The mixed blessing of IWW influence in the New Zealand labour movement

The stirring Preamble adopted by the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in Chicago in 1905, proclaiming the class struggle and the goal of overthrowing the capitalists, became the rallying cry of revolutionary-minded workers across Australasia after 1905, including the leaders of the ‘Red’ Federation of Labour in New Zealand, who were mostly members of the Socialist Party.

Miners’ Hall, Runanga, West Coast of New Zealand, 1910, bearing IWW-inspired slogans. Mine workers led the class-struggle wing of the labour movement in New Zealand

In the practice of the Red Fed leaders there was a clear syndicalist tendency – that is, a tendency to elevate the role of revolutionary unions in the struggle to overthrow capitalist exploitation, and to downgrade or dismiss that of the revolutionary working class party. This tendency in their socialism was as much a product of the mining town environment in which the Federation was born 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. Moreover, even after universal suffrage was won, the itinerant workers in these remote towns and camps often lacked the residential qualifications needed to vote, and so electoral activity held little appeal to them.(For a more detailed discussion of the social roots of syndicalism in the mining towns, see my earlier post, The Socialism of Mining Villages, Lumber camps, and company towns here.)

It was only when the class struggle broadened beyond the boundaries of the company town to a struggle on a national scale that the inadequacy of revolutionary syndicalism revealed itself.

The influence of the North American IWW in Australasia was profoundly revolutionary, especially in the early years: the IWW brought clarification on the irreconcilable nature of the class struggle and its outcome in the overthrow of capitalist rule. In a workers movement still dominated by colonial chauvinism of the ‘White Australia’ type, it proclaimed the need for the working class to fight against the divisions of race and sex among the workers themselves. Not so, however, on the question of working class political action. Here the legacy of the IWW was one of confusion and disorientation.

Eugene Debs in 1918. Debs was an early leader of the IWW who favoured political action.

This was a problem that the IWW in North America never resolved, and eventually it brought the IWW itself to falter and decline. The IWW was conceived as both a mass union of workers, organised along industrial lines and with its membership open to all workers in the industry, and simultaneously, a leadership organisation of revolutionaries committed to the overthrow of capitalism. However, the second characteristic contradicted the first, given the generally low level of class consciousness of the mass of workers. The majority of the IWW ranks were drawn to the IWW as a fighting union which could win economic and social reforms to alleviate their oppressive conditions of life; they were not yet consciously anti-capitalist. On the other hand, the differing levels of class consciousness in its ranks prevented the IWW from acting fully as a politically homogeneous vanguard party. This dual character of the IWW – both union and revolutionary party, yet neither one nor the other – played out in the wild fluctuations in membership, and also in the discussions on ‘political action.’ Typically, great gains in membership were made in the course of a strike, followed a short time later by an equally large exodus. The contradiction finds expression in the 1905 Preamble itself, which speaks of ‘coming together on the political as well as the industrial field’, yet also stipulates that this should be ‘without affiliation to any political party.’

Vincent St John, one of the central leaders of the syndicalist tendency in the IWW

Over time the socialists in the IWW gave way to a consciously syndicalist current that rejected all political parties and political action. The socialist-minded leaders and others who continued to favour political action in some form increasingly withdrew – first Eugene Debs and many of his Socialist Party left wing supporters, and later Daniel De Leon, who was ousted in a split in the IWW over the question of political action in 1908.

John Benjamin King, IWW syndicalist and opponent of ‘political action’

These debates were carried into the movement in Australia and New Zealand in an indirect form at first, through the IWW literature which formed the core political diet of the class-struggle militants in Australasia. Later, the touring IWW leaders from North America lined up with one current or another. The chief representative of the IWW’s syndicalist current who came to New Zealand was John Benjamin King from Vancouver, who helped to form an IWW club in Auckland in early 1912 before moving on to Waihi, where he became part of the strike committee. In the wake of the debacle of the attempt to organise the Labourers and the consequent loss of confidence in the Red Fed and Socialist Party leaders, the Auckland IWW club soon eclipsed and absorbed the Socialist Party branch in the city, and developed a culture of spontaneity and distrust of all leaders. King led unsuccessful moves to get the Federation of Labour conference in May 1912 to call a general strike in solidarity with the Waihi miners, and to reject any form of political action and alliances. The IWW held the Red Fed leaders responsible for the defeat of the Waihi strike.

Cartoon in Industrial Unionist 1 June1913 contrasts ineffective ‘political action’ with effective ‘direct action’

Their newspaper, the Industrial Unionist, published monthly during 1913 and more frequently during the waterfront strike late in the year, campaigned against conscription, and advocated ‘direct action’ as opposed to ‘political action,’ sabotage (defined very broadly to include such methods as boycotts, as well as ‘a little sugar in the concrete,’) and the general strike. (See Industrial Unionist, 1 September 1913).  Thanks to the efforts of one of its members, Percy Short, a European worker who had learned to speak te reo Māori, it included occasional articles in te reo addressed to Māori workers.

Harry Holland was among those who embraced the 1905 IWW Preamble most firmly, but Holland was unimpressed with the rejection of political action that followed later. Unlike most of the class- struggle militants, who had entered the movement as trade unionists and developed a broader political outlook later, Holland had come into the movement as a socialist journalist, political agitator and propagandist, riding on the power of the spoken and printed word. While he actively supported union struggles and at one point was himself a union organiser, his experience in the long period during which the Socialist Federation of Australasia differentiated itself from the politics of the Australian Labor Party had taught him that there is no such thing as the rejection of all politics. Whenever proletarian class-struggle politics were rejected, the working class was left with only Liberal-Labour class-collaborationist politics and other forms of adaptation to capitalist political rule.

