The muddy waters of early Australian socialism

Harry Holland and the early labour movement in Australia and New Zealand, Part 4. For earlier parts, click on links for Part 1, Part 2  and Part 3

As depression conditions deepened and mass unemployment grew to monstrous proportions through the early 1890s, it became extremely difficult to win even a well-organised strike. Frustrated by this, but not yet willing to surrender, the workers’ struggles spilled over into the electoral arena, in the elections to the New South Wales parliament held in 1891. The workers were determined not to let the anti-Labour candidates have it all their own way. Ernest Lane, an eyewitness to these events, writes:

“Following the defeat of the unions in the big maritime and shearers’ strikes, the workers turned to political action to curb the arrogance and brutality of the employing classes. What an election! Suffering the bitterness of defeat made inevitable by the gross partisanship of the capitalist government, the workers of Sydney rose in their righteous wrath and gave no quarter to their triumphant enemies. The election meetings of the anti-Labour candidates were scenes of the wildest disorder. It was impossible for the speakers to get a hearing and fierce riots invariably resulted which the police were helpless to subdue…”

At a meeting in West Sydney to nominate candidates, Lane describes how “About 15,000 workers packed the street, men and women who had suffered exploitation and degradation at the hands of the four anti-Labour candidates and the class they represented. With the searing memory of the recent strikes burnt into their hearts these workers determined to silence for one day at least the voice of their enemy. And they carried out their determination most thoroughly. Directly the nominators of the Tory candidate attempted to speak, the crowd sang, jeered and rendered futile any speechifying. When the Labour nominators spoke complete silence prevailed, broken only by wild cheers and shouts of welcome. Many fine things were spoken on that memorable occasion and at long last it seemed that the workers were to come into their own in the near future….George Black, one of the Labour candidates, especially, gave a thrilling speech.”

Black was one of the militant leaders of the Australian Socialist League (ASL), which had been formed four years earlier and now boasted a few hundred members in Sydney. (In 1893 the ASL delegate to the Socialist International conference in Zurich reported that there were 9,000 members in 15 branches across New South Wales). In the 1891 election, a drive to get pro-union candidates elected to the New South Wales parliament led to the formation of Labour Electoral Leagues, which put up worker candidates in cities and towns across the state. The Socialist League took an active part in this campaign, which succeeded in getting some 35 candidates elected.

It was out of the Socialist League that many of the leading figures of the Australian labour movement emerged over the next decade, of all currents and shades of opinion – anarchists, utopian socialists, parliamentary careerists, supporters of the single-tax nostrums of Henry George (a category that included future Labor Party leaders Billy Hughes and William Holman), class-collaborationists and class-struggle fighters. The process of political differentiation and clarification was uneven and protracted, and it was at least a decade before the distinct currents took a clear shape. In the early years, these contradictory political tendencies coexisted in a loose and heterogeneous organisation, with individuals passing freely from one tendency to another.

Lane gives a description of the League in its early years:

“The old Socialist rooms in the back premises of a shop on Brickfield Hill were, it must be admitted, redolent of the untidiness and squalor with which it was always credited by its enemies. … There was a very good lot of Socialist and Radical papers from all parts of the world, and as there were German, Austrian, French and Italian members, the League was often of an international character.” Through the Socialist League, Lane made the acquaintance of the poet Henry Lawson. “Lawson had inspiringly written Faces in the Street, a revolutionary poem that thrilled every rebel and marked this poet of the common people of Australia as a vital force in the fierce battle of life which was to rage fiercer than ever.”

“New Australia” colonists in Paraguay

Socialist colonists bound for Paraguay 1893. Photo: State Library of New South Wales

Holland’s friend Tom Batho recalls, “At that time [of the 1890 strike] socialism was much spoken of, but those who shouted it loudest understood it least. Beautiful utopian schemes for the reformation of a bad economic world were hatched by the score.” (One such utopian scheme was hatched by Ernest Lane’s brother William, a leader of the Maritime Strike in Brisbane. In 1893 William Lane organised a group of 238 adults and children who set sail for Paraguay to found a socialist commune called New Australia.)

There is no record of whether Harry Holland participated in the mass actions around the Maritime strike of 1890, or the electoral fights of the following year, but it is hard to imagine him standing aside from these tumultuous events. He had recently joined the ranks of the unemployed at the time. What we do know, however, is that in 1892, at the age of 23, he joined the Socialist League with his friend Tom Batho, and within a short time he was taking major responsibility for the League’s propaganda and publishing work.

Within the Australian Socialist League there were two general tendencies from the start. On the one hand, there were those who looked chiefly towards getting workers elected to public office as the means of bringing about change, and who described themselves as the ‘moderates.’ On the other, the ‘militants’, who were oriented more to strikes, mass demonstrations and street actions. Holland gravitated towards the militants, although he remained on friendly terms with both camps. Putting to good use the skills of soapbox oratory that he learned in the Salvation Army, he joined in organising and addressing open-air meetings of workers in the Sydney Domain. Given the number of unemployed workers for whom the Domain was home, there was never any lack of an interested audience.

