Harry Holland and the early labour movement in Australia and New Zealand, Part 14
Now that the Labor Party held the government benches in both the State of New South Wales and the Australian Federation, it became responsible for administering laws, including the industrial laws, passed by its predecessor, the government of George Wade.
Holland wrote frequently in solidarity with any workers who came up against these industrial laws. The most notable example of these was at Lithgow, in the central tablelands 150 km west of Sydney, where 130 workers at a new blast furnace had refused to handle iron ore produced by scab labour. Union miners at Carcoar mine, which supplied the furnace, were on strike, demanding higher wages. The Lithgow workers were prosecuted by the Labor Government under the Industrial Disputes Act – the very law, enacted by the Wade government, that had previously been denounced by the Labor Party. Holland traveled to Lithgow to speak with the miners and report on the court case.
“…there was one portion of your Honor’s judgment,” Holland wrote, in an Open Letter to the judge in the case, “that betrayed how hopelessly morality is hobble-skirted by the legal abominations and parchment stupidities and other strange frills and devices of the making of your Honor’s class. You complimented the blast furnace strikers on the loftiness of their principle; you declared their motives to be honest; you eulogised the manliness of their conduct in determining to stand in with their mates at Carcoar; you said, in unmistakable language, that the man who didn’t stand with his with mates at a time like that would be “A MEAN CUR”— the words are yours, not mine; and then you proceeded to show how the law must penalise them for their lofty principle, their honest motives, and their manly conduct … part of your task was to make the rottenness and the immorality of the class law fit in with an impossible position. … You recognised that the Carcoar and Lithgow men had to choose between sacrificing their manhood and breaking the law. In every strike this position is reached. The Carcoar and Lithgow men took the only course honest men could choose. Dishonest men would have sacrificed their manhood to save their skins from the vengeance of the law of your Honor’s class.”
Some of the Lithgow workers were later framed on rioting charges and sentenced to up to three years’ hard labour. “It was a criminal act, from a working-class view point, on the part of the Labor Party to send the police to Lithgow,” Holland wrote. “It was a criminal act to allow the unionists to be prosecuted. It was a criminal act from a working class view point for the Attorney-General to file a bill against the persecuted unionists. It was a criminal act to send them to a hostile centre for trial. They were not even tried by a jury of their peers — they were tried by propertied men, who would not have been permitted to be jurymen but for the fact that they had property. Having been tried and “found guilty,” the sentences ‘inflicted are out of all proportion to the offences alleged.”
Through such campaigns, workers continued to be won to a class-struggle perspective, despite the unfavourable situation. New branches of the Socialist Federation were formed among these workers in Lithgow, in the mining centre of Maitland, as well as in Queensland, South Australia and Western Australia during 1911. The Broken Hill group, hit hard by the victimisations after the lockout and prolonged unemployment which drove all but two or three of the original members out of the town altogether, was rebuilt with new members.
Nonetheless, the effects of any defeat fall hardest on those who stake most on the fight – in this case, the miners and the vanguard of workers in and around the Socialist Federation – and jail time, union busting and blacklisting from their jobs are not the only forms these effects take. The Victorian Socialist Party went into a period of decline after the departure of Tom Mann, with falling membership, financial difficulties and reduced circulation of their newspaper. [Solidarity Forever]
Editing the Melbourne Socialist after Mann’s departure was Robert Samuel Ross, who had founded the Barrier Flame in the period leading up to the lockout at Broken Hill. Ross was capable and energetic, and had as good a knowledge of Marxist ideas as anyone, yet he was overawed by the electoral victories of the Labor Party. Following the March election, Ross ran a series of articles in the Melbourne Socialist arguing that the Socialists should give electoral support to the Labor Party where there was no Socialist candidate.
Holland responded with a sharp rebuttal in the International Socialist. “Ross says: ‘It is easier to understand why one should support Labor with his vote than by abstention support Labor’s enemies.’ Instead of Labor, he should have written ‘Labor Party,’ then the argument might have been clearer. Every Socialist will support Labor every time. But the Labor Party is not Labor, and support given for the Labor Party or to any of its candidates, is just as much support for Labor’s enemies as is a vote given to Deakin or Joe Cook. The mere assertion that the Labor Party represents the workers doesn’t hold water. If it did, then the same argument would hold good for any of the old parties backed by a majority of the people, and Socialists might be asked to support the Party with the majority for all time. As a matter of fact, the Labor Party is the party of the small capitalists (witness how Hughes and Fisher grossly betrayed the northern miners to save the harvest of the western farmers) and its working-class backing is made up of the economically ignorant among the wage-workers. The duty of the Socialist Party is to educate these. To educate them, the Socialist Party MUST be a fighting party— and it must FIGHT the Labor Party. You cannot make the uneducated see the anti-working-class attitude of the Labor Party by giving that party Socialist support.”
