E J B Allen and the muck of syndicalism
In the midst of yet another bout of overwork, this blog has become neglected. In fact, everything has become neglected; it’s amazing how many things one has to catch up on. Anyway, I’ve let myself have the pleasure of doodling a few things on this blog tonight.
One of the better things to happen in historical circles in recent years is papers past. Papers past is an initiative of the national library to digitise old New Zealand newspapers, generally before about 1920 if i remember right. They then make them freely available on the interwebs — which some I could guess claim are yet another limited, distorted example of communism in action (for one thing, while digitisation offers old newspapers for free, we are still riding on the back of all the poor sods who spend their days scanning in newspapers – digitisation requires a casual workforce who must get bored out of their brains scanning things in day in, day out, for what I guess are pretty shitty wages). The great thing about papers past is that it allows anybody to use it as a tool for historical research, rather than that research being limited to a small group of professional genealogists, historians and students, or those who have the time and money to be able to spend lots of time in libraries. It also speeds up the research process a hell of a lot quicker, as you don’t have to spend hours if not days searching thru numerous documents and papers and newspapers just trying to find that bit of magic evidence. All you have to do is enter something in the search engine and you come up with what you want (although you can get a whole lot of irrelevant answers). Which means that there is a flurry of people checking out their ancestors in the papers, and finding out some funny things about them.
Anyway, for some strange reason, they put up the Maoriland Worker on papers past. From memory, the Maoriland Worker was the paper of the Shearers’ Union before WWI, then became the paper of the ‘Red’ Federation of Labour when it was influenced by syndicalism, and then became the official organ of the NZ Labour Party when it was formed in 1916 (but still retained some syndicalist influence). There is a good article in a recent Labour History Project Newsletter by Peter Clayworth that provides an overview of its history. The Maoriland Worker sort of served as the major left-wing paper of the times, and what is more, it was generally eclectic, revolutionary in its early years, and quite fiery, lively and energetic, in a way that current radical papers are not (in fact, they are quite dull and banal). The Maoriland Worker is worth reading for a trip back into the past.
You can find all sorts of things. For example, I come across this from MW 25 April 1913:
The pakeha wage-slave can learn something from his Brown Brother. A native before the Feilding Court in a debt case was asked if he was in constant work. “No,” he said, “I’m not like European, work all the time. You know Maori, he have to knock off sometime.” “Yes,” said the magistrate, smilingly, “he has to go to a huia [sic] or a tangi occasionally.” The Maori smiled broadly. Further asked how such work he had been doing, he said, “Oh, work three weeks, knock off for a month!”
Hmmm, funny – good to see someone refusing to work and practising jobbing before it became a popular strategy in the 1960s and 1970s and 1980s (taking a job for a while, and then living off the proceeds, in order to the more important things in life than wage-slavery), but a bit weird, given he was up for bad debts – and how many Maori had become a sort of precarious rural proletariat after the vast majority of their lands had been brutally (or cunningly – I am thinking of the ‘native land’ court) enclosed by capital and the state, getting casual, badly-paid and physically demanding farm work for a while, and this wee story gives us a glimpse that the income they received was often not enough to live on (given his indebtedness). Maori were quite impoverished.
Anyway, it is amazing what you can turn up in half an hour’s research on papers past. I turn to the story of E J B Allen. I’ve had an interest in Allen since I helped out a comrade from England with some research about him. He was a prominent syndicalist from England who moved to New Zealand in 1913, when most Pakeha NZers considered Britain (or Ireland) home. He received a wee bit of education at Oxford, but dropped out without a degree if I remember right. In New Zealand, he was pretty much dirt poor throughout his life, having a succession of shitty labouring jobs, and his family resented how he was castigated by the socialist movement as an aloof Oxbridge intellectual with a stiff upper lip who had no experience of working-class struggle or life. Allen even wrote an article about communism or was it anarchist communism for a British paper, which would be a good one to find and publish. But there was another reason why Allen found it tough in the nascent NZ socialist movement.
