Tom Mann’s Memoirs, 1923

Book two: Southern skies

XIII. Socialist workers, writers and poets

First published: 1923
Publisher: The Labour Publishing Company Limited, 38 Great Ormond Street, London WC I
Transcription, mark-up: Steve Painter


The Social Questions Committee had developed into the Victorian Socialist Party, and this body grew rapidly in numbers and influence. Active men in the trade unions who were already declared socialists joined. They helped to build up the movement, not in hostility to the Labour Party, but untrammelled by its restrictions. Joyfully declaring themselves in favour of international socialism, they spurred the Labour Party in the same direction. For myself, I enjoyed the work immensely; it was varied and effective. In April 1906, The Socialist was started; it soon became a weekly. I was editor. The paper is still running, and my old comrades always send me a copy. We founded a Sunday School. During the sixteen years of its existence, it has exercised a valuable influence over many scholars, passing them on into a speakers’ class, training them in elocution, and giving such help as was suitable to their various talents. Some have become prominent as musicians, having had their first training in the band, the orchestra or the choir of the party.

I lectured for the party every Sunday evening in the Bijou Theatre, Bourke Street, over a period of three years. We had large outdoor meetings on Sunday afternoons, on the recognised rendezvous — the Yarra Bank, ie, the bank of the River Yarra Yarra. From this outdoor meeting it was the custom to adjourn to the Socialist Hall, where tea was provided at a small charge, all work in connection therewith being done voluntarily. The original object in thus arranging teas was to make it possible for the friends who came from the suburbs to the afternoon meeting to get tea without the trouble of going home so that they would be near at hand for the chief meeting at the theatre in the evening. The gatherings for tea were very popular, usually about one hundred and fifty partaking, and these occasions were excellent for consolidating friendships and for introducing new sympathisers into the movement.

The Socialist Party aimed at fulfilling the requirements of its members in every phase of life’s activities, and was more successful in this respect than have been any of the other organisations I have belonged to. It interests me to recall some of the personalities with whom I had the pleasure of working, among the thousand or more of the members. Should any of my Melbourne friends happen to read these lines they will, I am sure, share my satisfaction in the memory of our comradeship.

There was our sturdy and efficient secretary, Frank Hyett. He may be regarded as an actual product of the party to which he rendered such excellent service in so many ways and for so many years. It was ever our aim to be well-balanced, blending a thorough appreciation of the highest ideal with the most genuinely practical behaviour in everyday life; therefore we always advocated the vital necessity of every worker belonging to a trade union, insisting at the same time that all our members must understand and rightly appreciate the objective of revolutionary socialism. Frank Hyett became general secretary of the Victorian Railways Union, and showing first-class ability, delighting in welding together sectional societies, and striving for true solidarity in all industries. Frank was a fine, healthy, clean-living man, a first-class cricketer, a capable and militant trade unionist, and a loyal comrade. He died after a short illness, but not before he had lived the life of a man, and his family and comrades will ever be proud of him.

Next I think of Jack Curtin — to call him John would seem to me to detract from the real warmth of comradeship. He, like Frank Hyett, had an intelligent outlook on life. Curtin was well grounded as a socialist before the days of the SP, but he takes pleasure, as Frank did, in bearing testimony to the advantages obtained by association with the party. He became not only an able exponent of advanced principles and policy, but also a proficient union official. For some years now he has been editor of the Westralian Worker a paper exercising a wide influence over a very large area. I still hear from him occasionally. I am proud to be Jack Curtin’s friend.

Joe Swebleses was born, I believe, in Whitechapel, but in early childhood was taken to Australia. He was another of the devoted young enthusiasts of the movement whose torch he continues to carry.

Comrade H. Scott Bennett was already a capable platform man before the days of our party. Since joining it twenty years ago he has been a constant source of enlightenment to Australia and New Zealand. He undertook a lengthy lecturing tour in the United States, but returned to Australasia and is carrying on the educational work.

Comrade R.S. Ross, familiarly known as Bob Ross, has been closely identified with the vicissitudes of the party for some fourteen years. As secretary of the SP and editor of The Socialist, he became engrossed in the advocacy of socialism and in the task of building up of the party as an engine of propagandist effort. A man of strong views, he never hesitated to express his dissent from views or policies he was unable to agree with. He was, and is, a great force with the pen, which he has used to spread the gospel in all parts of the southern hemisphere, and in recent years particularly in the columns of his magazine, Ross’s Monthly. Still as active as ever, he wields increasing influence. At present he is touring the Australian states on behalf of Daily Newspapers for the Labour Party.

