Shockwaves of the October revolution reach New Zealand

In March 1917, just as the New Zealand military campaign in Europe was getting bogged down both militarily and politically, a popular uprising overthrew the czar of Russia. For three years, modern armies of the two imperialist alliances had hurled themselves against each other, bringing death and destruction to Europe on an unprecedented scale. But of all the belligerent powers, the despotic Russian monarchy and its empire were the most poorly-equipped – materially, socially, and politically – to sustain the costs of the War. The imperialist chain snapped at its weakest link. However, the bourgeois Provisional Government that took power after the monarchy was overthrown in March refused to call a halt to the war; Russian casualties and economic dislocation continued to mount throughout 1917. Famine loomed.

Protests by mostly women workers in Petrograd began the Russian revolution that toppled the czar. Banners call for increased food rations for families of soldiers, defenders of freedom.

Due to the breaking of the usual channels of communication by the war, and the censorship, little reliable information about the revolution in Russia reached New Zealand. But the world-shaking implications of the Russian events were quickly grasped by the class-struggle militants nonetheless. A report in the Maoriland Worker says that on May 7 Harry Holland gave, “before a crowded audience, a lecture on The Revolution in Russia. Some of the facts as set forth by the speaker on the unspeakable brutality of Czar Nicholas and his late Government, caused a silence that was so intense that a pin could have been heard to drop.”

In the same issue of the Worker, Holland wrote in his regular column under the pen-name Otus,1 that “a rupture had occurred between the Government and the Workmen’s and Soldiers’ Committee, the latter demanding that the Government should take the people into its confidence regarding Russia’s engagements with the Allies. M. Miliukoff, one of the most popular men in Russia hitherto, had a gigantic demonstration made against him because he declared that Russia would observe the Czar’s foreign agreements. On top of this news came the sensational announcement that matters were ‘not satisfactory’ on the Russian-German front. Not a shot had been fired by the Austrians or Russians for a month, and an armistice was said to exist along the whole front. The soldiers on both sides had left off killing one another, and were fraternising instead. Looking at the situation from this distance, and handicapped by the paucity of information, this writer is constrained to think that this new development is more likely to bring the war to a speedy conclusion than anything that has yet happened. A variety of reasons are responsible for this opinion. One is that the fraternising of Russian and German soldiers is exceedingly likely to precipitate revolution in Germany…

Fraternisation between Russian and German troops after the February 1917 revolution in Russia

“On May 5 a further cable announced that the Workmen’s and Soldiers’ Committee was gravely dissatisfied with the Note which the Provisional Government had addressed to the Allies, promising to carry on the war to a victorious end and not to make a separate peace. As this paper [the Maoriland Worker – JR] has pointed out all along, the German workers have from the commencement been strongly Anti-War as well as Anti-Conscription, and they have also been anti-German in their attitude towards the German military caste. Whatever else is not clear, it is quite evident from these items of news that the Revolution in Russia has only commenced, and that many processes must be passed through before its climax is reached.”

Holland followed these developments closely, and in the winter of 1917 he toured the country speaking about the unfolding events in Russia to meetings of the Social Democratic Party in Palmerston North and on the West Coast. “The internal affairs of Russia present an awful tangle at this juncture,” he wrote in June, “and the tangle grows out of what was an inevitable development of the Revolution from the beginning. The Revolution was made by the workingmen; but the Provisional Government fell into the hands of the bourgeoisie… The oil and water of middle-class Liberalism and working-class Socialism will never mix in any country, and much less will they mix in Russia struggling in the vanguard of the nations for freedom… It is on the Socialists and the workingmen and the soldiers of Russia that the eyes of the world’s workers are now turned. Their pronouncement in favour of peace without annexations and the right of small nations to determine their own destiny is a sound proposition… “Peace without annexations” will not appeal to the arrogance of Prussian Absolutism, … But the German working-men think differently – and have always thought differently, notwithstanding that many of their ‘leaders’ were swept into the treacherous vortex of war madness in 1914. Even men like Schneidemann [sic] and Sudekum and other members of the German Socialist ‘majority’ – who are never likely to be forgiven by either the German workers or the world’s workers – are now beginning to see to some extent the error of their own conduct… But it is with the German Socialist Minority – as it is with the Socialist minority in most countries – that the world’s hope of Peace rests. Those minorities that have remained loyal and true to international ideals while their own comrades and countrymen went baresark.”

New Zealand Herald announces the overthrow of Lenin in December 1917

The torrent of false reports concerning the Russian Revolution increased after the Lenin’s Bolsheviks seized power in November (October by the old calendar then in use in Russia, thereafter known as the October Revolution.) The fabrications mostly emanated from ‘foreign correspondents’ of the press agencies of the Allied powers, based in Petrograd, and sympathetic to the Provisional Government of Socialist Revolutionary Party leader Alexander Kerensky. There were many false reports in New Zealand newspapers of the failure of the Bolshevik-led insurrection against Kerensky’s government, accounts of armed rebellions against the Bolsheviks, both true and fabricated, along with hopeful, premature announcements of Lenin’s downfall. Everywhere these reports detected, concealed behind the actions of the Bolsheviks, the hand of Germany. However, when the Bolshevik government took control of the Russian government’s official news agency, a channel for more reliable reports was opened, and on this basis Harry Holland was able to make a more accurate assessment of the situation after the October revolution, and make some judgments of the political personalities involved.