His arrival is greeted in the MW on 4 April 1913. He was interviewed in the next article:
A Distinguished Syndicalist – Arrival in New Zealand – RECOMMENDED TO NEW ZEALANDERS. – AN INTERVIEW
We were delighted to have a chat with friend and fellow-worker Allen when he arrived in Wellington on his way to Auckland; and we expect him to be of great service in this country. He will be a contributor to our paper, and we will leave him to speak for himself. However, Allen brought some credentials that we read with pleasure and pride—one from good old Tom Maun commending Allen eulogistically to the workers of New Zealand. There was another from the Natonal Union of Gasworkers and General Laborers (London office) reading in part as follows
222 Carr-rd., Walthamstow. Dear Comrade,—On behalf of the Walthamstow branch, I am writing to express oar regret to lose a comrade who has taken his part on behalf of the working-class movement in this country, and has done his share towards the emancipation of his class from the domination of capitalism. On behalf of my fellow-members, I wish you a pleasant voyage to the far-off land and hope you will find it more prosperous than the Old Country. I hope you will have the best of health so that you may be able to Carry on the propaganda for the cause you have at heart.—W. FLUTE, Branch Sec.
This is the message from the Indnstrial Syndicalist Education League: To all Concerned, —At the first annual general meeting of the 1.5. E.L., held at the Communist Club to-day (Feb. 1.), all the members and delegates present joined in a hearty expression of appreciation for the services rendered both to the league and the Labor movement in England by E. J. B. Allen. They wish him a safe voyage, and most heartily recommend him to all comrades in Australasia, where he is going. May he succeed in rendering the same services at the Antipodes as he has done here.—GUY BOWMAN, Gen. Sec,
The following speaks for itself: There arrived by the Tongariro on March 28, a, prominent Home syndicalist, at one time connected editorially with the official paper in the Old Country. To a Dunedin Star reporter he said there would be another big transport strike in England in July. The railway men,- he stated, are also very discontented, and will probably come out this year. The conciliation of Mr. Lloyd George had not been very effective. At a great delegation meeting recently in Manchester of the more advanced Labor thought, those in favour of direct methods of procedure towards obtaining social reforms had got resolutions carried which would mean the contradiction of the French methods of Spontaneous strikes, general strikes, antimilitarism and sabotage. The word “sabotage,” which was much abused, meant harassing employers. For instance, if an employer had a contract and a time limit, the workers might use the circumstances to obtain better conditions. The anti-militarist tactics would be on the lines of the famous “open letter to British soldiers” in connection with which Tom Mann was imprisoned. The Insurance Act would fail as regarded its unemployment relief payments, because the labour agencies were unworkable on their intended lines, and opened the door to the cutting of wages. There was now in England no antagonism between the “political Socialists” and the ‘direct actioniats”; they were co-operating. It is realised that Socialism will not come for the asking nor even through Parliament, but that “outside pressure” must be excercised to achieve its ideals. It is thought that even if a Socialist House of Commons were elected, the Constitution would be suspended before the dictates of such a body would be accepted. The “direct* actionists” see ahead, and are preparing for any contingency from the lever of a general strike to we phenomena of insurrection when the crisis comes.
Asked about the rivalry between England and Germany, the newcomer said that it was commercial rivalry. Austria, backed by Germany, wanted a route to the Mediterranean and a say in the Bagdad railway, and the development and port construction following on that. There was the commercial antagonism between two great countries, and also the jingo spirit. The only hope of peace is that the German worker may be persuaded to use his training as a conscript to prevent war. He is getting as much of the necessary education now as- possible. Of course, constitutional government was merely a farce in Germany. Returning to Labor questions, the syndicalist editor said that the Socialist movement had now become a recognised part of the working-man’s existence in England. The workers there believe first of all in joining the co-operation movement, so as to get rid of the middleman; secondly, they join a trades union; and, thirdly, the local Socialist Club. The policy is a combination of the old procedure: work in Parliament and pressure outside.
Hmm, no antagonism between syndicalists and social democrats??
