Workers, farmers and war: New Zealand in 1914

Of all the questions confronting the working class in New Zealand in the decade beginning 1912, as it set itself on a course toward political independence, none was more decisive than the question of imperialist war.

Prime Minister William Massey addressing New Zealand machine gunners at Bois-De-Warnimont, France, June 1918 Photo: Henry A Sanders Reference: ACGO 8398 IA76 7/13 H685


War descended on the working class vanguard in New Zealand at a time when it was already seriously weakened and disoriented. Militant unions had been routed from their greatest strongholds at the Waihi gold mine in 1912, and the Huntly coal mines and the waterfront unions in 1913; scab unions ruled the roost in their place, and militant unionists were widely blacklisted. In August 1914 some of the central leaders were in jail, including Harry Holland, serving twelve months for sedition on account of a speech he gave supporting the 1913 strikers. Prime Minister William Massey, a capitalist farmer, had successfully mobilised working farmers to smash the near-general strike on the waterfront. This political setback proved that the working class was a lot further from the conquest of power than many of the vanguard had believed up to that moment; a disagreeable fact that it took some time to internalise.

Strikers at Post Office Square, Wellington, 1913. Photo: Sydney Charles Smith, Alexander Turnbull Library Reference no: 1/2-048787

The pressures of war exacerbated all of those difficulties. So confident was Massey that he had dealt a crushing blow to the working class, on the outbreak of war he amnestied the 1913 prisoners, and Holland and the others were released from jail.

There were opportunities for the vanguard in this period as well. The most important of these was the opening to go on the offensive against the class-collaborationist leaders who had disgraced themselves by their treacherous conduct in the Waihi strike, and win the leadership of broader layers of the working class. However, these openings were also fraught with risks. The Unity Conference of 1913 and the process that led eventually to the creation of the Labour Party in 1916, while it opened a wider audience to the class-struggle leaders, it also brought to bear on the vanguard the pressure of large numbers of workers who had only recently broken from the Liberal Party, and who had hardly broken with Liberal politics, if at all.

In comparison with the debacle of the European socialist parties in August 1914, the class-struggle leaders of the labour movement in New Zealand held fast, to begin with at least. They did not abandon their opposition to imperialist war and go over en masse to a chauvinist position, as had the Socialist leaderships of Germany, France, and elsewhere. The call for ‘defence of the fatherland’ had considerably less appeal in a country where there was no realistic military threat, and where there had never been a progressive struggle to establish a nation-state. (This is discussed more fully here). As a result, working class opposition to the war did not shatter as it had in Europe.

The militants’ first response to the guns of August was to denounce the war. An article in the Maoriland Worker on August 5 declared: “War, on a scale staggering in its 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.

“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…”

The paper supported workers who resisted the demands for further sacrifices in wages and conditions on account of the wartime conditions. It August 26 issue celebrated the fact that Denniston and Millerton miners had rejected a proposal to work an extra Saturday, despite a direct appeal from Prime Minister Massey. “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.”

Harry Holland in 1925

The militants refused an offer extended in 1915 to Labour parliamentarians1 to join the ruling coalition ‘Fusion” cabinet, along with the bourgeois Reform and Liberal Parties. Defending this decision in a public debate, Holland explained, “It is most emphatically not a National Cabinet that is in existence in New Zealand today. If it were, it would stand for the nationalisation of all the means of production, distribution and exchange, and its foundation principle would be to run this country for the common good, and in the interests of the whole of the people…its first act would have been the nationalisation of the food supplies…it would have set its face right against the bogus unions, and the deplorable system of victimisation that operates on the waterfronts of this country even at this moment.  While we are talking about war and patriotism, it is a fact that among those who are victimised, apparently with the approval of the Fusion Cabinet, are men whose sons are fighting at the Dardanelles.2

IWW cartoon. These campaigns built on the anti-militarist traditions of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and the Socialist Party.

The anti-militarist campaigns prior to 1914 had necessarily centred around opposition to conscription (and the various moves of the Australian and New Zealand governments to set up registers, compulsory training etc in preparation for conscription). “The Australasian Socialist Party,” Holland wrote in a pamphlet entitled The Crime of Conscription in 1912, “– the fighting, revolutionary movement of the conscious working class in Australia – declares itself uncompromisingly hostile to ALL forms of militarism, recognising that while the present Class State exists, the armed forces will be used to buttress up capitalism and hold down the workers…The workers do not own Australia. The capitalists are the owners…they desire to make the workers they rob fight to preserve the system under which they are robbed.”

Police train their guns on miners’ picket line, Broken Hill 1909

In that period militarism was seen as a problem of the threat posed by the workers’ own state against the working class at home. Noting several instances where troops had already been called upon to attack striking workers at Newcastle, Broken Hill and elsewhere, Holland writes “The oath of loyalty to the king [which conscripts were required to take] is an oath of loyalty to the Class State, an oath that the conscript will be disloyal to his own class.”  In the waterfront strikes of 1913, the government of William Massey ordered the navy to train its guns on the strikers and their picket lines.

