Cover of the 1972 hardback edition of Solidarity Forever!
Bertha Walker's 1972 book Solidarity Forever! draws on the life of her father, socialist organiser and orator, Percy Laidler (1884—1958), together with the recollections of dozens of the people who took part in the radical struggles of the early 20th century in Australia.
Described by a journalist in 1909 as "about the best mob orator that has struck Melbourne for many years", Percy Laidler continued for decades as a prominent speaker at left wing meetings and on the Yarra Bank. His life links many of the most colourful personalities and events of the early 20th century in Victoria and elsewhere.
As the manager of Andrade's Bookshop, he played a key role in distributing radical literature, and published Australia's first Marxist journal, the Proletarian Review. The shop was a meeting place and informal organising centre for many years. Percy Laidler resisted sectarianism and was on good terms with the full spectrum of radical groups of his day: socialists, anarchists, syndicalists, Wobblies, Communists, trade unionists, pacifists . . .
In 1918 he wrote the first major revolutionary analysis of Australia's industrial arbitration system, in a booklet called "Arbitration and the Strike" (reproduced on this site). He concluded the booklet by quoting from a song that was then only a few years old — "Solidarity Forever":
They have taken untold millions that they never toiled to earn.
But without our brain and muscle not a single wheel can turn. . .
However, the book Solidarity Forever! does not focus on Percy Laidler as an individual, but aims to tell the story of the movement he was part of. As the author pointed out, some chapters do not even mention Laidler.
Among the dramatic events covered in the book are:
The book also tells about colourful personalities such as:
The official launch of Solidarity Forever! was held in Carlton in March 1973. The major speakers were Communist Party veteran Ralph Gibson and historian Brian McKinlay. Bertha Walker also spoke, noting that the book would not have been possible without the cooperation of the numerous people she interviewed, many of whom were present.
There was a display of historic photographs and leaflets, which would be the source of many of the illustrations in the 2012 digital edition of the book. At the conclusion of the musical segment of the evening everyone joined in the singing of "The Red Flag" and "Solidarity Forever". The event was very well attended — a copy of Solidarity Forever! was signed by about 170 attendees.
The following extracts from reviews of the first edition convey the range of responses to the book.
J D Blake in Tribune (Communist Party of Australia), January 16-22, 1973:
[. . .] Agitation for militant unionism, tenacious strike struggles, spectacular unemployed demonstrations; the fight for democratic rights and liberties — combined with a moralist socialism often fitted to religious canons like the ten commandments; the strong influence of Tom Mann on the Australian Labor Movement; passionate support for the Russian revolution and the Soviet Union: all these strands are documented in this book by Bertha Walker on the life and times of her father.
[. . .] The record of Percy's life gives us the essentials of the main trends of the Australian militant working class. He was an active and leading figure in them all, but rarely a member of an organisation.
[. . .] Percy was one of those rarities who came through the early socialist sects, the Tom Mann syndicalism and the IWW intolerances, a revolutionary firm of principle but equally firm in his tolerance and acceptance of the movement with all its differences and difficulties. This was the more surprising in view of his active involvement in these movements.
Solidarity Forever! is mainly concerned with the first twenty-five years and the summary treatment of the second twenty-five years cannot do Justice to the period. one would have liked more about Chris Laidler (Gross): a subject touching the relations between men and women in the Australian socialist movement - and consequently the problem of political culture. A talented woman . . . 'She subordinated her potential to the needs of the family, allowing Perc free rein to his political activities.' (p.95.)
Some may feel that there are too many details, but these will prove a quarry for these seeking more information about the period. Some of the names, without further references, will appeal mainly to old-timers.
But none of this detracts from the value of Bertha Walker's book. She has been content to tell the story of the times, the events, and the people with a minimum of critical analysis. In some ways this is one of the strengths of the book. The author is an evangelist joyfully celebrating the ethos. She tells the story with gusto and because of this she Helps the reader to see the story from the inside, to know what made these people of the militant labor movement tick.
Those who are interested in our past, and particularly those interested in making a critical analysis and interpretation of that past, will find it essential to read and study Bertha Walker's book.