Contrast the anti-militarism voiced above this with this letter from Allen in MW, 2 July 1919:
The old International Workingmen’s Association declared “that the economic emancipation of the workers is the end toward which all political activity should be subordinated.” It is control of. the means of our livelihood that is the chief concern of the workers, therefore it depends upon the effectiveness of our industrial organisation and activity whether we make any advance in New Zealand or not. We are miles behind the Old Country at the present time, and our antiquated, I sectional, local arbitration unions will never command sufficient respect from the employers to offer us anything other than that which the Arbitration Court says shall be offered. Until the workers of the Dominion have learned to stand on their own legs instead of being propped up by the Arbitration Court no advance will be made. Seeing that the bulk of the New Zealand workers have been used to being spoon fed, let us start at the bottom and endeavor to make industrial unionism possible under the Arbitration Act. There will then be the possibility of utilising the machine if it can be made. The proposals of the Executive of the United Federation of Labor for joint councils on the Whitley plan (which have been turned down by every militant body of workers at Home) will draw nothing more than a sneer from the employers here, because, apart from the miners, there is hardly a single union that is national in scope and has the requisite solidarity and class-conscious spirit to put up a fight and command respect. My friend Tom Bloodworth may think otherwise, but the bosses will have no joint council with any body of workers who have not compelled them to realise that the industry cannot be run without them or run efficiently without their active co-operation. The remote and possible exception are a few local bodies, which may be captured by the Labor Party. The need of the hour is for a more militant industrial propaganda, its objective the abolition of the wages system and the reorganisation of the industrial system upon control by the workers in the industries. The New Zealand Labor Party have just contested the municipal elections and is preparing for the parliamentary elections, and the chief propaganda seems to be the “release of the conscientious objectors,” and not the need for the overthrow of the present systm. I may not be in touch with the movement so much as circumstances have permitted on other occasions, but I think, in spite of the meteor-like success of P. I Fraser, the workers are by no means so solidly in favor of the anti-war propaganda as some of our spokesmen believe. But apart from that matter, the majority of votes cast for Labor candidates are cast for them in spite of the anti-war attitude and not because of it. The proof lies in the attenuated support given to the dependants of the C.O.’s. For strike victims the money came in, for alleged seditionists the money came in, but there was a big drop when it came to the C.O.’s pure and simple. And if that is the position in the unions, what is it like amongst the general public, the shopkeepers, the civil servants, the professional men, the farmers, and all those -whom the Labor Party must ask for votes? Instead of the spokesmen of the Labor movement neglecting the more important cause of industrial ownership and control, by their illogical campaign of passivism and pacificists, they should get to bedrock. There will be no Labor victories at the general election unless the war issue is side-stepped. Holland succeeded a Labor man, so did Semple. Fraser is really the only definite winner. We must not forget that the coming elections will take place when the men have returned, and they are not pacifists. They have seen war and they do not want to see it again, but when our fellow-workers in Belgium and Northern France are threatened again, most, if able, would again, go to fight the bestial invaders of a peaceful country. The returned men want a square deal, and they will hesitate in thinking that they can obtain it from a party which was opposed to them going away and which tried to prevent adequate reinforcements going except on terms that were exceptional. Socialists are supposed to believe in social duties, and no right without equivalent service, which must include military service as well as industrial or other matters. We object to the parasitism of the capitalists and landlords under the present system; we cannot do other than look upon as parasites those who refuse their obligations, but who desire the privileges. We hate them as non-unionists, but must apparently idolise them as pacifists. The war split the Labor movement in the past. Too much extolling of the passive resisters will split it again at the elections, if Howard Elliot does not.
Industrial solidarity and a militant policy is the chief matter. Let the Labor spokesmen deal with these. Too much parliamentarism with a weak and divided union movement, is only going to repeat Australia over again. To a European the thing seems incredible that there should have been a Federal Labor Government and no emancipation. We know where the trouble lies, and until the workers unite and take and hold that which they produce through an economic organisation of the working-class there is no hope. Concentration on the C.O.s won’t cut much ice either politically or industrially. We want more of working-class agitation and less of parliamentarism. Whitely councils and joint committees come as a concession to strength and are not bestowed as gifts to weaklings. The squatter and employer- do not care a tinker’s damn for the U.F.L. proposals, because the U.F.L. has no power to do anything. The miners have their own organisations and win respect and concessions. The Transport Workers have won a little. But where are the others? It seems the U.F.L. is superfluous, and it needs the miners, transporters, and A.P.U. to form a U.F.L.
