goods for all, and the least possible risk of war. Our Masters, the Bankers, would find it harder to oppose such a movement than to oppose communism. And it would be more likely to obtain support.
Fairburn condemned the “internationalism” of the League of Nations as really representing “super nationalism” which would result in war, which of course it did: a war against the self-sufficient Axis nations which had opted out of the world trading and financial system.
On his return to New Zealand Fairburn, instead of launching his own movement, wholeheartedly campaigned for Social Credit, mainly through his position as assistant secretary of the Auckland Farmers’ Union, which had a social credit policy, and as editor of its paper Farming First, a post he held until being drafted into the army in 1943.
Towards a National Culture
Fairburn now began to paint in earnest and made some money as a fabric designer. He spurned abstract art, and particularly Picasso, as falsifying life. Abstraction, like rationalism, was a form of intellectualism that took life apart. Fairburn believed in the total individual. In art this meant synthesis, building up images, not breaking them down: “If art does anything it synthesizes, not analyses, or it is dead art. Creative imagination is the thing, all faculties of man working together towards a synthesis of personal experience resulting in fresh creation.”
While Fairburn believed in innovation in the arts and had earlier adhered to the Vorticist movement founded in England by Ezra Pound, Wyndham Lewis, et al., he also believed that art should maintain its traditional foundations. Art is a product of an organic community, not simply the egotistical product of the artist. He saw many artists however as not only separate from the community but as destructive, calling Picasso for instance, “a bearer of still-born children,” and referred to the “falseness of abstract art” and its “nihilism.”
In a 1946 radio talk, “The Arts Are Acquired Tastes,” Fairburn elaborated:
Art is not the private property of artists. It belongs to the living tradition of society as a whole. And it can’t exist without its public. Conversely, I think it can be said that no society can live for long in a state of civilization without a fairly widespread appreciation of the arts, that is to say, without well-organized aesthetic sensibility.
Hence there was a reciprocal interaction between the artist and the public. Both possessed a shared sense of values and origins, in former times, whether peasant or noble, in comparison to the formlessness of the present day cosmopolitanism.
The artist has brought contempt upon himself by letting himself be used for ends that he knows to be destructive. By doing so he has brought art and his own type close to extinction. (Notes in the Margin, Action, 1947)
“Form” in art, geometrically, is fundamental. It is the primary responsibility of art schools to teach “traditional techniques” then allow those who have genuine talent to flow from there.
Fairburn lectured in art history at the Elam School, Auckland University, the most influential of New Zealand’s art schools which produced Colin McCahon et al. McCahon, our most esteemed artist whose splatters fetch millions on the market and whose influence upon new generations of artists endures, was vehemently opposed by Fairburn, who considered his works devoid of form, “contrived” and “pretentious humbug”: “In design, in color, in quality of line, in every normal attribute of good painting, they are completely lacking.”
He also considered modern music sensationalist, without content, form, or order, reflecting the chaos of the current cycle of Western civilization.
Fairburn, in accordance with his political nationalism, advocated a New Zealand national culture arising from the New Zealand landscape. He believed that one’s connection with one’s place of birth is of a permanent quality, not just a question of which place in the world one find’s most pleasant as a place to live. Writing to Mason in June 1932, he stated that the criterion of “fortune-hunting” in choosing where one lives cannot satisfy “anybody who is un-Semitic like myself.”
Fairburn explains that the art which is manufactured for the market by those who have no attachment to any specific place, is Jewish in nature:
The Jews are a non-territorial race, so their genius is turned to dust and ashes. Their works of art have no integrity-have had none since they left Palestine. Compare Mendelssohn and Humbert Wolfe with the Old Testament writers. When I came to England, I acted the Jew. I have no roots in this soil. In the end every man goes back where he belongs, if he is honest. Men are not free. They are bound to fate by certain things, and lose their souls in escaping—if it is a permanent escape. . . .
Cosmopolitanism—Semitism—are false, have no bottom to them. Internationalism is their child—and an abortion.
Fairburn condemned the notion that a culture can be chosen and attached to “like a leech” without regard to one’s origins. He further identifies the impact of Jewish influence on Western culture; a contrived art that does not arise spontaneously from the unconscious mind of the artist in touch with his origins:
Jewish standards have infected most Western art. It is possible to look on even the “self-conscious art” of Poe, Baudelaire, Mallarmé, Pater—Coleridge even—as being “Jewish” in the sense I am meaning. The orgasm is self-induced, rather than spontaneous. It has no inevitability. The effect is calculated. The ratio between the individual artist and his readers is nicely worked out prior to creation. It does not arise as an inevitable result of the artist’s mental processes. William Blake, who was not Jewish, had perfect faith in his own intuitions—so his work could not fail to have universal truth—to have integrity. But the truth was not calculated . . .
