Harry Holland, Leon Trotsky, and ‘Undesirable Immigrants’

The New Zealand Labour Party formed in 1916 encompassed a wide range of tendencies in the labour movement, from revolutionaries to obdurate class-collaborationists. But initially at least, it was led – both in its executive committees and in its parliamentary representatives – by class-struggle fighters who had led the big battles against the chief institution of class collaboration, the Arbitration system in the years before the war. These leaders welcomed the 1917 Bolshevik revolution in Russia as the realisation of their own aspirations.

Paddy Webb, elected to New Zealand parliament in 1913 for Social Democratic Party, which formed the core of the Labour Party of 1916 Photo: National Library of New Zealand Ref

To the great consternation of his friends in bourgeois circles, Labour’s first Member of Parliament, Paddy Webb, expressed his support for the Bolshevik revolution as soon as reliable news of the events of October came through in early 1918. “Our respect, for him and his cause,” cried the Grey River Argus, “has made it the more painful to read in that report that he held up Trotsky, Lenin, and the Red Guards whom they command, and the awful condition of Russia to-day, as the embodiment and truthful exposition of what democracy means. It is as astounding as it is painful to find that any sane man could say, as Mr. Webb is reported to have said, that “the red flag of revolution, democracy, socialism, and equality of life, now flies over Russia which had been an autocracy from time immemorial.”

Webb 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. It was a stern lesson in “what democracy means” in New Zealand.

Harry Holland’s May 1918 election campaign to fill Webb’s vacant seat was fought under the constant threat of arrest and jail. Newspapers accused him of ‘spreading the splendid gospel of New Zealand Bolshevikism,’ and openly predicted his arrest before polling day. At one election meeting, a mining company provocateur attempted to corner him into making seditious statements. Holland was required to express his ideas indirectly, in Aesopian language similar to that which the Bolsheviks had to use under czarist censorship. Holland was elected by a small majority. 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 sentences for sedition.

Red Fed leader Robert Semple addresses Auckland General Labourers Union during strike of 1911.Photo: Alexander Turnbull Library 1/2 -044237-F

Harry Holland, Semple, Fraser and Ted Howard (elected in 1919) all supported the Russian revolution in its early years. “If we can bring about what the Bolshevists have tried to bring about, we will do so,” Fraser said. In a heady moment Semple went so far as to declare himself a Bolshevik (although apparently he quickly retreated from that claim.)

But the effects of the defeat of 1913 were far-reaching – above all, the political defeat dealt by the Massey government’s mobilisation of the small farmers and farm labourers as strike-breakers. The rising tide of workers’ struggles in the pre-war years had turned, and was now ebbing. The ruling class pressed its advantage during the Great War, using the crisis to impose myriad ‘emergency regulations’, chief among them being military conscription.  The goal of all these war regulations was to break up the working class organisations, undermine workers’ democratic and legal rights, restrict their freedom of movement, expand police powers of spying and censorship (especially after the Russian revolution) and by a thousand different means, to constrain workers’ ability to think collectively and express their class interests. Not the least of these means was the colossal political pressure brought to bear on the Labour parliamentary representatives.

In November 1919, Massey introduced the Undesirable Immigrants Exclusion Bill. This was part of a raft of anti-working class legislation adopted immediately after the war by the Liberal-Reform ‘Fusion’ that had governed during the war. The Bill was, simultaneously, an immigration control aimed against the free movement of labour across borders, an act of censorship obstructing the free flow of ideas, and a political cudgel to beat and demoralise the Labour Party, and extract from it declarations of loyalty to the capitalist state. It empowered the authorities the right to exclude or deport anyone considered ‘undesirable’ by the Attorney General. The stated intention was to prevent “the free entrance into New Zealand of Germans and other former enemies”.

Holland and other Labour members pointed out that the Bill was not directed at ‘former enemies,’ who were unlikely to migrate in large numbers anyway. Rather, its purpose was to carry forward all the new anti-democratic police measures the government had claimed under the War Regulations into peacetime. “The passport system, under whatever conditions, is an abominable system…that has always operated in the older countries – notably, in Russia under the Tsars and Germany under Kaiserdom – against the spirit of liberty and against the best interests of the people,” Holland said. Passports had been introduced in New Zealand and most European countries as a wartime security measure, but were retained after the war.

Holland continued, “Clause 3 says that, save with the authority of the Attorney-General, no person shall land in New Zealand from any place beyond the sea until he has practically satisfied the Attorney-General he is a desirable immigrant. What does that mean?… Any man coming from another country, if he should come with a reputation as a fighter for freedom, would be in danger of being turned back.” In this ‘allegedly Christian country’, even ‘the Galilean carpenter himself’ would have a hard job to get into New Zealand, with the reputation he built up two thousand years ago, Holland said.