The early electoral successes of the Labour Electoral Leagues strengthened the moderates, but only briefly, because some of those elected deserted their labour supporters as soon as they took office and became indistinguishable from the capitalist parliamentarians they were supposed to replace. The first big test of their loyalty to the cause of labour came with the Broken Hill miners’ strike of 1892, in which the ‘labour’ representatives elected to the parliament sided with the employers against the miners. The discussion on the question of labour participation in elections therefore remained far from decided. Electoral strategy became just one more battleground of political ideas.

Smelting mill at Broken Hill, about 1888. Photo: State Library of South Australia

Holland was a delegate to the Labour Electoral League Conference which brought together 200 trade union representatives and socialists from every district of New South Wales in November 1893. There he led the criticism of those Labor representatives who had betrayed the Broken Hill miners.

The militants constituted a subdivision within the ASL known as the Active Service Brigades (ASB). They organised in semi-secrecy, because of the nature of the actions they organised and the police attention that these drew. Harry Holland joined this group. Some of the other leaders of the ASB appear to have shared Holland’s interest in biblical imagery. Their propaganda and street actions often scored the hypocrisy of the established churches in the midst of the depression. One action this group organised was perhaps typical:

On New Year’s Day 1893 “an impromptu emblematic tableau was staged in the public streets. Three hundred unemployed hirelings, landless, homeless and hungry, marched to a Christian temple carrying with them a rough wooden cross upon which was nailed the figure of a workman smeared with blood and in ragged garments. On top of the crucifix there was written “Humanity Crucified” and underneath “Murdered by the Rich.” In silence the procession went by the great hotels, the Stock Exchange, the banks, and reached the shadow of the Centenary Hall Synagogue [the magnificent Sydney Town Hall completed in 1889 in honour of the centennial of the founding of the colony in New South Wales.] There it was rushed by a band of policemen, who knocked down the processionists and arrested – the crucifix. The men composing the procession then went into the church, and when it came to their turn they began to pray. The solemnly asked the Divine Blessing on their terrible struggle for bread in a land of overflowing plenty. They stated that they and their little ones were starving while being plundered by the rich, and they invoked the aid of the Great God of Justice to lighten their burdens, lessen their tribulations, and curse their oppressors. Thereupon the fat Mammonite priest, Rev. Bavin, ordered his well-trained choir to “sing down” the poor wretches who had thus dared to bring their grievances and desolation before the altar of the Almighty. Truly it was a terrible sight, one never to be forgotten. The well-groomed congregation of Christ-insulting Mammon worshippers were horror-struck at the audacity of Lazarus in thus exposing his sores.” (A recollection from The Socialist, 7 Nov 1896)

When singing down the protests was not enough to prevent Lazarus from exposing his sores, other means were used.  In June 1894 the leaders of the ASB were hauled before the courts to face charges of libel, and jailed. It was a severe blow to the fledgling organisation.

The Australian Workman produced by Holland’s impoverished cooperative grew out of the Maritime Strike Bulletin, and was Sydney’s first labour paper. As the organ of the Trades and Labor Council and the Labor Electoral Leagues, it put forward their conception of a Labor Party as a party which would “put the burden of taxation on the shoulders best able to bear it…will see that worthy public servants would be fully recompensed for their work, whilst the lazy loafers are discharged, [and] will put some practical Christianity into politics.”  “It is a common error to imagine that the social reform movement which has taken concrete shape in New South Wales in the form of a Labor Party has for its object the obtaining of class ends,” the Workman editorialised (Vol IV, No 174 17 March 1894.) “On all sides the reproach is thrown at the political organisation of the people that its object is merely to substitute for the present class rule another class government more tyrannical and oppressive inasmuch as more narrow and ignorant. And it must be admitted that this reproach is sometimes justified by the utterances of men in the reform movement…But the color of the flock is not to be judged by its dirty sheep. Because a few profess class aims and unblushingly profess to mere naked selfishness, the great mass of people banded together in the reform movement are not to be condemned.”

The ‘dirty sheep’ included Holland – and one can imagine the jokes that flew around the printshop the night that issue went to press.  A voice for the militant wing of the movement was urgently needed. To that end, Holland, Batho and another co-worker from the Workman, Charles Barlow, brought out the first issue of a new weekly, The Socialist, in October 1894.

