The socialism of mining villages, lumber camps and company towns

The capitalist mode of production comes into existence by uprooting people from the land and drawing them into urban industrial concentrations. Great industrial cities are a characteristic feature of capitalism, and the modern proletariat, although its origins are among the dispossessed peasants, is essentially an urban class.

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

However, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as capitalist industry expanded westwards in North America and from the coastal colonies of Australasia into the hinterland, it followed a somewhat different path for a short period. Some of the biggest industries were built to exploit the natural resources of these regions, and of necessity these were located where the resources existed – forests, coal deposits, waterways, ores – and where the settler population had been sparse or non-existent.

Lumber camps and mining villages proliferated in remote regions along the western states of the United States and Canada, as well as the isolated mining communities of Broken Hill and later Mt Isa in Australia.

Broken Hill 1908 Photo: 14086_a005_a005SZ846000012r

These towns were populated by footloose, itinerant workers, who criss-crossed the regions, the Tasman Sea and even the Pacific Ocean in search of work – and to escape blacklisting.

Denniston Incline c 1910

School children, Denniston Incline, c 1945. Photo: J D Pascoe, Alexander Turnbull Library, 1/4-001332-F.

In New Zealand, the gold-mining camps of the remote West Coast region, cut off from the urban centres of Christchurch and Dunedin by the Southern Alps, became transformed, as mining shifted to coal, into some of the biggest concentrations of the working class in the country. Some of these communities were very isolated: on the Denniston plateau, the only way in or out for people and their possessions was to ride in a coal wagon up or down the steep Denniston incline. Workers and their families were effectively trapped in this tiny village for months or years on end.

In the North Island, the huge gold mine at Waihi and the coal mines at Huntly had very much the same character, although they were located closer to the city of Auckland. 1

In both Australasia and in North America, revolutionary socialism was born in these lumber camps, mining villages, and company towns. At a time when socialist thought in the urban centres was still largely mired in utopian experiments, crackpot taxation schemes and other reformist fantasies, in the company towns socialism took on a profoundly revolutionary, class-struggle character.

The reasons for this are not difficult to see. In the first place, conditions for workers were harsh. Human life was cheap. Losing a finger or an arm was not uncommon, and there was no social security for those injured on the job. But the company towns were certainly not unique in this respect – the same was true of the urban industries.

Company’s hired thugs attack strikers, 1892 Homestead strike

What set these towns apart was the polarisation of social relations. The company typically ran the town as its private domain, being the workers’ landlord as well as their boss. The doctor who assessed your work injury was a company stooge. Likewise, the village preacher. Workers bought their necessities of life in a company store, at prices dictated by the company.  Law and order was a company matter too, often enforced directly by the company’s private army of spies and thugs. Individual militants and organisers who threatened company interests could literally be run out of town.

The middle layers of capitalist society – the shopkeepers, the independent tradesmen and small business people, the lawyers and other professionals – constituted one of the principal social bases for utopian-reformist socialism in the cities. These layers all but vanished in the company towns, absorbed into one or other of the two warring classes of bosses and workers. The influence of their variety of socialism was correspondingly weak.

On the other hand, the directly opposing class interests, the true nature of class violence, in other words, the reality of the class struggle was laid bare with far greater clarity in the company towns than in the cities.

At the same time, these towns were relatively remote from the concentrated power of capital in the cities, especially its ideological apparatus of school, pulpit and press. Demand for labour was generally higher, and opportunities to transition out of the proletariat and become a small farmer were often greater – all conditions that favoured the workers. The growth of the working class movement followed the lines of least resistance.

The workers’ first line of defence against their exploitation was union. These company towns were mostly concentrations of the unskilled workers (along with some skilled mechanics and engineers, especially in mining), and therefore the hopeless impotence of unions organised along narrow, exclusive craft lines was more glaringly obvious than in the cities. Workers in the company towns became the leaders of the drive to organise industrial unions embracing all the workers in the industry.

IWW cartoon

The leading sections of this working class vanguard were in the United States; they came together in Chicago in 1905, with the best of the urban revolutionaries, to form the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). Bill Haywood, a worker in a mine in Utah by the age of nine, and Vincent St John, a miner in Colorado, were among the central leaders of this convention. The leaders of this movement looked beyond the local struggles towards the overthrow of capitalist rule itself. Their convention coincided with the opening of the 1905 revolution in Russia, and identified with it. The famous Preamble to the constitution adopted at this founding conference of the IWW stated:

Bill Haywood

“The working class and the employing class have nothing in common. There can be no peace so long as hunger and want are found among millions of the working people and the few, who make up the employing class, have all the good things of life.

“Between these two classes a struggle must go on until the workers of the world organize as a class, take possession of the means of production, abolish the wage system, and live in harmony with the Earth.

