Page 1: Biography
Smith, Ronald Joseph
Public servant, communist, peace activist
This biography, written by Kerry Taylor, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2000.
Ronald Joseph Smith was born in Wellington on 2 May 1921, the son of carpenter Joseph Copley Smith and his London-born wife, Mabel Ellen Courcha, a former laundry worker. He was educated at Wellington College, leaving in 1936 after passing the School Certificate and University Entrance examinations. After starting work as a compositor’s assistant in a print shop, he joined the public service in February 1937 as a cadet in the Land and Income Tax Department. In the late 1930s he was also active in the scouting movement.
Smith grew up in a highly politicised household with strong links to the New Zealand Labour Party. At 17 he became a member of the party’s Island Bay branch, but in 1940, following the expulsion of John A. Lee, Ron and his mother joined Lee’s new Democratic Labour Party. However, by this time Smith’s political sympathies had already begun moving further to the left. His radicalism had several causes, including his father’s experience of unemployment during the depression, an instinctive anti-militarism, and a questioning mind which often challenged orthodoxy but sought comprehensive explanations. He was essentially a believer and sought answers in popular socialist literature, including works by Palme Dutt and Upton Sinclair, and articles in the New Zealand journal Tomorrow .
In 1940 he was conscripted into the army. He had become increasingly impressed by Communist Party of New Zealand (CPNZ) publications, and was formally approached to join the party while on army training at Waiouru in April 1941. He transferred to the Royal New Zealand Air Force in 1943 and served in Europe as a navigator in de Havilland Mosquito night-fighters in 1945, but did not see combat. During his wartime service Smith was active in party work, both in New Zealand and overseas, attending a number of national conferences from 1943.
In 1946 he became a member of the CPNZ’s Wellington district committee, and also enrolled at Victoria University College. He completed his accountancy professionals (begun at night classes in 1937) and a master’s degree in economics, graduating in 1949. At the same time, he immersed himself in student politics, serving on the students’ association executive in 1946 and as a leader of the Socialist Club. He was involved in protests against Dutch imperialism in Indonesia, which led to a court decision supporting the right to free political expression on the streets of Wellington. During 1949 he represented New Zealand at the World Festival of Youth and Students for Peace in Budapest.
Through student politics he met Carmen Sylvia Clee, who was also a member of the university branch of the CPNZ. Married in Wellington on 19 January 1951, they lived in the Aro Valley and then Island Bay, and raised three sons and three daughters.
Alongside his passionate commitment to left-wing politics, Smith was developing a solid career. In 1948 he had rejoined the public service as an investigating accountant in the Price Control Division. From 1957 to 1966 Smith worked at the Standards Institute, including a period as acting director, and from 1970 he was senior research economist with the Department of Statistics.
While his political influence within the CPNZ was predominantly at the district level, Ron Smith’s public prominence had been boosted during the 1949 general election, when he stood for the CPNZ in the Island Bay electorate. Polling a mere 1.5 per cent of the vote did not deter him, and he stood again in 1954, 1960, 1963 and 1966, with similar results. He also stood for local office on numerous occasions.
By the early 1960s the CPNZ began to split along ideological lines, reflecting the emerging Sino-Soviet conflict. The leadership was actively courted by the Chinese Communist Party and Ron Smith was one of three prominent New Zealand communists invited to travel to Beijing in 1961. The internal debate came to a head at the 1963 national conference, where Smith indicated a preference for the Chinese position. A major split followed in New Zealand: Smith and the majority of the CPNZ embraced Maoism, while the minority established the Soviet-oriented New Zealand Socialist Unity Party in 1966.
The tiny New Zealand communist movement continued to fragment. In 1969–70 debate over the ultra-revolutionary position being promoted by the CPNZ’s Auckland-based national executive led to the expulsion of the whole Wellington district, including Smith. In 1973 they formed the Wellington Marxist-Leninist Organisation (WMLO), which in 1979 became a part of the Workers’ Communist League of New Zealand (WCL); Smith was a foundation member. The WMLO and WCL merged older experienced activists, such as Smith, with young recruits to Maoism, and played a vital part in the new radicalism of the 1970s through the anti-apartheid movement.
For Smith, and many others on the left, the peace movement became the major focus for political work. In the late 1940s and 1950s he was involved in the New Zealand Peace Council, and then in the 1960s the Committee on Vietnam. Campaigns against United States bases in New Zealand began in the 1970s, but the issue of nuclear weapons increasingly dominated. Smith retired from the Department of Statistics in 1980, but was employed part time from 1981 to 1986 by the Wellington Harbour Board. This allowed him the freedom to devote himself to the Coalition Against Nuclear Warships (CANWAR) in Wellington, of which he was a prominent member. He played a crucial role throughout the 1980s, especially in the nuclear-free New Zealand campaign (as chair of the local branch of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) and the debate over purchasing new frigates. From 1986 to 1992 he worked full time, but on a voluntary basis, for the peace movement, staffing the Wellington Peace Office and serving on the national working group of the Peace Movement Aotearoa. While in the workforce Smith had always been an active unionist, firstly with the New Zealand Public Service Association and then with the New Zealand Harbour Boards Employees’ Union.
Fresh-faced and youthful in appearance, with a grin permanently etched on his face, Ron Smith was studious and meticulous with paper work. Although rather shy, he was a passionate – some would say dogmatic – revolutionary for most of his adult life. By the late 1980s he was out of step with many of his comrades in the WCL, but he always worked co-operatively and collectively within the broader movement, supporting the creative possibility of youthful activism rather than condemning it for incorrect ideology. Nor did he shy away from action, even in his later years: in 1987 he was violently ejected from a National Party election rally for challenging Jim Bolger on the nuclear issue, and in 1988 he was arrested at a demonstration at the Waihopai satellite communications base near Blenheim.
Smith’s health deteriorated in his last years and he withdrew from most political offices in 1992, concentrating instead on writing his life story. Self-published in 1994, it was aptly titled Working class son: my struggle against capitalism and war. He died in his Wellington home on 16 June 1995, survived by his wife and children.