He pointed out that under the provisions of this law, ‘the Court may admit such evidence as it thinks fit, whether such evidence would be legally admissible in other proceedings or not.’ “What more vicious principle can you introduce into law-making than that?” Holland asked. “Under ordinary conditions you give to the man who is charged certain rights and certain protection, but you take away every protection here…”

“Only the Attorney-General is to judge whether that person is disaffected or disloyal, only the Attorney-General is to interpret what disloyalty and disaffection mean.” Holland went on to list prominent fighters for justice who had been labelled ‘disloyal.’ “If [Socialist Party leader] Mr Eugene Debs were to come here from America – and those who have read his speeches and writings know that there is no more admirable personality in the whole wide world than Mr Debs – he would be turned back. If [Irish republican fighter] Professor [Eamon] de Valera came here from Ireland the Attorney-General could turn him back.”

Moses Baritz in Australia, 1919

At that point, Prime Minister Massey interjected, “We would, most certainly. He is a disloyal man.” The Bill became law, and soon the first ‘disloyal’ person had been ordered out of the country – Moses  Baritz, a propagandist of the Socialist Party of Great Britain.

The relentless political pressure took its toll on the Labour leadership. The grinding effects of the War Regulations and their peacetime extensions had worn the working class down and undermined its self-confidence. The government had yet another advantage: whereas in Europe the war had brought about economic dislocation, with starvation widespread in both Russia and Germany, in New Zealand the rural economy enjoyed an unprecedented prosperity, thanks to the guaranteed purchase of New Zealand’s farm products by the Empire at well above market prices. The guaranteed purchase scheme continued for several years after the end of the war, enabling the Massey government to ride out the post-war discontent without great difficulty. Thus, the much-anticipated post-war revolutionary working class upsurge never materialised in New Zealand, and the Labour Party leaders lowered their sights accordingly.

New Zealand Labour Party Parliamentarians 1922. Harry Holland seated, second from left, Howard standing far left, Parry centre, Fraser seated second from right. Photo: National Library of New Zealand 1/2-044402-F

Within a relatively short period of time, they had retreated from whatever revolutionary aspirations they had once held, and accepted the framework of capitalist parliamentary politics. By the early 1920s, the political course of the Party had become clear and irreversible. Fraser laid down the law at its 1921 conference: “The party adhered wholly and entirely to legal and constitutional methods of political action, including the contesting of Parliamentary, municipal, and local body elections.” Almost all of the parliamentary representatives of the party who had been class-struggle fighters in the past – including Robert Semple, Peter Fraser, Bill Parry, Joe Savage, Tim Armstrong and Ted Howard – accepted this new course, and the logic it dictated, “wholly and entirely.”

Those who in 1917-18 had greeted the Russian revolution with enthusiasm and hope now disavowed that past, with considerable embarrassment. Over the following years, parliamentarians of the Reform and Liberal Parties took every opportunity to remind these Labour leaders of their past Bolshevik sympathies, and to wring from them ever more abject commitments to ‘legal and constitutional methods.’

Harry Holland alone seemed to feel some discomfort with the reformist course of the Labour Party he had worked so tirelessly to bring together. At almost the same moment Fraser committed the party ‘wholly and entirely to legal and constitutional methods,’ Holland was defending, before an Australian audience, the need for a “Dictatorship of the Proletariat based upon the workers own political organisation and driven by the dynamic class consciousness of the revolutionary workers.” But Holland’s strategy towards winning the dictatorship of the proletariat was by then indistinguishable from Fraser’s “constitutional methods.” In practice, he fell into line with the rest of the party.

Among the Labour leaders, Holland had been the most ardent supporter of the Russian revolution and its Bolshevik leadership. In 1918 he toured the country lecturing to rapt audiences on the revolution, sketching political portraits of leading Bolsheviks Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky, declaring his support for the Bolshevik peace policy, and outlining the conflicting class interests involved. While most of the Labour leadership, Semple especially, became increasingly hostile to the revolution and to communism, Holland retained his interest in and admiration for the revolution and its leaders, even as he pursued more ‘constitutional methods’ in New Zealand. The parliamentary baiting and provocations were therefore directed towards Holland above all.

So it was in 1925, when Peter Fraser proposed in Parliament an amendment to the Undesirable Immigrants Exclusion Act of 1919.

Noel Lyons arrives in Sydney after being deported from New Zealand. Photo: http://trove.nla.gov.au/version/201155941

In May 1925 a young seafarer called Noel Lyons had been issued with a deportation order as an ‘undesirable immigrant.’ Lyons had worked his way to New Zealand from Australia as a fireman on the Manuka, then had transferred to the Moeraki. He had led union agitation on the ship around the food being supplied to the sailors, and was quite open about being a militant of the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World). His deportation order came after he had been in the country for several months.

Holland opposed the deportation in a question to the Attorney General. “… If Lyons Had been guilty of advocating murder or any other breach of the law it should be proved against him openly in a court of law where witnesses would be on oath, and where he would have a chance of presenting his defence. For 700 years it has been the proud boast of the British people that British law safeguards the individual against arbitrary imprisonment or banishment, and that every Accused person is entitled to be tried by a jury of his peers. The fundamental principle of that law is being violated in this case.”

