The opening of a revolutionary century

Harry Holland and the early labour movement in Australia and New Zealand,  Part 6

As the general strike movement in Russia grew over the northern summer of 1905, the Founding Convention of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) assembled in Chicago, city of the Haymarket battles twenty years earlier. IWW leader James P Cannon later wrote, “The leaders at Chicago hailed the Russian revolution as their own. The two simultaneous actions, arising independently with half a world between them, signalized the opening of a revolutionary century.”

James P Cannon (left) and Bill Haywood in 1922

The IWW convention brought together three giants of the US labour movement, Eugene Debs, Bill Haywood, and Daniel De Leon. Coming from different backgrounds and experiences, these were all leaders who rejected the idea of the partnership of capital and labour; they saw relations of capital and labour as a state of war.

The convention adopted a constitution whose Preamble expressed this spirit as few other documents before or since. “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 working people and the few, who make up the employing class, have all the good things in life.

“Between these two classes a struggle must go on until all the toilers come together on the political, as well as on the industrial field, and take and hold that which they produce by their labor…”

“The rapid gathering of wealth and the centring of the management of industries into fewer and fewer hands make the trade unions unable to cope with the ever-growing power of the employing class because the trades unions foster a state of things 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. 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.”

Daniel De Leon

The idea of the unceasing class struggle, culminating in the workers taking hold of the industries and means of life, was further developed in the speeches at the Convention. Haywood denounced the policy then prevailing in US unions which excluded Blacks from membership and the right to employment, declaring that the IWW “recognises neither race, creed, colour, sex, or previous condition of servitude.” He concluded with the hope that the new movement would “grow throughout this country until it takes in a great majority of the working people, and that those working people will rise in revolt against the capitalist system as the working class in Russia are doing today.” Debs said: “The supreme need of the hour is a sound revolutionary working class organisation.” De Leon added, “The ideal is the overthrow of the capitalist class” (all quoted by James P Cannon in The IWW.)

Eugene Debs in 1918

Cannon comments, “These were the most uncompromising, most unambiguous declarations of revolutionary intention ever issued in this country up to that time. The goal of socialism had previously been envisioned by others. But at the Founding Convention of the IWW the idea that it was to be realised through a struggle for power, and that the power of the workers must be organised, was clearly formulated and nailed down.”

Over the next decade, the manifesto adopted in Chicago, and in particular the Preamble, would echo around the world. From the greatest urban proletarian concentrations to the most far-flung lumber camps and mining villages, this declaration struck a chord. Some of its first lines of dissemination were along the route of the North-American-West-Coast-Australasian labour market. A new wave of revolutionary confidence radiated out from Chicago and rolled across the shores of Australia, along with a flood of popular pamphlets written by Eugene Debs, Daniel De Leon and others, mostly published by Charles H Kerr in Chicago.

For Harry Holland, these ideas crashed from the sky like a thunderstorm after a long drought. He had been attempting to fight along similar lines, but in the dark, without sufficient clarity of ideas, and in isolation. Now he could see the road forward, and felt weighty reinforcements coming to his aid. As soon as he could sell his interest in the Queanbeyan Leader, Holland hurried back to Sydney.

Artem Sergeyev, Bolshevik leader, one of a number of Russian workers who escaped Siberian labour camp and made their way to Brisbane after 1905

The socialist internationalism of the IWW found its best response in Australia among those workers least affected by the prevailing chauvinism of the Federation era. In Sydney, these were largely immigrants from Ireland or mainland Europe – Germans, Italians, and a little later, refugees from the counter-revolutionary repression in Russia. Russian emigres arrived in larger numbers in Brisbane around 1910, because that city was the first port of call for ships arriving from Asia. Many had escaped from the czarist Siberian labour camps, heading eastwards to Vladivostok, and from there to Japan and on to Brisbane. Among these was the Bolshevik Artem Sergeyev, who took part in the Brisbane General Strike of 1912. He returned to Russia in 1917 and was elected to the Bolshevik Central Committee. From Brisbane they spread out to Sydney, Melbourne, and Broken Hill. The Brisbane Bolsheviks even produced their own newspaper, the Echo (of which no copies seem to have survived, unfortunately).

