On the trail of Harry Holland

This week I travel to Canberra, Australia, to research the early life of Harry Holland.


Harry Holland in 1896, aged about 28.

Harry Holland was a leading figure in the labour movement in both Australia and New Zealand around a hundred years ago. He is best known as a central leader of the Labour Party in New Zealand from the time it was formed in 1916 up to his death in 1933.  While that is a fact, taken in isolation from the rest of his life it mis-represents Holland and what he stood for.

Whatever else he was – and wherever he ended up – Harry Holland was an honest class-struggle fighter in the workers’ cause.

When about thirty years ago I first got interested in Holland and the turbulent period of working class struggle in which he rose to prominence,  the Labour Party which he had founded seemed somewhat embarrassed by Holland and his legacy. A biography written in 1964, Harry Holland, militant socialist, by P.J.O’Farrell, oozes from every line a visceral hatred for Holland’s class-struggle politics.

As the centenary of the New Zealand Labour Party approaches, some in the Labour Party may confront once again the question of what to say about their founding leader, who was so very different from themselves in every possible way. Will they dismiss him as well-meaning but hot-headed and misguided, as in the past? Will they consider that after a hundred years his legacy is sufficiently dead and buried, that they can safely pay hypocritical and false tribute to him?

Or will they simply forget that he ever existed?

One thing is certain: Holland’s political legacy, his strengths and weaknesses, his victories and defeats, are rich in lessons for the political challenges faced by workers a century later.

9 responses to “On the trail of Harry Holland

  1. Pingback: The fatal logic of class collaboration « A communist at large·

  2. Pingback: The colonial-settler labor movement: utopian and scientific socialism | A communist at large·

  3. James, Holland was also a supporter of the White New Zealand policy. He thought British citizenship was too precious to be shared with the Chinese. There is a lot of fairly naive and romantic stuff written about the early Labour Party. Most of them were advocates of the White New Zealand policy. After WW1 they even had the head of Massey’s Cossacks as a special guest at their party conference – the reason he was there was because of their shared interests in promoting the White New Zealand policy.

    If Holland was a “class fighter” he was rather fussy about who he fought for and who he wanted to keep out of the country.

    For an overview of the history of this wretched party, see: http://rdln.wordpress.com/2011/12/02/the-truth-about-labour-a-bosses-party/

    For an overview of NZ’s immigration controls: http://rdln.wordpress.com/2011/06/12/new-zealand%E2%80%99s-immigration-controls-%E2%80%93-not-in-workers%E2%80%99-interests-%C2%A0/

    My old PhD was on the White New Zealand policy, so discovering how attached the early “class fighters” of the Labour Party were to it was certainly interesting. I’m currently sticking bits of it up on Redline, so the 1910-1920 period should be going up in a few weeks.


    • Thanks PhiI. would be interested to see any evidence you have that Holland supported the anti-Chinese immigration laws. It is certainly true that at times these reactionary laws were fairly widely supported in the labour movement, including some among its left wing, but I have seen no evidence of Holland’s stance towards them, one way or the other, and it is not mentioned in the article you link here. Holland, along with most of the rest of the left wing of the union movement, showed ignorance and incomprehension – at best – on the question of Maori rights and its connection to the union movement, at least in the crucial years 1912-18. Send me a link when you post the articles on Redline.

      • The point about his view of British citizenship and the Chinese is in Holland’s speech during the parliamentary debates on the 1920 anti-Chinese legislation (this was the legislation that shut the door altogether on the Chinese). All the Labour MPs, incuding Holland, voted for it. In fact, they proposed some strengthening of it.

        Holland was also the leader of the LP when they invited Russell of “Massey’s Cossacks” infamy to be a special guest at their party conference. He was very well-disposed towards them. As I mentioned, he was invited along specifically to further their common cause in anti-Chinese activity.

        I should add that Holland was not as bad as many of the other leaders. Savage, for instance, was very concerned about a ‘piebald race’ emerging in NZ. One Labour MP got out of his sick-bed to go to parliament to voice his support for the White New Zealand policy. Labour MPs were also most upset any time someone from the Liberals or the Reform Party suggested they were at all soft on the issue!

        I deal with the LP’s stance in an article called “Labour’s racist roots” which was published in *revolution* magazine #17. The magazine is probably in the Auckland University library, as I think they had a sub to it.


      • Thanks Phil. I’ll definitely look it up. I haven’t really begun to read about that period much. My provisional view is that the period in which the political course of the Labour Party was an open question was very short: by the early 1920s, if not earlier, it was pretty well entrenched in the framework of bourgeois electoralism – Holland included – notwithstanding the fact that Holland took a progressive stance on a number of key questions in later years.

  4. PS: Actually, my PhD research suggested Holland and co. were much more well-disposed towards Maori. Racist thinking can be quite muddled. In European racial thinking of the late 1800s and 1900s, Polynesians were quite highly-regarded, Maori especially so.

    People who were viciously anti-Chinese regarded Maori more in a patronising kind of way, ie as sort of the next best thing to Europeans. In fact, in NZ, a whole section of the elite, typified by Seddon, were in favour of Maori-pakeha intermarriage/inter-breeding because they thought Maori brawn and pakeha brain would create a wonderful race, while the Chinese were seen as degenerate and any inter-mixing of any sort with them would drag ‘the white race’ down. Seddon used to hold up James Carroll as a wonderful example of inter-breeding, while declaring he’d cut off one of his limbs before seeing a child of his married to a “Chinaman”.

    Unions which were hostile to the Chinese were often very keen to produce material in te reo for Maori and treat Maori as fellow workers. They might not have understood that the oppression of Maori wasn’t simply as sellers of labour-power, but their position on Maori was miles in advance of their position on the Chinese. Maori were to be incorporated in unions; Chinese were to be excluded not simply from trade unions but from the country.


  5. Re: the early stages of the LP. Our pamphlet on the LP draws on a lot of quantitative research into the early years of the LP.

  6. Oops, small correction. The words “European racial thinking of the late 1800s and 1900s” should actually read “European racial thinking of the late 1800s and early 1900s. . .”

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