John Alfred Alexander Lee was the son of Alfred Lee and Mary Isabella Taylor. In 1889 they had filled out a form giving notice of their intention to marry but failed to actually do so. Alfred was a man of many parts – troubadour and gymnast, entertainer, and occasional labourer. He drank and gambled, however, and by 1891 Mary had fled from their home in Southland with her one-year-old daughter to Dunedin, where John was born on 31 October. Alfred followed but left permanently a few years later when Mary's parents moved in, together with her sister and two brothers. Mary Lee had two more children; the identity of their fathers is uncertain. She worked as a dressmaker, but the low income forced her to take charitable aid as well. As later described by her son, the life was one of grinding poverty. In 1896 Mary Lee collapsed, and the children were taken to live with her mother at Riversdale, near Gore. They were back with their mother in Dunedin by 1899.
John Lee attended Albany Street School from 1900. He frequently played truant, finally leaving in 1905 to work in a boot shop, then a printing factory. He drifted into petty crime and in 1906 was, for the second time, convicted of theft. The magistrate declared Lee 'incorrigible' and sentenced him to a term at Burnham Industrial School. After three attempted escapes, in 1908 he was boarded out to a storekeeper in North Otago. He soon fled to Tuapeka, where he found work with a farmer; he was arrested, returned to Burnham, and eventually boarded out with the same farmer. When the farmer no longer needed him he took to the roads, becoming a fugitive swagger, tramping much of the country and working in a variety of unskilled jobs. During these years he chanced on Upton Sinclair's socialist novel The jungle.
By 1911, calling himself Alexander Leigh, he was working at Raetihi. However, after twice being arrested – once for smuggling liquor into the King Country, once for breaking and entering – he was sent for 12 months to Mount Eden prison, Auckland. He reputedly heard through the bars of his cell window socialist orators such as Bob Semple and Harry Scott Bennett. Lee was released in March 1913 and then worked for three years in Auckland and Northland. He read voraciously, particularly the works of Jack London.
In March 1916 Lee enlisted in the New Zealand Expeditionary Force. He served with distinction in the 9th (Hawke's Bay) Company of the 1st Battalion, Wellington Infantry Regiment, and quickly established a circle of like-minded friends who carried the latest socialist books, pamphlets and journals in their packs. Lee's views led to his being known as 'Bolshie Lee'. He discovered himself to be articulate, quick-witted and clever, and began to write regular items from the front for Clutha Mackenzie's Chronicles of the NZEF. In June 1917 he was awarded the DCM for single-handedly capturing a German machine-gun post at Messines (Mesen). In March 1918, at Mailly-Maillet, he was hit, had his left arm amputated, and was sent to a succession of New Zealand hospitals in England.
Repatriated, Lee arrived back in New Zealand in July 1919. On 24 July he married Marie (Mollie) Ethel Guy at Wellington; he had met her before his enlistment. They settled in Auckland. With a rehabilitation loan Lee established a small business as a soap manufacturer but his passion for politics consumed more and more of his time. He became very active in the New Zealand Returned Soldiers' Association, and was a keen member of the New Zealand Labour Party. The party was tainted by accusations of pacifism and conscientious objection, and old hands such as Harry Holland and Michael Joseph Savage saw the value of a disabled and decorated veteran. Lee, for his part, always promoted the interests of returned soldiers, and was to find their treatment during the depression particularly distressing. He was brought forward fast in the party. By 1920 he was president of the Auckland Labour Representation Committee and a member of the party's national executive. In 1921 he narrowly won Labour's nomination to contest the Auckland East by-election, but lost to Clutha Mackenzie. In 1922, however, he won. In the same year, his mother heard that he was living in Auckland; she came to live with him and Mollie.
In Parliament Lee soon won a reputation for the fluency, fire and wit of his speeches. He was irrepressible. He took a strong interest in defence and foreign affairs, attacked the declining Liberals whenever possible, and continued to read and discuss socialist ideas. J. A. Hobson's works influenced him towards the economics of under-consumption. His wide reading enabled him to make an incisive contribution to the party's debates over land policy. Where many favoured nationalisation, Lee argued that socialised production had to precede social ownership. He also pointed to the problems posed by New Zealand's dependence on a small range of exports: welfare at home depended on the price of butter in London. Lee vigorously participated in the debates over policy and strategy. While he was in Wellington Mollie looked after his electorate affairs in Auckland. She had also emerged as an articulate leader of the women's branch, espousing the idea that women would only achieve justice and lasting peace in a socialist world.
