‘Defence of the Fatherland’ in the Australasian Dominions

On 4 August 1914, as the guns of the First Imperialist World War began sounding, the Socialist International shattered into a thousand fragments. The International had been built through sustained workers struggles over the previous quarter-century. It brought together mass revolutionary working-class Socialist parties, throughout Europe and beyond, in international solidarity.

That solidarity turned to dust when, at the outbreak of war, the leadership of all the largest parties abandoned their many-times-affirmed commitment to working class internationalism and abruptly dropped all resolutions to oppose the war by means of strikes, demonstrations and insurrections. They decided instead to support their ‘own’ rulers in their war, and to turn weapons on their fellow-workers across the border. The gates of the imperialist slaughter were opened wide.

This historic betrayal of the working class by the leaders of the Socialist International had both social and political roots.

Socially, it was a product of imperialism. The super-profits reaped by the European capitalists’ exploitation of their colonial possessions enabled them to buy off and corrupt, not just the Socialist parliamentarians and union officialdom, but a significant layer of the working class itself. The separation out of a relatively privileged layer of the working class, and the tendency of that ‘aristocracy of labour’ to identify with its own exploiters, had a long history in the oldest capitalist country, Britain. It was a relatively new phenomenon in mainland Europe.

Battle of Calatafimi, part of Garibaldi's campaign which united Italy. Incipient working class supported bourgeois struggles to form unified nation states.

Battle of Calatafimi, Sicily, 1860, part of Garibaldi’s campaign which united Italy. Incipient working class supported bourgeois struggles to form unified nation states.

But the political roots of the betrayal ran deep in Europe. The slogan under which the opportunist leaders justified their shameful course was ‘defence of the fatherland.’  This slogan had a long and honourable history in Europe. Throughout the nineteenth century the working class had supported the national struggles of the bourgeoisie and their wars to overthrow feudal principalities and fiefdoms and establish unified bourgeois nation states – ‘fatherlands’ – in France, Italy, Germany, Denmark, Hungary and elsewhere. The working class emerged from those struggles ‘for the fatherland’ larger and stronger.

The betrayal of 1914 was effected by simply taking a slogan that had been correct in an earlier period of history and applying it in a different world, when the era of progressive national wars was past – in the age of predatory imperialist wars.

In the colonial Dominions of Australasia, ‘defence of the fatherland’ had little historic resonance. There had been no progressive national war to establish the colonial state, only wars of dispossession of the indigenous inhabitants, which took place before a hereditary working class had come into existence.

Japan was an ally in 1914; there was no substantial military threat to the territory of New Zealand from the German navy. (Apparently the commander of a nearby German cruiser briefly contemplated an attack on the coal port of Westport early in the war, but before long the German navy abandoned the Pacific to throw its might into the European theatre of war). To the extent that people living in the Dominions adopted the bourgeois slogan of defence of “King and country” at all, the ‘country’ they had in mind was usually Britain rather than New Zealand.

Patriotic rally at Parliament where New Zealand's entry into First Imperialist World War was announced.

Patriotic rally at Parliament where New Zealand’s entry into First Imperialist World War was announced.

Defence of the fatherland could only mean ‘defence of the empire’ in the Dominions. This slogan had much narrower appeal, and for this reason the consequences of the betrayal of 1914 unfolded in a slightly different manner in Australasia. The heavy blow dealt to international solidarity by the betrayal of the Socialist International was felt across the world; however, working class resistance to the imperialist war was not shattered here as it had been in Europe.

Recruiting poster for the Empire, January 1915, by Arthur Wardle

Recruiting poster for the Empire, January 1915, by Arthur Wardle

On August 5, 1914, the Wellington Evening Post reported the declarations given that day to a crowd of ten to fifteen thousand on the steps of the New Zealand Parliament. First, a telegram from George, R. I. [Rex Imperator – King and Emperor], was read by the Governor, Lord Liverpool, flanked by Members of Parliament and Judges of the Supreme Court. “I desire to express to my people of the overseas Dominions with what appreciation and pride I have received the messages from their respective Governments during the last few days. These spontaneous assurances of their fullest support recall to me the generous self-sacrificing help given by them in the past to the Mother Country.”

“… All as one man bared their heads and sang the National Anthem [i.e. God Save the King – JR]. Hats and hands were raised in the air, but the face was one of strained emotion. Old men on the outskirts of the crowd were seen with tears tracing their cheeks and women with handkerchiefs to their eyes.”