Tom Tunnecliffe, member of the Legislative Assembly, was also a diligent worker. In spite of the pressure of his parliamentary duties he continued to take an interest in the party. Then there was Angus MacDonell, the present mayor of Northcote, Melbourne, an ever-ready advocate of our views. There was Percy Laidler, a shrewd debater, excellent worker and straight goer; now, and for years past, manager of Andrade’s Book Store in Bourke Street. H.H. Champion, my comrade-at-arms in the London dock strike of 1889, has lived in Melbourne for the past thirty years; he, too, was on the executive of the party and took keen interest in its work.

The Honourable J.P. Jones has from early days shown a lively concern for the party’s welfare, though he does not always see eye to eye with its policy. He is an employer of labour, but advocates and conforms to trade union conditions. A member of the upper chamber in the Victorian parliament he seizes every chance of using his position on behalf of the workers’ cause. Some hold that he attaches too much importance to parliamentary institutions. Nevertheless, he is considerably more advanced in his views than most of the manual workers, whose grievances he honestly ventilates to the best of his ability, being always willing to stand up for the “bottom dog”. One of the federal Labour members of parliament is Frank Anstey, a man born in Silvertown, London. He left home early in life and became a sailor. Having settled in Australia, he soon became influential in labour circles. Later, he was elected to parliament for the state of Victoria, and is now in the federal parliament. He often lectures for the Socialist Party. An avowed socialist, he works well for the cause. During the late war, in defiant opposition to Mr W.M. Hughes, the prime minister, Anstey championed the no-conscription campaign. He came to Europe, visited various countries, returned to Australia, and published an arresting book called Red Europe. Frank is a man of moods. Should a real revolutionary movement take place in Australia, and Frank be in cheerful mood, he will stick at nothing but will go the whole hog.

We were fortunate in the Socialist Party in having several poets, at least two of whom stand high and sing true among the worshippers of the muses. Bernard Patrick O’Dowd, born in Victoria in 1866, frequently helped us with a topical song or poem to give point to and to strengthen our work.

The other poet was Marie E.J. Pitt, Tasmanian by birth, and one who knew what the struggles of the workers were and are. Keen to resent injustice, and to stimulate others to strive for a worthy life, she was in close touch with the toilers, knew the work of the axeman and of the miner, was familiar with the terrible effects of miners’ phthisis, and she helped in the Melbourne investigation of unemployment in 1906.

It will be of interest to my readers to see exactly where I stood at this date with regard to political and industrial organisation. I had myself been approached several times to accept nomination as a Labour candidate, and although I had emphatically declined, it will be seen by the article which follows that I urged parliamentary action. It was not till some three years after this that I declared definitely in favour of industrial unionism. My article appeared in August 1906.

The Socialist Party and political action

Socialists believing in the necessity for working for the speedy realisation of a socialist regime, must also work definitely to bring about the same. To do this we must unceasingly agitate, as by this means we can arouse some of the lethargic who would otherwise sleep till doomsday; we must educate ourselves and the community by working from the inside of existing organisations, as well as by innumerable propagandist meetings and the spread of literature, and we must miss no opportunity at election times, not only of taking part in the work of elections, but also by bringing to the front and popularising those measures calculated to lead to the realisation of our ideal.

We of the Socialist Party are fully alive to the risks attendant upon political activities. We know that many attach undue importance to parliamentary business, and fuss about over the merest trifles, as though they were matters of vital importance.

But we are not of those who contend it is sufficient to preach socialist doctrines and await results without taking part in political agitation and directing the attention of those we may to the socialist goal. And so it is necessary to be clear-minded as to programs, and the measures to be submitted for the consideration of the electorates.

The object of the Socialist Party is to secure economic freedom for the whole community, ie, that all women and all men shall have equal opportunities of sharing in wealth production and consumption, untrammelled by any restriction it is possible for the state to remove.

Some of our members are accepted candidates for the Senate and the House of Representatives. It is our duty to back them heartily, to work for them cheerfully, and to do all we can to secure their return.

As socialists, we cannot support opponents of socialism, no matter what fine fellows they may be in other directions; and it is no secret that in the ranks of Labour are some who have no knowledge of socialist principles, and therefore no appreciation thereof. Such persons must never expect to get the backing of socialists; but we must on the other hand sensibly and generously allow for past environment, and not forget that many are actively engaged in courageously fighting with the proletariat in the great class war, who have no clear intellectual grasp of the science of industrial and social economics.