Cover of an early issue of the International Socialist Review for Australasia

The German immigrants had already established an International Socialist Club in Sydney before Holland left for Grenfell, and he had been a member. Since they were also interested in producing a newspaper, he linked up with them on his return to Sydney, and in February 1907 the first issue of the International Socialist Review for Australasia (ISRA) rolled off the presses under Holland’s editorial direction. Both the name and the smaller format were borrowed from the International Socialist Review produced by the left wing of the Socialist Party in the United States. More than any previous publication of Holland’s this was a collaborative effort, with a press committee of seven who contributed articles of their own. One of the German contributors, Heinrich Borax, also translated documents from the European socialist movement.

The influence of the IWW can be clearly seen in the editorial policy that the ISRA laid out in its first issue, including the first small step towards abandoning the chauvinist stance on Chinese immigration. “The struggle of the working class against capitalist exploitation is necessarily a political struggle. The Working Class cannot carry on its economic struggle and cannot develop its economic organisation without political rights. It cannot effect the transfer of the means of production into the possession of the community without first having obtained control of the machinery of government. To make this struggle of the working class a conscious and unified one, and to emphasize its natural and inevitable goal, is the mission of Social Democracy, and shall be likewise the mission of this magazine…

“The interests of the Working Classes  are the same in all countries. With the extension of world communications, and production for world markets, the position of the workers of  every country becomes more and more dependent on the position of workers in other countries… Socialism combats in the society of today not only the exploitation and oppression of the wage workers, but every kind of exploitation and oppression, whether it be against a class, a party, a sex, or a race…

“Trades-unionism is the industrial expression of the workers recognition of the existence of the Class War. Recognising this fact, our sympathy and such assistance as may be within our power shall always be with the trade union struggles, as with all other struggles of the Working Class against the Capitalist Class. We shall, however, fearlessly point out the growing impotency of organised Labor in its conflict with organised Capital, and the inevitable enslavement of the Working Class, until the Working Class, rising in its might on the political field, puts an end to Capitalism and establishes the Socialist Republic.”

The ISRA was a campaigning paper, speaking out in support of seafarers on the ship Sonoma who were victimised and jailed on account of their union activities, slaughtermen in New Zealand who were challenging the arbitration system, and carpenters battling unfair decisions of the Arbitration Court in Sydney.

Paul Lafargue, author of The Evolution of Property, which was serialised in the International Socialist Review

It also paid close attention to educating its readers in Marxist ideas, serialising Marx’s popular pamphlets like Wage Labour and Capital. In another major undertaking in socialist theory, it serialised the whole of Paul Lafargue’s book, The Evolution of Property. Germany was the country where hopes of a socialist victory were highest. The ISRA carried frequent articles about the political situation there by Karl Kautsky, who was at the time the most authoritative leader of the left wing of socialist democracy in Germany.

Holland’s own articles reported on developments in the labour movement, and applied class analysis to questions under discussion in Australian bourgeois politics. In a series over several issues, he wrote an exposé of conditions in the jam-making factories in Sydney, where a strike had broken out in protest against “the brutal and filthy language flung at female employees by a departmental foreman.” His descriptions of the squalid conditions, the putrid and maggot-infested fruit bear comparison with the descriptions of conditions in the Chicago meat-packing plants in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, written about the same time. Plans to combat the rabbit plague affecting Australian pastoral farming by means of an introduced rabbit disease – on the surface, a scientific and technical question – became an occasion for Holland to examine class struggles in the Australian countryside.

