Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Unpicking arcadia: Philip Josephs and early New Zealand anarchism

 Originally published in Imminent Rebellion 12.

“‘God’s Own Country’ is not safe from the vagaries of the person who believes in the bomb as opposed to argument,” bellowed the November 1907 Marlborough Express in response to a Wellington gathering of socialists and anarchists.[i] 

The group, which included the Latvian-born Jewish tailor Philip Josephs, had come together to mark the execution of the Haymarket anarchists—an occasion remembered simultaneously across the world. This event, as well as betraying the typical (and long-lasting) flouting of the anarchist-cum-bomber stereotype by the capitalist media, illustrates two key points: the existence of an nascent anarchist movement in New Zealand, and its rootedness in a wider, transnational milieu.

Yet despite the existence of anarchists and anarchist ideas in New Zealand around the turn of the twentieth century, early anarchism has been relatively neglected. Indeed, the most substantial work to date on anarchism in New Zealand during the twentieth century’s turbulent teens is the indispensable thirty-two-page pamphlet, ‘Troublemakers’ Anarchism and Syndicalism: The Early Years of the Libertarian Movement in Aotearoa/New Zealand, by Frank Prebble. The result of this collective omission is that the roots of our current anarchist movement are both obscured and forgotten.

Ignoring the early anarchist movement in New Zealand also gives weight to the traditional Labourist narrative that radical, direct action politics at the point of production was not enough to bring about socialism, and therefore the site of socialist struggle shifted from the workplace to the benches of parliament. Anarchist tactics are seen to be found wanting, and everything prior to the 1935 Labour government’s parliamentary election is simply its “pre-history.”[ii]

However, as Sewing Freedom: Philip Josephs, Transnationalism & Early New Zealand Anarchism (AK Press, 2013) shows, anarchism in New Zealand has a legacy that can date back to 1904, if not earlier, thanks to the personal perseverance of Philip Josephs and others like him. Anarchists were a valid part of the wider labour movement, imparting uncredited ideas, tactics, and influence. Likewise, anarchist agitation and the circulation of radical literature contributed significantly to the development of a working class counter-culture in New Zealand, and the syndicalist upsurge of the ‘Red’ Federation of Labor (FOL) era (as well as the syndicalist movements during the First World War and after).

This far-from-Labourist line—struggles throughout New Zealand’s history that have aimed to go beyond the limitations of state forms—can be traced from anarchists like Josephs and the upsurge of anti-parliamentary politics. Its early development was fragmented—typified by the decentralised activity of various anarchists placed in their immediate socialist milieu—but existed nonetheless, giving birth to both New Zealand’s first anarchist collectives in 1913, and “dissent from the [Labourist] consensus before, during, and after the [1913 Great] strike.”[iii] Despite the claim otherwise, reformism during the twentieth century has been challenged by New Zealand anarchism, albeit as a minority movement.

It is hard to squeeze Sewing Freedom’s evidence of such claims into one small article. I say this not as a crude attempt to promote buying my book, but because the activities of Josephs and other early anarchists across New Zealand—Dr Thomas Fauset Macdonald, Fay McMasters, Carl Mumme, Len Wilson, Wyatt Jones, Syd Kingsford, J Sweeney, Lola Ridge—were surprising rich in depth and detail. Their involvement in organisations like the New Zealand Socialist Party and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW); the trade union and anti-militarist movements; and all the strikes, struggles and radical cultural work these encompassed, deserves full appreciation.

Take the actions of Fay McMasters, for example. It is common knowledge (in labour history circles at least) that the building of the Otira Tunnel on the West Coast of the South Island was fraught with struggles between workers and management. Wildcat strikes, equally decried by bosses and union ‘leaders’, were a re-occurring form of direct action on the job. Yet what is not commonly known (or not seen as connected) was the presence of self-described anarchist communist, Fay McMasters. A former soldier of the ‘Black Watch’ with experience in giving popular lectures, McMasters would soapbox “in the evenings from 9 to 10.30... in the smoking room for the instruction of all who cared to listen.”14 A month after Jack McCollough noted this entry on McMasters into his diary, Otira workers were on strike—without the blessing of union officials.[iv]

What about the rise of syndicalist tactics, or the revolutionary ideas of the FOL—an organisation that welded a significance influence on the labour movement of the day and featured prominently in its key conflicts? Vocal members of the FOL, such as the fiery Bob Semple, and Paddy Web, subscribed to the anarchist newspaper Freedom through Philip Josephs’ tailor shop-cum-infoshop. Indeed, mere months after his arrival in 1904, Josephs was stocking international anarchist material in copious amounts—from Freedom to Emma Goldman’s Mother Earth. Not only that, he was publishing revolutionary critiques of the labour laws of the day before they became popularised by the FOL.

