Early New Zealand anarchism

Jared Davidson, Sewing Freedom: Phillip Josephs, Trans-nationalism & Early New Zealand Anarchism. AK Press, 2013.

Review by Graham Purchase

I knew nothing about the development of anarchism in New Zealand before reading this well-researched and ably produced study. Sewing Freedom is a brief, readable and informative piece of anarchist historical scholarship examining movements, organizations and personalities active at the cusp of the 20th Century.

The book is nominally an account of the life of Josephs, who, from his little tailor’s shop, organized the distribution of anarchist literature he imported wholesale from London and America. Josephs was an anarchist of the category perhaps best described as the Kropotkinite-Freedom Group (London) tradition.

Josephs migrated to Glasgow from Latvia in 1897. There he married a cigarette-factory worker, fathered four children and toiled as a sweatshop machinist before moving to Wellington in 1904. In Wellington, he set up as a self-employed tailor-cum-anarchist bookseller, becoming involved in local revolutionary and anti-capitalist groupings, particularly the N.Z. Socialist Party, then a broad-based organization attracting many syndicalists. Activities focused around Socialist Hall, where lectures on such topics as socialist economics were delivered. Josephs contributed articles to the Commonweal and the Maoriland Worker, newspapers published by the NZSP and the Federation of Labor.

Strikes were illegal under an obsolete and bankrupt arbitration system, whose courts invariably favored employers despite low wages and increasing living costs. The first challenge to the arbitration system was an illegal strike by tram workers in 1906, followed by slaughtermen and miners (the Blackbull strike), culminating in the General Strike of 1913. The ‘Red-Fed’ (Federation of Labor) was an I.W.W. affiliate and the most revolutionary. The Federation split with the N.Z. Socialist Party because its members rejected parliamentary politics and trades unionism in favor of direct workers’ action. The syndicalist surge within the class struggles of 1908-13 was bolstered by a stream of noted revolutionaries and labor leaders who stepped off the ship and onto the soapbox. Transnational radical tourism created a melting pot of ideas which spawned a minority movement of anarcho-syndicalists within a radicalized and militant labor movement.

War legislation was used extensively to stymie revolutionary syndicalism, and a state-sponsored campaign against Wobbly-anarchist-socialism continued after the conclusion of the Great War. Fascination with Bolshevism after the Russian Revolution (1917) and the founding of the N.Z. Labor Party in 1916 corresponded with a decline in revolutionary syndicalism.

Josephs migrated to Australia in 1921, and little is known about his life thereafter. In truth not much is known about his life in New Zealand, either. But his life usefully serves as an anchor upon which to elaborate a modest but extremely cogent account of early anarchism and syndicalism and its relationship with the wider labor movement in New Zealand.

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