Holland’s life’s work prior to arriving in New Zealand had been preparing and building the Socialist Federation of Australasia (SFA) as a party which set its sights on political power for the purpose of overthrowing the social and economic power of the capitalist class. Although he was deeply influenced by the IWW, Holland’s primary model was not the IWW but the powerful German Social Democratic Party, about which he had learned from German immigrants to Australia, and whose progress he followed closely and spoke about frequently. Holland’s SFA, like the German SDP, took part in union struggles, but also engaged in capitalist electoral contests.

Revolutionary barricade in Paris during Commune of 1871. Paris Commune reinforced the lessons Marx had drawn from the 1848 revolutions about the need to dismantle the capitalist state.

However, Holland shared with all the rest of the class-struggle militants in Australasia – and with their counterparts in North America, including Debs and De Leon – a theoretical weakness on the question of political struggle. To one degree or another, the class-struggle militants took their theoretical lead from the ideas of Karl Marx. Yet, outside of Europe, there seemed to be little understanding of the conclusions Marx drew from the experience of the 1848 revolutions and the Paris Commune of 1871: that the working class cannot simply lay hold of the existing state machinery and wield it for its own purposes, but must dismantle the bourgeois state, especially the police and standing army, and replace it with organs of working class power. The entire 1913 discussion in New Zealand rested on the false assumption that there was little more involved in the process of the working class taking political power than the working class party winning an election, after which the defeated capitalists would submit to their fate.

(If we are to judge from advertisements in the class-struggle newspapers of the time, such as the Maoriland Worker in New Zealand and the International Socialist Review in New South Wales, only a fairly limited range of Marx’s and Engels’s own writings were available to read in this part of the world: advertisements include Capital Volume 1, the Communist Manifesto, Socialism Utopian and Scientific, Value, Price and Profit, Wage Labour and Capital – mostly economic pamphlets, but none of the major political writings, like 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte or The Civil War in France, nor the polemics with Bakunin.)

This weakness led to the conflation of ‘independent working class political action’ with ‘socialist participation in capitalist elections’ throughout the discussion, a circumstance which favoured both the forces of the United Labor Party (ULP) who sought to lead the movement down the path of parliamentary reformist politics, and, at the opposite pole, the syndicalists who rejected all political action in the name of rejecting parliamentary reformism. (For their part, the syndicalists envisaged a general strike as the road to working class power, but they likewise underestimated the power of resistance that the capitalist class possessed in the form of the state.)

The Red Fed leadership’s unity campaign in the wake of Waihi defeat, and the turn towards politics that it implied, combined all these elements, both strengths and weaknesses, steps forward and steps backward: recognition of the necessity for political struggle, despair and demoralisation in face of the industrial defeats, alertness to opportunities opening up to deal further blows to the class-collaborationist current, conflation of ‘politics’ with electoralism, and confusion about the relationship between class-struggle union organisation and the revolutionary political party.

The first Unity conference opened in January 1913, with about a hundred delegates representing unions across the country. The majority were from miners’ unions on the West Coast, Waihi, Huntly, and Otago, and other unions affiliated to the Federation of Labour – the Manawatu flaxmill workers, Canterbury labourers, watersiders in all the main ports and some smaller ones, and shearers. Some significant forces from unions aligned to the Trades and Labour Councils (TLCs) and the United Labor Party (ULP) also attended, including the Seamen’s Unions in Auckland and Wellington and drivers in all the main cities. From Christchurch most of the TLC-aligned unions were represented, as well as the TLC itself.

The conference was immediately plunged into an unplanned debate over whether the United Labor Party itself should be invited. The Federation leaders opposed the ULP being invited on the grounds that it was a conference of trade unions only, and all the unions affiliated with the ULP had already been invited. Tom Young of the Seamen’s Union supported the invitation (he had also been President of the Wellington TLC), provocatively remarking that the ULP “was as much an industrial party as the Federation of Labour was. There were now two Labor factions in New Zealand, and the fundamental idea of the conference was to bring these two factions together… It had been found out at bitter cost that industrial action without political action was useless – in other words, the leaders of the Federation had now come to the opinion that the policy of the ULP was absolutely right.” This drew an angry denial from Semple.

The conference voted 50-40 to invite the ULP to send two delegates; afterwards a motion to also invite the Socialist Party and the Auckland IWW to send delegates was passed. Walter Mills and Edward Tregear were selected by the ULP as their delegates and appeared the next day, to the chagrin of some, especially the Waihi delegate, who blurted out that Mills was an enemy of the working class. Harry Holland and Fred Cooke were the delegates of the SP. (There was confusion about where to send the IWW’s invitation and it is not known whether they even received it. For whatever reason, no IWW delegates came to the conference).  The debate on the character of the industrial organisation to be formed, and on political action, then continued, with the central leaders of the opposing tendencies present.

(to be continued)

  1. An exception to this was miners, who were the first workers to win the right to vote, by a special act in 1862, as a consequence of the miners’ uprising in Victoria known as the Eureka Rebellion. Universal male suffrage was granted to Maori with the creation of four Maori seats in parliament (although if these had been proportional to the Maori population, there would have been 15 seats.) Universal male suffrage was achieved in 1879 in New Zealand, and extended to women in 1893, although women could not stand for public office until 1919.
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