Ross and the other Melbourne delegates took the debate to the Conference of the Socialist Federation of Australasia in July 1910. After a debate over two days their proposals were rejected. Militant workers in Victoria began abandoning the Socialist Party for the IWW when the IWW became a membership organisation in Australia in July 1911. [Solidarity Forever].
Although he appraised the political situation after the defeat of the miners’ strike more clearly than anyone, nonetheless Holland himself also felt the effects of that defeat acutely. For the past five years he had been in his element: travelling far and wide, speaking to enthusiastic mass audiences of workers who were growing in self-confidence, editing and writing for a paper with growing circulation, gaining ever-increasing vote tallies and other measures of influence. Now, much of that was thrown into reverse – reduced votes, smaller audiences and readerships, and workers ever more cautious and fearful for their jobs and liberty. The ever-impatient man of action had nowhere to turn. The newspaper’s shift towards basic propaganda was necessary and correct; he understood that, but it didn’t suit his temperament. All this took its toll on his health.
In May 1911 Holland suffered an aggravation to an old injury on his knee. This required surgery – which was only partly successful – and a lengthy hospitalisation, followed by further period of months for recovery at home. During this period it was uncertain whether he would ever be able to walk again. The prolonged period of forced inactivity precipitated a general physical breakdown, which may have included a bout of depression.
A note in the International Socialist issue of 17 June says, “The temporary illness of our editor, comrade H.E. Holland, has been the means of teaching an object lesson in solidarity. A woman comrade from another land, but who possesses the same Marxian interpretation as does our Australian comrade, is able temporarily to undertake the editorial duties; and propaganda through the press continues uninterruptedly.”
The woman comrade was Dora Montefiore, a leader of the women’s suffrage movement in Sydney, jailed during the suffrage struggle in England, who had been won to revolutionary socialism. She had acquired through marriage a considerable personal fortune, and thus had ‘private means.’ She generously undertook to carry out the editor’s duties without payment, so that Holland’s salary could continue to be paid to him. For nearly eight months she took the helm.
Holland was able to leave hospital after five months, and slowly resumed his literary work. Some verse he penned from his hospital bed also appeared in the IS. One article he wrote on The Sugar War in Queensland is notable, because it was the first time he addressed the issue of the semi-slave conditions of Kanaka (Pacific Island) workers on Australian soil, and the depressive effects of this on all workers’ wages. This was a question to which Holland would return later, when he was in New Zealand. (Note: The term Kanaka came to take on a derogatory connotation, and while it is still seen in that light by some Pacific Island communities, others, like the Kanaks of New Caledonia, wear it as a badge of national pride. It is used in the quote below uncapitalised, as it appeared in the original article.)
“Away on the northern sugar fields an industrial war is raging — the sugar workers modestly demanding, inter alia, an eight hours’ day and THIRTY SHILLINGS A WEEK!
“Once upon a time, in the not very long ago, boats were sent to the islands and kanakas were practically kidnapped and pressed into a service of slavery on those same sugar fields. The planter developed all the instincts of the slave-driver. He starved his black slaves ; he flogged them betimes; and when he did pay them it was in grog as often as not.
“Strangely enough, the white workers saw their enemy in the kanaka, and not in the man who enslaved him — and them. A political cry of the Labor Party became the deportation of the kanaka. The dispossession of the slave-owner and ownership of the sugar industry by the working class does not seem to have been thought of. Incidentally it might be mentioned that many of the planters were in the grip of that great financial octopus, the Colonial Sugar Refining Co. More than all the planters, the Co. benefitted by the black slavery — or the white slavery either, for that matter.
“In due time, the deportation of the kanaka was ordered by the Federal Parliament, which resolved to compensate the slave-owners for the loss of their black slaves with a bonus for ‘white-grown’ ‘ sugar. Labor members and anti-Labor-members alike voted for this huge gift to the slaveowners. The kanakas were returned to the islands from which most of them had been kidnapped. The black man passed out as a sugar worker. The white man took his place. Black slavery was abolished. WHITE SLAVERY TOOK ITS PLACE, with a huge gift of public money to the growers who so kindly consented to drive the white slaves.
“Long hours — almost, if not quite, as long as the hours they drove the kanaka into slavery; low wages — as the meek demand for 80s a week now demonstrates; food that was more often than not stinking and often fly-blown and alive with maggots! Such was the experience of almost every ‘white worker’ who sought to earn a living on the bounty-fed sugar fields.”
As soon as he regained sufficient strength, Holland paid a visit to Broken Hill. The workers there were dismayed to see him walking only with great difficulty, with the aid of a walking stick. He walked with a limp for the rest of his life.
The occasion of Holland’s visit was the trial of Alfred Giles, a Broken Hill unionist and Labor Party supporter of long standing, who was being prosecuted under the Defence Act for refusing to permit his son to take part in compulsory military training. A new political fight had opened, which would overshadow all working class politics in Australasia for almost a decade: the question of militarism and conscription. Capitalism’s trail of blood was about to become a torrent.