Not to allow for and property appreciate this fact would mean that we should soon become doctrinaire, exclusive, pedantic and narrow, and therefore should soon become comparatively useless and perhaps even mischievous. Therefore, while we must ever hold up the ideal of class-conscious, international, revolutionary socialism, we must rejoice when we see men break away from the support of the orthodox parties, whether called Liberal or Tory, Free-Trade or Protectionist, Democratic or Republican, and resolve that henceforth they will unite as Labour men and take their stand against the capitalist parties.

This is the first stage in the war of the slasses as regards the attitude of the masses, and those who thus sever themselves from the old order are in a fair way to receive and make use of sound economic knowledge.

For socialists to antagonise this section by denouncing them because they do not yet see clearly what is meant by the economic interpretation of history, or are unable to discern the differences between the socialism of our French comrades, Jean Allemane and Jean Jaures, or our German stalwarts, Bebel and Bernstein, would show their unfitness to educate and to organise for great and glorious socialist victories the mass of the people.

Such considerations are necessary in considering our attitude towards the candidates that will be brought out by the Labour Party. It is necessary we should use all becoming means to secure the selection of class-conscious socialist candidates — but even when this is not done, if the candidates selected stand for the proletariat in the war of the classes, it becomes our duty to work for them and do our honest best to secure their return.

It will be remembered that there was a considerable increase in the number of Labour members returned to the British parliament in 1906; among the new MPs of that year was Mr G.N. Barnes. Pearson’s Weekly published interviews with the Labour members, and the following was reproduced in one of the Melbourne papers. I thought it highly creditable to Mr Barnes to show such modest frankness in the matter; most men would have been so important in their own eyes as to have overlooked some of the earlier essentials to their advance.

Pushed into fame

I don’t know that I have much to say about How I Got On, said Mr G.N. Barnes, MP for the Blackfriars Division of Glasgow, in the House of Commons, to a reporter of Pearson’s Weekly, than that I have been pushed on.

Henry George certainly had a great influence upon my career, awakening me to wider interests in life; but it is to Mr Tom Mann that I owe my entry into public life. I had joined the Amalgamated Society of Engineers as soon as I came to England from Scotland, and in 1891 my work as an agitator brought me to act as secretary to Mr Mann, who contested the post of general secretary to the ASE.

He did not get it, but his propaganda, supported by voluntary contributions from the members, shook the whole society from end to end.

Mr Mann became the talk of the country, and as his secretary I was brought prominently before the members of the ASE, and to some extent before the public.

Eventually I contested the post of assistant-secretary to the ASE, and won it. I held it for three years, and then returned to the “shops”, until, in 1897, the post of general secretary having fallen vacant, I competed for it, and was successful.

As I told you at the beginning, I have been pushed on. But for my connection with Mr Mann I dare say I should never have come into prominence in Labour circles, and very possibly I should have been content to go on working in the “shops”.

As evidence of the kind of work carried on in Melbourne, I republish another of my articles dealing with our activities at the time and setting forth principles and policy. If I have any reserves to make today concerning what I wrote in 1906, it is because the events of recent years have compelled me to realise that our internationalism of those days was incompetent to prevent the outbreak of war.

Work of the Socialist Party


In reviewing the work of the Socialist Party during the past twelve months, it is necessary to realise how relatively deadly anything in the nature of straight-out socialist propaganda work had fallen eighteen months ago in Melbourne. Meetings were held at the Queen’s Hall on Sunday evenings by the SPD, but they were chiefly in the nature of entertainments.

In June 1905, we commenced Sunday afternoon lectures on socialism, in the Gaiety Theatre; these proved a decided success. Then, when the Queen’s Hall was available for us on Sunday evenings, we commenced there too. As the summer weather came on we gave up the Gaiety and commenced outdoor agitation on the Yarra Bank. We definitely formed our present organisation on Friday, September 1, at a meeting convened for the purpose in Furlong’s Rooms, Royal Arcade.

At first we were known as the Social Questions Committee, whose objects were declared to be the collection and utilisation of information bearing upon social questions, with special reference to the proper feeding of children, the advocacy of the claims of the unemployed, the housing question, etc; but all the time we avowed ourselves straight-out international revolutionary socialists.

We commenced open-air propagandist meetings at street corners in most of the suburban districts. Every Sunday morning, without fail, our speakers have appeared at Port Melbourne Pier to preach socialism, and every afternoon on the Yarra Bank. We commenced an economics class and a speakers’ training class, and fully 60 comrades have been engaged in the voluntary work of socialist advocacy indoors and out during the year. We have averaged fully ten propagandist meetings a week, or 500 meetings during the last twelve months.