Mast head of Holland’s paper, The Socialist

In an early issue, The Socialist printed the Manifesto of the Australian Socialist League. “In consequence of the rapid industrial development of the last few decades… and the creation of a permanent and menacing unemployed class, our industrial and social institutions are in a state of fermentation and dissolution,” it declared. “A feeling of uncertainty and discontent has taken possession of all classes, and the efforts made by the ruling classes to patch and mend a state of things that has become intolerable have proved vain and inadequate. … There are two great classes of society – the one, the Capitalists, owns land and capital. The other, the Workers, owns nothing but the power to labor. … The Capitalist Era is characterised by intense competition which is felt by the workers in the steady reduction in the standard wage rate, and by the small business men in the fierceness of the struggle they have to wage against the wealthy capitalists in their own lines of industry, and their steady disappearance as a class through their innumerable bankruptcies…”

“The only remedy will then be seen to be the socialising of land and capital, that is, to let the state, as the representative of all, be the only capitalist and landowner and consequently, the only employer… Every citizen must have the right to employment… If there is not room for everyone, working hours must be reduced all round, until there is. There must be work for all and overwork for none. …  To achieve these ends we advocate only the use of Parliamentary means. We have nothing but the sternest reprobation for those misguided and desperate men who advocate either open violence or secret crime.”

This was some way short of a programme for the working class to take political power, but it was at any rate a basis for workers to struggle to defend their class interests in the political arena.

Annie Holland writes about how The Socialist was produced: Harry and Tom Batho “were able to secure some second-hand type and other necessary equipment to make a start. Harry gave his wages to pay for the printing of the paper, and depended on the sale of it to get back a portion of the wages. After they had set up the type and locked it into page formes, they each shouldered a forme of about 60 pounds weight and carried them to Preston and Ford’s printing works in Newton, about three miles away. As soon as the paper was printed they carried the formes and the copies of their paper back to Leichhardt.”

The Socialist was not officially connected with the Socialist League, although it enjoyed the support of its small but optimistic movement, and was distributed throughout the state and beyond. It carried regular reports of union and socialist activities in the coal-mining city of Newcastle, 120 km to the north of Sydney, Queensland and the Barrier Range (Broken Hill). During a coal strike at Newcastle, the newspaper was delivered free to the striking miners.  In addition, it carried news about the socialist movement in the rest of the world, including Europe (not just France and Germany but Belgium, Hungary, Italy, and Russia), the United States and Argentina. It aimed to educate the movement, especially through the Socialist Book Exchange, which advertised books such as Marx’s Capital, Engels’ Socialism, Utopian and Scientific, Darwin’s Origin of Species and Descent of Man, as well as a range of pamphlets by contemporary US and British socialists. Weekly meetings and debates in the Domain and in meeting halls in Leichhardt were advertised and reported, such as a street-corner debate on Protection vs Socialism where Holland was to have debated a former parliamentarian of the Protectionist Party. (The debate was shut down by the police, and Holland was charged with obstructing a shop entrance, a charge which was eventually thrown out.) It was common for Socialists to attend meetings of their political opponents and try to disrupt the meetings by blowing whistles. Holland opposed that practice, preferring to hear their ideas and debate them.

William Holman in 1919. Photo: State Library of NSW

On the other hand, the politics of The Socialist reflected the inchoate politics of that movement too. The main political articles were transcriptions of the speeches of William Holman, the ASL leader to whom the militants attached their electoral hopes. Holman, for his part, untiringly stressed the achievement of a parliamentary seat as the means to win a wider influence for socialism.

The strike by coal miners at Newcastle which The Socialist reported ended in defeat, and there were two further consequences of that for Holland and Batho.

The first was a libel suit brought against the two of them by Joseph Creer, a government official who had been criticised in the pages of The Socialist for offering free rail passes to scabs to come and break the strike, while refusing passes to Newcastle miners who wished to leave and look for work elsewhere during the strike. Despite producing ample evidence of the truth of the account in The Socialist, the pair were convicted. Batho was fined £5, while Holland was sentenced to a £50 fine or three months in ‘debtors’ prison.’ Finding £50 was out of the question, so Holland went to jail.

Darlinghurst Prison – watercolour by inmate Henry Louis Bertrand, 1891. State Library of NSW

The ASL set up a prisoners’ fund to support Holland’s family while he was in jail, with the moderate and militant factions delivering their contributions on separate days. The ‘debtors prison’ at Darlinghurst prison had slightly less onerous conditions than the general prison, including the fact that his family could bring him food, which Holland used as an opportunity to keep in touch with the movement.

Holland asked to be given work, which required being transferred to the general prison. One of his cell-mates there was a man convicted of murder, “who entertained Harry and the other cellmate with stories of what would happen to them if they attempted to prevent him from escaping”. The prisoner succeeded in escaping, but was re-captured and returned to the prison, where he received a flogging in front of the other prisoners to deter further escape attempts. Holland found the brutality of the flogging so shocking, he asked to be transferred back to the debtors’ prison.

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