Since Fairburn had written on the Jewish cosmopolitan spirit in Western art, the Jews have of course achieved their own state of Israel. However, since the bulk of Jewry exists outside of this state, the Jewish artistic influence continues to be a reflection of their rootlessness in the lands where most dwell. This cosmopolitan influence Fairburn saw, expressed an “international” or “world standard” for the arts which debased culture. He wrote: “Is poetry shortly to be graded like export mutton?”
The racket of modern art was related to economic motives:
. . . the infection of the market place . . . the sooty hand of commerce. The “modern art racket” has the aim of “rapid turnover, a rate of change that induces a sort of vertigo, and the exploitation of novelty as a fetish—the encouragement of the exotic and the unusual.
Fairburn’s biographer Dennis Trussell comments:
Rex feared that internationalism in cultural matters would reduce all depiction of human experience to a characterless gruel, relating to no real time or place because it attempted to relate to all times and places.
In contrast, great art arises from the traditional masculine values of a culture: “honor, chivalry, and disinterested justice.”
Writing to the NZ Listener in June 1955, Fairburn decried the development of a “one world” cosmopolitan state, which would also mean a standardized world culture that would be reduced to an international commodity:
The aspiration towards “one world” may have something to be said for it in a political sense (even here, with massive qualifications), but in the wider field of human affairs it is likely to prove ruinous. In every country today we see either a drive (as in Russia and the USA) or a drift (as in the British Commonwealth) towards the establishment of mass culture, and the imposition of herd standards. This applies not only in industry, but also in the literature and the arts generally. In the ant-hill community towards which we are moving, art and literature will be sponsored by the State, and produced by a highly specialized race of neuters. We have already gone some distance along this road. Literature tends more and more to be regarded as an internationally standardized commodity, like soap or benzine—something that has no particular social or geographical context. In the fully established international suburbia of the future it will be delivered by the grocer—or, more splendidly, be handled by a world-wide chain store Literary Trust . . .
The situation today has proved Fairburn correct, with the transnational corporations defining culture in terms of international marketing, breaking down national cultures in favor of a global consumer standard. This mass global consumer culture is most readily definable with the term “American.”
Fairburn opposed State patronage of the arts, however, believing that this cut the artist off from the cycle of life, of family and work, making art contrived and forced instead. He also opposed the prostitution of the nation and culture to tourism, more than ever the great economic panacea—along with world trade-heralded by the politicians.
In a letter to the NZ Herald written in February 1955 he states:
May I suggest that there is no surer way in the long run to destroy Maori culture than to take the more colorful aspects of it and turn them into a “tourist attraction.” If the elements of Maori culture are genuine and have any place outside of a museum, they will be kept alive by the Maori people themselves for their own cultural (not commercial) needs. The use of Maori songs and dances to tickle the pockets of passing strangers, and the encouragement of this sort of cheapjackery by the pakeha are degrading to both races . . . And the official encouragement of Maori songs, dances, and crafts as side-shows to amuse tourists is both vulgar and harmful.
The Dominion of Usury
In 1935 he resolved to write an epic poem about New Zealand. The result was Dominion. It is an attack upon greed and usury, and is reminiscent of Ezra Pound’s Canto “With Usura.”
The assumption to government of the Labour Party gave Fairburn no cause for optimism. The Party had indeed adopted a Social Credit policy when C. H. Douglas visited New Zealand to much popular acclaim in 1934. John A. Lee, the celebrated Labour junior minister was a strong advocate of social credit but was to resign when the Government made it clear that there was no real resolve to implement the economic policy on which it had been elected to office.
Fairburn was critical of the Government’s continuation of orthodox economics, apart from some half-hearted measures, and of the typically orthodox socialist view that a growth economy and ever increasing consumption were themselves worthy ends. Hence, even the humblest worker saw the chase after money as the aim of life: “small greed, the travelling weed.”
Dominion begins by fingering the usurer as the lord of all:
The house or the governors, guarded
and over the arch of the gate
these words enraged:
He who impugns the usurers
Imperils the State.
Those who serve the governors are picked from the enslaved, well paid for their services to “keep the records of decay” with “cold hands . . . computing our ruin on scented cuffs.” For the rest of the people there is the “treadmill . . . of the grindstone god.”’
The unemployed and those on relief work as Fairburn had been when he returned to New Zealand, were “witnesses to the constriction of life” which was necessary to maintain the financial system. Nor did the countryside escape the ravages of the system. The farms are “mortgaged in bitterness . . .” to the banks.
The city is:
a paper city built on the rock of debt,
held fast against all winds by the paperweight of debt.
The living saddled with debt.
A load of debt for the foetus . . .
And all over the hand of the usurer,
Bland angel of darkness,
Mild and triumphant and much looked up to.
Colonization had bought here the ills of the Mother Country, and debt underscored the lot:
They divided the land,
Some for their need,
And some for sinless, customary greed . . .