These reports, Holland wrote, “leave no doubt as to the complete ascendancy of the Bolsheviki over Kerensky’s Government. Further, it is evident that Lenin has the support of the Workmen’s and Soldiers’ Council, the most influential body in Russia. Soldiers are ordered to watch their officers, and those who do not immediately and openly join the accomplished revolution must be arrested.”

Alexander Kerensky, leader of the Social Revolutionary Party and of the bourgeois Provisional Government that ruled between February and October 1917. Holland describes him as “The WM Hughes of Russia”

Noting Kerensky’s frustration with his bourgeois colleagues for using insufficient military force to crush the workers’ and soldiers’ demonstrations against continuation of the war in early May, Holland wrote, “It is here we are first able to glimpse the true character of Kerensky. He is the W.M. Hughes of Russia” [Hughes was the Prime Minister of Australia at the time, expelled from the Labor Party and widely reviled as a traitor to the working class because of his advocacy of Conscription].

Discussing Lenin, Holland examines the consistent record of the Bolsheviks in opposing the War. He quotes a policy proposed by Lenin at the International Socialist Congress at Stuttgart in 1907 to the effect that, should war break out, the Socialists in all countries should ‘take measures to bring about its early termination and strive with all their power to use the economic and political crises created by the war to arouse the masses politically and hasten the overthrow of capitalist class rule,’ and comments, “That is exactly what the Socialists of Russia have endeavoured to do, and are still endeavouring to do – and apparently with a surprising measure of success in view of the forces that are united against them.” Holland commended Lenin and the Bolsheviks for standing firm on the right of small nations to self-determination, and quoted evidence from Lenin’s long record in the Socialist movement to disprove the slanders that he was a German agent. Of Trotsky, Holland quotes an American reporter: “His precision of knowledge was matched by his width of vision. He saw clearly that as the revolution went on the moderates would he eliminated; that the extreme Social Revolutionaries would surely come more and more into power, for they would be reinforced by those freed from the prisons of absolutism in South Russia and Siberia.”

Mass rally of workers at Sydney Domain during the 1917 strikes.

Holland’s enthusiasm and confidence were also fuelled by a strike wave that was sweeping Australia at the time. The working class in Australia had not been severely defeated on the eve of the war, as had the New Zealand workers. Following the defeat of the New South Wales coal miners in 1910 there had been a short pause in strike struggles, which continued through the burst of patriotic fervour in 1914-15. But in late 1915, by which time war profiteering had eroded real wages by up to 30%, strikes resumed, beginning with an action by the ore miners at Broken Hill. When the miners succeeded in winning their demands in April 1916, the floodgates opened; strikes grew in breadth and strength throughout 1916-17, coinciding with and drawing strength from the successful campaign against Conscription. The movement reached its peak in the Great Strike of August and September 1917, when it involved up to 100,000 workers across Australia. On a smaller scale it continued for almost another three years after that. Scare stories about Bolsheviks organising in Australia appeared in the press on both sides of the Tasman Sea.

Holland longed to return to Australia; his stay in New Zealand had already lasted years longer than he had originally intended. The workers who were leading the strike wave in Australia – the Broken Hill miners in 1915, followed by the coal miners of northern New South Wales in 1916, were well-known to him from the battles of 1909 and 1910. The working class was on the march again. During the strike wave, Holland received invitations from Australia to go and speak to workers’ audiences; he wanted to immerse himself in this rapidly-growing movement. He also missed family and friends. His wife Annie and two sons Allan and Roy had come over to New Zealand and were collaborating with him in Wellington, but his other children remained in Australia. He began to make arrangements for the move, asking Robert Ross to resume editing the Maoriland Worker.  But he couldn’t persuade Ross, and there was no obvious alternative editor. Holland shelved his plans to return.

In February 1918 a by-election in the seat of Wellington North provided the Labour Party with its first opportunity to gauge the support for its ongoing campaigns against Conscription and war profiteering. Holland, who had stood in the electorate in 1914 for the SDP, was selected as the Labour Party candidate. There was exceptional interest in this contest. It became an electoral battle of national significance, given the postponement of the general election the previous year. Holland’s selection as the Labour candidate ensured that both Conscription and the Russian revolution would be at the heart of the debates. Prime Minister William Massey took an active role, defending the government’s record on Conscription, as well as baiting Holland for ‘disloyalty to the empire’ and stoking fears of Bolshevism stirred up by the press over recent months.

