While in 1914 the political appeal of “King and country” was comparatively weak among workers in Australasia, the social basis of national chauvinism was highly developed. The split in the labour movement consequently ran deep, even before the outbreak of the War.
Within the working class the social foundation of national chauvinism was the same here as it was in Britain and Europe: a privileged ‘aristocracy of labour’ made up mostly of skilled workers, which identified its interests with those of the bourgeoisie. How is it that this layer was so highly developed in countries where the working class itself was less than a quarter-century old?
The answer lies in the peculiar condition of wage labour in colonial societies where new land is still being brought under cultivation and private ownership. The essential condition of wage labour under capitalism is the existence of a class without any means of subsistence and therefore compelled to sell their labour power to a capitalist in order to earn a living. Not for nothing did Marx call it wage-slavery. This situation did not prevail in New Zealand until about the 1890s at the earliest.
There were people who worked for wages from the earliest days of European settlement, but not a true working class. Land was plentiful – at least as far as the settlers were concerned – and therefore working for wages could be considered a temporary or voluntary condition. Until late in the nineteenth century, it was fairly easy to get hold of a piece of undeveloped land, clear it and run some stock, make a living as a farmer, and escape wage-slavery for good. In the early years of the colony there was a constant shortage of wage labour, and therefore workers could set favourable terms.
Bourgeois migrants to New Zealand anxiously noted a displeasing attitude among their steerage-class fellow-passengers even on the voyage out from Britain. Immigrant diarist Martha Adams wrote: “There is not I believe a single young woman on board but scouts [rejects with contempt – JR] the idea of being a servant when they land: nothing less than a pianoforte and crochet seem compatible with their ideas of their own dignity; on which account it is so difficult to get any little service performed for you, presuming you have no servant of your own. For instance, should you require an article of children’s clothing washed: you may find someone who on Friday, which is a washing day, will attend to it for you: but if you offer payment you will be told ‘they could not think of such a thing, as they only did it to oblige you, and that their papa means to buy them a piansy when they get to New Zealand.’”
On arrival in the colony, where sometimes the passengers had to build their own houses before they could disembark, workers, especially skilled workers, fared somewhat better than those who had brought nothing but the habit of command. The same diarist noted: “All labourers, mechanics, and those who can work with their hands, succeed excellently, soon purchase a cow which increases to a herd, and are fed on the hills at a very small expense – build their house, which however rude and ugly is soon covered withy vines and creepers; and keep geese etc on the common land. Thus far once, and they soon grow rich; but those who require people to work from them have to pay such a high ratio of wages, that the profit is small, and they are slower in gathering around them the comforts of life than the industrious labourers…”
Another complained: “Labour is enormous, for example a man and his wife require fifty pounds a year for their maintenance and that of their children – which must be good and abundant, and many of them are so independent as it is termed and they often leave their employers for to do their own work.”
The classic example of this phenomenon is the case of Samuel Duncan Parnell, a carpenter who in 1840 organised among the labourers on the immigrant ship to enforce the eight-hour day on arrival in the colony – and succeeded. Prolonged mass struggles over decades were required to win the 8-hour day in other countries. In New Zealand, all that was required was a welcoming delegation to meet each migrant ship and explain the ways of the colony. Parnell’s stance was not exceptional. An attempt to impose a ten-hour day at the founding of the settlement of Dunedin in 1848 was defeated; eight hours was soon the norm throughout the colony.
For Maori, the situation was a lot less favourable, to say the least. With the punitive raupatu land confiscations in the wake of the land wars of the 1860s, and increasingly with the debt- and poverty-driven alienation of tribal lands that followed, the ability of Maori to support themselves on the land was sharply reduced. The process of large-scale alienation of Maori land continued well into the twentieth century. At first, Maori were driven into subsistence poverty on the margins of the economy, relieved only by a little employment as wage-labourers on farms. Later, the dispossessed Maori formed a central component of the working class when it did arise towards the end of the nineteenth century.
But for several decades, skilled workers in New Zealand could live at a much higher standard than they had in Britain. United with their employers under protective tariffs for local industries, they joined in the task of building the colonial economy and shared in its benefits, and easily ‘bettered themselves’ in farms or small businesses. The development of a true working class was slowed by this situation.
Writing in 1887, Frederick Engels describes a similar phenomenon just then coming to an end in the United States. “There were two circumstances which for a long time prevented the unavoidable consequences of the capitalist system from showing themselves in the full glare of day in America. These were the easy access to the ownership of cheap land, and the influx of immigration. They allowed, for many years, the great mass of the native American population to “retire” in early manhood from wage-labour and to become farmers, dealers, or employers of labour, while the hard work for wages, the position of a proletarian for life, mostly fell to the lot of the immigrants. But America has outgrown this early stage. The boundless backwoods have disappeared, and the still more boundless prairies are fast and faster passing from the hands of the nation and the states into those of private owners. The great safety-valve against the formation of a permanent proletarian class has practically ceased to act.. A class of life-long and even hereditary proletarians exists at this hour in America.”
