Why the founding of the Labour Party was a historic advance

 “The first great step of importance for every country newly entering into the [working class] movement is always the constitution of the workers as an independent political party, no matter how, so long as it is a distinct workers party.” [Frederick Engels, Letter to Adolphe Sorge in Hoboken, 29 November 1886]

The centenary of the founding of the Labour Party in 1916 has passed almost unnoticed in New Zealand.

Red Fed leaders Robert Semple addresses Auckland General Labourers Union during strike of 1911. Robert Semple addressing Auckland General Labourers 1911. Alexander Turnbull Library 1/2 -044237-F

Red Fed leader Robert Semple addressing Auckland General Labourers 1911. Alexander Turnbull Library 1/2 -044237-F

The reason is not difficult to see: the party that has inherited the proud name of Labour is today an uninspiring capitalist party, with a programme to the right of the National Party on many questions, and a membership that is almost exclusively middle class. It enjoys the electoral support of a dwindling layer of older workers, as a lesser evil, but no admiration or enthusiasm, even from them. Other than the name, it has nothing in common with the party that was founded in 1916.

This party could feel nothing but acute embarrassment had they dared to quote the words of the Labour Party founders of 1916. Such muted celebrations as this party held, to keep alive their claim to a hundred-year continuity, in fact looked back no further than the party that was elected to government in 1935. (See this speech by Parliamentary Labour leader Andrew Little for an example.)

Equally uninterested in examining the story of 1916, on the other hand, are the left critics of the Labour Party. Explicitly or by their silence, they accept the fraudulent claim of today’s Labour Party to a continuity that goes back to 1916. Hence, for the left also there is nothing in the centenary to celebrate.

poster for centenary commemoration of Waihi strike

poster for centenary commemoration of Waihi strike

Unlike the centenaries of the 1912 Waihi strike and the tumultuous events in the mines and on the waterfront during 1913, there were no conferences or symposia, hardly even a newspaper editorial or opinion piece marking the occasion. The highest achievement of the great class-struggle movement that began in 1908 passed without a word.


The received wisdom from academic labour historians, faithfully repeated by the left, is that in 1916 the working class and its class-struggle leadership, exhausted and demoralised by the industrial defeats inflicted on the unions at Waihi in 1912 and on the waterfront in 1913, turned in despair to the ballot box for a solution to their problems, and thus the Labour Party was born. Militant unionism was cast aside in favour of campaigning for parliamentary office, and … in 1935 these efforts bore fruit with the election of the first Labour government.

It is a sweet little story that warms the hearts of supporters of the present-day Labour Party. It is also false to the core. It rests on the false assumption that the only possible form of political action is parliamentary electioneering, and on the related myth that political action is something separate from and opposed to industrial action. *

The truth is that the ‘turn to political struggle’ was part of the rise of the class-struggle labour movement in New Zealand that began in 1908, not some substitute for it, and the founding of the Labour Party in 1916 was the culmination of that movement.

In the 1880s, only thirty years prior to the founding of the Labour Party, there had been no political parties at all in New Zealand, reflecting the undeveloped state of the classes of capitalist society. There were wealthy capitalists and landlords, and impoverished wage-earners, but neither had coalesced into classes to the degree that it was necessary to fight for their opposing interests politically. The wealthy capitalist landowners controlled the government by consent of the entire settler population. That changed through the depression of the 1880s and the consequent rapid growth of unionism, culminating in the Maritime Strike of 1890. Out of the defeat of that strike emerged the Liberal Party, representing the interests of urban capitalists and resting heavily on the support of the new-born working class.

The foundation stone of Liberal rule was the Arbitration system, which gave legal recognition to trade unions, on condition that they submit to arbitration of their grievances by the courts and forego the right to strike.  This Garden of Eden of institutionalised class collaboration lasted nearly twenty years.  When it fell apart, beginning in 1908, class antagonisms sharpened rapidly.

The working class had the initiative at first. There was a sudden growth of class-struggle industrial unionism, with unions like miners, flax-millers and general labourers breaking with Arbitration and with the abject practices of the arbitrationist unions, relying instead on their own organised strength on the picket line. These unions formed the ‘Red’ Federation of Labour, known as the Red Feds, whose leaders were mostly members of the Socialist Party.  For the first time, broad masses of unskilled workers organised themselves into unions. At the opposite pole, the capitalist class organised itself politically under the banner of the Reform Party of William Massey, determined to smash the new unionism.