William Massey, Prime Minister of New Zealand in 1914

William Massey, Prime Minister of New Zealand in 1914

There followed a statement from the Prime Minister. New Zealand Prime Minister William Massey was a capitalist farmer who led the Reform Party to power in 1912 on a programme of belligerent hostility to the labour movement. He was among those colonial leaders who had pledged their Dominions’ full support to the empire even before hostilities began. His Defence Minister, James Allen, had already promised to send an expeditionary force of 8000 troops from New Zealand.

The Evening Post continued: “The Right Honourable W.F. Massey said…The British people must stand together, and he was glad to see that the people not only of New Zealand but of every part of the Empire were unanimous in their loyalty…Keep cool, stand fast, do your duty to your country and your Empire [Loud cheers].”

On the very same page, the Evening Post reported a discussion the previous day in the Arbitration Court, where representatives of employers and labour made submissions and a judge dispensed ‘awards’ governing the wages and conditions of workers.  “It appears that the Motherland will soon be… embroiled in a great European war,” the judge noted, “[that] will certainly disorganise the commerce and industries of the Dominion…I feel that it would be unwise, if not improper, in the interests of both employers and workers, to make awards…” The employers’ representative at the Court, Mr Pryor, “appreciated very highly his honour’s remarks…One suggestion was to suspend the Arbitration Court altogether until matters settled down…Special legislation would perhaps be necessary to suspend or vary the existing awards…”

Masthead of the Maoriland Worker 1914

Masthead of the Maoriland Worker 1914

The labour movement had its own newspaper in those days, the weekly Maoriland Worker, then edited by Harry Holland. The August 5 issue of the Maoriland Worker had this to say about the European war:

“War, on a scale staggering in it’s proportions, threatens the human race. Already four of the greatest powers on earth —Russia, Germany, France and Austria—have mobilised their armies; the sword has been drawn in earnest, and murder and rapine commenced. With Austria and Germany on the one side, and Russia and France on the other; the possibility of Great Britain and probably other nations being involved at any moment, well might all lovers of Peace and Progress stand aghast.

Anti-war cartoon in Maoriland Worker, August 1914.

Anti-war cartoon in Maoriland Worker, August 1914.

“To think that these engines of destruction should be operated for the satisfaction of a dividend-grabbing few, is surely the most scathing indictment of our civilisation. For despite all the tall talk of “patriotism,” “loyalty, “fatherland,” and the like, the propelling force of the whole bloody and damnable conspiracy is DIVIDENDS, DIVIDENDS, DIVIDENDS…

“Would that the workers were organised sufficiently to stop this mad murder-mongering now! Would that they could declare a general strike and paralyse the military demons who are leading them “into the mouth of hell,” as Tennyson put it. Whether our comrades will undertake the task or not it is difficult to say, but if ever such a step ought to be taken now above all others is the time.”

A week later, after Britain had formally entered the war, and as the war hysteria mounted, there was a note of equivocation in the Maoriland Worker. An article criticising the New Zealand government’s offer of an expeditionary force said in passing, “…So far as the war itself is concerned, now that Britain is involved we confess we are anxious for our race, together with the French and Belgians (upon whom the fight was arrogantly forced) to emerge triumphant…”

The Worker also took up the Employers’ zeal to suspend the Arbitration Court and vary existing awards. “In other words the fullest and freest licence should be given to the employers to cut wages and indulge in sweating till even Mr. Pryor himself was appeased”. The entire labour movement, both its pro- and anti-arbitration wings, resolutely opposed this move, and Mr Pryor explained that he was speaking on the spur of the moment.

How far did the patriotic sentiment being mobilised on the steps of Parliament on August 5th penetrate into the ranks of the unions? Statements by the leadership of the unions are important, but don’t really answer this question. The equivocation expressed by the Maoriland Worker in its August 12 edition no doubt reflects a certain degree of patriotic fervour in the labour movement itself. By the end of August, however, there was a development which gave a clear indication of the limits to patriotism set by a leading union: the Miners. The Maoriland Worker of August 26 reported:

Miners' Hall, Runanga, West Coast of New Zealand, 1910. Mine workers led the class-struggle wing of the labour movement in New Zealand

Miners’ Hall, Runanga, West Coast of New Zealand, 1910. Mine workers led the class-struggle wing of the labour movement in New Zealand

“ The Denniston and Millerton coalminers have declined to accede to the request of the Westport Coal Company to work on the fortnightly Saturday pay-holiday to accelerate the fulfilment of Admiralty rush orders. It is understood the men contend that the same result of improved output could be achieved by an increase in the number of truckers and other variations of conditions, and giving the hewers more tubs. The company, however, cannot obtain any more of the latter than are at present employed.

