A country of inveterate, backwoods, thick-headed, egotistical philistines

The period of the Liberal government in New Zealand from 1890 to 1912, was one of unprecedented general prosperity – in comparison with the rest of the world – the like of which New Zealand had not experienced before or since. In terms of the general living standards of working people, the only other country equal to it was Australia, (in fact, the two countries were little more than parts of a single country at that time).

Mark Twain at the City Hall Dunedin 1895. Hodgkins, William Mathew 1833-1898  8 Novem. [18]95 / W. H.. Hodgkins, William Mathew 1833-1898 :[Sketchbook] [ca 1865?]-1896. Ref: E-147-025. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22298754

Mark Twain at the City Hall Dunedin 1895. Hodgkins, William Mathew 1833-1898 8 Novem. [18]95 / W. H.. Hodgkins, William Mathew 1833-1898 :[Sketchbook] [ca 1865?]-1896. Ref: E-147-025. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22298754

It was also a period of social reforms, the basis of which I have discussed in a previous post. These reforms – arbitration of labour disputes, some very minimal state pensions for old age and accidents, some public health and education measures – attracted some worldwide attention.  Social reformers, academics, and writers from around the world visited Australasia and reported on what they saw. Among those who visited New Zealand during this period were US writer Mark Twain, Fabian socialists Sidney and Beatrice Webb from the UK, and Chicago journalist Henry Demarest Lloyd, who published a book on his return called “A country without strikes,” describing the workings of the arbitration system. Interest went beyond the English-speaking world too: French scholars André Siegfried and Albert Métin visited and wrote widely-read books about New Zealand.

Sidney and Beatrice Webb

Sidney and Beatrice Webb

Siegfried, among others, remarked on the immense satisfaction and pride expressed by New Zealanders when talking about these reforms. The world attention further swelled this national pride.

Andre Siegfried

Andre Siegfried

(Siegfried’s book is available for free download in pdf here and is worth reading.)

Russian revolutionary Vladimir Ilyich Lenin was not among those who made the pilgrimage to New Zealand. He did, however, take an interest in developments in this part of the world, partly because there were some in the European labour movement who held up Australasia as the model for workers in Europe, and partly because he was interested in the phenomenon of imperialism.

Bolshevik leader Vladimir Ilyich Lenin

Bolshevik leader Vladimir Ilyich Lenin

An article by Lenin in Pravda in 1913 discussed the Australian elections of that year, in which the Labor Party, which had held a majority in both the Lower and Upper Houses of Parliament, lost to the Liberal Party in the Lower House, but retained 30 of 36 seats in the Upper House. “What sort of peculiar capitalist country is this, in which the workers’ representatives, predominate in the Upper house and, till recently, did so in the Lower House as well, and yet the capitalist system is in no danger?” Lenin asks.

“The Australian Labour Party does not even call itself a socialist party. Actually it is a liberal-bourgeois party, while the so-called Liberals in Australia are really Conservatives.

“This strange and incorrect use of terms in naming parties is not unique. In America, for example, the slave-owners of yesterday are called Democrats, and in France, enemies of socialism, petty bourgeois, are called Radical Socialists! In order to understand the real significance of parties, one must examine not their signboards but their class character and the historical conditions of each individual country.”

“Australia is a young British colony.

“Capitalism in Australia is still quite youthful. The country is only just taking shape as an independent state. The workers are for the most part emigrants from Britain. They left the country at the time when the liberal-labour policy held almost undivided sway there, when the masses of the British workers were Liberals. Even now the majority of the skilled factory workers in Britain are Liberals or semi-Liberals.   This is the results of the exceptionally favourable, monopolist position enjoyed by Britain in the second half of the last century. Only now are the masses of the workers in Britain turning (but turning slowly) towards socialism.

“And while in Britain the so-called Labour Party is an alliance between the non-socialist trade unions and the extremely opportunist Independent Labour Party, in Australia the Labour Party is the unalloyed representative of the non-socialist workers’ trade unions.

“The leaders of the Australian Labour Party are trade union officials, everywhere the most moderate and “capital serving” element, and in Australia, altogether peaceable, purely liberal.

“The ties binding the separate states into a united Australia are still very weak. The Labour Party has had to concern itself with developing and strengthening these ties, and with establishing central government.

“In Australia the Labour Party has done what in other countries was done by the Liberals, namely, introduced a uniform tariff for the whole country, a uniform educational law, a uniform land tax and uniform factory legislation.

