‘Left’ critics of the Labour Party after 1919


Harry Holland’s general political course, from the time of the 1913 defeat on the waterfront, was one of ‘bending to the right’ to accommodate the Liberal politics of the more backward layers of the labour movement, in the interests of working class unity. This course did nothing to build unity; on the contrary, it undermined it. After 1919, the corrosive effects came to be expressed in bitter resentments towards the Labour Party and in rancorous debates, which, for all the acrimony, advanced the workers’ movement not a millimetre. Within the Party, resentment was also expressed towards its parliamentary leadership. By this point, it is no longer possible to speak of a class-struggle left wing in the labour movement in New Zealand.

Of the organisations coming out of the 1913 unity process, the first to crumble was the United Federation of Labour.

Following the 1913 defeat, Arbitration had been re-imposed on the unions, substantially reducing the legal openings for industrial action. The war and the accompanying patriotic frenzy raised additional obstacles to workers taking strike action – not only was striking condemned as disloyal, but in the early months of the war, some industries affected by the disruption of trade and the sudden loss of European markets suffered a downturn, with a spike in unemployment. The United Federation of Labour had little room to move.

Petone Wollen mill on the shores of Wellington Harbour founded in 1885. (photo from 1930s). Two hundred mill workers struck in 1915 in defiance of War Regulations.

These conditions began to change from 1915, as the wartime economy recovered, war-related inflation began to erode real wages, and the Arbitration Court awards, as always, lagged far behind the galloping inflation. At the same time, labour shortages caused by the mobilisation of tens of thousands of workers into the army put workers in a stronger position to exercise their economic strength. The combined pressure of the Arbitration Court and War Regulations continued to hold back both wages and strike actions, but could not do so forever. Two hundred woollen mill workers at Petone struck for higher wages in 1915, though the union was fined £50 for organising an illegal strike. Auckland drivers, dissatisfied with their Arbitration award, struck in 1916. The dispute spread throughout the country, and only ended when a conference presided over by the Minister of Labour granted them a ‘war bonus.’ Watersiders banned overtime, and meat workers at three freezing works in Auckland and Horotiu struck.

Patriotic ANZAC Day commemoration at Petone railway station, 25 April 1915. Railway workers union strongly supported the war and conscription, with nearly 8,000 railway workers serving in the armed forces, including in a special unit of Railway Engineers. This made their 1920 strike all the more significant.

By 1917, some hard-fought battles erupted. Miners on the West Coast and in Nelson and Auckland provinces struck against the Military Service Act and for higher wages, the longest strikes being two months. Nine officials of the union were prosecuted under the War Regulations and jailed for up to nine months for ‘encouraging the continuance of a seditious strike.’ Flaxmill workers, meat workers, seamen, and gas workers also struck, many being fined and two seamen’s union officials being jailed. In spite of these repressive measures, many of these unions won some or all of their demands. The strike movement continued to broaden; by 1920 even the railway workers had struck – for the first time since 1890.

While Britain was buying the entire output of frozen beef, mutton and lamb, cheese, wool, and butter at guaranteed prices, the associated industries enjoyed an unprecedented boom in profits, and expanded rapidly. Ten new meat works, twenty new cheese factories, and three new milk powder factories opened between March 1915 and June 1917.

In unions where syndicalist ideas and traditions had taken hold, the ‘turn to politics’ was viewed with growing suspicion. By this point, most of the militant industrial leaders from an earlier time, including Semple, Webb, Hickey, Fraser, and Parry, were deeply committed to the political struggle, alongside the more conservative leaders of the craft unions and the Trades Councils. They saw little possibility of workers gaining anything through strike action, and paid little attention to the unions.

In an effort to re-assert the necessity for industrial action neglected or opposed by most of the UFL leadership, the watersiders, drivers, tramways and railway unions had formed a Transport Workers’ Advisory Board. In 1919, this group was joined by seamen and miners, and constituted the Alliance of Labour, which soon displaced the moribund UFL as the main federation of industrial unions. It was joined by the Agricultural and Pastoral Union (later called the Workers’ Union), which itself was the product of a process of organising and re-organising among rural workers of all kinds – shearers, farm labourers, timber workers, and flaxmill workers had joined it. With the wartime boom in farming and rural industries, the farm workers were finding favourable conditions to organise.