Of course it is wrong to conclude that Josephs was the key factor in the rise of revolutionary rhetoric in New Zealand. There is no doubt that him and the various individuals across the country who identified as anarchists, form but a small part of the revolutionary upsurge that was the pre-1920 period. But it is not a stretch to say that he and his pamphlets contributed to it in some way. Josephs’ activity, and the actions of other anarchists like him, surely had a hand in the normalisation of syndicalist tactics and the ideology of direct action—an ideology that crystallised into one of New Zealand’s most fraught and revolutionary periods.

Josephs’ transnational diffusion of anarchist doctrine, his links to the wider anarchist movement, and his involvement with Freedom Press (through the distribution of their anarchist politics), ensured anarchist ideas and tactics received a hearing in the New Zealand labour movement well beyond its minority status. Despite Erik Olssen’s suggestion that “few rank and file revolutionaries had much knowledge of syndicalist and anarchist ideology,” it is clear that anarchism—alongside other shades of socialist thought—contributed to the militancy of the movement on a scale not readily recognised by most historical accounts.[v] Likewise, Josephs’ activity places him, and New Zealand anarchism, firmly on the global anarchist map. While the two anarchist collectives that were formed in 1913—an Auckland group and the Wellington Freedom Group—were no Federación Anarquista Ibérica (Iberian Anarchist Federation), the fact that anarchists came together, formed collectives, and propagated the principles of anarchism, at the very least, deserves remembering.[vi]

The point of these examples is not some kind of shallow cry for attention on the part of anarchist historiography. As noted earlier, these past actions and ideas—of which today’s anarchist movement currently forms a part—stand as examples of alternative forms of struggle. They highlight the possibility of other possibilities, and form a continuum of practice that ground the work of today’s anarchists in a rich vein of radical history.

That said, capital and the struggle against it has changed considerably since the times of Philip Josephs and the Wellington Freedom Group. As Endnotes points out, “the ‘twentieth century’... its contours of class relations, its temporality of progress, and its post-capitalist horizons, is obviously behind us.”[vii] Yet the anarchist activity and the syndicalist surge of the early twentieth century serve as pertinent reminders of the successes (and failures) of New Zealand’s anarchist movement. If history is to be more than a nostalgic stroll through the past, and if the historian’s responsibility “is to find those social processes and structures which promise an alternative to the ones now dominant,” then awareness of New Zealand’s anarchist tradition should serve as “a key reminder that we still live in a society deeply divided by class. The actions of the past stand as inspiring, yet unfinished movements.”[viii]

[i] Marlborough Express, 16 November 1907.
[ii] Kerry Taylor, “Cases of the Revolutionary Left and the Waterside Workers’ Union,” in Melanie Nolan (ed.), Revolution: The 1913 Great Strike in New Zealand, Canterbury University Press, 2005, p. 203.
[iii] Ibid., pp. 203–204.
14 “12 June 1908,” McCullough Diary vol 1, McCullough papers, Canterbury Museum Library, Christchurch.
[iv] Marlborough Express, 25 July 1908.
[v] Eric Olssen, The Red Feds: Revolutionary Industrial Unionism and the New Zealand Federation of Labor 1908–1913, Oxford University Press, 1988, p. 86.
[vi] Formed in 1927, the FAI was a large and influential anarchist federation that included affinity groups spread across the Iberian Peninsula. It played a major role in the Spanish union movement, as well as the Spanish Revolution of 1936. See Stuart Christie, We, the Anarchists! A Study of the Iberian Anarchist Federation (FAI) 1927–1937, AK Press, 2008.
[vii] Endnotes 1: Preliminary Materials for a Balance Sheet of the Twentieth Century, 2008, p. 3.
[viii] Jeremy Breecher, Strike! The True History of Mass Insurrection in America from 1877 to the Present—as authentic revolutionary movements against the establishments of state, capital and trade unionism, Straight Arrow Books, 1972, p. 319; Nicholas Lampert, “Struggles at Haymarket: An Embattled History of Static Monuments and Public Interventions” in Josh MacPhee & Eric Ruin (eds.), Realizing the Impossible: Art Against Authority, AK Press, 2007, p. 255.

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