Dora B. Montefiore April 1911

How I Became a Socialist
A Human Document

Source: Justice, April 29, 1911, p.12;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford

To tell you how I became a Socialist I realise I must throw my mind back to the days of my girlhood in England, when I had the privilege, for some years, to act as amanuensis and reader to my father, who was one of the greatest authorities of his day on land values and land development. He was also a man of wide human sympathies, and with thought and understanding ahead of the days in which he lived. He wrote much in the daily press, and in the form of pamphlet, on the questions of unemployment, of “Waste Labour to Waste Land,” and on industrial and farm colonies for boys and girls who had been once convicted, but who, he was convinced could, through such institutions, be saved from the ranks of the criminal class. It was, when looking up statistics for the papers he read at the British Association, or writing at his dictation, or listening to excellent talk between leading men of the day and himself, that I absorbed, half unconsciously, the knowledge of, and interest in, those economic and social problems which form the basis of our Socialist propaganda.

Later on I married, and came to live in Sydney, where my two children were born, and where, in the happy and busy surroundings of marriage and home life, my mind was switched off for a time from these intellectual problems outside the home circle, and concentrated itself on home making and home influence. When I was left a widow, 21 years ago, I immediately felt acutely the difficulties and disabilities in which a woman, under existing conditions is placed when left alone in the world in the state of widowhood. It is not only that she has lost her life companion and comrade, which is hard enough in itself to bear, but, through the network of lawyers and of property entanglements, she is made to feel that, in the eye of the law, and because of “sacred property,” which exalted in value far above human life, she and her children are only part of the original slave group or “famulus” (from which the word “family” is derived), and of which, under Roman law, the husband and father was the head, having power of life and death over the members of the group. The child under English law has only one parent, and that is the father! This, and many other patriarchal arrangements which I came up against when I was left a widow, I found were based entirely on PROPERTY CONSIDERATIONS, and I pondered deeply over the illuminating fact that only the unmarried mother was the owner, under man-made law, of her own baby.

Whilst all this revolt was seething in my mind, I met that great and wise man, Sir George Grey. He was staying in Sydney at the time of the Federation Conference, and I had the privilege of seeing him and chatting with him several times a week. He reminded me much of my dear father, and he was good enough to be interested in my difficulties, and to help me to reason out my problems. He spoke to me of the tendencies of modern legislation, of the hope he had in the people; he gave me copies of the constitutions he had been instrumental in framing for the colonies he had administered, and pointed out the democratic tendencies he had desired, in the inspiration of these constitutions, to foster and develop. It was due to his influence that the subject of enfranchising women politically was brought home to me as being the best way of developing women and helping them to shake off the shackles and slave instincts of the dead past. As a result, the preliminary meetings for forming a Womanhood Suffrage League of New South Wales were held in any house in Darlinghurst Road, Sydney; in 1890, where, with the aid of Miss Rose Scott and other good workers, the foundations of the agitation were laid which eventually made citizens of the women of this colony.

When, two years later, I returned home with my children, I joined one of the suffrage societies in England, and served for some years on its executive; but the narrowness of the demand there, based on a property and not a human qualification, awoke my intellectual suspicion that I was not on the right track for the full emancipation of women. But public life and public speaking led me to study many allied questions, and the problem especially of factory laws as applied to the labour of women opened up social and economic questions to which only the Socialist interpretation had a reply. I read all the Socialist literature I could get hold of, and attended Socialist Meetings, till, finally, the intellectual appeal grew strong enough to make me desire to join a Socialist organisation. Two articles from the pens of R.M. Hyndman and J. Keir Hardie, which appeared at that time in the pages of the International Socialist Review, published in Chicago, “gave me furiously to think.” The leaders of the two trends of Socialist thought in England set forth in those articles their two appeals; that of Social Democracy, with its international and revolutionary basis; captured me, and I joined what was then the Social Democratic Federation – now the Social Democratic Party. I have also been a financial member of the Independent Labour Party, but since its absorption in the Labour Party, which is too obviously in alliance with Liberalism, I have let my membership lapse. I have also many good friends among the Fabians; and was much rejoiced, before. I left England, to find there was on foot a hopeful movement for the unification of the Socialist forces in England, so that, in the future, a solid wall of Socialism, uniting Democrats, Fabians, I.L.P. members and Clarionettes, might be opposed to the united forces of capitalism in all its phases.

I may add that it was in fighting for the vote as a passive resister (when my furniture was sold for three successive years because I refused as an outlander to pay income tax), and as a militant. (when I went to Holloway among the first hatch of suffragist prisoners for speaking in the lobby of the House of Commons) that I learnt of how little value is the political vote in the upward struggle of the workers. More and more, as the basis of the franchise is extended, is the uncontrolled influence and irresponsibility of the Ministry in power also extended; while Parliamentarism is made the instrument of a dominant class to help enslave another class. Without proportional representation the present electoral system, with its brute majority rule, is of little use, and without Industrial Unionism to speed up political action there is but little hope for the revolutionary, whose aim is to overthrow capitalism; and all its works. It is with this object in view that have spoken and written ever since I became a conscious Socialist. It is this hope I have seen in the eyes of my comrades whom I have met at the two International Socialist Congresses of Stuttgart and of Copenhagen. It was this message that I heard hurled at their oppressors by the delegates at the National Socialist Convention at Chicago last June, and it was this religion that thrilled through the audience listening, a few weeks later, to Eugene Debs at the State Convention at Schenectady. “The Socialist Party is the party of the workers, organised to express in political terms their determination to break their fetters, and rise to the dignity of free men and women.” That is why I esteem it an honour to belong to the Socialist Party.