“We find that the centering of the management of industries into fewer and fewer hands makes the trade unions unable to cope with the ever growing power of the employing class. The trade unions foster a state of affairs which allows one set of workers to be pitted against another set of workers in the same industry, thereby helping defeat one another in wage wars. Moreover, the trade unions aid the employing class to mislead the workers into the belief that the working class have interests in common with their employers.

Vincent St John

“These conditions can be changed and the interest of the working class upheld only by an organization formed in such a way that all its members in any one industry, or in all industries if necessary, cease work whenever a strike or lockout is on in any department thereof, thus making an injury to one an injury to all.

“Instead of the conservative motto, “A fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work,” we must inscribe on our banner the revolutionary watchword, “Abolition of the wage system.”

“It is the historic mission of the working class to do away with capitalism. The army of production must be organized, not only for everyday struggle with capitalists, but also to carry on production when capitalism shall have been overthrown. By organizing industrially, we are forming the structure of the new society within the shell of the old.”

The Preamble was a stirring statement of revolutionary goals, and it reverberated around the world, not least among those itinerant workers who crossed the Pacific Ocean from the West Coast of the United States or Canada to Australasia, bringing their political literature with them.

Pat Hickey. Born in Nelson, Hickey worked as a miner in Utah and was a member of the Western Federation of Miners, before returning to NZ where he worked at Denniston and Blackball mines. He became a leader of the Socialist Party and Red Feds.

The Socialist Party founded in New Zealand in 1901 was, like most of its counterparts in other countries, a politically heterogeneous organisation. A large fraction of its members arrived from Britain in a single group, seeking to found a utopian-socialist commune. The revolutionary thinkers in the party were the proletarian members in the isolated company towns, especially those in the West Coast mining villages. The West Coast was the birthplace of both industrial unionism and revolutionary socialism. The rise and decline of revolutionary socialism in the New Zealand labour movement in the years 1907 to 1920 roughly coincides with, and was heavily influenced by, the rise and decline of the IWW.

The activity of the Socialist Party in those years centred around opposition to the system of institutionalised class collaboration known as Arbitration – building industrial unions and relying on the organised strength of the workers instead – opposition to militarism, especially conscription, and, to a lesser extent, advocating political independence from the Liberal Party. Beginning among mineworkers on the West Coast in 1907, Socialist Party militants over the next five years built class-struggle unions of mineworkers in the rest of the country, and under the banner of the Federation of Labour reached out to railway and waterside workers, seafarers, flaxmill workers, and general labourers in the cities. They adopted the IWW “Preamble” as their own creed.

It is unclear what exactly they thought about how to ‘abolish the wages system,’ and there is little evidence that their thinking on revolutionary political action went beyond standing individual union militants against the bourgeois candidates in electoral contests. At any rate, the main vehicle for their revolutionary action and propaganda was the ‘Red’ Federation of Labour and its newspaper, the Maoriland Worker. In their practice there was a clear syndicalist tendency. This tendency in their socialism was as much a product of the mining town environment as was its revolutionary character, for in the mining towns, a serious class-struggle union posed an immediate threat to capitalist power locally, even in the absence of a revolutionary party.

James P Cannon, left, with Bill Haywood 1922

From where arises the need for a revolutionary party? James P Cannon, one of the young IWW organisers who went on to become a founding leader of the Communist Party in the US, answered that question in a speech on the fiftieth anniversary of the Russian revolution:

“The revolutionising of the proletariat and oppressed people in general is a complex, prolonged, and contradictory affair. Under class society and capitalism, the toilers are stratified and divided in many ways; they live under very dissimilar conditions and are at disparate stages of economic and political development. Their culture is inadequate and their outlook narrow. Consequently, they do not and cannot all at once, en masse and to the same degree, arrive at a clear and comprehensive understanding of their real position in society or the political course they must follow to end the evils they suffer from and make their way to a better system. Still less can they learn quickly and easily how to act most effectively to protect and promote their class interests.

“This irregular self-determination of the class as a whole is the primary cause for a vanguard party. It has to be constituted by those elements of the class and their spokesmen who grasp the requirements for revolutionary action and proceed to their implementation sooner than the bulk of the proletariat on both a national and international scale.”

Cannon considered the IWW’s central core of full-time organisers to be the closest thing to a revolutionary Bolshevik party that existed in the US prior to the founding of the Communist Party in the wake of the Russian revolution of 1917. He held this to be true even after the IWW’s ‘non-political’ turn at its second convention.2

If the strength of the revolutionary socialism born in the mining towns of the West Coast was its grasp of the class struggle, its weakness was the vagueness of its conception of the revolutionary party needed to lead the more backward layers of the proletariat, as well as the small producers on the land and other allies of the proletariat. It was precisely these layers that the ruling class made use of when they set out to contain and then defeat the class-struggle unions of the ‘Red’ Federation of Labour.