Lee suffered a period of ill health in 1926–27, but in 1928 undertook a political organising tour in the King Country, Hawke's Bay and Wairarapa. In the election of that year, Sir Joseph Ward led the United Party to an unexpected victory by promising massive borrowing. Lee, who narrowly lost his own seat, described this as 'the musical chink of the seventy million'. The Auckland brewer Ernest Davis, whose shrewd investments in Labour's future had helped contain the forces of prohibition, offered Lee a job managing a hotel in Rotorua. Lee accepted. He and Mollie enjoyed the life – although they were teetotallers themselves – and the opportunity to read and reflect allowed Lee to articulate an economic strategy to combat the depression.
In 1931, following a controversial selection battle in which he defeated a former MP, Fred Bartram, Lee returned to Parliament as the member for Grey Lynn. He became a central figure in the passionate debates about economic policy for dealing with the worsening depression. By 1930 he had evolved a policy compounded of exchange control, protection of local industry, import controls and provision of credit by the state. He stressed the need to move from the status of an economic colony to self-sufficiency. In this he was much influenced by his friend the Auckland socialist theorist E. J. B. Allen. In the later stormy debates within the party over economic policy, Lee varied little from this position.
He also played a prominent role in persuading the party to organise mass meetings to dissuade the government from its policy of retrenchment in 1932. In Dunedin he declared 'war…against those who are trying to drag the people down to degradation and poverty'. 'We are starving our way to prosperity in a world of plenty, and it can't be done'. He prophesied violence, and when it occurred he cheerfully wrote to Mollie, 'The revolution is here'. He returned to Auckland where, on 14 April, he led an enormous demonstration by civil servants against their second 10 per cent wage cut. The unemployed joined in and the riot that night was the country's worst. Lee helped to calm the situation on the following days. The previous year, too, Mollie's sister died and the childless Lees took her three young sons to live with them.
In response to the misery and despair dramatised by the riots of 1932, Lee drafted his first novel, Children of the poor; it was published in 1934. Although he had published it anonymously, excellent reviews and widespread interest made discretion less attractive; reprints bore the author's name. The novel was largely autobiographical, but Lee had given his life a socialist reading. His mother appeared as a victim; poverty bred immorality and crime; and, as New Zealand Truth proclaimed, frank discussion of such matters produced a 'sensational book on vice, poverty, misery'. The novel also attacked the genteel tradition of letters, identified by Lee as a prop to cultural dependence on England. Confident cultural nationalism provided the way to economic independence. He began work on The hunted, the story of his Burnham days, and told the Auckland Fabian Club, 'We are living in an ethical twilight, with the ideals of the new in our hearts and the pattern of the old upon our minds.' Capitalism was collapsing. All societies had to choose, he believed, between fascist reaction and socialism. He redoubled his efforts in 1935 as it became clear that the coalition government was in dire political trouble. So did Mollie, who had become one of Auckland Labour's most prominent women.
Labour swept to victory in the election of 1935. Lee believed that New Zealand Labour had the most 'revolutionary' policy outside the Soviet Union (spelt out by Lee in Labour has a plan). 'We will lead you on a march that will inspire the whole of the earth', he prophesied. He expected to be in cabinet, but the influx of inexperienced new members saw the prime minister, Savage, made sole selector. He no longer liked or trusted Lee. They had clashed on policy and tactics: Lee disliked Savage's caution and had attempted to block his former close friend's election as leader in 1933. Savage, for his part, had been angered by Lee's contemptuous references to him and may have thought him too wild and unconventional. Despite, it seems, the urging of Walter Nash and Peter Fraser, Savage overlooked Lee's claims to preferment. Instead, Lee's friends successfully moved that he be made an under-secretary. 'I think I'm consoled', he wrote to Mollie (who had hoped that he would be made high commissioner in London).
In January 1936 Savage appointed Lee to the cabinet committees on finance and defence; in the latter role, Lee made a strong impression with his energy and incisiveness. But he was ambitious, and hungered for more responsibility. Following a threat to resign in June 1936, his position of parliamentary under-secretary was given a legal status it had previously lacked. Lee was given responsibility for housing, answering initially to Savage, then to Nash, the minister of finance.
Lee hurled himself into his new job, delighted with the chance to design a socialist housing scheme. With the assistance of the director of housing construction, Arthur Tyndall, he created a new government department and oversaw all the details of a large-scale programme of state-house construction. By March 1939 some 3,440 houses had been completed. They defined a new minimum standard for domestic housing. In some cities large new subdivisions had been built, centred on parks and gardens, with schools, halls and shopping centres also provided. Although the original targets for slum clearance and housing construction were never met, the success of the programme owed much to Lee's enthusiasm and organisational ability.