James Roberts. Photographer and date unknown. Photo: Alexander Turnbull Library Reference Number: PAColl-5932-55. Object #14246

The Alliance’s leaders saw the new organisation as representing the revival of militant industrial unionism, and the renewal of the struggle for One Big Union. It was led by watersider James Roberts, who had been a Red Fed union militant and a leader of the Socialist Party in Wellington. Later Roberts was joined by Arthur Cook, a leader of the Agricultural and Pastoral Union, who had made particular efforts to organise Māori workers into the union. Cook campaigned to raise the standard of Māori workers’ housing in rural areas, after Māori had suffered particularly high death rates in the post-war influenza epidemic.

The leaders of the Alliance of Labour expressed frustration with the rightward course of the Labour Party, echoing the criticisms made by the early Red Fed leaders of the Trades Councils and the craft-union leadership a decade earlier. Cook was widely quoted as telling the Workers’ Union conference in 1920, “I am at last convinced that industrial unionism is the only unionism worth fighting for. Political action in the Labor movement, I consider, has become too damn respectable for me to be any longer associated with. Build up one industrial union in this country and you will gain more in one day by job action than can be gained in a hundred years by political action.”  These ideas touched a nerve.

The rift between the union federation and the Labour Party continued to widen up to 1922. Roberts said of the Labor Party that “After twenty years’ experience the piffle their platform contained was enough to make any intelligent man or woman blush. We want a revolutionary party… If we have elected our rats to Parliament it is a good means of getting them out of the way.”

The new editor of the Maoriland Worker aligned the paper with the syndicalist anti-political moods, and published editorials describing elections as “time wasted in beating the air.” In 1919 the board of the Worker decided to end its formal role as official organ of the Labour Party. An editorial stated, “a Labor Press established merely to say “Hear, bear” to a Political Boss would be a disaster to the Labor movement… A Press under political control, no matter what political party controls it, is a prostitute Press.” The Labour Party’s platform “could be honestly advocated by any petty bourgeois without any mention of the class struggle or what it means.”

Some of these generalities were true enough. Where significant political differences arose, however, the Maoriland Worker’s stance was generally to the right of the Labour Party. It supported the Versailles Peace Treaty, for example, causing an indignant Holland to say, “The Labor movement throughout the world stood for self-determination, and the Peace Treaty stood entirely against that vital principle.” The Worker declared for prohibition of alcohol, a stance described by some as “calculated to split the Labor Movement.” The National Efficiency Board had introduced restrictions on the sale of alcohol as part of wartime austerity and to fortify the imperial character, and diatribes against the liquor industry often formed part of pastoral sermons in support of the war. Other than reporting on statements by the Labour Members of Parliament, the Worker had nothing to say in opposition to the annexation of Samoa and the continuation of indentured labour there. 

The same was largely true of the Alliance for Labour. Its militancy owed more to the uniquely favourable economic situation of labour shortage during and immediately after the War than to any superior strategy of its leaders; that militancy ended when those conditions ended in 1922. In the meantime, the main effect of the brief loosening of ties between the Labour Party and the industrial unions was simply to accelerate the Labour Party along the road to becoming a purely electoralist party.

Another voice criticising the Labour Party from the left in those years was that of the Communist Party, formed in 1921. In the years following the Russian revolution, Communist Parties were founded across Europe, North America, Latin America and Asia, by political forces which identified with and looked to the leadership of the Bolsheviks. While these parties had many weaknesses at their inception, they had some strengths too: They were generally formed from among the most revolutionary elements of the old Socialist movement, those who had refused to bend to the pro-War chauvinism of the leaders of the Socialist Parties, joined by some who came from IWW or anarcho-syndicalist origins. They also had the immense advantage of being able to learn directly from the Bolsheviks, through participating in the discussions at the congresses of the Communist International.