The ISRA was not the only new Australian paper taking an internationalist and class-struggle line. A few months earlier in Melbourne, the Victorian Socialist Party (VSP) had brought out The Socialist under the editorship of Tom Mann, one of the co-leaders of the London Dockers Strike of 1889 who had emigrated to Melbourne in 1902. (Harry’s son Fred later became the head of the VSP’s printshop.) Not long after that, the Barrier Socialist had appeared in Broken Hill, edited by Robert Ross. The second issue of ISRA carried a ‘Plea for Socialist Unity’ initiating a discussion among these convergent forces. This led to the formation in June 1907 of the Socialist Federation of Australia, which combined all these parties under the banner of the IWW Preamble. Holland was elected General Secretary. The Socialist Party in New Zealand and like-minded individuals in Brisbane were in close correspondence.

The formation of the SFA, the first Australia-wide working class organisation of any kind, was a remarkable achievement in itself, and indicated the rapid progress made over the previous year. The political separation between the class-struggle socialists and the class-collaborationist Labor Party was finally consummated. (The achievement also marked a parting of ways between Holland and his old friend Tom Batho, who as delegate for the Australian Socialist League opposed the creation of a new party.) The founding conference achieved further clarity on the question of participation in politics. “Political power is only useful to the workers for the purpose of overthrowing capitalism, Parliaments being essentially capitalist machines, designed to enable the capitalist class to perpetuated class domination.” Holland moved a further motion (which was passed, though not unanimously) “that no member of the Socialist Federation shall seek election as a candidate of the Australian Labor Party or any other non-socialist party, for either Parliamentary or municipal positions.”

There was a political consolidation at the opposite pole of the labour movement as well: a Labor Party organised around a liberal-capitalist programme of protectionism and Arbitration, increasingly challenging the existing capitalist parties for the reins of government at both state and federal levels.

The issue over which these two tendencies in the labour movement most sharply polarised was Arbitration. The chief appeal of the Labor Party to its electorate was the idea of class peace and an end to the unchecked exploitation and misery that accompanied mass unemployment. Fairness and partnership between capital and labour was what the party promised, with disputes to be resolved by an independent court of Arbitration. It was claimed that such a system had already brought a decade of industrial peace and mutual benefits in New Zealand, the land without strikes.

This promise particularly appealed to the skilled workers organised in the Trades and Labour Councils, whose skills (and consequently, whose tight control of the labour supply in their trade) meant that they came to the bargaining table with the employers at considerably less disadvantage than did the unskilled labourers. This was especially the case in a colonial economy, where skilled labour was constantly in short supply. As the colonial economy transformed into the social relations of modern capitalism and the highly privileged situation of the skilled labourers eroded, a hankering for the good old days of partnership increased. Moreover, after a decade of industrial upheaval with little gain for working people, the support for such a programme went well beyond the skilled workers. The Conciliation and Arbitration Act of 1904 was passed by the Deakin government with the support of the Labor Party members of the Federal parliament.

Holland detested Arbitration, which “recognised the capitalists’ right to steal the workers’ surplus values, while it sapped the strength and destroyed the virility of the industrial unions.” In a major article he wrote, “Perhaps the worst feature of Arbitration is the slow but sure sapping of the fighting spirit of the workers. Under its influence men drift into indifference and apathy, sink into inertia, in relation to their class position and advancement. This phase is the greatest menace, the graver danger, because of its insidious nature. Self-reliance is undermined. A Court is leant upon, a Judge depended on. A hired pleader becomes the step towards achievement, that pleader usually the workers’ enemy. Men forget that anything worth having is never given, but has always to be wrung from the oppressor. In much the same way as the serf went to his owner, so the workers under Arbitration go to a member of the capitalist class for justice, and are thus dependent on capitalist ideas of justice. They have been taught to do this, rather than to trust to their own pristine might and right, and doing it they have not only gained nothing, but lost much they won in the days they were ready to fight.”

The ISRA campaigned against Arbitration, and Holland made it a central demand of his electoral campaigns. They also championed every union of workers who mobilised the economic power they hold as the creators of the wealth of society. In 1907, the most important such struggle was the fight of the coal lumpers on the Sydney waterfront. The coal lumpers’ struggle would prove to be a decisive test for the Socialist Federation.


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