This deepening conflict came to a head in the turbulent years from 1912 through to the early post-World War 1 years, only finally being resolved by about 1920. The outcome was deeply affected by big world events, including general strikes in Australian cities, the World War, and the Russian Revolution of 1917.

strike supporters march through mining town of waihi May 1912 http://mp.natlib.govt.nz/detail/?id=3289 Reference Number: PAColl-4586-02 Photo: R Rogers

Strike supporters march through mining town of waihi May 1912 Photo: R Rogers http://mp.natlib.govt.nz/detail/?id=3289 Reference Number: PAColl-4586-02

In 1912 a strike at the Waihi gold mine pitted militant mineworkers against the mine bosses backed by the government, with the right wing of the union movement also lining up with the strike-breakers. The strike sounded the death knell of the Liberal government; a few weeks into the strike it fell, and Massey’s Reform Party took the helm. Massey unleashed new forces of the state against the striking miners; a few months later the strike was defeated, one striker killed by a mob of scabs, and the strikers violently driven from the town.

It was a serious blow, without a doubt. But a demoralising defeat? Hardly. Had that been the case, one would expect to see the strike leaders put away in jail for years or driven underground, unions dispersed, and the class-collaborationist union leadership waxing triumphant. In fact, exactly the opposite occurred. The jailed strikers were released from jail by mass pressure, and very soon resumed the offensive.

Harry Holland's book on the Waihi Strike

Harry Holland’s book on the Waihi Strike

The militant wing of the union movement was not defeated yet. They took the campaign in defence of the Waihi strikers into the political arena, with a nationwide propaganda campaign of rallies and agitation. A book was quickly produced on the workers’ press outlining the union’s case, The Tragic Story of the Waihi Strike. The book put forward the revolutionary perspective of “One Big Union – one class-conscious Army of Labor”. It was distributed in the thousands across the country in the wake of the breaking of the strike, scandalising the class-collaborationist union leaders who had supported the scab-herding. This was a real political campaign on a mass scale, a battle for hearts and minds, and it succeeded in turning back the blow struck at Waihi. (And all without an election in sight!)

Within six months, the labour movement as a whole was discussing unity, on terms favourable to the class-struggle wing. But events kept moving at a rapid pace. The bosses were still pressing the counter-attack. They sacked the entire union leadership at the Huntly coal mines, a centre of Red Fed strength, provoking a strike there. When waterfront bosses sacked shipwrights in Wellington, the conflict spread to the waterfront unions, and by the end of the year, it was approaching the scale of a general strike in Auckland, the largest port city.

Massey's Cossacks face off against strikers in Auckland, where the movement took the proportions of a general strike.

Massey’s Cossacks face off against strikers in Auckland, where the movement took the proportions of a general strike.

Massey had been preparing for this moment for years. He mobilised his base of support in the countryside, small farmers in the main, with some rural labourers and traders and an ‘officer’ layer of landed gentry, to enter the cities on horseback. Enrolled as ‘special constables’ they set about violently breaking the workers picket lines, alongside regular troops armed with bayonets and machine guns. They were dubbed “Massey’s Cossacks,” after the mounted troops used by the tsar of Russia to crush strikes and revolutionary movements of the oppressed nations in the Russian empire.

If fascism consists of the mobilisation of the petty-bourgeoisie to violently smash working class organisation – to use Trotsky’s expression, ‘the bourgeois regime resorting to the methods of civil war’ – then this was the closest thing to a mass fascist movement ever seen in New Zealand. (The term itself had not yet been invented, of course.)

Massey's Special Constables guarding Queens Wharf, Wellington, during the 1913 Waterfront Strike. Smith, Sydney Charles, 1888-1972 :Photographs of New Zealand. Ref: 1/2-048780-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/23044449

Massey’s Special Constables guarding strikebreakers on Queens Wharf, Wellington, during the 1913 Waterfront Strike. Smith, Sydney Charles, 1888-1972 :Photographs of New Zealand. Ref: 1/2-048780-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/23044449

The assault by Masseys Cossacks succeeded in breaking the waterfront strike, but once again, the fate of the wider movement remained unresolved. Above all, Massey’s action in instituting the regime of civil war placed the question of politics in its most fundamental sense – the question of who will rule – on the order of the day.

The working class was never faced with the choice of ‘political action versus industrial action’ as the historians would have it. The only choice was: politics under the tutelage of the decrepit Liberal Party, or working class politics through an independent working class political party. Just as they had broken with Arbitration to rely on their own industrial strength, the working class broke with the Liberal Party to speak with its own class voice. It was a historic step forward in their path towards conquering political power.

