Page 1: Biography
Political activist, poet, newspaper editor, writer
This biography, written by Rachel Barrowman, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1993.
Arthur Desmond was unknown to the electors of Hawke's Bay when he stood for Parliament in 1884. 'We only know that Mr Desmond is a cattle-drover, and that he is of Radical tendencies', the editor of the Hawke's Bay Herald wrote. He was said to be 25 years old, born in New Zealand of Irish descent. He had been in Hawke's Bay since the late 1870s, and had worked as a musterer in south Taranaki. Of his background and personal life nothing more is known.
Desmond stood as 'a representative of the small settler and the working man', and polled 190 votes with a radical platform including a land tax and a tax on the unearned increment, resumption of the Crown's right of pre-emption on Maori land, annual parliaments, and the abolition of the Legislative Council. The press dismissed his election meetings as 'low comedy' and his policies as outrageous. Later that year he wrote to the Hawke's Bay Weekly Courier denouncing Julius Vogel and Robert Stout at length and describing all parliamentarians as 'a pack of thieves', and was banned from the paper's columns.
When he stood for Parliament again in 1887 Desmond claimed that in the previous three years he had been blacklisted by runholders and forced to leave the district to find work. Undeterred, he renewed his attack on landlords, usurers and monopolists and advocated nationalisation of large estates and the establishment of a state bank. His opponents remained unimpressed, but at the poll Desmond received 562 votes to the 968 of the sitting member, W. R. Russell.
Arthur Desmond next came to public attention early in 1889 in Poverty Bay, when he was shouted down at a public meeting at Makaraka, called to condemn the government's inaction over the threatened visit of Te Kooti. Desmond had attempted, unwisely, to defend Te Kooti's peaceful intentions. Four days later, at a meeting in Gisborne on 21 February called by the town's Vigilance Committee, he came forward with a message from the chiefs who had invited Te Kooti and was ejected from the building. Desmond denied claims that he was in Te Kooti's pay, and argued that local antagonism derived from the settlers' desire for free trade in Maori land – 'avarice directed by shrewd and sagacious men.' The Maori, he wrote elsewhere, 'look upon our whole system of land purchase and land monopoly as an unpardonable wrong'.
Desmond was reported to be writing a book about the Maori. His first published poem, 'The song of Te Kooti', appeared in the Sydney Bulletin in March 1889. In April he was in the King Country, where he wrote down Maori songs and stories (described as translations), some of which were published in the literary quarterly Zealandia. Desmond more often expressed his literary talents in revolutionary ballads and laments for the oppressed working classes, such as 'Death song for the Huntly miners' (written after a mine disaster in December 1890):
For ages the workers have toiled on – have toiled on,
While Do-Naughts grow wealthy, without work at all;
And thousands received for a lifetime of bondage
Our dead comrades' wages – the earth for a pall!
He published a number of such verses in the Bulletin, the New Zealand Observer and Free Lance and other local papers, and in his own short-lived weekly paper, the Tribune.
Published in Auckland from October to December 1890, the Tribune, 'New Zealand's national newspaper', pledged 'to strike unsparingly at every foe who menaces the rights of the people'. Its first issue included an exposition by Desmond on capital, labour and surplus value, a short story by Olive Schreiner, trade union and political news, and satirical jabs at Auckland's 'self-styled capitalists'. Desmond had gone to Auckland at the end of 1889 to study books in Sir George Grey's collection at the Auckland Free Public Library. Unable to find employment in the city, he went north to work as a bushman. 1890 was the year of the maritime strike – one manifestation of 'the present world-wide mobilisation of the army of social discontent', Desmond told the Auckland Star – and he became active in the trade union movement. In September he offered to operate the Taupiri coal mine as a co-operative and supply coal to Auckland at cost price during the strike. (The offer was rejected by the mine's owners.) In October he was elected honorary secretary of the United Labour Electoral Committee, formed to support labour candidates in the forthcoming election, and he was a member of the Central Liberal Committee which supported George Grey and other Liberal candidates.
Desmond did not stand for Parliament in 1890, despite initial intentions, but he succeeded in upstaging the candidates with his claim that the election was being run by an international capitalist conspiracy involving the London-based Globo Assets Company, the Bank of New Zealand Estates Company and the Employers' Association of Auckland. He had already crossed swords with the Employers' Association when they found him running the Tribune in premises they managed, without their knowledge and refusing to pay rent. (This incident occasioned one of several cartoons in the New Zealand Observer caricaturing his exploits.) His opponents retaliated with accusations that his article, 'Christ as a social reformer', first published in the literary magazine Zealandia in June 1890 and reprinted as a pamphlet with an introduction by George Grey, had been plagiarised from an American magazine. Desmond claimed that the American article had been stolen from his own, and dismissed the accusation as 'an electioneering dodge'. His attackers included the leaders of the single-tax movement in Auckland, with whom he had also fallen out. He had earlier written on Henry George in the Monthly Review and contributed to the first issue of the single-tax paper, Justice.
Desmond next appeared in Wellington, where in early 1891 he endeavoured to interest the Wellington Trades and Labour Council in supporting a new labour paper. He lectured on the Wellington waterfront on Sunday afternoons: 'a young man – Irish, eloquent, poetic, hard-up', red-haired and red-bearded. He appears also to have spent some time in the South Island.
By October 1892 he had left New Zealand for Sydney and a mysterious and peripatetic career as a political activist, newspaper editor and writer. He was a leading figure in radical political circles in Sydney for two or three years, associated with labour politicians W. M. Hughes and J. T. Lang, and was an influence on the poet Henry Lawson. After leaving Australia Desmond spent time in America and Britain, and is also reported to have travelled to Manchuria and South Africa. Reputedly he adopted the pseudonym 'Ragnar Redbeard', and came under the influence of Nietzschean ideas, which he elaborated in his major work, The survival of the fittest, or, The philosophy of power, first published in Chicago in 1896 and subsequently in London and Melbourne as Might is right. (Tolstoy argued against it in What is art? in 1898.) As Ragnar Redbeard, Arthur Desmond may claim to be the only New Zealander to have exerted an ideological influence on the international labour movement.
His end is as obscure as his origins. He is reported to have died in Mexico in 1914, and in Palestine in 1918 and in 1926. He was also said to be alive and running a bookshop in Chicago in the 1920s.