James McPherson is thought to have emigrated to New Zealand about 1865, probably from Britain. Of his background and family nothing is known. One of the few items of personal information is recorded in a letter he wrote to the Lyttelton Times in March 1872: 'I was born in a coal country and have wrought in coal pits'.
McPherson first attracted public attention when he summoned the unemployed of Christchurch to a meeting in Cathedral Square on 10 April 1870 'to take measures into consideration for obtaining employment'. He addressed about 200 people, and demanded constant employment for those already in the province before further immigration was attempted. A committee was elected with McPherson as chairman and Edward Jerningham Wakefield, MHR for Christchurch City East, as secretary. A register of unemployed was compiled, and a petition presented to the Canterbury Provincial Council gained some concessions, such as improved wage rates for stone-breaking.
In January 1871 McPherson again advertised meetings in Cathedral Square. Six hundred people attended and decided to form the Working Men's Mutual Protection Society, which would be open to manual workers only. The society's main object was the circulation in Britain of information about the depressed state of the New Zealand labour market. Among the recipients of this information was the International Working Men's Association in London, led by Karl Marx. An exchange of correspondence ensued, with the Christchurch society sending its rules and the International supplying McPherson with its documents.
McPherson wrote to Marx in November 1871: 'I can inform you that I am not a skilled workman, but a farm labourer, of which there are 1,000 idle at present.' He reported to Marx his intention 'to preach a crusade in favour of every working man becoming a member of your Society. I will give open air lectures in all the towns of this island, and likewise in Melbourne'. He published some of Marx's writings in the Christchurch Press (without mentioning the author's name). In 1872 he published a pamphlet of his own, Reasons why the working men of New Zealand should become Internationalists, with an appendix, 'Anti-Chinese immigration', in which he argued on both economic and racial grounds against Chinese immigration to New Zealand. He spoke repeatedly in Cathedral Square and at indoor meetings, urging working men to join the International 'as a means of stopping immigration and of securing equal rights and privileges to all classes.' A correspondent to the Lyttelton Times attacked McPherson as one of 'the loafing, street-corner Internationalists, who will neither work themselves nor as far as they can, let others work, or even come out to the colony'. His meetings were not always well attended, but one who heard him speak in February 1872 considered that his speech was 'the most sensible one delivered that night, but because he was not a swell, I suppose, the papers scarcely take notice of it.'
In his report to the Hague Congress of the First International in September 1872, Marx listed New Zealand as one of the countries where the organisation had 'established ramifications'. By this time, however, the Christchurch society was already defunct. McPherson announced his intention to visit the West Coast and Otago goldfields, and he may have gone on to Melbourne. He reappeared in March 1874 in Dunedin, where he advertised a lecture at the Athenaeum on the labour question. He condemned the 'iniquitous policy of the New Zealand government in flooding the labour market by holding out false hopes to the working men at Home', and announced his forthcoming departure for Europe where he would 'publish the truth'. In Britain he continued his campaign: in December 1874 he spoke at a farm labourers' meeting in Oxford urging workers not to emigrate to New Zealand.
There is no record of James McPherson's activities after this time. Rendered unemployed at a time of economic downturn he, despite a weak theoretical grasp, became the first propagandist of Karl Marx's ideas among New Zealand working people.