Dora B. Montefiore Justice, October 1912

The Working Class Movement in the Colonies
Interview With Mrs Montefiore

Source: Justice, p.5, 19 October 1912;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

As our excellent editor and myself were only able to exchange a few words of greeting the other evening at the Opera House and as I am now down in Wales for a couple of weeks, he has sent me a few questions – very leading questions I find them – on my impressions of the Socialist and Woman movements in the Colonies I have visited. My answers must necessarily be brief, or the result of the interview would be that I should require the whole of one issue of “Justice” wherein to expatiate on the various points raised; so if any readers feel I am too superficial in my replies – seeing how important are the points referred to – they must give me an opportunity later on for an all-round talk on the subjects, when they can put supplementary questions, and can criticise, if necessary, my statements.

What features struck you as most noteworthy in the Socialist movement in the Australian Colonies? And in South Africa?

In both Colonies the Socialist movement is still in what one might call the agitational stage, but there is little doubt that as industrialism and State bureaucracy develop the initial stages of the organising, and solidifying of the movement will be run through much more rapidly than in the older countries. One of the reasons for this in Australia is that the political Labour Party being in power both in the Commonwealth and in some of the States it is more easily identified as a capitalist party in a flimsy disguise. The role of the Marxian Socialist press in Australia is to constantly point out the absolute failure of the Labour Party to do anything more than reform, palliate and bolster up the present deceiving capitalist State; to show, in a word, that the political Labour Party in Australia is much on a par with the Liberal Party of Great Britain, in that it is buttressing up with a sort of cunningly devised bureaucratic State collectivism what, except for its interference, would by now be on its way to the scrap-heap. It is the reaction from this threatened tyranny of the entrenched capitalist State which is causing a wave of philosophic anarchy to flow over the most intelligent and class conscious of the workers; and the Marxian Socialists have the same difficult task in Australia as they have here to keep an even keel between the buffetings on one side of specious reformism and on the other side of young and ardent impossibilism. In South Africa the distances between the various centres are too great for the formation of a really united Socialist Party; and the Socialists in one centre know but little of the work or activities of those in another centre; neither can they be said to have any press that represents the whole Socialist movement. Capitalism in South Africa is so entrenched, so unscrupulous and so powerful, and Labour, in consequence of colour and race prejudices, is so divided against itself, that it will be some time before the Socialist interpretation can be successfully placed before the workers of that part of the Empire. But there, also, the industrial appeal is even now the successful appeal; because, the railways being nationalised, the workers have in their daily working lives the object-lesson of a sweating and profit-making Government, which has to be fought and resisted step by step; for the white working man in South Africa is rapidly being crushed down to the economic level of the coloured and native races; and the Government is being used by the mine magnates as their willing tool to carry out their schemes for keeping not only the “nigger” but the white working man “in his place.” In both Colonies the Socialists are numerically few in numbers, but those that are organised are sound Marxians and determined revolutionaries.

Don’t you think that the Labour Government in Australia has failed for precisely the same reason as our Labour Party here has failed – that is to say, that it has never been inspired by a conception of the revolutionary mission of a genuine working-class party, and derives such power as it has from Liberals and the bourgeoisie rather than from a class-conscious working class?

I quite agree that this is the real cause of the failure of every political Labour Party. Lawyers, petty shopkeepers, and half-educated politicians on the make flock into the ranks of every political Labour Party; and their object is not to educate their followers for revolution, but only just far enough as to support the leaders in popular and spurious reforms. Before the New South Wales Labour Party got into power they threatened the landlords with drastic land laws and the abolition of freehold tenure; but once in office they found that the small farmers who had helped to put them there were just as greedy for freehold rights as were the larger landholders. As the last thing the party desired to provoke was a division, which might have sent them back into Opposition, the Minister for Lands, Mr. Nielsen, was offered up as a sacrifice; and, at the cost of honour, the rest of the party clung like limpets to place and power. When asked why they do no carry out their promises, the leaders excuse themselves by saying they cannot go further than the public opinion of their supporters permits. The obvious retort is: Why, since for the last twenty years you have been educating, agitating and organising with the object of gaining self-expression for the organised workers – why did you not educate and organise them to overthrow slavery instead of for this sorry game of prolonging it indefinitely?

At the same time you would, I take it, admit that in the Colonies, as here, the Labour Party blocks the way, and is an obstacle to the formation and development of a genuine revolutionary Socialist working-class party?

