A charismatic ex-soldier, orator and propagandist, John A. Lee was a dynamic figure in the Labour Party from the 1920s until 1940, when he was expelled for attacking the leadership of M.J. Savage.
Lee had a parallel career as a writer and later bookseller. His best-known novel, the largely autobiographical Children of the poor (1934), was described as a ‘sensational book on vice, poverty, misery’.
Lee was born in Dunedin in 1891. His family's desperate poverty was described in Children of the poor and in his mother Mary Lee's later autobiography The not so poor (1992). After leaving school, he drifted into petty crime and in 1906 was convicted of theft for the second time. The magistrate declared him ‘incorrigible’ and sent him to Burnham Industrial School. Lee subsequently took to the roads, 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 and also devoured the works of Jack London. After being arrested twice – for smuggling liquor into the King Country, and for breaking and entering – he was sentenced to 12 months in Mount Eden prison.
In 1916 Lee enlisted in the New Zealand Expeditionary Force, serving with distinction in the Wellington Infantry Regiment. Known as 'Bolshie Lee' for his socialist views, he wrote regular items from the front for Clutha Mackenzie's Chronicles of the NZEF. In June 1917 he was awarded a DCM for single-handedly capturing a German machine-gun post at Messines, Belgium. The following March he was wounded and had his left forearm amputated.
Lee joined the Labour Party immediately on his return to New Zealand, and served as MP for Auckland East (1922–28) and Grey Lynn (1931–43). His ability as a writer, propagandist and orator saw him become a well-known public figure, but the party leadership were suspicious of his ambition and populist tendencies. His bitter disappointment at not gaining a place in Savage's first Cabinet following the 1935 election victory soured the relationship further. From 1936 to 1939 he was Under-Secretary to the Minister of Finance and responsible for the successful introduction of Labour's landmark state housing programme.
The 1930s also saw Lee achieve fame as a novelist and writer on socialism. He wrote his first novel, Children of the poor, in response to the despair of the Depression and the Queen Street riots of April 1932. Although the book was published anonymously, excellent reviews and widespread interest prompted Lee to include his name on reprints. It was soon followed by The hunted (1936), the story of his Burnham days, and Civilian into soldier (1937).
In 1938 Lee published Socialism in New Zealand, which championed socialism as New Zealand's only political tradition. Now one of Labour's best-known figures, he was increasingly critical of the orthodox, cautious approach of Savage, Peter Fraser and Walter Nash. In 1940 he was expelled from the party for attacking the terminally ill Savage in an article in the left-wing journal Tomorrow. Lee's political career was destroyed. He founded the Democratic Labour Party but was never re-elected. He continued to disseminate left-wing views through John A. Lee's Weekly (1940–8) and other journals, and from 1950 became a successful Auckland bookseller.
Lee outlived his enemies, continuing to fight old battles. He found a new lease of life as a writer in the 1960s. Simple on a soap-box, his version of the events of the 1930s, was published in 1963. Rhetoric at the red dawn (1965), Political notebooks (1973) and The John A. Lee diaries 1936-1940 (1981) provide a fascinating – if highly subjective – view of Labour's rise in the 1920s and 1930s. Lee died in Auckland in 1982.
By Neill Atkinson