Over the next half decade the infant Labour Party faced some extraordinary political challenges, under the difficult conditions of an imperialist war mobilisation and post-war censorship and repression. That the party leadership met some of these challenges head-on, wavered and stumbled on others, and committed some shameful errors on others is hardly surprising. It takes both time and experience to hammer out a working class programme – and by ‘experience’ I mean experience in mass politics, the politics of millions, which years of membership in a small propaganda party like the Socialist Party could not provide.

A brief survey of some of these challenges reveals that wherever the default of leadership was greatest, the dead weight of Liberal politics was most heavily felt.

  • Harry Holland in 1925

    Harry Holland in 1925

    The imperialist war had been raging for two years. The Reform Party in government was leading the war drive, but had sought, and gained, the participation of the Liberal Party in a government of national unity. Labour Party leaders denounced it as a war for “Dividends, dividends, dividends” and compared joining this war to strikebreaking. Noting that the youth were being asked to sacrifice their living standards and their lives for the empire, while capitalist fortunes were left untouched, the party called for ‘the conscription of wealth before the conscription of men’ and threw their support behind all those who refused to fight.It is easy – with the great advantage of hindsight – to see weaknesses in their slogans. An attempt to accommodate the pro-imperialist sentiments of the upper layers of the working class may well have been a factor in this. But could anyone seriously imagine a clearer anti-war voice emerging while the working class was still tied to the pro-war Liberal Party? Could anyone imagine a more effective anti-war campaign being conducted if it had been limited to the organisations of the industrial workers – while a major proportion of the population was still farmers or rural workers?

  • Te Puea Herangi

    Te Puea Herangi

    The Maori struggle experienced a revival in these years. Te Puea Herangi led a campaign of opposition to Maori participation in WW1, saying, “They tell us to fight for king and country. Well, that’s all right. We’ve got a [Maori] king. But we haven’t got a country. That’s been taken off us. Let them give us back our land and then maybe we’ll think about it again.” It seems incredible today that while the Labour Party was also opposing conscription – and Te Puea’s base was right near Huntly, a centre of Red Fed strength – there appears to have been no attempt from either side to combine the two campaigns. Here again the historic ties to the Liberal Party weighed heavily: it was under Liberal rule that the most rapid and extensive phase of alienation of Maori land took place. Through their support to the Liberals, the early labour movement had been complicit in the land theft. The precondition for developing a relationship of mutual solidarity between Maori and the working class was breaking with the Liberals.

  • Members of the Irish Republican Army during the Easter Rising 1916

    Members of the Irish Republican Army during the Easter Rising 1916

    Coinciding with the formation of the Labour Party, the Easter Rising against British rule took place in Ireland, followed a year later by the Russian revolution. The Labour Party leadership welcomed the Irish struggle and campaigned in solidarity through its press. Labour leader Harry Holland declared himself a Bolshevik, and toured the country spreading the news of the Russian revolution in defiance of the news blackout, and building solidarity.

  • A key component of the drive by the ruling class to blunt the developing working class political movement in the early post-War years was a political campaign around the question of Chinese immigration. On the face of it, this seems an unlikely line of attack. Actual numbers of immigrants arriving from China were close to zero at that time. In spite of this, Massey mounted a ‘yellow peril’ campaign in 1919, and successfully herded most of the Labour parliamentarians elected the previous year into supporting it. Harry Holland put forward an opposing perspective of organising immigrant workers into the unions and demanding they be paid at the same rates as anyone else. But even he was inconsistent. Once again, the dead hand of the past weighed heavily here. Hostility to Chinese immigration had been a cornerstone of Liberal politics from the 1890s. An astute politician, Massey sensed a point of weakness and exploited it to the full.
  • Massey's Cossacks were mostly small family farmers, potential allies of working class.

    Massey’s Cossacks were mostly small family farmers, potential allies of working class.

    Over everything loomed the question of the small farmers. Massey’s Cossacks had hit the labour movement like a bolt from the blue. In the Liberal epoch, small family farmers had barely been a distinct class from workers; at any rate they had had common cause with the working class. Now they appeared with police batons in hand. Militarily, the unions were capable of beating the mounted special constables – there is no doubt that they formed an ill-disciplined and cowardly mob which could be scattered – but the political mobilisation of the country against the town was a different matter, and far more difficult to tackle. How to respond? By denigrating the farmers as ignorant hillbillies and drunks, unthinking tools of the bosses? Or by appealing to them as fellow exploited producers – debt slaves rather than wage slaves, but a class distinct from the capitalists and the natural allies of the working class? Here the Harry Holland leadership, in time, went further towards developing a revolutionary agrarian programme than any other current in New Zealand for many decades to come.