Fairburn’s answer is a return to the land.
Fair earth, we have broken our idols:
and after the days of fire we shall come to you for the stones of a new temple.
The destruction of the usurers’ economic system would result in the creation of a new order: the land freed of debt would yield the foundation for “a new temple” other than that of the usurer.
In 1940 Fairburn extended his advocacy to include organic farming, and he became editor of Compost, the magazine of the New Zealand Humic Compost Club. He considered the abuse of the land led to the destruction of civilization. The type of civilization that arises depends on its type of farming, he said. “Food remains the basis of civilization, but industrial farming is spiritually barren.”
The type of community Fairburn sought is based on farming, not industry that gives rise to fractured, contending economic classes. Industry reduces life to a matter of economics.
In a lecture to the Auckland Fabian Society in 1944 Fairburn stated:
It is natural for men to be in close contact with the earth; and it is natural for them to satisfy their creative instincts by using their hands and brains. Husbandry, “the mother of all crafts,” satisfies these two needs, and for that reason should be the basic activity in our social life—the one that gives color and character to all the rest.
In the same lecture he spells out his ideal society:
The decentralization of the towns, the establishment of rural communities with a balanced economic life, the co-operative organization of marketing, of transport and of necessary drudgery, the controlled use of manufacturing processes . . .
In 1946 Fairburn elaborated again on his ideal of decentralization, regarding the corporation as soulless and the State as the biggest of corporations:
The best status for men is that of independence. The small farmer, the small tradesman, the individual craftsman working on his own—these have been the mainstay of every stable civilization in history. The tendency for large numbers of men to forsake, or to have taken from them, their independent status, and to become hangers-on of the state, has invariably been the prelude to decay.
New Barbarism—America and the USSR
Fairburn feared that the victors of World War II, America and the USSR, would usher in a new age of barbarism. In 1946 he wrote in an unpublished article to the NZ Herald:
The next decade or two we shall see American economic power and American commercial culture extended over the whole of the non-Russian world. The earth will then be nicely partitioned between two barbarisms. . . . In my more gloomy moments I find it hard to form an opinion as to which is the greater enemy to Western civilization—Russian materialism, the open enemy, or American materialism with its more insidious influence. The trouble is that we are bound to stick by America when it comes to the point, however we may dislike certain aspects of American life. For somewhere under that Mae West exterior there is a heart that is sound and a conscience that is capable of accepting guilt.
Experience has shown that Fairburn’s “more gloomy moments” were the most realistic, for America triumphed and stands as the ultimate barbarian threatening to engulf all cultures with its materialism, hedonism, and commercialism. The Russian military threat was largely bogus, a convenient way of herding sundry nations into the American orbit. The USSR is no more, while Imperium Americana stands supreme throughout the world, from the great cities to the dirt road towns of the Third World, where all are being remolded into the universal citizen in the manner of American tastes, habits, speech, fashions, and even humor.
Fairburn regarded feminism as another product of cultural regression. In The Woman Problem he calls feminism an “insidious hysterical protest” contrary to biological and social imperatives. He saw the biological urge for children as central to women.
Fairburn also considered biological factors to be more important than the sociological and economic, therefore putting him well outside the orbit of any Left-wing doctrine, which reduces history and culture into a complex of economic motives.
Our public policies are for the most part anti-biological. Social security legislation concerns itself with the care of the aged long before it looks to the health and vitality of young mothers and their children. We spend vast sums of money on hospitals and little or nothing on gymnasia. We discourage our children from marrying at the right age, when desire is urgent, and the pelvic structure of the female has not begun to ossify; we applaud them when they spend the first ten years of their adult lives establishing a profitable cosmetic business or a legal practice devoted to the defense of safe breakers. The feminists must feel a sense of elation when they see an attractive young woman clinging to some pitiful job or other, and drifting toward spinsterhood, an emotion that would no doubt be shared by the geo-political experts of Asia, if they were on the spot.
Indeed, what has feminism shown itself to be, despite its pretensions as being “progressive,” other than a means of fully integrating women into the market and into production, while abortion rates soar?
Fairburn saw Marxism, feminism, and Freudianism as denying the “organic nature” of man. Urbanization means the continuing devitalization of the male physically and ethically as he is pushed further into the demands of industrial and economic life. The “masculine will” requires reassertion in association with the decentralization of the cities and, “the forming of a closer link with agriculture and the more stable life of the countryside.”
The influence of Spengler’s philosophy can be seen in Fairburn’s criticism of urbanization as leading to the disintegration of culture: “Whether this will anticipate and prevent or follow in desperation upon the breakdown of Western society is a matter that is yet to be decided.”
Fairburn died of cancer in 1957. He continues to be recognized as a founder of a New Zealand national literature, albeit one that has not been much added to beyond that small number of individuals from the 1930s.