“Naturally, when Australia is finally developed and consolidated as an independent capitalist state, the condition of the workers will change, as also will the liberal Labour Party, which will make way for a socialist workers’ party. Australia is an illustration of the conditions under which exceptions to the rule are possible. The rule is: a socialist workers’ party in a capitalist country. The exception is: a liberal Labour Party which arises only for a short time by virtue of specific conditions that are abnormal for capitalism in general.

“Those Liberals in Europe and in Russia who try to “teach” the people that class struggle is unnecessary by citing the example of Australia, only deceive themselves and others. It is ridiculous to think of transplanting Australian conditions (an undeveloped, young colony, populated by liberal British workers) to countries where the state is long established and capitalism well developed.”


A year after this article was published came the shock of the Great War, and with it, the collapse of the Socialist International. Lenin, living in exile in Switzerland, began assembling the facts for a major study of imperialism. Conscious of the fact that the imperialist war would stretch capitalist rule to breaking point, he sought to prepare the socialist cadres for the revolutionary opportunities that would soon present themselves.

In particular, Lenin’s purpose was to challenge the false ideas about imperialism being put forward by the leading Marxist authority of the day, Karl Kautsky, which were disorienting working class opponents of the War. Imperialism was not, as Kautsky asserted, a ‘policy’ of the great capitalist powers, Lenin stated. It was a new stage in capitalist development, the highest and final stage, characterised by the dominance of finance capital, industrial capital merged with banking capital. In its imperialist phase, competition gives way to monopoly, and capitalism becomes decadent and increasingly parasitic.

In examining the  development of world capitalism, Lenin gathered economic data on all the capitalist nations of the world, including the colonies: total kilometres of railways, steel production and consumption, export of capital, etc. These data were recorded in a series of notebooks, which have been preserved – although, I suspect, rarely consulted – today. They have been published in volume 39 of Lenin’s Collected Works, and constitute even today a fascinating snapshot of comparative economic development a hundred years ago.

Here, for example, are the facts on food consumption Lenin put together, comparing per capita consumption of wheat, sugar, and meat in various countries (in pounds per head of population). I know of no better illustration of comparative living standards among workers in these four countries. These data make abundantly clear the comparatively higher standard of living enjoyed in the ‘young colonies’ of Australasia.

Country wheat sugar meat
France 486 27 77
New Zealand 400 97 212
Australia 357 101 239
United States 315 68 150
United Kingdom 290 88 112
Germany 195 27 111

People in Australasia ate about twice the quantity of both wheat and meat as people in Germany, and four times the quantity of sugar.

The notebooks also include margin notes on the books Lenin was reading as part of this study of imperialist stage of capitalist development. Among these books was Siegfried’s book Democracy in New Zealand.  These notes were for Lenin’s own private use, not an article prepared for publication.

Lenin’s impression of New Zealand from reading the book?  “A country of inveterate, backwoods, thick-headed, egotistical philistines, who have brought their “civilisation” with them from England and keep it to themselves like a dog in a manger.”

He notes the country’s geographical isolation, and comments on the discrimination against Chinese workers, including the poll tax of £100 imposed on Chinese migrants. “The distinctive feature of “imperialism”: exclusiveness. The yellow race is completely barred from entering the country.” “Snobbishness of the population: servility towards the aristocracy”

“Exterminated the natives – the Maoris – by fire and sword; a series of wars”. Lenin was factually incorrect about this; the error can be traced to Siegfried. The overwhelming consensus in bourgeois New Zealand 1903, when Siegfried’s book first appeared, was that the remaining Maori would gradually assimilate and Maori as a distinct people would disappear.

Gang of Dalmatian gum diggers draining the Aranga swamp, Maunganui Bluff, Northland. Creator of collection unknown: Photographs relating to Dalmatian gum diggers, life on the gumfields, and social events. Ref: PAColl-2144-2-03. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/23109398

Gang of Dalmatian gum diggers draining the Aranga swamp, Maunganui Bluff, Northland. Creator of collection unknown: Photographs relating to Dalmatian gum diggers, life on the gumfields, and social events. Ref: PAColl-2144-2-03. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/23109398