It is undeniable that almost from the day it was founded, the ‘one big revolutionary party of the whole working class’ that Holland had envisaged began to melt away like the snow in spring. By the early 1920s it had become thoroughly mired in the swamp of bourgeois electoralism. For the class-collaborationist wing of the leadership, this is what they had always wanted. Most of the former class-struggle leaders also quickly adapted to this situation. Holland himself held out a little longer, increasingly isolated, before he too fell into line. To what should we attribute this fact, then, if not to the original sin of forming a labour party?

In the first place, the blow struck by Massey’s Cossacks left a deep wound. It stood as a sobering reminder that the working class was a lot further from conquering political power than many had thought. It left in its wake a rift between the toilers of town and country that became a cornerstone of capitalist rule to this day. (I was reminded of this recently when a friend, writing about a fascist outfit which has reared its ugly head in a rural town, described it as a bunch of “gap-toothed yokels.”  A more perfect expression of the urban-dweller’s condescension and contempt for the rural toilers would be hard to find.)

The fact that industrial workers were still few in number compared to other classes was not the key thing – after all, they made a revolution in Russia, where the working class was vastly outnumbered by the peasantry. But while capitalism in Europe had exhausted its productive capacity and was ripe for overthrow by 1914, the same was not true in New Zealand. Capitalist farming was enjoying unprecedented prosperity thanks to guaranteed wartime prices; it would expand and develop for decades to come. The process of industrialisation and urbanisation of the population was only really completed during and after World War 2. No social system leaves the stage of history until it has exhausted its potential for development. Nothing the Red Fed leaders did or failed to do could have changed that fact.**

The immaturity of the working class in 1913 was also an immaturity of class consciousness.

Class consciousness is often portrayed in bourgeois culture as a kind of brooding suspicion and resentment of the workers towards their exploiters, a dull but bitter sense of ‘them and us.’ But this is a ridiculous caricature.

Class consciousness among workers is an understanding of the totality of class relations in capitalist society, in all their complexity. Of not just the capitalist class and the proletariat but also the middle layers, of the stratifications and internal conflicts within all the classes, of alliances between classes and sections of classes, and especially, of the class character of political ideas. Class consciousness can only develop on a mass scale when the working class enters the political arena, that is, when it prepares its struggle to wrest political power from the exploiters.

It would not be reasonable to expect bourgeois historians to understand this, and no one who is trying to find a road forward for the working class should take their lead from the historians. We do need a sense of our own history, however, and that includes recognising the conquests of those who came before us. Reading the ‘left’ criticisms of the Red Fed leaders who formed the Labour Party in 1916, a phrase from Trotsky often comes to mind, where he describes criticism-in-hindsight of the Bolsheviks as “hatred and slander against Bolsheviks from those who have an abundance of their historically conditioned faults but not one of their merits.”


*From their side, anarchists and syndicalists tend to concur with this comforting myth. Fetishising the trade unions as the only legitimate form of working class organisation, they romanticise those unionists of 1908-16 who stood aside from the greatest political struggles in the country’s history.

**With this in mind, the analogy between Massey’s Cossacks and Fascist movements must be kept within strict limits: Fascism is a form of rule that capitalism adopts in its stage of senile decay, which was clearly not the case in New Zealand in 1913.


Footnote: Response to a criticism

A critique of the above article posted on Facebook was forwarded to me by a friend. Among some irrelevant points which do not warrant repeating or responding to was this serious criticism: “In terms of his piece being a counterpoint, a problem is that he just makes a few things up. The idea that Labour was ‘herded’ into supporting anti-Chinese exclusion by Massey (the Tory prime minister) is just patently absurd. No-one can read the parliamentary debates or examine Labour conference minutes or read their newspaper and find any basis for this argument. The Labour MPs made it very clear that they were more anti-Chinese immigration than *anyone*. And Holland, who James presents as being in favour of unionising migrant workers, was as anti-Chinese as any of them. He argued that British citizenship (NZers were British citizens at the time) was too precious to be shared with Chinese. As I said above, this is party line ruling over historical fact.”