A public meeting of three hundred was held in Wellington to protest the deportation and demand that the order be cancelled. Lyons himself spoke, saying that “if he were accused of carrying bombs he was innocent, but if he were charged with voicing his opinions for better conditions then he was guilty all the way.”

Fraser’s 1925 amendment argued, along the same lines as Holland’s in 1919, that deportees should have the right to present their defence in a court of law. The 700-year-old Magna Carta principle of the right to trial by a jury of one’s peers, formed the core of Fraser’s amendment. Holland’s speech on the question took careful note of the fact that the Magna Carta referred not only to imprisonment but also to ‘banishment.’

Sir Christopher James Parr, in 1936 when he was High Commissioner to London Photo: NPG

By this time the deepening split in the Soviet government between the bureaucratic faction of Joseph Stalin on the one hand, and the Left Opposition led by Leon Trotsky on the other, was public knowledge outside of the Soviet Union. Early reports in 1925 indicated that Trotsky himself had already been banished from Soviet territory and was seeking refuge elsewhere. The Bolshevik-baiting of Holland therefore shifted into high gear, and overshadowed the whole discussion in parliament and its coverage in the press. It was led by Sir Christopher James Parr, Reform Party Minister of Justice, who as Mayor of Auckland in 1911 had led the union-busting assault on the General Labourers of that city.

“Would you allow Mr Trotsky to come into this country?” Parr interjected, when Holland compared the banishment law to the worst periods of absolutism in Germany and Russia.

Auckland Star article on the debate, 22 August 1925

“If the Honourable Gentleman knows anything of recent history,” Holland responded, “he will know that Mr Trotsky was recently exiled from Russia for expressing his opinions too freely there.”

“Would you exclude him?” Parr demanded to know.

“I would not,” Holland replied.

Subsequent history has imparted an extraordinary poignance to Holland’s stance.

Konrad Knudsen, supporter of Norwegian Labour Party who hosted Trotsky in 1935-36 Photo: Stortinget Biografi

Although Holland was mistaken about Trotsky being exiled in 1925, it was less than three years later, in January 1928, that he was in fact deported from Russia to Siberian exile in Alma-Ata, which is today the city of Almaty in Kazakhstan. A year after that, Trotsky was expelled from Soviet territory altogether, exiled first to Turkey in February 1929, then in France from July 1933, and from June 1935 in Norway, where a Labour Party had been elected. Trotsky’s host in Norway was Konrad Knudsen, a Labour Party supporter who was elected to the Norwegian parliament in October 1936.

Trotsky, his wife Natalia Sedova, and Knudsen on a fishing trip during his time in Norway. Photo: Fædrelandsvennen Magasin

The decision to expel Trotsky from the Soviet Union was one Stalin came to regret – because it placed Trotsky beyond the reach of the Stalinist murder machine, for a time at least. By the late 1930s the Moscow frame-up Trials and the

Aleksandra Sokolovskaya with Trotsky, about 1902
Photo: Wikipedia

Stalin-led counter-revolutionary purges and persecutions had taken the lives of all the prominent supporters of Trotsky within the Soviet Union, including Trotsky’s first wife Aleksandra Sokolovskaya and his younger son Sergei Sedov, along with some eight million others. The murder machine reached beyond the Soviet borders; Trotsky’s elder son and closest collaborator Leon Sedov was murdered in Paris in 1938.

In both France and Norway, the pressures on the governments by both rightist and fascist forces on the one hand and the Soviet government on the other, made the conditions of Trotsky’s asylum increasingly restrictive and oppressive. At the behest of the Soviet government, the Norwegian government placed him under house arrest and forbade him from communicating with the outside world. A Fascist militia forced its way into the house of his host. At the height of the Moscow frame-ups, where Trotsky was the chief defendant in absentia, Oslo prevented him from speaking in his own defence.

Just as the noose was tightening around Trotsky in Norway, he was granted asylum in Mexico, arriving in Mexico City in January 1937. It was in Mexico that a Stalinist agent finally succeeded in murdering him in August 1940.

Harry Holland had died in 1933, two years before the 1935 election that brought the Labour Party to power in New Zealand. It is tempting to speculate on what might have happened if Holland had been the leader of that first Labour government, and had he acted on his willingness to offer Trotsky asylum in this country, at the moment of greatest peril in 1936-37. Could Trotsky have remained beyond the reach of the Stalinist murderers a little longer in this country?

But there was no other figure in that government with sufficient moral courage to uphold the great revolutionary’s right of political asylum even in 1925, let alone during the depths of world reaction in the late 1930s. Revolutionaries were undesirable immigrants in their eyes too.

And even if Holland had been alive, there is no reason to believe that the New Zealand Labour government of 1935 would have acted in any less treacherous a manner than its Norwegian counterpart. Holland was an individual of the highest moral rectitude; yet the strongest individual wills in the world bend before the laws of revolution and counter-revolution.


Special thanks to Scott Hamilton for bringing this exchange to my attention.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s