“Persecution of the Austrians who migrated in 1893 – the “Labour Party” attacked them.”  (This refers to the migrants from Dalmatian coast in present-day Croatia, most of whom settled in the far north of New Zealand and worked in Kauri gum extraction. Prior to the Great War Croatia was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, and so these migrants were deemed for official purposes to be of Austrian nationality. However, the South Slavs were at that time engaged in a fight for an independent Yugoslavia against the Austrian empire, and were consequently no friends of the Austrian empire.)   The Labour Party Lenin refers to was not the party founded in 1916, but an earlier formation, a short-lived patriotic pro-capitalist party set up by the Trades and Labour Councils. According to Siegfried, “the labour party and the Government were alarmed [by the influx of Dalmatians in the far North]. This Austrian labour, unless something was done to stop it, would simply lower the scale of wages and drive out New Zealand labour from that whole part of the island…[this] led to the passing of an Act to regulate the conditions of the kauri gum industry; native labour was strongly protected and the country was closed to any new invasion of labour.”

Lenin notes: “Two trends of imperialism (fully compatible): 1. Great-power imperialism (participation in the imperialism of Great Britain) 2. Local imperialism – its isolation, exclusiveness… Protests against the French presence in New Caledonia – against the German occupation of Samoa, etc. In June 1901 New Zealand annexed the Cook archipelago. New Zealand is Great Britain’s most “faithful” loyal colony.”

He lists some of the social reforms – the 48-hour week, old-age pensions at 65, factory inspection, and comments (quoting Siegfried in part) “the key to all this is protectionism and industrial prosperity.” Beside this is Lenin’s note: “NB: the imperialist bourgeoisie is buying the workers by social reforms.”


Siegfried’s book was ten years old by the time Lenin made these notes, and events had taken a new turn. Capitalism matured significantly in that period; the emerging working class went through some deep and bitter struggles, out of which a class-struggle leadership was forged. Very much as Lenin had laid out in his article on Australia, the liberal Labour Party (in New Zealand’s case, the “Liberal-Labour” Party) began to make way for a socialist Labour Party, which was founded in 1916 on a platform of opposition to the imperialist war.

Soon after that happened, the Russian revolution turned the world upside down. This event, like the imperialist war that precipitated it, proved to be an acid test for working class fighters the world over. The time for abstract talk about socialism was over, the question was now: for or against the working class seizing power? Moscow became a magnet for all those forces who sought to build a leadership capable of overthrowing the capitalist state in their own countries.

Here, New Zealand’s geographical isolation worked strongly to the detriment of working class interests. Those who rallied to the defence of the Russian revolution, like Harry Holland, the leader of the newly-formed Labour Party, were severely hampered by lack of direct contact and independent sources of news. Their early attempts to spread the news of the revolution depended on such indirect and unreliable sources of information as Arthur Ransome, a children’s author, journalist, and sometime British diplomat and spy in Moscow, who expressed some sympathy for the revolution. Wartime censorship and travel restrictions, including the necessity in some cases to cross battlefronts in order to travel to Russia, added to the difficulties.

Many of those who converged on Moscow from around the world to make direct contact with the Bolsheviks later went on to play key roles in the formation of communist leaderships in their respective countries. John Reed in the United States, Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam, and Tan Malaka in Indonesia were just a few of these.

None of the emerging class-struggle leaders of the Australasian labour movement succeeded in getting to Moscow, so far as I can discover. I sometimes wonder if the history of the labour movement in Australasia might have unfolded differently had they made the journey.

Frank Anstey

Frank Anstey

The nearest they came was the visit of Frank Anstey, an elected member of parliament  for the Australian Labor Party who had fallen out with Party leader William Hughes in 1914 over Hughes’s support for the War. Anstey visited Europe in 1918, took part in discussions with leaders of various currents in the European labour movement, and reported back what he had found about the rising tide of revolution in a book called “Red Europe,” published in 1919.  The book sold well in Australia and the US West Coast; it was banned in New Zealand.

Notwithstanding his opposition to the War, Anstey was no revolutionary. He was a supporter of the racist immigration restrictions known as the White Australia policies, and the author in 1915 of an anti-Semitic pamphlet about capitalist banking called “The Kingdom of Shylock.”  In fact, Anstey could only really be described as an inveterate, backwoods, thick-headed, egotistical philistine.





One response to “A country of inveterate, backwoods, thick-headed, egotistical philistines

  1. Pingback: The sheltered childhood of the working class in New Zealand: 1890-1912 | A communist at large·

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s