Lee, however, was becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the government's caution on economic issues and the apparent lack of democracy within caucus. He put himself at the head of a left-wing faction that was opposed to the financial conservatism of Nash. In 1936 they had clashed with ministers over the rate of increase in pensions; in 1937 they tried to force the government to nationalise the Bank of New Zealand and to use the Reserve Bank to issue money for development projects. In 1938 an exchange crisis precipitated further struggle. Lee and his allies again demanded government control of the financial system and Lee published Socialism in New Zealand, which proclaimed that socialism was New Zealand's only political tradition. This set the agenda for that year's election and discomfited Labour's leaders. Lee played a major role in the election campaign of that year, mastering the medium of radio and speaking to large crowds in many towns. Labour increased its majority and Lee won the largest majority in New Zealand's history.
The internal debates continued, however. Lee and the rebels successfully moved to have cabinet elected by caucus, but Savage refused to accept this. In December 1938 he humiliated Lee by appointing Tim Armstrong minister in charge of housing. Lee then wrote a letter to all members of caucus spelling out his criticism of the way Nash had handled the finance portfolio, as well as relating the history of the disputes within the caucus. He also let it be published and it enjoyed wide circulation. Although censured by the party's 1939 conference, Lee was also elected to the national executive. Matters continued to worsen as, throughout 1939, Lee continued to attack Nash's financial policies. Following the declaration of war in September, the left made a further attempt to have Lee, as an ex-serviceman, appointed to cabinet. Savage instead appointed David Wilson, the party's national secretary. Lee began working on 'Psycho-pathology in politics', an incisive, though veiled, attack on the dying Savage's mental capacity to discharge his duties. Although he had by now been exasperated beyond endurance, the essay underestimated Savage and was a serious political misjudgement; even some of Lee's supporters thought he had gone too far.
The essay appeared in the left-wing journal Tomorrow in December 1939 while Savage was almost continuously unconscious and his deputy, Peter Fraser, was in London. Lee was dismissed as parliamentary under-secretary and preparations were begun to have him expelled from the party by the 1940 conference. In January 1940 an unsuccessful attempt was made to have Lee censured by the Auckland Labour Representation Committee. Later in the month he was forced by the national executive not to publish further articles without its approval. Lee broke the agreement in March, but by then it was apparent that his enemies were adamantly resolved on his expulsion. When the conference met late in March Savage had recovered sufficiently to pen an addition to his report, accusing Lee of having made his life 'a living hell' for the past two years. Senior leaders of the party ensured that delegates knew that Savage was dying and linked this to Lee's attack on him. Lee's supporters insisted that the real issue was democracy within the party; his enemies retorted that the issue was loyalty. He was expelled by 546 to 344 votes. Two days later, Savage died.
Lee promptly formed a Democratic Labour Party and launched John A. Lee's Weekly. He was joined by only one other member of caucus, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, W. E. Barnard. By 1941 Lee's autocratic tendencies had alienated many supporters, and his party's organisation virtually collapsed. The situation was not helped by Lee's frequent attacks on the Catholic church for what he saw as its support of fascism, a campaign that assumed sectarian overtones. In the 1943 election his renamed Democratic Soldier Labour Party cost Labour several marginal seats. Most candidates lost their deposits, however, and Lee lost Grey Lynn. It was all over, politically. Lee retained his ability to gore Labour, however, and entered the lists from time to time. Subsequent attempts to effect a reconciliation seemed half-hearted on both sides.
Lee's greatest influence came from his continuing spate of journalism, for he articulated an indictment of Labour as a despotic machine, hostile to democratic values, and victim of an unholy alliance of greedy unionism with corrupt politicians. In 1949 he rejoiced when Labour lost. Political failure undid his health but in the 1950s, now a bookseller, he began to recoup his fortunes, having established Vital Books in 1950.
By outliving his enemies, Lee became free to fight old battles again. He found a new lease of life as a writer in the 1960s. Simple on a soap-box, his account of the events of the 1930s, appeared in 1963. Other books appeared over the next 20 years, some ephemeral, some – such as his political notebooks – of more value; many manuscripts and letters are held in the Auckland City Library. He was invited to speak on university campuses (although he disappointed students with his defence of American intervention in Vietnam), was interviewed on television, and was awarded an honorary LLD by the University of Otago in 1969. He died at Auckland on 13 June 1982; Mollie Lee had died in 1976.