The colonial-settler labor movement: utopian and scientific socialism


Robert Owen – Portrait by John Cranch 1845
Picture: Wikinedia commons

In his celebrated pamphlet, “Socialism, utopian and scientific,” Friedrich Engels pays tribute to the utopian socialists who preceded the scientific socialism of Marx and himself. Among these pioneering critics of the capitalist mode of production was Robert Owen, who established a model factory and commune with, in Engels’ description, “a population that gradually grew to 2,500, in which drunkenness, police, magistrates, lawsuits, poor laws, charity, were unknown. And all this simply by placing the people in conditions worthy of human beings, and especially by carefully bringing up the rising generation. He was the founder of infant schools…Whilst his competitors worked their people thirteen or fourteen hours a day, in New Lanark the working-day was only ten and a half hours. When a crisis in cotton stopped work for four months, his workers received their full wages all the time. And with all this the business more than doubled in value, and to the last yielded large profits to its proprietors.”


Owen’s mill, New Lanark, Scotland, as it is today
Photo: Armin Grewe

Workers emigrating from industrial Britain to the Australasian colonies in the nineteenth century were brimming with half-formed utopian notions of building a new society free from exploitation and oppression in the colony. These notions were conditioned by the embryonic stage of capitalist development in the colonies; they facilitated the development of the labor movement in some respects, retarded it in others. For example, the fight for the eight-hour day was won relatively early in New Zealand (at least for the skilled trades). In colonial society where land was still available for settlement by free farmers, there were wage workers but no working class; there was not a class of people lacking any means of living other than by selling their labor power. On the contrary, wage labour was relatively scarce, and therefore the labourers could demand favourable terms. Thus the carpenter Samuel Duncan Parnell led the establishment of a working day of eight hours in 1840 directly on arrival in New Zealand. On the other hand, the colonial project excluded the indigenous inhabitants, and the labor movement missed opportunities to win allies among Maori fighting to retain their land.

As far as I am aware, there were no significant utopian communes of the Robert Owen type established in Australia or New Zealand in the nineteenth century (although in 1901 a party of 190 socialist colonists arrived in New Zealand with that intention, but the commune was never organised, and the arrivals integrated into New Zealand society. In 1893 a group of 238 adults and children set sail from Australia bound for Paraguay, to found a socialist commune which they called New Australia.) In this part of the world the appeal of utopian socialism took the form of an interest in utopian literature, which served as a critique of the existing society. Samuel Butler’s Erewhon is the best-known example of this.

Harry Holland’s socialist education is said to have begun in the middle 1880s, when an itinerant compositor worked alongside the teenage Holland in a printshop in Queanbeyan, New South Wales. The compositor engaged Holland in political debates, and left behind two books for him to read. The books were Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backwards and Karl Marx’s Capital.


Looking Backward
Librivox version

Of the two books, Looking Backwards was by far the more influential on Holland’s thinking. For the next decade, the socialism Holland articulated was a vague, semi-religious notion of a future harmonious and rational society, with the concrete question of how this society was to come into being left largely unexplored.

It is difficult to appreciate today just how influential Looking Backwards was among workers in late nineteenth-century Australasia.  In the advertisements in labor newspapers of the time showing titles available in socialist bookshops, it features high on the list for many years. In fact it was among the best-selling novels of its time, behind only Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Ben-Hur: a tale of the Christ.

It is the story of a man who goes into a hypnosis-induced coma in 1887, just as the first great battles of the working class in the United States are opening, and wakes up in the year 2000, a century after capitalism has been overthrown. He is then obliged to explain to the citizens of the rational world of the future how capitalism used to operate, and his host reciprocates, explaining the workings of socialist society. Reading it today, when the year 2000 is no longer in the future, yet capitalist rule still prevails, is somewhat problematic. The impression it gives is of a schematic and somewhat laboured explanation of socialist ideas (along the lines of the infinitely more bitter and dour Ragged-trousered Philanthropists that became popular in England at about the same time).  The secret of the book’s appeal is unmistakable, however: it gives in popular terms a sweeping overview of capitalist society. To workers bogged down in the daily details of their exploitation, this must have been liberating – and the book still holds this appeal today, within its rather quaint form.

Regardless, this idyllic vision was insufficient to equip Holland for the harsh realities of life in capitalist society. Within a few years he had gained experience as a working class organiser, including punitive lawsuits against the labor newspapers he produced and a spell in jail for sedition, after he urged strikers at Broken Hill to defend themselves against the violence of the state.

Holland emerged from those experiences broader in his socialist vision – and hardened. The mature Holland that appears in the International Socialist Review, a newspaper he published in the first decade of the twentieth century, has his eye on the capitalist state, and a strategy for the working class to take political power. Holland never lost his interest in poetry and literature, however, and he continued to read and write poetry all his life. Nor did he lose sight of the sweeping overview of capitalist society. In the wider Australasian labor movement, utopian literature remained popular for some years to come, now sharing the shelf space with titles debating revolutionary strategy.

The end to the popularity of utopianism came with the event that changed the world forever: the Russian revolution of 1917. With a real, living revolutionary transformation of society to fight for, consoling visions of the future society suddenly seemed a lot less vital.

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