The Communist Party formed in New Zealand had little in common with the parties of the same name formed elsewhere; it had all of their weaknesses and none of their strengths. It was formed from the convergence of several disparate political currents which had one thing in common: they had all stood aside from the swirling working class political and industrial movement from 1913 to 1918. Central to the new party was the remnant of the Wellington Branch of the Socialist Party, which had rejected participating in the Unity movement of 1913. (Some of the Wellington Socialist Party’s members, including future Alliance of Labour leader James Roberts, had joined the 1913 strike as leaders of the Waterside Workers Union, but these unionists had later been expelled from the party, leaving only the pure abstentionists.)

There was also a collection of Marxian Associations, discussion circles composed mainly of students. Heavily influenced by the dogma of the Socialist Party of Great Britain (SPGB), they were active in Petone (near Wellington), Christchurch, and in the towns of the West Coast, where young men of military age often went to evade conscription. They merged into a national organisation in December 1918. The Petone Marxian association had stood firmly aloof from participation in the 1913 strike actions.

Some individuals who had been associated with the IWW – obliterated by the 1913 defeat and wartime repression – also gravitated towards the fledgling Communist Party, as did one or two from the Labour Party. None of these forces had played any prominent part in opposing the war. There was no direct contact with revolutionary Russia until many years later, by which time the Stalinist counter-revolution in the Russian Communist Party had been largely completed.

The Maoriland worker reported an early debate on revolutionary strategy between two of these currents, one (IWW-influenced members of the Socialist Party) representing ‘Direct Action,’ the other (Petone Marxians) standing for ‘Revolutionary Political Action,’ which rejected joining industrial struggles in favour of participating in parliamentary politics with “one plank in his platform, and that is Revolution.” The Direct Actionist extolled the virtues of “Strike, propaganda, organisation (secret or legalised), riot, “no rent,” civil war, Malthusian inhibition, without intermediaries — all effective towards emancipation as they are proved to be.” Both speakers had little difficulty pointing out the weaknesses in the other’s strategy.

All of these organisations and individuals fell silent during the war, but re-emerged in the period of renewed union and political activity at the war’s end. Their strategic schemas and shibboleths remained unchanged; they were notably unaffected by any Bolshevik influence. The Russian revolution supplied them with a pole of attraction around which to congregate and, as a few items of Bolshevik literature made it past the censor and began to circulate illegally after about 1919, gave them the political weapons with which to castigate the Labour Party.

Moses Baritz in Australia, 1919

Harry Holland clashed with this group, after they invited Moses Baritz, a founding leader of the Socialist Party of Great Britain, to do a lecture tour of New Zealand in late 1919. Baritz had made a name in Canada and the US for denouncing the broad-church Socialist Parties in those countries, and splitting off from them new organisations along the lines of the SPGB. In New Zealand he attacked the Labour Party in similar terms. After a few lectures, Baritz was issued with a deportation order, the first issued under the Undesirable Immigrants Act. Holland protested the deportation in a telegram to the Attorney General.

“I desire to lodge the strongest possible protest against your action in ordering the deportation of Moses Baritz from New Zealand. Notwithstanding that Baritz’s attacks were directed mainly against the Labour Party and individual Labour members and Socialists, including myself, I voice the sentiment of the Labour movement in saying that the utmost freedom of expression must be conserved; that the idea of autocratically delivering sentence without any semblance of trial repellent to fair-minded people, destructive of all that is best in British jurisprudence and reflective of the worst feature of Prussianism,” Holland’s telegram read. A number of unions also protested, and in some places Moses Baritz Defence Committees were set up.