I think in my former answers I have almost by implication replied to this question. But I might add that the growth of “the genuine revolutionary Socialist working-class party” in Australia has very rapidly increased since political Labour came into power. The passing of the Compulsory Military Training Act, the many attempts to side-track and break down industrial and trade unionism, the participation in coronation festivities, the feverish promises to represent the interests of every section of the community, the refusal to repeal the Coercion Act, under which strikers can be imprisoned for striking – all these and many other betrayals of the workers have opened the eyes of the more intelligent to the nature of the Frankenstein they themselves have created; and new branches of the Socialist Party are now being formed throughout the Commonwealth, while the support of the really well-established Marxian press is becoming every week stronger.

What is the actual position of women in the Australian and African Colonies – economically and politically?

In Australia and New Zealand the women have the political and municipal vote; and they are eligible in Australia for the Commonwealth Parliament and for the State Parliament of South Australia. The women in the political Labour Party are fairly well organised, but in spite of the vote and their Labour organisation they are not able to obtain living wage for all classes of women workers. The women’s Labour organisations are also agitating for eligibility to State Parliaments but at the yearly Congress of the New South Wales Labour Party, which I attended, the resolution in favour of this measure was defeated, though ably supported by women speakers. The Commonwealth Government is setting a good example by giving equal pay for equal work to its men and women employees; but in other occupations, women are in most cases, paid at a lower rate than men; and in the teaching profession and the State Civil Service there is great heart-burning and dissatisfaction among the women. The wives of the small rural settlers have a terribly hard time, for there is but little domestic or skilled help to be obtained at periods childbearing; and life in the back-blocks is more or less stupefying and brutalising. The measure recently passed by the Commonwealth Parliament, whereby every mother receives 5 on the birth of a child, will do something to provide skilled help during confinements, and give the mother a chance of resting; but it is not nearly sufficient. What is needed are State trained and certificated nurses supplied free of all cost to the mothers.

Is there in any of the Colonies any strong feeling or movement in favour of Women Suffrage, and what are its prospects?

As I have explained, all the fighting for suffrage is over in the Australian Colonies but the women are no nearer economic freedom than are the women in this country. In South Africa a strong movement in favour of Votes for Women is on foot, and I was constantly called upon to speak for it. Some of its best supporters are the educated and intelligent Dutch women. The question is complicated by political issues. For instance a lady I knew in England as a keen Suffragist I found was in Johannesburg opposed to giving the vote to women in South Africa because, being a member of the Unionist Party she feared it would increase the representation of the “back veldt” Dutch. The basis of the suffrage for men is different in the different States, and according to the Act of Union that basis cannot be altered for a certain number of years after union; but there is an idea in the air that when it can be altered pressure will be brought to bear on Cape Colony from the north of the Union to disfranchise the coloured men who have votes in Cape Colony. If this policy is carried out it may split the existing Women suffrage organisations, who are actually demanding the vote “on the same terms as men.” Many enlightened and fair-minded women would fight against such a high-handed proceeding as disfranchising any members of the community.

What do you think from your own observation would be the political and economic effect of the political enfranchisement of woman – reactionary or progressive?

Perhaps if I quote the remark I have heard time and again in Australian drawing-rooms I shall answer this question in as brief a manner as possible: “It’s a bore to have to go and vote, and I really don’t know or care anything about it, but my husband (or my father) says it’s my duty to go and help keep the Labour Party out.” The women will vote, with very few exceptions, as their menkind vote. If the men are reactionaries, the women of their class echo their vote; if the men are progressive the women catch on and help to return Progressives and Labour men to Parliament. In the Socialist Party some of the best revolutionaries are women and when an out-and-out “Red” is run for Parliament some day women voters will not be backward in supporting him, nor allow him to lapse into a tame reformer when gets there.

What is your opinion of the Australian Labour laws – Compulsory Arbitration, etc.?

My opinion is much the same as the majority of workers in Australia, that such Labour laws have been found out! What is more, the New Zealand Labour statesman who inspired years ago much of this Labour legislation has lately told the workers as much, and has advised them to go back and obtain real strength from their industrial organisations instead of relying too much in the class struggle on legislation; wages awards are inquisitorial in their methods, and when the award is fixed the capitalist is able for some years ahead to make his contracts and fix his prices; compulsory, arbitration penalises the striker, and so on. In fact, there is not a single reform of the existing capitalist system which has not done more for the employer of labour than it has done for the wage-slave; and the only thing we advise the workers in Australasia to go for is greatly reduced hours of work. That there is room for this agitation you will acknowledge when I tell you that the workers on the Murrumbidgee Dam, an undertaking of the New South Wales Labour Government, work seven days a week because the Government have let out the work to a contractor. Little do some of the thousands of immigrants know what lies before them!