1916 Conscription poster: Alexander Turnbull Library Ref: Eph-D-WAR-WI-1916-01

Holland’s approach after 1914 was couched in the same terms. In answer to calls from the ruling class for resistance to “Prussian militarism,” Holland argued that the chief manifestation of “Prussian militarism” workers in New Zealand faced was being dragooned to fight in a war they never wanted: in other words, conscription by the New Zealand government. This was a strong argument against conscription, but left the character of the war itself largely unaddressed.

In 1912 Holland had put forward the idea that the widening international unity of the working class would eventually make war between nations impossible. “All the energies of the working class… can be most profitably utilised in building up our industrial and political organisations, which shall finally render war impossible, and which organisations, by international affiliations and alliances between the working classes of all nations, are even now the chief guarantee of the peace of the world.”

But the question of militarism and the working class response to it was posed in a different way after August 1914, when the socialist movement had failed to prevent war: now it was German guns pointed against ‘our’ workers, (and our’ guns against German workers.) Across this international divide, the question of class loyalties was no longer so clear to many workers. The idea put forward by the class-collaborationist and pro-war wing of the labour movement, that “if a country is worth reforming, it’s worth defending,” had deep roots in New Zealand, going back to the early Lib-Lab years of the 1890s. A clear political lead was desperately needed; the Maoriland Worker now equivocated.

First Conscription ballot in November 1916

The slogan by which the class-struggle militants attempted to address the class character of the war was also centred on the issue of conscription. Responding to hypocritical calls for equality of sacrifice in the war crisis, they pointed out that the capitalists were demanding sacrifices from working people while sacrificing not a penny of their capitalist fortunes. The militants called for ‘conscription of wealth before the conscription of men’. This was a useful point to make, however it still left the question of the character of the war, and whether to support voluntary participation in it, unanswered.

The labour movement’s most celebrated opponent of conscription was Red Fed leader Paddy Webb, a coal-miner elected to Parliament in 1913, who was jailed for sedition and robbed of his parliamentary seat after giving a speech praising the West Coast miners’ campaign against conscription. Webb, however, was ambivalent on the character of the war itself, and tended to support New Zealand’s participation.3 A common thread in many of the articles against conscription in the Maoriland Worker was that a volunteer army would provide a better system of national defence than an army of conscripts.

A clear political lead could only have come from Harry Holland – no other Red Fed leader had sufficient internationalist vision to tackle the question. But by this time, Holland stood at the head of a mass labour party, constituted by merging the class-struggle militants with a large component of workers who had recently been supporters of the Liberal Party, including many who were enthusiastic supporters of the war effort. Though he never uttered a word in support of the war, the pressure to dodge the question of the predatory character of the war was strong. Holland did not want to split the all-inclusive mass party he had made such great efforts to assemble. Opposing conscription became, by consensus, the issue around which a broadly inclusive Labour Party coalesced in 1916.

Socialist Mark Briggs and Field Punishment No. 1. Painting: Bob Kerr

And under this same pressure, even the anti-conscription campaign narrowed its focus. Increasingly, it centred around supporting those individuals who were being persecuted for refusing military service. Some of these were class-struggle leaders of the labour movement, including Mark Briggs, the acknowledged leader of the conscientious objectors subjected to the inhuman punishment of ‘crucifixion’ at the war front. There were Maori, Irish, and other oppressed nationalities who objected to fighting for their oppressors. There were also many pacifist, deeply religious conscientious objectors, and it was the pacifists’ moral stance which ended up setting the tone of the labour movement’s campaign.

And finally, in its efforts to undercut organised opposition to conscription in the labour movement, the government held one more trump card, which they played to full advantage: the exemptions from the draft. Married men were exempted (at least to begin with) on the grounds that their families would be left destitute. But workers in the so-called ‘essential industries’ were also exempted on the grounds that their absence would be too disruptive to the national economy. The ‘essential industries’ included mining, waterfront, and transportation – precisely those where opposition to the draft was strongest. In some cases this meant that entire single-industry communities, such as the West Coast coal mining communities, were effectively exempted from the draft.  The campaign against conscription continued on the West Coast – they were fighting not just for themselves but for the whole working class ­­– but the exemption certainly drove a wedge into the campaign and blunted its effect.

In these various ways, the working class vanguard’s opposition to the war was gradually narrowed to supporting the conscientious objectors, together with pacifist preaching against war in general. From revolutionaries organising to overthrow the warmakers, the role of the militants became one of bearing witness against the war and its brutalities. Political opposition to the war was reduced to moral opposition.