Holland’s campaign leaflet in Wellington North, based on his speech at the opening of the campaign

For Holland it was, as much as anything, an opportunity to use the electoral system to widen the political space for workers to speak freely and discuss the issues facing them, in defiance of the censorship and the oppressive War Regulations. No War Regulation that was ever written would deter him from saying the things that needed to be said, he said in a speech opening his campaign. Holland threw down a challenge: “If the Government should dare to put its War Regulations into operation to stifle the voice of Labor in this campaign it would prove that Prussianism was a greater consideration with the Government than freedom was. And in that case, the people would have a right to be heard from.”

He denounced war profiteering and the Government’s use of “the War Regulations to hold down wages while prices were lifting enormously … it was clear that the cost of living had lifted quite 50 or 60 percent.” The soldiers were underpaid, he argued. “Workers were leaving 10/-, 15/-, £1 per day to face, for 5/- a day, the death and hell of the trenches…”  A large part of his speech was devoted to the question of Conscription. “If the Galilean carpenter were here today and preached what he preached in Judea, he would go the way many of Labour’s best men had gone – to jail… five thousand young men of New Zealand had been gazetted as ‘deserters’ under the Conscript law, although they had taken no oath and donned no uniform, but on the other hand had refused to be soldiers…

“Fourteen lads – some of them boys of 20 – had been flung into prison here, jailed two and three times over for the same offence – a principle vile in law. Then they were taken from jail in the dark of night and forcibly placed on a transport. And the transport left New Zealand before their mothers knew what had been done… although they were going to almost certain death.”

Ettie Rout with members of the Australian Graves Detachment, 25 July 1919, Villers Bretonneux, France, Graphic: Australian War Memorial, EO5467

Holland also commented on the government’s efforts to cover up the prevalence of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) among the New Zealand soldiers in France, and the efforts of Ettie Rout (a former editor of the Maoriland Worker in the days when it was a paper of the Shearers’ Union) to set up brothels where sexual hygiene was practised. “Miss Rout’s statements [concerning high rates of STDs] were astounding enough; at the same time, [Holland] could not endorse her proposal to cope with the evil. Venereal disease belonged essentially to militarism, and the only way out of the difficulty Miss Rout could suggest was that a number of women should he sacrificed to modify the chances of the boys being physically ruined – in other words, Miss Rout proposed to meet the case by instituting licensed houses; and, although he did not like dealing with some questions before mixed audiences, he insisted that it was a fair thing to ask: Was Miss Rout prepared to render the service she was anxious to recruit other women and girls for? He would fight to save the boys by securing the repeal of Conscription.”

“All the eyes of New Zealand – particularly working class New Zealand – would be on the constituency during the next few weeks,” Holland concluded. “It was a conflict between all that stood for reaction on the one hand, and all that stood for progress on the other hand – and a victory for Labor in this hitherto stronghold of Toryism would put heart into the working men in every constituency and would fill their lives with a new hope, leading to an industrial and political renaissance that would reflect itself in an overwhelming triumph for the forces of progress at the next general election.”

Labour didn’t win in Wellington North, but came close enough. The increased vote for Labour shocked the Government, and raised among workers exactly the hopes that Holland had described. Although the ‘industrial renaissance’ never eventuated, the result generated great interest in the subsequent by-elections.

The next electoral opportunity arose only four months later. Paddy Webb, the Labour MP for Grey, had been balloted for military service in October 1917, and when he refused to don the uniform, he was court-martialled, sentenced to two years hard labour, and stripped of his Parliamentary seat in April 1918. That required a further by-election to fill the vacant seat in the working class West Coast constituency of Grey. Holland was again selected as the Labour candidate, and once again the war and Conscription were the central issues. The ruling coalition put up a single candidate to avoid splitting the anti-Labour vote.

It was a bruising campaign, marked by the extreme hostility of the local newspapers, which goaded Holland to declare himself in favour of the war, gloated about his defeat in Wellington North, sneered at his ‘spreading the splendid gospel of New Zealand Bolshevikism,’ and predicted his arrest under the War Regulations before polling day. “Mr. Holland in his leading articles and in his paper has made a practice of abasing, belittling, degrading and ridiculing leading British and Overseas statesmen and citizens who have done their best to help Britain and the Empire in this time of peril and crisis,” editorialised the Greymouth Evening Star. “… has anyone ever read in the Maoriland Worker any condemnation of Germany’s crimes, any word of criticism, however mild, of the sinking of the Lusitania, the murder of Captain Fryatt, the murder of Nurse Cavell, or the Belgian atrocities?”

Holland won the seat with a small majority, and entered Parliament as the Labour Party member for Grey. (The Maoriland Worker appointed a new editor in March 1919.) Further by-elections in 1918 brought two more class-struggle leaders of the Labour Party into Parliament – Peter Fraser in Wellington Central in October, and Robert Semple in Wellington South in December. Both had recently been released from jail after serving their sentences for sedition. There was now a fraction of three experienced, battle-tested class-struggle militants in the New Zealand Parliament.


  1. In the article More Trouble in the Sydney Direct Action of 11 December 1915, IWW leader Tom Barker states that he ‘once shared a prison cell in the Terrace Jail’ with Otus after the 1913 strike, and that Otus was “the man on the Maoriland Worker who is responsible for the editorial side.” That could only mean Harry Holland.

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