In the holding of these meetings, and the conducting of the campaign generally we have ever had in view the necessity for clearly enunciating socialism of the scientific school, that is, the recognition that the evolutionary development of capitalism renders collectivism or socialism imperatively necessary. That this socialism is and must be international in character; further, that while of necessity it is evolutionary, it is equally of necessity revolutionary. This is clearly understood by our 1500 members, and many others who attend our meetings.

Nothing can be done in opposition to the evolutionary growth of the social and industrial forces, but the change involved in the present social unrest, which is also social growth, is a change so wide and deep as to completely transform the existing regime of capitalist private ownership and control of productive forces, to collective ownership and control of those forces, and therefore it is revolutionary, because the system itself will be changed.

The class war

We have also habitually preached the class war as understood and advocated by socialists the world over. By this we mean that we are conscious of the fact that present society is based on class domination, ie, the capitalistic class dominates in all countries, and the parliaments of the world are used as committees of the capitalist class to carry out their desires. Class antagonisms exist in every civilised state, and these antagonisms are being daily accentuated. The immediate interests of the capitalists and petit bourgeois are not in the same direction as the workers. The growth of the trusts and combines renders organisation of the workers increasingly necessary to check the harmful effects of the hostile and antagonistic capitalist factions. Therefore, while believing in the necessity for and possibility of getting rid of classes, we know that the way to do this is by the workers — quite distinct from the capitalistic parties — organising industrially and politically, and so conquering political power to facilitate the change and get rid of the modern class state, and establish a regime of co-operation when there will be no employing class outside of the employed, and where community of interests will be universally recognised.

The red flag

Further, a year ago, we aimed at giving a true interpretation of the red flag. We resolved to remove the unwarrantably narrow idea that had been attached to it in Melbourne, which caused practically all to shrink from its presence. Now, however, nothing is more cherished by the vast majority of those who turn up and make the vast audiences that have filled the Bijou Theatre and Zion Hall, as well as at the outdoor meetings, than the Red Flag, symbolising as our comrades know, the oneness of the interests of our common humanity the world over. As we sing The Red Flag, at all our meeting — undoubtedly the most popular song of its kind in Victoria — we realise that our movement wipes out all racial hatreds, gets rid of national frontiers, and demands of us that we shall recognise all men as brothers, not in words merely, but in deed and in truth. Narrow patriotism therefore disappears, and a true cosmopolitanism takes its place. The Red Flag is to us the symbol of the most sacred principle we can hold, which enables the Frenchman and German to refuse to organise to fight each other, and impels them to organise co-operatively with each other, and all the world; and so with the Britisher and the American, the Dutchman and the Scandinavian, the Latin and the Slav. All alike, wherever socialism obtains, drop all antagonisms and accept the common faith of a united humanity.

In matters religious, like the socialists of all countries, we declare theology to be a purely private concern; but as regards righteous dealings, we declare with Moses and the Prophets, with Christ and the early Christians, that there can be no righteousness where land monoply (or machine monoply) obtains, or where the accumulated wealth of private individuals may be used as a means of exploitation. To live by exploitation, which is systematically aimed at by the supporters of capitalism, is a gross violation of right dealing; and for such persons to talk of defending religion is mere pharasaical pretence, the making clean the outside, but inwardly being as dead men’s bones. Our Sunday School has done, and is doing, excellent work. The children are taught sound ethics and encouraged to study economics; and right pleasingly they acquitted themselves on the platform at the town hall.

Thus are the forces shaping to usher in a socialist regime. During the same period the anti-socialists have been actively engaged, both in encouraging the ignorant to remain ignorant, and in the spreading of the falsehoods they themselves have concocted. We smile at their efforts, and are amused at their squirming. Onward marches the vast and ever-increasing army of the world’s workers. We are about to leave the conditions of worse than Egyptian bondage, and are making for the glorious freedom of collectivism, of socialism, of co-operation, wherein will be no place for legalised robbery by rent takers, profit takers, and interest receivers; but where the true and righteous principle will preach, that “any who will not work, neither shall he eat”.

In that day there will be no cry of the unemployed, no children literally dying of starvation in Melbourne, or elsewhere, as is the case now. No wretched cheese-paring to make ends meet, by existing on insufficient food, improperly clothed, and housed in a fashion that would disgrace Hottentots. These bad conditions exist now, but socialism will drive them out. We of the Socialist Party have done something to usher in the new time. It is to be our privilege to do more, much more, during the year we have now entered upon. Courage, comrades, you have done well! At it again, comrades, and you will do still better, and will help materially in securing the economic salvation of the people.