Nowhere is this clearer than in Holland’s indictment of the government over the question of war profits. Holland’s pamphlet “The Scandal of War Profits,” written and circulated widely in 1917, was perhaps the best attempt by any labour movement figure in New Zealand to explain the reactionary class character of the war itself.

With characteristic thoroughness, Holland assembles the data on New Zealand’s exports and domestic consumption during the war years. He demonstrates that the government had taken advantage of the war crisis to demand vastly inflated prices for New Zealand’s principal exports, including wool, dairy products, meat and hides, flax fibre, scheelite (an ore of tungsten) and other products. As a result, the “wool kings, the meat capitalists, the butter, cheese and wheat profiteers are enjoying a prosperity such as they had never dreamed of before this war came to swell their incomes millionwards.” He points out that these inflated prices also applied to wool, butter and cheese consumed locally. This was not simply a case of the laws of supply and demand, however. While this profiteering was allowed and actively pursued by the government, the same government legally forbade workers from taking advantage of the wartime labour shortage to demand higher wages. The solution, Holland argues, is for the workers to strengthen their industrial and political organisation, in particular “the most revolutionary wing of the labour movement, its political wing” represented by the new Labour Party.

The moral outrage Holland expresses in this pamphlet was no doubt shared by many workers caught in the vise between their frozen wages and skyrocketing food prices. However, it is difficult to imagine the target of his anger, the Liberal-Reform coalition government of Massey and Ward, responding in any other way than with smug self-satisfaction. For while the principal beneficiaries of the scandalous war profits were indeed the ‘wool kings’ Holland describes – the richest capitalist farmers and merchants of farm produce – the high prices for farm produce were also enjoyed by the many thousands of small family farmers, who produced the big majority of dairy industry’s output as well as a substantial fraction of the wool and meat. After a brief period of dislocation and disruption to trade in the opening months of the war, the great war was a period of unprecedented prosperity for rural New Zealand, thanks to the guaranteed high prices paid by the Empire. The political wedge that Massey had driven between the workers and the exploited farmers was thereby widened and consolidated. Massey could not have been more delighted by the facts Holland enumerated in his pamphlet.

As a protest statement against the war, demonstrating the class character of the government waging an imperialist war, the pamphlet is accurate and effective enough. As a political statement, rallying the forces for political action to overthrow the warmakers, it is a failure. Holland fails to draw the class line between the exploited working farmers and their capitalist-farmer exploiters. The pamphlet represents a step backwards from Holland’s earlier pamphlets on militarism. It registers the blows that had been dealt to the workers movement, including its vanguard, by the failure of European socialism to prevent the outbreak of the war and by the mobilisation of farmers against the working class, as well as the reactionary pressures exerted on the vanguard by the all-inclusive labour party.

Above all, it demonstrated that the organisational independence achieved with the formation of a Labour Party in 1916 was insufficient. For the working class to become truly politically independent of the bourgeois parties, it needed – and still lacked – a proletarian political programme.

Memorial to fallen soldiers of First World War at Te Aroha

War Memorial Halls and monuments were built in every rural town in the post-war years. They were not just memorials for the fallen soldiers, but also temples and shrines to the wartime rural prosperity and the Empire which granted it, that this prosperity might long continue. The guaranteed prices paid  by the British government for New Zealand farm products were maintained for several years after the end of the war. This enabled the government to carry out a programme of post-war settlement of ten thousand ex-servicemen on the land, granting cheap loans to purchase land freehold and leases of Crown land.  After these ex-servicemen had toiled to clear the bush cover on remote and marginal blocks and bring the land into production, the guaranteed price scheme was abandoned in 1921, and many of the new farmers were driven to bankruptcy. Their land, now greatly improved, returned to its capitalist owners.

In the meantime, a breach in the imperialist war front had been opened on the other side of the globe. The workers and peasants of Russia had demonstrated how the imperialist war could be ended – by overthrowing the imperialist government waging the war. In Russia, even more than in New Zealand, the working class was vastly outnumbered by the exploited peasants, yet it still took the political lead. How to respond to this earth-shaking development in world politics became the next major test for the working class vanguard in New Zealand.



  1. In 1915, although the Labour Party had yet to be constituted, there were five Members of Parliament outside the Reform and Liberal Parties who were generally considered workers’ representatives: Paddy Webb and James McCombs, elected on the class-struggle Social Democratic Party ticket, as well as Bill Veitch and Alfred Hindmarsh of the class-collaborationist United Labour Party. These two parties merged in 1916 to form the Labour Party. ‘Independent Labour’ MP John Payne was in favour of joining the Fusion cabinet.
  2. Labour and the Fusion, a debate between John Payne MP and Harry Holland, 1915
  3. This is according to Webb’s biography in Te Ara. I can find no independent confirmation in primary sources of Webb’s support for the war.

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