Not C.O.s, but industrial organisation is the prime business. Unity over essentials and not splits over non-essentials. And to those who adopt the heresy-hunting tactics on men who would not support German militarism by refusing to fight it, I would call attention to the splendid motto of the co-operative movement at Home: “In things essential, Unity. In things doubtful, Liberty. In all things, Charity.’ E. G. B. ALLEN.
Yes, Allen supported the Allies and conscription during WWI! He was not alone in this, given the French CGT, then the biggest syndicalist union in the world, mostly supported WWI and a minority of ‘anarcho-trenchists’ did as well, like Kropotkin, Grave and others. Allen was expelled from the socialist movement, and the above letter was part of his re-engagement with it. Allen received a caustic response from C. Faulkner from Auckland in MW, 23 July 1919:
It was with great interest I listened to the caustic criticisms on the above subject which appeared m your issue of July 2, -written by E. J. B. Allen. Although there was much there that was interesting and worthy of consideration, it seems to me that the whole trend of his letter consists of an attack on the N.Z. Labor Party for daring to show a little sympathy to the C.O.s and demanding, their release. As most of the C.O.s are Labor men and class-conscious Socialists, with a fair knowledge of the class War (a qualification which E. J. B. Allen seems to lack), from whom else can the C.O.s expect sympathy or cousideration if not from the Labor Party. At the end of his letter he appeals for charity in all things. Very good. Let us for a moment review the position of some of the C.O.’s. In 1913, when the strike of waterside workers took place, all the power of capitalism and landlordism was brought to bear upon the workers. Result, after a strenuous fight lasting eight weeks, total defeat of the toilers, and in addition to that a denial for nearly three years of the right of hundreds of the workers to follow the occupation to which they had been accustomed, consequently, homes were broken up and families scattered to various parts of the colonies. Just a matter of surprise, Sir, that a few months later, when the war broke out, and Mr. Fat appealed to the wageslaves to go and make the country “safe for capitalism,” they got the reply from many: See you damned first; go and protect your property yourself. Of course, one cannot expect E J B Allento feel quite as bitter on that subject as many of us, as he at that time was snugly ensconced on the staff of The Maoriland Worker, in receipt of a fairly remunerative salary, and consequently did not feel the terrible pressure of the mailed fist of capitalism as some of us did. Mr. Allen further states that if occasion required, many who know what war is would return and fight the bestial invader of Belgium and Northern France. True, men can be got to fight in all wars, holy or unholy, just as in England volunteers are enlisting at the rate of a thousand a week to go to Russia and collect the debts of thin German-Jew money lenders, destroy the Revolution, and restore Czardom to the throne, and I am not so certain that it is patriotism with 50 per cent, so much as the 5/- a day seven days a week, and the rather generous allotment to wife and children, which animating them, combined with a great, deal of change and some interesting adventure. Mr. Allen should extend some of the charity to the C.O.’s. who have just as good a case as Mr. E. G. B. Allen had when, nearly two years after the war had been on, he tried to enlist, and was turned down owing, as I understand, to physical inability. Much more might be said, but I will be content to leave his cheap sneer re the very small amount of power held by the U.F.L., to some more able pen than mine.—C. FAULKNER. Auckland, July 8, 1919.
Shows you the left could be just as nasty, brutal and short as it is today. And what is Faulker on about by mentioning German-Jew moneylenders? Ugly anti-semitism.
