Page 1: Biography
Bennett, Henry Gilbert Scott
This biography, written by Erik Olssen, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1996.
Henry Gilbert Bennett (better known as Harry Scott Bennett) was born in Geelong, Victoria, Australia, on 1 June 1877, the son of a radical carpenter, James William Bennett, and his equally radical wife, Charlotte Mary Phipps, a schoolteacher. Harry Scott Bennett served his apprenticeship as a draper. He was quiet and gentle in manner, passionate in his belief in reason and progress, and selfless in his commitment.
Scott Bennett became a full-time public speaker before being elected, in 1904, to the Legislative Assembly of Victoria as a Political Labor Council member. He married Caroline Thomas, an active socialist, at Melbourne on 1 March 1905. Bennett resigned his seat in 1907, sickened by the compromises of parliamentary politics. Tom Mann, the organiser for the Victorian Socialist Party, converted him to revolutionary socialism and encouraged his ambition. In 1907 he played a leading part in forming the Socialist Federation of Australasia, but he continued to move left, alert to the new gospel of industrial unionism. In 1909–10 he became the mainstay of Sydney's International Socialist Club, winning a reputation for his grasp of socialist theory and his spellbinding oratory. He could distil complex theoretical issues into witty aphorisms and he integrated his Marxist diagnosis of capitalism with a cultural critique of bourgeois society which made hostility to 'wowsers' a central element in the revolutionary faith. When he drank to excess, as he sometimes did, it made a political statement.
Harry Scott Bennett undertook a short organising tour for the New Zealand Socialist Party in 1909. He spoke in Wellington and on the West Coast, revitalising several branches. The New Zealand Federation of Miners, soon to widen its membership as the New Zealand Federation of Labour, then hired him to speak in the mining towns of the North Island and in the Manawatu flax mills. He quickly concluded that the social reform programme of the Liberal government had broken down. The absence of a labour party, he decided, simplified the prospect of achieving revolution.
In 1910 Bennett was back in New Zealand, touring the West Coast and Auckland on behalf of the Federation of Labour. When the Auckland branch of the Socialist Party invited him to become their organiser he accepted, returning to Auckland in May. His Sunday night lectures quickly attracted enormous audiences. He also wrote for the party's weekly New Zealand Leader, vigorously attacking prohibition and the Bible in schools movement. He organised classes on public speaking and socialist theory which became famous as schools for activists. Wherever he went he preached that the palliatives of the Liberals, including arbitration, had failed; that craft unionism was an obstacle to progress; that only through industrial unions could the workers achieve self reliance and dignity and, at the same time, build a revolutionary state within a state.
Bennett founded a weekly paper, the Social Democrat, which replaced the Leader. The first issue appeared in February 1911. The Democrat was Scott Bennett in print: cheeky, irreverent, witty, pithy. He preached revolutionary socialism and attacked religion and the clergy in the name of reason, science, and progress. The local Protestant churches tried to have the Auckland City Council ban him. His fame spread. Crowds queued for hours to hear him speak; lesser orators had to amuse those who failed to gain admission. He also sustained his assault on craft unions and their paid secretaries, and trenchantly denounced state socialism as 'wowserish' paternalism.
Scott Bennett initially saw the New Zealand Federation of Labour and the Socialist Party as the vehicles for achieving 'the Socialist Republic', but in 1911 doubts emerged. He became increasingly critical of the federation because of its craft and sectional structure. The Socialist Party's reformism also worried him. When the New Zealand Labour Party hired Walter Thomas Mills to preach reformism and unity, Bennett moved quickly to reject all forms of political action. On the eve of the 1911 elections he and Mills debated the issues before enormous crowds in the four main cities.
Bennett's attack on all forms of political action and his scathing criticisms of the Federation of Labour helped prepare the way for the growth locally of the Industrial Workers of the World (the Wobblies). During his absence in Melbourne in the summer of 1911–12 the Wobblies won the initiative in Auckland. Bennett returned in haste in April 1912 to campaign for the federation's preferred mayoral candidate, a lawyer, and renewed his call for one big union. Although his lectures remained popular, he no longer dominated the Auckland stage. Many of the ablest socialists left to join the Wobblies, and Bennett handed over the Social Democrat to them. Meanwhile he attended the federation's 1912 conference and helped remodel that organisation as an industrial union capable of waging class war.
Bennett became disillusioned with the Wobblies during the Waihi strike of 1912. In 1913 he closed ranks with the federation's leaders, worked to unify the deeply divided union movement and helped found the Social Democratic Party. He and his old enemy, Mills, worked as organisers, but during the great strike of 1913 Bennett returned to Auckland and spoke regularly at Sir George Grey's statue outside the Auckland Town Hall. 'You would imagine that Auckland was in a state of civil war', he wrote to his mother; 'warship guns pointed on the town, armed men everywhere'. Following defeat he stayed on as an organiser for the SDP but his hopes for revolution in New Zealand had been disappointed. And he had experienced personal tragedy: his wife, Caroline, died in Auckland on 12 September 1913, leaving him with three young children. For several years he felt a loss of direction, and was restless. In September 1915 he left for a long and successful speaking tour in the United States.
In 1917 Bennett returned to Melbourne to campaign against conscription. He worked for the Victorian Socialist Party, but the First World War destroyed his faith in the possibility of quickly achieving revolutionary socialism. He came back to New Zealand in 1920 but soon left to settle in Sydney, where he married Eliza Jane Joynson on 14 November 1922. Over the next 30 years he devoted himself to the work of the New South Wales Rationalist Association and became well known as a public speaker campaigning for a variety of causes. He revisited New Zealand in 1922–23 and 1939–40. He died in Sydney on 25 May 1959, survived by his wife and the children of his first marriage.