Strikebreakers at Waihi 1912

There were two key battles. The first was fought in the mining town of Waihi in 1912, where a class-struggle union had been organised along industrial lines, and had de-registered from the Arbitration system. The union-busting tactic of the company was to split away the skilled mine engine-drivers from this union to form a pro-Arbitration scab union. While the majority of engine-drivers remained loyal to the mineworkers union (including Frederick Evans, the striker killed by the mob of rampaging scabs) this was the deepest line of division within the union. Defeated on the picket line and driven out of Waihi, the Red Fed political campaign over the following year, scandalising the government’s intervention in the strike, nonetheless succeeded in reversing this defeat and regaining the forward momentum of the union movement.

The turning point came a year later, in the battle on the waterfront in 1913, and the showdown came not in a company town but on the streets of the main cities.

By this time, revolutionary syndicalism had established itself in the urban centres and spoke in its own distinct voice. Between February and December 1913, ten monthly issues of the newspaper Industrial Unionist were produced and sold, principally in Auckland. It declared that “An Industrial Union, a Big Union, a Union of the Whole Working Class would make possible the organisation of a Social General Strike – and the Capitalists know that that would be the end of the rule of Capital.” (Industrial Unionist, Vol. 1, No.1, 1 Feb 1913, p1). The paper was hostile to politics and to any form of leadership. “The Socialists are a political sect. The Anarchists are anti-political. We refuse alliance with either, and remain non-political.” (Industrial Unionist, Vol. 1, No. 2, 1 March 1913, p4). “No real revolutionary movement of any size exists as yet in New Zealand; if one is to develop in the near future its success will depend to a great extent on the recognition, by the militants, of the grave danger of putting trust in leaders, especially professional leaders.” (Industrial Unionist, Vol. 1, No. 2, 1 March 1913, p2).  The paper reprinted the IWW Preamble in every issue, and stressed the necessity for the union ranks to think for themselves and to rely on their own economic power through struggle.

A case could be made that, with its emphasis on the revolutionary goal and its achievement through struggle by the union ranks, the Industrial Unionist represents the highest point of revolutionary socialist thinking in the entire period before 1920. The syndicalists took an active part in mobilising solidarity with the embattled waterside workers in the latter part of the year, and reached out to Maori workers with appeals written in the Maori language (the first attempt to do this, as far as I am aware).

Mounted strikebreakers, ‘Massey’s Cossacks’ assemble at an Auckland timber mill, November 1913

But the social force that the rulers hurled against the labour movement in 1913 was the small farmers. The countryside marched on the city, under the leadership of capitalist farmers. The government mobilised contingents of mounted strike-breakers from among the small farmers, recognised as ‘special constables,’ to physically break up and disperse the workers’ picket lines and demonstrations. The small farmers were not wage-workers – they were petty-bourgeois producers, exploited not by the system of wage labour but by debt and by monopoly control of their markets. They could not have been organised into unions. Where did they fit into a strategy based on unions alone?

All the Industrial Unionist could manage to counter the mobilisation of the mounted strike-breakers was a denunciation of ‘bonehead farmers’ and increasingly shrill advocacy of sabotage (Industrial Unionist, Vol 1, No 10, Nov 1913). Non-political revolutionary syndicalism had reached its highest expression at the very same moment that its theoretical and strategic inadequacy was most mercilessly exposed.

The mobilisation of the toilers of the country against those of the city was a crushing political blow, far greater than the defeat on the picket line itself. After the 1913 defeat it was a matter of only a few years before the militants had re-taken control of most of the scab unions and turned them into genuine unions. The division between toilers of town and country, by contrast, has yet to be healed a century later.

The political disorientation resulting from these blows was soon compounded by the outbreak of the Great War, the shattering of the European socialist parties, and the wartime censorship and repression. Within a very short time the class-struggle labour movement had ceased to exist. This should hardly be surprising, in hindsight. In fact, given the immaturity and inexperience of the working class in New Zealand at that time, the surprising thing is that their socialist thought advanced as far as it did.



  1. Similar social relations were reproduced (to a lesser degree) half a century later, in the towns that grew up to service the big hydroelectric constructions projects like Mangakino, and again in the ‘timber towns’ like Kaingaroa and Murupara, as well as the towns serving the giant pulp and paper mills at Tokoroa and Kawerau. This writer recalls selling exceptionally large numbers of subscriptions to the communist press on visits to Tokoroa, Murupara, and Kawerau in the 1970s and early 1980s.
  2. Of this decision, Cannon says the IWW was completely correct in their hostility to the bourgeois parliamentarism of the Berger-Hillquit-led Socialist Party, and ‘more than half right’ in their rejection of the sectarian and legalistic political conceptions of De Leon. The error was in extending this to all politics and all parties.

One response to “The socialism of mining villages, lumber camps and company towns

  1. Pingback: The mixed blessing of IWW influence in the New Zealand labour movement | A communist at large·

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