Allen then replies to Faulkner at length citing all the socialists who supported the war:
Mr. E.J.B.Allen replies at extreme length to gome personal issues raised by another correspondent, Mr. C. Faulkner. The main points touched ou by Mr. Allen were a refutation of the statement that he waited two years before attempting to enlist, and a very long explanation, or rather narrative, of the events leading up to and including his experience in The Worker Office as sub-editor under Mr. H. B. Holland in 1913-1914. Mr. Allen then proceeds to propound his attitude to the C.O.s and other questions. .Consideration of space prevent giving his letter in full. The following is a very interesting extract: “The men in the International Labor movement who denounced the crime of Germany contain workers far better known than those of the opposing school. Kropotkin, Jean Grave, Reclusj in France; Hyndman, Bax, Blatchford, C’lynes and practically the whole Labor Party in England; W. E. Mailing, Prof. G. D. Herron, in America; Dr. Robert Michels, author of “J’Accuse” and “The Crime,” Karl Liebknecht, Rosa Luxemburg, of Germany; Bissolatti, D’Annunzio, of Italy; and in France again men of such vitally divergent views as Vaillant, Herve, Albert Thomas, Varenne, He la Porte, Morel and Jules Guerde (the leader of the Marxians); in Belgium, Vaidervelde and Huysm’ns. For every pacifist, there are so many who saw the danger to democracy. I can assure Mrs. Watson that I know many C.O.s and Socialists who were against the war even when forced on us, and to quote Hyndmau: “As a Socialist, I can understand their fanaticism, though I despise their judgment.’ Capitalism under the control of home employers and financiers is bad, but it can be controlled by educated workers. Capitalism in victorious alliance with foreign Junkerdom would have made France uninhabitable ‘for Frenchmen, and would have thrown back Democratic Socialism for at least two generations throughout Europe.” Referring to Germany, Hyndman, in “Clemenceau-. The Man and His Time,” says: “As an old Socialist myself, who, as a member ot the International Socialist Bureau, had discussed the whole question at length with Liebknecht, Bebel, Singer and Kautsky (the idea of the German Social Democrats stopping war), I knew that, as they themselves explained to mc, there was little or no hope of anything of the sort being done when war was once declared. I viewed the whole propaganda with alarm, and Bebel himself warned the French that the Socialists would: march with the rest.” I wrote my letter merely to point out that many members of the rank and file of the U.F. of L. and the Labor Party were not Pacifists and had a conscientious objection to being compelled to see so much time and attention being paid to this issue. Is one’s attitude to the C.O.s to determine whether one is fit to be in the Labor Party the U.F.of L.? If’so, then all those Unionists and Socialists who went as volunteers and conscripts ought to be expelled, and what kind of unions or party would be left? The war is over, and we must get together, to hold our own, let alone win anything else, and concentration on C.O.s or the P.P. A. or the Prohibition campaign is more likely to split the movement than anything else. There is no room for more than one workers’ party in New Zealand, and the sooner the pacifists get a more tolerant attitude, the better will they be in accord with their love of brotherliness aud unity. My criticism of the U.F.L. is no sneer. This is what is in existence. The best-organised body of workers and the most militant—the miners—are outside the U.F. of L., so likewise is the old A.P.U. and the Watersiders. Is unity? Again, in Auckland, there are about 20 or more unions affiliated with the U.F. of L., and each one runs its own tinpot office ans secretary, and so far no scheme such as the Dunedin Central Office has been effected. Is this unity? The general strike of 1913 failed, not because I had a “fairly remunerative salary,” but because one or two conditions are essential for the success of a strike of large dimensions, ne is a large reserve fund, so that, working in conjunction with workers’ cooperative societies, rationing can be continued long enough to interfere seriously with the whole of industrial activity; and, secondly, a sympathetic public. There are no funds, no co-operative movement, and very little public sympathy. The alternative is: A revolutionary direct action movement that completely intimidates scabs and Government alike. There is not that feeling here yet, so I ask for In things essential, unity; in things, doubtful, liberty; and in all things, charity. Not all unionists may be able to make an effective movement whether they can obtain control of industry, through their own economic organisation, and owned by the whole of society. A system of National Guilds, avoiding alike the bureaucratic effeteness of Civil Service control, and the wild and fatuous revolution, that might call a general strike and overthrow capitalism, and yet be unable to secure liberty and well-being for the workers afterwards.—E. J.B. ALLEN.
Shit, I disagree with that so much I don’t where to begin! Pretty weird reasoning why workers should go and kill themselves for French and English capital. I guess I wanted to highlight this fairly chilling shift byAllen from syndicalism to supporting the war and what looks like guild socialism, and rejecting revolution and then supporting the Labour Party, not as a story of personal betrayal of one’s former values (and then the common moralistic response on the left to denounce that individual on a personal basis), but to understand how a shift could happen, and how people could justify it. The defeat of 1913 seems to have a played a big part, as does the alleged conservatism of most NZ workers, as well as a nationalistic fear of the German state and what it represented. Allen later provided some of the nationalist ideology of the Labour Party by arguing that New Zealand does not suit a revolutionary movement because of the lack of large-scale industry here (among other arguments), an argument later picked up by all sorts of moderates including Bruce Jesson, and has become a sort of mantra of the social democratic left. More on this later.
