David Neilson.


By Tom Ryan (Te Whare Wānanga o Waikato | The University of Waikato)

David Neilson passed away on 2 November 2022 after a short battle with cancer and Covid. His memorial service was attended by many, including colleagues and students from Te Whare Wananga o Waikato | The University of Waikato, and comrades from the wider trade union movement.

David was born in 1957 at Oamaru, to an English war-bride mother and a returned serviceman and accountant father. The family subsequently relocated to Christchurch where David completed high school, excelling in both academic work and on the sports field.

Bachelor and Master’s degrees in Political Science at the University of Canterbury followed, and finally a doctorate at the University of East Anglia which was completed in 1983. At just 21 years old, too, David became a leader of an (in)famous Norwich collective which squatted in 29 empty homes!

Returning to Aotearoa, David found employment with the Department of Statistics, before being appointed a lecturer in Politics at Waikato University in 1989. As part of his new job, he joined a cross-disciplinary team tasked with establishing an innovative Centre for Labour and Trade Union Studies.

The latter venture, however, was undermined by the Employment Contracts Act 1991, introduced by the then-National Government. David nevertheless continued for two more decades to teach in the Labour Studies field and to administer the rump programme that continued under this title.

During the 1990s David was an active member of the Association of University Staff at Waikato, and for several years served as branch president. He was also instrumental in getting AUS nationally to support the idea of a higher education sector grouping – which since 2009 has been the Tertiary Education Union.

Through the 2000s, David was based in the Sociology programme at Waikato, where he became a senior lecturer. Increasingly, too, he was concerned with research and publishing. This was helped by his being a human rights observer in post-coup Fiji in 2006 – his first real experience of life outside ‘The West.’

His magnus opus was his 2022 book The Struggle to Make Democratic Socialism in the 21st Century. It was commissioned by a New York publishing house, and it argued for the epistemological unity of Marx’s writings – rather than splitting them between ‘Young’ and ‘Mature’ Marx as was conventionally demanded by ideological gate-keepers in the Global North.

David had two other books in preparation at the time of his untimely passing. One concerned theories and realities of ‘development.’ The other – being pursued collaboratively with an anthropologist and a Vietnamese activist – focused on the subsistence culture of tribal peoples in the Mekong mountains.

Those of us who knew David Neilson well remember above all a smiley and generous friend – and a devoted family man. He is survived by his wife, Melissa Hackel, four children, and a grandson. Nga mihi ki te whanau pani.