‘A mighty lesson’: how did New Zealand socialists respond to 1917?

‘There is a mighty lesson to be learned from the Russian Revolution.’ That’s how the Maoriland Worker, newspaper of the radical wing of New Zealand’s labour movement, editorialised in March 1917. The newspaper’s editors – including Harry Holland, who would go on to lead the Labour Party for the next 16 years – had only sketchy details of what was going on in Russia, being forced to rely on clippings and vague notices from British and American bourgeois papers. But they were excited about what they learned. Documenting the years of oppression Russian workers had experienced under Tsarism, the Maoriland Worker’s front page piece on 21st March, the first issue after Russia’s February revolution, had this to argue:

The events of last week show that [Russia’s rulers] tried the game once too often. The people of Russia have endured through long decades of years indescribable agonies resulting from the rules of Repression. The war brought a new outlook. It also brought war and hunger – and side by side with the resentment against the food exploiters there seems to have grown up a great movement which combined a variety of protesting elements […] The outstanding lesson of the upheaval is that the Russian people positively refused to permit themselves to be deprived of their political rights by a handful of autocrats with the Czar at their head, and that the soldiers took sides with the people against the hereditary rulers when the critical hour arrived. As we have already remarked, there is a mighty lesson to be learned from the Russian Revolution and the downfall of the Czar. It would be well if all the other tyrants and would-be tyrants should profit by it.

What was the Manifesto of Russia’s new Provisional Government? The Worker identified seven pledged reforms: an immediate amnesty for all political and religious offenders; freedom of speech; freedom of the press; freedom of association of labour organisations and freedom to strike; extension of these liberties to officials and troops, so far as military and technical conditions permit; abolition of all social religious and national restrictions; and immediate preparations for summoning a Constituent Assembly. When these promises are translated into law, the Worker claimed:

Russia will stand long miles ahead of New Zealand in the matter of human freedom – until such time as New Zealand follows the example of Russia. And why should we not follow Russia’s example? […] Barbaric Russia, discarding the gag and the knout and the prison and the scaffold, and standing well ahead of the ‘advanced’ nations in the march of Progress, is surely something new under the Sun, and her example is one it would pay New Zealand to follow.

This call for New Zealand to follow Russia’s example was, in a roundabout phrasing to cope with war censorship, a call for revolution here. It was a sign that, after the defeats of the 1913 strikes and the disorganization of the labour movement by the War and the jailing and suppression of anti-conscription fighters (including several labour leaders such as Paddy Webb and Harry Holland, jailed for sedition and anti-conscription agitation), radical forces were beginning to recover. The Irish rebellion in Easter 1916 had electrified New Zealand’s working class, and Harry Holland would address crowds of hundreds on the Irish Revolution through these years. Now the Russian Revolution was another spark from overseas. It was a spark to a waiting fuse – the radicalization that swept the world following World War One, including Australia, would have its effects in New Zealand too.

But what sort of Revolution was going on in Russia? If local socialists were enthusiastic, they were also rather vague and ill-informed about what it was they were supporting. A great deal of energy on the Worker’s part went in to sourcing and reprinting articles from working-class and socialist papers overseas, documenting the developments from February to October. Even these were sketchy. In April 1917 Holland republished ‘fragments’ from ‘Lenin’s group in Geneva, Switzerland, December 30 1916’ from the Petrograd Committee of the Social-Democratic Labor Party of Russia. But there is, before August, almost nothing on Lenin, Trotsky, or the Bolsheviks in the Maoriland Worker.  In June the editors would reprint reports from the Menshevik Rabochaya Gazeta. Harry Holland wrote long sketches of Revolutionary figures – the Bolsheviks Lenin and Trotsky as well as the Menshevik Chkheidze – trying to give New Zealand workers a chance to fill in who the major actors were, and to work out what political issues were in play. ‘What the people’s enemies resent in Lenin,’ Holland suggested in December 1917, ‘is that he stands for a Socialist Republic, not a Bourgeois Republic.’

Workers responded to news from Russia with considerable enthusiasm, and there was a thirst for information. Simon Zander, a Jewish German- and Yiddish- speaking comrade in the Social Democratic Party in Wellington, was able to translate European material, and so was in demand as a speaker at socialist meetings. Harry Holland spoke to a packed meeting in Palmerston North at the start of July, hailing the Russian Revolution as ‘an anti-conscription and anti-war movement’; the audience, the Manawatu Times reported, responded with a vote calling for the release of political prisoners in New Zealand. A new confidence was spreading.

Militants in New Zealand may have been unclear on the exact details of the struggle going on in Russia, but they could recognise a world-changing working-class movement even from this distance. ‘Wahine’ writing in the ‘Women’s Column’ of 19 September, noted the ‘women’s part in the Russian Revolution’ and argued the ‘part that women have played in the titanic struggle should prove an inspiration to all freedom loving women throughout the world.’ In March the Maoriland Worker spoke up for the revolution’s ‘working-class significance’ and condemned New Zealand’s capitalist press for ‘carefully smothering the working class, anti-militarist, and anti-monarchical aspect of the upheaval.’

The anti-war significance of the Russian Revolution was clear. This was the way, New Zealand socialists suggested, to stop the slaughter of the First World War: workers taking direct action. And everyone was clear that the example of Russia was bound to spread and to reshape the workers’ movement internationally. But even here confusion was widespread. In a 13 June column ‘The Moving Finger’ suggested that:

It is gratifying to learn that the influence of the Russian Socialists appears at this late hour to be affecting the German Socialists; and even Scheidemann – who carries a burden of sin on his shoulders that it will take him long years to expiate, finds it possible to think that Germany and other belligerents must follow Russia’s example, and declares for ‘peace without annexations’.

Philipp Scheidemann was a German reformist Social Democrat who had voted for the war, and who by 1917 was hoping for a peace that would restore the old capitalist order. Lenin and the Bolsheviks were calling on workers to turn the imperialist war into a civil war against their rulers, and to overthrow capitalism. The fact that the Worker could find room for both views – just as Harry Holland could praise both Lenin and his rival Kerensky, ‘who has since played so wonderful a part in the formation of the Provisional Government’ – shows what a muddle remained, and how much learning, debating, clarifying, splitting and unifying remained for a revolutionary current to emerge in New Zealand’s labour movement.

That would be the work of years to come, and would face new difficulties. By the time of the Communist Party’s formation in 1921 the world revolutionary wave had, to some degree, already started to recede. Many revolutionary-minded class fighters stayed with Labour. The divisions posed by the Russian Revolution would take time to clarify across the workers’ movement.

On one point, however, the Maoriland Worker was absolutely clear: the Russian Revolution was a victory for humanity and of enormous significance for workers everywhere. It is fitting to give the last word to their 13 June column:

The news that is likely to reach us from Russia will be scanty enough; and yet for the moment the world’s fate seems to hang on the actions of the Russian Social Democracy.