I’d like to jump off from here not at the level of a personal attack on Allen, or a political biography (NZ history circles are full of that; it is the dominant form of history in NZ; perhaps it is time to move beyond that sort of history and start moving into a bit more analytical history?) or a simplistic cry that syndicalism leads to supporting war (citing the examples of the French CGT and Allen). Instead , i’ll jump off here into some notes towards a deeper and more nuanced critique of syndicalism. I’ve never been attracted to syndicalism or anarcho-syndicalism for many different reasons:
- It seems a product of the past, when skilled and unskilled male-dominated workers desired control over the production process at a time when the production process was a lot less complex than it is now, and workers control was sort of practised on a daily basis anyway in many workshops, and it seemed feasible and practical to throw of capitalist parasites. But capital is an exploitative social relationship, and its not possible just to throw off a few evil capitalists and the socialist paradise will arrive. Ending capital means getting rid of all classes, including the working class. Workers’ control would preserve the wages system and the market, and preserve divisions between workers – the mines to the miners, the railways to the railwayworkers etc, placing workers in strategic industries in key positions of domination over the rest of us (paid and unpaid) workers. Further, I don’t think unions can be revolutionary, nor form the nucleus of a new society.
- There is tendency to self-managed capitalism within syndicalism and anarcho-syndicalism, as revealed in Spain and documented by Leval et al. I think this is not some aberration but a strong tendency from within syndicalism and anarcho-syndicalism from the beginning which has tended to be very vague on the distribution of the social product, or outrightly collectivist (distribution according to work done, so the strongest and healthiest and those work the hardest get paid more, thus recreating class divisions).
- There is a strong tendency in syndicalism to a sort of simplistic religious faith and belief in social redemption, whereby the cooperative commonwealth would solve all problems overnight. There is also a strong trend to workerism (meaning the worship of blue-collar, male-dominated labour) and a love of this work in itself, seeing it as redemptive and purifying etc. This can lead to a sort of ideology of sneering at the rest of us who don’t perform manual work, a love of productivity and hard work and sacrifice, and at its worst forcing others to do such work or urging sacrifice for the cause. Of course, manual labour is completely necessary, and often sneered at in its turn, but I am for the getting rid of the division of labour. Communism means varied domestic, manual and intellectual self-chosen and collectively-chosen work (we need to call it something else than work!) which will hopefully lead to the creation of well-rounded, fulfilled, eudaemonic human beings, and diversity, creativity, and an end to the division between work and play: ‘an association in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.’ (on the other hand, there is a trend within syndicalism that stresses a rejection of work, slowing down work, and having free time, and ‘bumming around’, so maybe it is a contradiction within syndicalism).
- Most syndicalist unions end up being bureaucratic, and run by a small elite who edit their press, make decisions, and so on. This is not historically inevitable, nor an iron law of oligarchy, but it is a strong tendency. The reasons for it are complex, but have something to do with the pressure of capital and the state, the laws of the state, the nature of unions as negotiators of labour power, and also a tendency within anarcho-syndicalism to believe that the revolutionary minority (I think the French syndicalists called it the minorite consciente if I recall right) who are the key to success, and need to drive workers from above.
Of course, a lot more could be said – these are just some jumbled, half thought out rough notes, and many critics have probed the contradictions of syndicalism a lot deeper and coherently than I.
Nevertheless, its a bit boring and somewhat programmatic to reject syndicalism just because it isn’t, surprise surprise, communist enough. Syndicalism was useful to thousands of NZ workers. It had many strengths, such as its desire to organise the unorganised, the attempt of the IWW to organise workers regardless of their ethnicity, its emphasis on action by the workers themselves, its emphasis on sabotage and informal and illegal forms of resistance (normally overlooked by the left), and many others besides – I am just scraping the surface. A lot more could be said, especially as syndicalism contributed to the most radical workplace-based revolt in NZ history, and to the current of militant unionism in certain unions. I haven’t really touched some interesting debates about class composition and syndicalism here, but plenty more could be said. Alrite, enuf, time to stop doodling, adios.