Victor George Wilcox was born at Willesden, London, on 6 November 1912, the son of Kathleen Sage and her husband, William Wilcox, a railway shunter. In 1923 or 1924 the family emigrated to New Zealand, where William worked at a number of jobs before taking up dairy farming at Waiharara, Northland. Vic was educated at Takapuna Grammar School (1927–29). His early adult years were spent in the far north working on farms, and he served as secretary of the Waiharara branch of the New Zealand Farmers’ Union from 1936 until 1939. A tall man, he was a keen rugby and tennis player; later in life he took an interest in horse-racing.
Wilcox was radicalised during the depression, and like many of his generation he saw the Soviet Union as a better model. There were a number of supporters of communism among the local Dalmatian community and in 1933 he formed a Waiharara branch of the Friends of the Soviet Union (New Zealand Section). The following year he joined the Communist Party of New Zealand (CPNZ). In 1939 he moved to Auckland, where he boarded with Tom Stanley, national chairman of the CPNZ. Supported by a WEA scholarship, Wilcox began study at Auckland University College, but he did not complete a degree, instead throwing himself full time into radical politics. In 1940 he became a paid CPNZ functionary as secretary of the Auckland district committee. On 21 June that year, in Auckland, he married Ann Richards; they were to have a daughter.
Wilcox served as a clerk in the Royal New Zealand Air Force from May 1942 to October 1943, when he was transferred to the reserve list because of ill health. He was employed by the CPNZ the remainder of his working life. After his discharge from the RNZAF in 1945 he became the party’s country organiser and then national organiser. In this period he established a close working relationship with Waikato leader Te Puea Herangi; in 1943 the CPNZ supported her in the struggle with the government over Auckland’s Orakei marae. Wilcox stood for Parliament under the CPNZ banner six times between 1946 and 1963, in the Arch Hill, Auckland Central and Waitakere electorates. Although considered a fine orator, he rarely polled more than a few hundred votes. His local body election campaigns seldom fared any better, although his 1947 bid for the Auckland City Council secured over 3,000 votes.
For more than a generation Vic Wilcox was the most important leader of the CPNZ. He became a member of the national committee in 1941, and first joined the national executive in 1946 as treasurer. In 1951 he became general secretary, the highest position in the party. Wilcox took over the secretaryship from Sid Scott, and the two became the principal contestants in an internal ideological struggle over the degree to which the CPNZ should follow a Soviet line or adopt a New Zealand road to socialism. The debate came into the open in early 1956, after Nikita Khrushchev’s speech denouncing the atrocities of Stalinism, and intensified after the Soviet invasion of Hungary in October that year. Wilcox travelled to Sydney for talks with the leadership of the Communist Party of Australia, who conveyed the view of the Chinese Communist Party that too much open discussion had been allowed by the CPNZ leadership. During the remainder of 1956 he played a key role in suppressing internal party discussion, resulting in the departure of a number of members, including Scott.
That year saw the first signs of direct Chinese influence within the CPNZ, and also marked the beginning of the ideological split between the Chinese and Soviet communist parties over fundamental principles such as the peaceful coexistence of socialism and capitalism, and the peaceful transition to socialism. Wilcox attended the crucial international party meeting in Moscow in November 1960, when the debate came starkly into the open. In the next few years he made numerous visits to China as a guest of the Chinese Communist Party, attending high-level meetings with leaders such as Mao Tse-tung (Mao Zedong), Teng Hsiao-p’ing (Deng Xiaoping) and Chou En-lai (Zhou Enlai).
Debate raged within the CPNZ, but by 1963 the tide had moved towards the Chinese position. On 25 May that year Wilcox signed a joint statement with the Chinese Communist Party aligning the CPNZ firmly alongside China. In August he led a delegation to Moscow for more talks, but the differences were irreconcilable. Between 1963 and 1966 a significant portion of the CPNZ membership left the party and ultimately coalesced into the pro-Soviet New Zealand Socialist Unity Party.
The only Western communist party aligned with the Chinese, the CPNZ was, along with the Albanian Party of Labour, one of China’s two closest allies and the associated prestige gave Wilcox a high international profile. He was received in Beijing in a style befitting a head of state, and his writings were given worldwide distribution by the Chinese publicity machine.
For many years Wilcox’s dominance was unchallenged within the CPNZ, despite periodic accusations of egotism and that he had lost contact with reality in New Zealand. He successfully fended off this criticism until further ideological splits in the international movement during the mid 1970s. After Mao’s death in 1976, the new Chinese regime was considered by some to have abandoned the correct ideological line. The Albanians and the Chinese came into open conflict and the debate was reflected within the CPNZ.
Wilcox denounced the Albanian party, the principal upholder of Maoism, arguing that its position was too sectarian. But he was now out of step with the core CPNZ leadership, who portrayed him as taking an anti-party position and following the ‘new revisionism’ of China. His opponents also accused him of abusing his power, of using ill health as an excuse to avoid work, and of excessive drinking. Wilcox was removed from all responsible positions in the CPNZ in March 1977 and expelled from the party in 1978. He and a number of like-minded comrades continued political activity through the New Zealand China Society, but even within the small New Zealand left they were an insignificant force. Vic Wilcox died of cancer at his home in Henderson, Auckland, on 29 April 1989, survived by his wife and daughter.