Story: Watson, Clement Gordon

Page 1 - Biography

Watson, Clement Gordon

1912–1945

Communist, journalist, soldier

This biography was written by Kerry Taylor and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 4, 1998

Clement Gordon Watson, usually known as Gordon, was born at Mangaweka, near Taihape, on 5 April 1912, the son of Roberta Agnes Hughes and her husband, Reginald Beresford Spencer Watson, a farmer. His mother died when he was a child and his father subsequently settled in Fiji, where he ran a plantation. Gordon was brought up in Wellington by his grandfather, Clement Watson, a prominent educationalist, and his aunt, Evelyn Watson, an early graduate of Victoria College. An excellent student, he developed an early love of literature, which was to become a lifelong passion. After attending Wellington College, where he won a Junior Scholarship in 1929, he studied languages and literature at Victoria University College, graduating MA with second-class honours in 1934.

Watson was radicalised during the depression, repulsed by fellow students enrolling as special constables and clashing with unemployed workers. He was a leading light in the college’s Free Discussions Club, which attracted a blaze of publicity in 1933 when its radical publication, the Student, was banned by the Students’ Association after two issues. That year he also helped to establish the Labour Club at Victoria, which became a proving ground for many subsequent university radicals.

By 1932 Gordon Watson had concluded that the Soviet Union provided an alternative model to capitalism and joined the New Zealand Section of the Friends of the Soviet Union (FSU). He quickly became secretary of its Wellington branch and a member of the national executive. From 1933 to 1936 he edited Soviet News, the FSU’s substantial monthly publication, and in 1935 he was elected national secretary. Although there was no salary available, he was able to work for the FSU full time for a year because he was still living at home with his grandfather.

In November 1933 Watson had joined the Communist Party of New Zealand (CPNZ), although he had been close to the party since the beginning of 1932. He was recruited by Fred Freeman, the party’s general secretary, who recognised Watson’s theoretical skill, organisational talent and above all his commitment to the cause. By the middle of 1934 Watson was a member of the CPNZ central committee, a position he was to retain until his death. He was a close ally of Freeman and initially supported the latter’s leftist line against the New Zealand Labour Party. However, during 1936 he slowly moved to support the new policy of co-operation with Labour to build a united front against fascism. He was appointed editor of the CPNZ newspaper, the Workers’ Weekly, that year and began to work full time for the party.

Despite his increasing involvement in politics, Watson retained a range of other interests, including writing poetry and tramping. Short and balding, he appeared to be a somewhat unobtrusive figure, yet he was charismatic and widely respected, both within the party and outside it. He never married but was engaged to Mollie Render, a close companion from the late 1930s, at the time of his death.

Watson spent most of 1937 in the Soviet Union, where he engaged in political discussions with the leadership of the Communist International, and also tried to secure financial assistance for the tiny New Zealand party. From his return late that year until 1942 he was effectively general secretary of the CPNZ, a position which the party kept vacant from 1937 to 1949. In conjunction with Sid Scott he wrote most of the party’s major policy during this period. He also wrote a book-length critique of the first Labour government, which remained unpublished due to an internal dispute within the CPNZ.

When the CPNZ’s national office was moved from Wellington to Auckland at the end of 1938 Watson went with it. In April 1939 he resumed the editorship of the Workers’ Weekly and was a major force in transforming it into a more readable and popular paper, relaunching it as the People’s Voice later that year.

The party’s political activity intensified in the early years of the Second World War. Watson was the most important figure in framing the CPNZ policy to oppose the war as imperialist, a stance that brought the party into open conflict with the government. After the People’s Voice was suppressed at the end of May 1940, Watson became a key figure in the production of an underground replacement. Earlier that month he had stood as a CPNZ candidate in the Auckland West by-election, campaigning under the slogan ‘End war and poverty’. While polling a mere 375 votes, he made full use of the propaganda opportunity.

With the entry of the Soviet Union into the war in 1941 the CPNZ reversed its policy and became a strong supporter of what it now considered to be a people’s war. In November that year Watson joined the army as a private, serving with the 36th Battalion in the Pacific and, after a long furlough in New Zealand, with the 27th (Machine Gun) Battalion in Italy. He was killed in action near Faenza on 17 April 1945, at the age of 33. News of Watson’s death came as a great shock to his comrades, and within a month a collection to publish a memorial volume of his writings had been started; it was published in 1949. Edited by Elsie Locke, a close friend and comrade since the mid 1930s, it included a range of essays on ideology, New Zealand politics and international affairs, as well as poetry and wartime letters.

Gordon Watson’s name and memory live on. A Victoria University scholarship was named after him, following a bequest from the estate of his aunt, Evelyn Watson, and a Wellington branch of the Socialist Unity Party was named in his honour.