Story: Ideas in New Zealand

Page 6. Socialism

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Socialism without doctrines

The government of the 1890s extended itself into new areas such as labour laws, immigration restriction, housing, liquor legislation and protections for women and children. The unspoken assumption was that the state represented ‘the people’ and should be used to protect citizens from monopolies and unfair competition.

Socialism New Zealand-style

John A. Lee’s 1938 volume Socialism in New Zealand was no more than a list of forms of government ownership and operation, particularly as expressed in the laws of the 1935 Labour government. These included the telephone system and the national radio. Lee wrote that ‘there is no more glittering example of successful socialism than New Zealand Hydro Power’.1 He emphasised that New Zealand socialism was based on ‘expediency and not on socialist philosophy’2.

The measures were described systematically by overseas observers such as Albert Métin and André Siegfried, who came to report on the ‘social laboratory of the world’. The only New Zealander to pull them together in a focused way was William Pember Reeves. In his 1898 history and then his 1902 book State experiments, he located the Liberal government’s achievements within a wider Australian and New Zealand context. State experiments was read widely overseas by American progressives and English Fabians. What had begun as ad hoc legislation based on common assumptions in New Zealand entered into western thinking.

Métin described what he saw as socialism without doctrines. In the mid-19th century the word ‘socialism’ represented an ideal of cooperation and altruism, as distinct from the individualistic values of pure capitalism. By the late 19th century, when Métin and Reeves used the term, it meant any extension of the state to assume new functions for the welfare of the whole.

Radical socialist theories

Yet there was much socialist theory being expounded in western circles from the mid-19th century, and some of it reached New Zealand. Edward Bellamy’s utopian novel Looking backward, which imagined an industrial army working in nationalised factories, was read in the 1890s, and from about 1900 more radical ideas arrived. In origin they derived from Karl Marx with his idea of a working-class revolution which would lead to socialist ownership of the means of production. These ideas entered New Zealand through a range of sources.

  • In 1900 a group of socialists led by William Ranstead arrived in New Zealand, which they believed was the ‘workingman’s paradise’. They established a socialist party and published a journal which became increasingly radical.
  • From Britain came touring unionists like Ben Tillet in 1907 and Tom Mann the following year.
  • From North America came influences from the International Workers of the World or ‘Wobblies’, especially brought by a Canadian, H. M. Fitzgerald, and New Zealander Pat Hickey, who had travelled in the United States and joined a mining union in Utah.

From these influences came ideas of revolutionary industrial unionism – of class solidarity and one big union to resist capitalist monopolies. Out of union conflict at West Coast coal mines in 1908 came a New Zealand Federation of Labour (known as the ‘Red Feds’). The federation expounded these ideas, leading eventually to a major strike at Waihī in 1912 and a general strike in 1913. Australians like Paddy Webb and Bob Semple helped Hickey spread the new gospel, and in 1911 the Red Feds took over the Maoriland Worker to expound their ideas. Before long New Zealanders were being exposed directly to the writings of Karl Marx and William Morris.

Socialist slogans

The 1910 constitution of the Federation of Labour was headed ‘World’s Wealth for World’s Workers’; it proclaimed ‘an injury to one an injury to all’ and aimed ‘for the complete abolition of the present wage system, and the substitution of the common ownership of the means of production’.3

There was not always unanimity. Some took their inspiration from the American Daniel De Leon and focused on political activity. Others, inspired by the Wobblies, emphasised revolutionary industrial unionism, sabotage and the general strike. New Zealand did not contribute many new ideas to the socialist canon, but for a few years debate was strong, and a distinct (although never large) group emerged who believed in revolution and the primacy of a class analysis.

The Russian revolution, followed after the Second World War by the Cold War, further isolated radical socialists. However, at times of crisis such as the 1951 waterfront lockout, appeals to class conflict and to the common ‘manhood’ of workers were heard in radical circles in New Zealand.

  1. John A. Lee, Socialism in New Zealand. London: T. W. Laurie, 1938, p. 121. Back
  2. Socialism in New Zealand, p. 14. Back
  3. Quoted in Erik Olssen, The red feds: revolutionary industrial unionism and the New Zealand Federation of Labour 1908–14. Auckland: Oxford University Press, 1988, pp. 34–35. Back
How to cite this page:

Jock Phillips, 'Ideas in New Zealand - Socialism', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 23 July 2024)

Story by Jock Phillips, published 22 Oct 2014