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Story: Allen, Ernest John Bartlett

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Allen, Ernest John Bartlett


Socialist, editor, writer, political reformer

This biography, written by Erik Olssen, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1996.

Ernest John Bartlett Allen was born at South Hinksey, Berkshire, England, on 29 March 1884 to Ellen Bartlett and her husband, Spencer Henry Allen, a butcher. Allen must have shown considerable intellectual ability for he studied European languages at Oxford, probably around 1900. He married Matilda Andrews at London on 4 June 1904; they were to have two daughters and a son.

As a student Allen joined England's only Marxist political party, H. M. Hyndman's Social Democratic Federation, but he quickly moved further left. In 1903 he followed the disciples of Daniel De Leon into the Socialist Labour Party, a small but influential group which stressed the revolutionary role of industrial unionism. Allen became one of the party's London leaders, and wrote for its paper, the Socialist. His enthusiasm for industrial unionism as the instrument for achieving socialism led him to found the Advocates of Industrial Unionism and formulate its strategy. When the leaders of the SLP favoured doctrinal purity over growth in membership, Allen resigned and formed the Industrial League. He propagated industrial unionism, established and edited the Industrialist, and in 1909 published a brief but influential defence of his beliefs, Revolutionary unionism, in which he spelt out the tactics of direct action.

In 1910, when Tom Mann formed the Industrial Syndicalist Education League (ISEL), Allen joined him and became an organiser in Huddersfield. He also continued to write lucid expositions of industrial unionism, promoting it as the only means of allowing workers to survive monopoly capitalism and as the instrument for achieving revolution. He also saw it as giving the revolutionary worker 'that sense of moral responsibility to his fellows that fits him for the task of controlling society'. A general strike, Allen believed, would usher in the millennium.

Allen moved back to London in 1912 to become assistant editor of the Syndicalist and assistant secretary of the ISEL. When both were at the height of their influence he left, possibly at Mann's suggestion, for New Zealand, which had suddenly emerged as the brightest hope for revolutionary industrial unionists; the absence of an established labour party supposedly made revolution simpler to achieve. Allen's considerable reputation as a writer and thinker preceded him and within weeks he had become assistant editor on the Māoriland Worker. He wrote a series of articles on developments in Britain and a series on revolutionary strategies for New Zealand. The general strike of 1913 politicised him, however, and while retaining his faith in industrial unionism he called for revolutionary political action to assist in emancipating labour from the wages system.

With the arrest of the Māoriland Worker's editor, Harry Holland, for sedition, Allen found himself editing New Zealand's leading socialist journal. When the First World War began he supported both the war and conscription; most of New Zealand's revolutionary socialists opposed both and Allen lost his job. The labour movement now offered him little for he had no base in any union and was a poor speaker. He found work as an unskilled labourer in Auckland.

The war forced a complex realignment of the factions on the left. Many former militants had joined the New Zealand Labour Party, formed in 1916; others formed Marxist groups or returned to syndicalism. Allen resumed his public meditations about the strategy for achieving socialism in New Zealand. In 1919 he wrote for the Māoriland Worker and the Auckland Labour News, edited by Michael Joseph Savage, on the problem of achieving socialism in a colonial economy where each advance was at the mercy of the price obtained for exports. He also argued that while New Zealand was 'an almost complete miniature of the older capitalist countries', it was 'happily placed, in as much as there is not yet fully developed a purely parasitic class in society'. Indeed many of the parasites lived abroad, especially in Britain, and they preyed on not only the 'wage slaves' but also the 'mortgage "cockatoos" '.

In Auckland, the heartland of syndicalism in New Zealand, the leaders of the Labour Party quickly realised Allen's usefulness. They asked him to write a defence of political action which would persuade those influenced by syndicalism and Bolshevism. In Labour and politics (1922) he argued that each country's socialists had to devise a strategy consistent with local circumstances. He spelt out in detail those circumstances which made New Zealand distinctive: the small scale of most industry and the relative unimportance of the industrial sector meant that capitalism was not fully developed. Besides, 'the comparatively easy avenues of escape' from wage slavery, not to mention the democratic franchise, made constitutional methods appropriate for achieving socialism. Unsuccessful strikes only increased working-class conservatism.

Allen's pamphlet doubtless helped consolidate support for the Labour Party among the more militant unionists. The president of the Labour Party in Auckland, John A. Lee, certainly found Allen interesting and enjoyed discussing socialist theory with him. In 1927–28 they met frequently and Lee employed Allen on his campaign committee in his unsuccessful bid to enter Parliament in 1928.

During the 1920s Allen is listed as working as a driver. He may have spent time in unemployment camps during the depression, and he later became a clerical worker. Until shortly before his death he lectured at the Auckland Rationalist Association and wrote regularly for both the New Zealand Rationalist and John A. Lee's Weekly. On 16 June 1945 this ascetic and dedicated convert to proletarian revolution died at Auckland. He was survived by his wife and children. Only John A. Lee's Weekly and the New Zealand Rationalist carried obituaries.

How to cite this page:

Erik Olssen. 'Allen, Ernest John Bartlett', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1996. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/3a11/allen-ernest-john-bartlett (accessed 20 April 2024)