The situation in New Zealand began to change with the acceleration of immigration – first, the influx of immigrants that followed the discovery of gold in 1860s, then in the 1870s and 1880s with the government-organised ‘assisted migration’ schemes. The increased supply of wage-labour increased competition among workers and forced down wages. Trade unions began to make fleeting appearances.
Some of the first unions and other workers’ organisations campaigned vigorously against this immigration, and attempted to take their campaign to unions in Britain. A particular target of the anti-immigrant agitation was the small number of migrants from China, who had been brought out by the Dunedin capitalists for the specific task of gleaning the last traces of alluvial gold left over in the workings abandoned by the European miners.
James MacPherson, a worker who formed the Working Men’s Mutual Protection Society in 1871, corresponded with Marx and had some of Marx’s writings published (unattributed) in the Christchurch Press. McPherson agitated against the ‘iniquitous policy of the New Zealand government in flooding the labour market by holding out false hopes to the working men at Home.’ In 1872 he published his own pamphlet, “Why the Working Men of New Zealand Should Become Internationalists, Together with an Article Entitled Anti-Chinese Immigration.”
At the same time, a process of industrialisation began, centred in Dunedin, financed by Otago gold, protected by a high wall of tariffs, and driven by the government-led development of rail transportation. By the 1880s railway wagons and even locomotives were being built in state-owned railway workshops in the main cities and even some provincial centres. These were the largest industrial enterprises in the country, employing thousands of skilled and unskilled workers – engineers, boilermakers, moulders, smiths, furnace operators, carpenters and rivet-boys. Timber mills, clothing and footwear factories, and food processing industries serving both the domestic and export markets were also established at this time. Coal mining expanded as the need was felt for more coal to supply the railways, steam ships, and stationary steam engines powering factories.
By the end of the 1880s, the supply of cheap and accessible land was more or less exhausted in the South Island, where most European settlers lived. This coincided with a prolonged depression throughout the 1880s. A large section of workers and landless farmers were reduced to desperate conditions, and began to form unions to fight back. Union membership grew from 3,000 in 1888 to 50,000 in 1890. This culminated in an Australasian-wide strike wave led by seafarers and miners in 1890, the six-week Maritime Strike. A true working class had come into being.
From that point, the extraordinary conditions for the privileges of skilled workers in New Zealand had definitely ended (with one important exception, which I will look at later.) However, their consciousness and traditions lived on for some time, and although now based on a much narrower social stratum, their political orientation towards collaboration with the bourgeoisie remained very much alive.
The very first political party in New Zealand history was the Liberal Party formed in 1891, formed out of this alliance between the upper layer of workers and the capitalist class, in the wake of the defeat of the Maritime Strike. The political basis of this alliance was the protectionist tariff and immigration control. Coming to power just as the unions defeated in the Maritime strike were being routed and destroyed, it also set up a system of compulsory state arbitration to resolve industrial disputes. In the words of the Liberal Minister of Labour and architect of the arbitration sysytem, William Pember Reeves, the unions were “in a chastened and pacific frame of mind. They were disposed to think unusually well of arbitration.” The Liberal Party dominated politics for two decades from 1891.
(In Australia, the party formed by the unions at around the same time and under the same conditions, the Australian Labor Party, performed more or less the same function as the Liberal Party in New Zealand, as an alliance of workers with the capitalists. In Australia it was the Labor Party that promoted arbitration as the key protection for workers. It also supported the Immigration Restriction Act of 1901, commonly known as the White Australia policy.)
New Zealand historians often point with pride to the reforms introduced in New Zealand under the Liberal Party: New Zealand was one of the first countries in the world to grant the vote to women, and some of the first old-age pensions paid by the state. Under the Liberals, laws were passed regulating hours and conditions of industrial work, banning child labour in factories, specifying minimum crews on ships, establishing safety inspectorates and elementary accident compensation schemes for factory workers. Education was expanded, as were vaccination programmes, rural district health nursing schemes and other public health measures.
The scope of these progressive reforms attracted some world attention; both New Zealand and Australia became known as the ‘social laboratory of the world.’ Social reformers of all stripes visited Australasia to witness the miracle and report on it. The arbitration system – the ‘land without strikes’ – captured most attention.
In reality, the ‘social experiment’ the Liberal government in New Zealand was engaged in was an exercise in integrating the upper layers of the working class and their organisations into the capitalist state – and it is true that this process was taken further in Australasia in this period than anywhere else in the world. It was, as a conservative politician described it, “as though we vaccinated the people by liberal measures to prevent them from having the small-pox of socialism when adults.”
A heavy price for that was paid in 1914, when King and Country presented their demand for loyal service. Those sections of the labour movement that had bought into the arbitration system and dependence on the capitalist state largely answered the call to send workers to die in its service. Despite their remoteness from the fields of battle, Australia and New Zealand suffered a death rate per head of population almost equal to that of the United Kingdom.
But well before that happened, more authentic working class voices had emerged in the Australasian labour movement, a working class leadership which condemned arbitration as ‘labour’s leg-iron’ and rejected the predatory war of 1914. This precipitated the sharpest split in the history of the labour movement in New Zealand, and a historic advance which reached a new high point as the war raged.