Despite these protests, Baritz and his supporters later claimed, if not that the Labour Party had actively colluded in his deportation, then at least that he was deported by the government in order to protect the Labour Party from criticism. In an attempt to clarify the situation, Holland wrote in a letter to the Melbourne Socialist, “…it is hardly correct to say that Mr Baritz was deported. He did not wait to be deported. He was ordered to leave New Zealand, and did so by the next available boat. Had he taken the other course that was open to him of compelling the authorities to place him under arrest, a fight could have been made against his deportation. But his meek obedience, reflecting itself in swift compliance with the order given by the authorities, cut the ground from under everybody’s feet, and left nothing possible but resolutions of protest, and these came mainly from the Social Democratic Party, the Labor Party branches and several trade unions in sympathy with the Labor Party…

“Our protests against the order to Mr Baritz to leave New Zealand were quite consistent with our general Socialist policy. As Internationalists we demand that there shall be no frontiers – that a world citizenship should be recognised. The mere fact that Mr Baritz or any other individual wilfully or ignorantly misrepresents our movement or slanders our individual members – that he devotes most of his attack to the Socialists and little of it to the historic enemies of the working man – is neither here nor there when as big principle is at stake, such a principle as is involved when the provisions of an antisocial law like the NZ Undesirable Immigrants Restriction Act is being applied.”

Pamphlet published in name of Marxian Association could be considered the first publication of the Communist Party of New Zealand. The Party was founded before this publication appeared, but didn’t use the name publicly until several years later.

This letter, together with the Marxian Association’s rebuttal, was produced as a pamphlet by the Marxian Association. “Who are these Socialists whom Mr Baritz attacked?” the anonymous author asked. “Baritz, of course, attacked no Socialists at all. In the course of his addresses, he dealt with various enemies of Socialism, including newspaper editors, parsons, and Labor politicians. Mr Holland is the leader of a party which, at last election, proclaimed throughout the land that it is not a class party and not a revolutionary party – a party that cannot even define Socialism. In such a party, the most dangerous enemies of the working class are those who claim to be Socialists… So-called “Labor Parties,” forming a recognised part of the Capitalist State, ever renew the faith of the working class in bourgeois political justice and are anti-labor, anti-revolution, and anti-socialist…

“And what is the state? It is the instrument by means of which the oppression of the working class is carried on, capitalist property is protected, and the relations of bourgeois society preserved. Throughout Mr Holland’s letter, and throughout his political utterances, there is nothing to indicate that the bourgeois state is an instrument of oppression which the working class must capture and destroy…

“The Labor Party is not a class party; it does not recognise the nature of present-day society, the exploitation of the working class as such, the nature of the Class State, or the necessity of capturing the latter and transforming it into a proletarian state for the purpose of wresting from the capitalist class the means of exploitation, of oppressing the oppressors, of expropriating the expropriators. On the contrary, it recognises the alleged exploitation of the working farmer…”

Arthur Cook, co-leader of the Alliance of Labour, lent his support to the politics of the Marxians. “Baritz preached Socialism pure and plain, without any fringe or flounce. He mutilated the political Labour Party’s platform, which is quite an easy matter for an advanced Socialist to do. He advised the workers to start digging at the roots of the Capitalist tree instead of attempting to prune it…”

Baritz himself called down the authority of Lenin to put it even more forcefully, in a letter to the Sydney International Socialist. “The New Zealand Labour Party is affiliated with the Second International, which consists of those who supported the war, and those who fraternised with the murderers of Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg. The N.Z. Labour Party accepted an invitation to attend the Berne Conference, which the Bolsheviks refused to attend… Lenin calls Holland’s associates TRAITORS. What is more, Lenin … justifies my every action in attacking fake parties like the NZ Labor Party. As long as Holland is hand in glove with the tricksters of the Second International, he too comes within the classification of the word TRAITOR given him by Lenin. Here are Lenin’s words: ‘The Berne International of Messrs. Huysmans Vandervelde, Scheidemann, now has fully constituted itself as the yellow International of those traitors against Socialism. Without fighting against them, without splitting with them, there can be no question of real socialism, nor of any sincere work for the social revolution.’ The NZ Labour Party cannot get away from its International affiliation. They are at one with the murderers of the working class.”

A barren little sect the Marxian Association and its offspring the Communist Party may have been, but there was more than a grain of truth in these criticisms nonetheless. Even Holland’s old friend Tom Mann was identifying with the Communist International. And just as in the debate on the immigration laws, Holland was unable to say a word in answer to these charges, at least not without alienating the right wing of the Labour Party to the point of splitting the party.



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