“The Prime Minister, in a message to the men, says: “May I be permitted to state to the men that a very serious crisis has come to the Empire and therefore to the Dominion. One of the immediate consequences is that Westport coal is urgently required for Imperial purposes. I would therefore ask them as loyal and patriotic citizens to reconsider this matter and give up the usual holiday in order to cope with the emergency that has arisen. By doing so they will materially assist, as New Zealanders, in carrying the old flag once more to victory.

“I can assure the men that if they comply with the request their action will be greatly appreciated, and not only in our own country, but in the heart of the Empire.”

The Maoriland Worker  continues: “Later the coal miners last night reaffirmed their decision not to work today—a pay Saturday holiday.”

Brunner coal mine and camp, West Coast New Zealand, about 1900

Brunner coal mine and camp, West Coast New Zealand, about 1900

The Worker then commented: “We congratulate the miners of Denniston and Millerton upon that decision. We are pleased to note that the usual jingo twaddle was not successful in driving them into the bowels of the earth to swell the greedy monopoly that at present exploits them without mercy. We are pleased, too, to know that the company that victimised scores of its employees only a few short months ago, that deliberately picked out the most active unionists, indifferent alike to their homes and families, and sent them upon the road hunting for jobs, after long years of service, with the blacklist in every company’s office —we are pleased to know that the miners have demonstrated that they are not the tools of that company – not quite.

“We rejoice exceedingly too that Massey’s flamboyant, blithering jingoism was treated with scorn. Words fail to express the political hypocrisy of an appeal sent by the Reform Government to the miners of New Zealand. High sounding words no doubt —”Imperial purposes,” “loyal and patriotic citizens,” “old flag,” “appreciated not only in our own country, but in the heart of the Empire itself.” All this verbal jugglery to tickle the miners’ ears that they might forget the thousand insults, victimisation and even death itself, that has been their portion since Massey assumed office. The catch cries no longer appeal.

“Loyal and patriotic citizens” in the eyes of the present Government are not necessarily very desirable persons. We had some of that type at Waihi, at Waikino, at Huntly [scenes of major strike battles by mine workers in the preceding two years – JR]. We had some of that type in Denniston and Millerton, too, striving to break down the solidarity of the men, to defeat their class and, up to a certain point, succeeding. And because of that success, making possible the wicked victimisation to which we have already referred.

“Then the bunk about the “old flag.” Where was the “old flag” at Waihi, Mr. Massey? Where was the “old flag” at Waikino, Mr. Massey? Where was the “old flag” at Huntly, Mr. Massey? Where was the “old flag” in Wellington, in Auckland, in Whangarei, Mr. Massey? Where was it in Westport and Greymouth, Mr. Massey?

“Where was it in every slugging, outrage, insult, eviction, robbery, imprisonment and death to which the working-class have been subjected during your term of office, Mr. Massey? For the “flag”, Mr. Massey, is the symbol of the State. And where the “flag” is there too is the power of the State. Where was the power of the State during those dark days, Mr. Massey? WHERE WERE YOU, MR. MASSEY?

“You were back of that “flag,” weren’t you? What a low estimate you place upon the intelligence of the working-class, Mr. Massey, Do you think the “heart of the Empire” cares a damn about the miners of this country? Where was that Empire’s heart when the finest men in the country were being imprisoned and killed, and hearts and homes broken? Assisting in the process, were they not? Where were your wires to the men when the Labour Department was registering bogus unions to crush Labour? Where were your wires when men with homes and families were being cast into the street ? Rightly or wrongly, a very strong suspicion existed, and still exists, that whatever wires were sent were sent endorsing such actions.

“The miners affirmed and reaffirmed their decision to go on as usual. A little thing in itself, maybe, but behind it is a Memory. And that Memory, Mr. Mine-owner and you too, Mr. Massey, is fraught with great significance. It means the coming of a time when working-class decisions will he always first with that class, employers’ and politicians’ pleas a very bad second.”

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One response to “‘Defence of the Fatherland’ in the Australasian Dominions

  1. Pingback: Workers who stood for King and Country in 1914 | A communist at large·

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