My response:

It is perfectly true that the entire class-collaborationist wing of the Labour Party leadership, and also some of the class-struggle leaders, were open about their opposition to Chinese immigration and their preference for a ‘white New Zealand’ policy. This was Liberal Party politics and tradition carried into the Labour Party. These forces didn’t need much barking from the sheepdog to herd them into supporting Massey’s line.

Nonetheless, ‘herding’ is the correct term for what happened in the parliamentary debate, and one only needs to read the jeering and taunting of the Reform Party speakers to convince yourself of that. Why was this herding necessary? Because the anti-Chinese view was not unanimously held in the Labour caucus.

This is part of what Harry Holland said in that Parliamentary debate: “It would be well if we were to remember that the world is a very small place, and that, biologically speaking, the same red blood of humanity flows in the veins of all of us, no matter what piece of land we happened to be born upon. So far as I am personally concerned, I want to make clear the international viewpoint, which does not place a bar upon the individual because of the colour of his skin or the country in which he was born.”

Does this really sound ‘as anti-Chinese as the rest of them’?

When it came to the question of immigrant workers being used to undermine wages and condition of union workers, there was little positive experience of organising Chinese immigrant workers into unions. In part this was because of racist exclusionary practices on the part of the trade unions of the time. There were Chinese workers in the merchant shipping industry worldwide, but they were mostly excluded from the seafarers’ unions.

But the main reason there was little experience was because since 1908 Chinese immigrants to New Zealand had been forced to pay a prohibitive poll tax, which had reduced their number to almost none. Those few who could afford to pay the poll tax, and those Chinese already in New Zealand before it was imposed, were mostly in non-proletarian occupations such as market gardeners or small shopkeepers.

However, the proposed legislation was also aimed against workers from India, and here there was some experience that Holland could point to.

Holland says, “So far as the Indians in New Zealand are concerned, there is no danger, as far as I can see, of their being used to lower the standard of living of the rest of the working-men, if they are organised into the respective unions and if a condition is laid down that when an Indian is employed it shall be under the same conditions and at the same rate of wages as a white man. I do not know any reason why he should not be so employed… By the way, a number of the Indians here joined the unions, and the reports I received when editing the Maoriland Worker were to the effect that they made excellent unionists. They were exceedingly loyal to the rest of the men in the organization.”

This is the basis for my claim that Holland put forward an alternative perspective of organising immigrant workers into the unions. It was inconsistent, as I said in the article, and Holland ended up supporting the reactionary legislation (not least because he was conscious of his accountability as leader of a party that had adopted this as policy). It’s not necessary to make anything up.

But if you don’t see the advance over Liberalism that the formation of the Labour Party represented – incomplete as it was – and you don’t see the conflict between the two opposing tendencies within the Labour Party, and you don’t see the retreat back to Liberalism that followed; in short, if you blur all these contradictory trends together into a single narrative, then you will entirely miss the significance of what took place during those tumultuous years.

2 responses to “Why the founding of the Labour Party was a historic advance

  1. I just finished this piece (and the related posts which I was able to find on your blog) and I find it quite interesting and thought-provoking. (I missed this piece in my reader-feed which is swamped with tons of trivia too overwhelming to sort through. I wonder if you would consider putting a email-subscription widget on your page so that subscribers can get email notices? But that’s a different point.)

    Your analysis of the factors that first allowed for the creation of a working class movement also seem to be the same factors that strangled it soon after birth. And those very same factors (intense global competition for extra=national markets, use of Xenophobia to divert attention from exploitation of all workers, brushfire conflicts by one power or another in aid of increasing (neo) colonialism, growing inequality of wealth between the oligarchs and the workers, etc.) The one difference this time seems to be that the plutocrats/oligarchs have coopted the working party by nationalistic-rascist-Xenophobic “populism” before any movement got off the ground.

    Do you have any lessons that can be drawn from 100 years ago and applied to today?

    • (I think there is a button for Email notifications on the blog already – the blue Follow button, on the left, below the Archives.)
      On the factors that allowed for the rapid rise of the class-struggle labour movement being the same ones that led to its equally precipitous decline, I think there is a lot of truth in that idea. It sometimes seems to me that the movement momentarily advanced ahead of what was objectively possible given the small size and newness of the working class, and therefore the later collapse was inevitable. The big factor was the Great War, which the class-struggle leadership was prepared for to a degree, but which brought about changes that they had not anticipated, in particular the withering of ties with the Australian labour movement, from which they had drawn so much of their strength.

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