Brian McKinlay in Direct Action (Socialist Workers League), February 22, 1973; same review also appeared in Labor '73 (Australian Labor Party, Victorian Branch), March 2, 1973:
To an earlier generation of Australian radicals no song was more loved or more moving than "Solidarity Forever". Appropriately, Bertha Walker has chosen this title for the book she has written about the life and times of her remarkable father, Percy Laidler. Appropriately, because it was a song her father loved, and also because he was a man who devoted his life to socialist and radical causes, and who genuinely believed, in the words of "Solidarity Forever" that . . . "we can bring to birth a new world from the ashes of the old".
[. . .] In 1902, while living in Melbourne, Laidler became involved with the visit and the socialist campaigns of Tom Mann, probably the most successful and remarkable of the early socialist agitators to visit Australia. Mann came to Australia with a name already famous in British socialist circles from his involvement with the great London Dock Strike of 1889. Mann, and the other dockers' leaders had never forgotten the "miracle" of a £30,000 donation from Australian workers which had saved the dockers from starvation and helped them win their great strike in 1889. Mann's visit to Australia had an immense impact on the rising labour movement. A brilliant orator and organiser, Mann spearheaded a dozen great campaigns and strikes which developed the political consciousness of the Australian working class. In an age of deepening social and economic strife Percy Laidler was deeply influenced by Mann. Like Mann he embarked on a lifetime of political struggle.
[. . .] In "Solidarity Forever" Bertha Walker uses simple direct prose to give a direct and at times moving account of the struggles of the times, and the very real hazards and hardships which the pioneers of the labour movement faced in Victoria. She captures also the rich diversity of the early socialist movement, and the large and often vigorously nonconforming characters who made up its ranks.
When she recounts Laidler's work in Broken Hill in 1909, she gives us a sharp and dramatic account of the events which culminated in one of the most fundamental strike-confrontations ever to occur in Australia. Broken Hill, long a centre for radicalism, and one of the most politically conscious cities in Australia, was gripped in 1909 by a strike of such scope and bitterness as to be revolutionary in its implications. The struggles of 1909, involved a lock-out by the mine management who hoped to reduce the low level of wages even further. The miners reacted with picketing and sympathy strikes among other unions. Significantly, one great workers' procession was headed by a banner reading: "Behold, The Workers Think". Of another "The Argus" said: ". . . there were massed bands, and at the rear of the march a regiment of women with three red flags". The Broken Hill dispute saw Mann and other socialist leaders gaoled, but generated an immense wave of radical concern in Australia. One of the gaoled leaders, Harry Holland, later became Opposition Leader in New Zealand's parliament.
[. . .] Later in life, Percy Laidler was to manage Melbourne's most famous radical bookshop, that of Will Andrade.
In the decade before WWI, Laidler became involved with the new ideas and theories of the Syndicalists, and later still with the work of the Industrial Workers of the World. Yet for Laidler, as for most of the labour movement, the great political crucible was the war and the anti- conscription struggles. For Laidler as for many others, the defeat of conscription and resistance to the war and its effects became the central activity of their lives, Flowing from the war, Laidler, like many others, was at first puzzled then fascinated by the events of the Russian Revolution. He was one of the first people to see the fundamental political importance of this vast event.
While a tireless worker for social change at home, Laidler was unusual in the breadth of his international view, at a time when many in the labour movement were parochial if not downright racist in their world view. He raised support for British seamen during the international seamen's strike in 1925, he worked to raise political consciousness among Melbourne's Italian, Spanish and Aborigine communities. He aided victims of fascism and raised the banner of the Spanish Republic, working to send aid to Republican Spain.
"Solidarity Forever" is a remarkable account of an involvement in radical political activities extending over a lifetime, and touching on some of the most fundamental events in Australian history. Future labour historians will owe a debt to Bertha Walker, for she has given to them a valuable source-book, which will serve as a starting point for future research in a host of areas, some hitherto neglected or forgotten [. . .]
Len Fox in Common Cause (Miners' Federation), November 21, 1972:
Here is a book that is well worth reading!
Tom Mann in the Broken Hill lockout of 1909, Archbishop Mannix in the anti-conscription campaigns of 1916-17, the early days of the IWW in Melbourne, the shooting of waterside striker Tom Edwards in Fremantle in 1919, the riots in Brisbane the same year, the little-known work of the Workers' International Industrial Union and the Labor Propaganda Group, the death of Percy Brookfield on Riverton station, the Melbourne police strike in 1923, the early days of the Communist Party, the attempted bribery in the Fitzroy by-election of 1925, the British seamen's strike of 1925 and the attempted deportation of trade union leaders. . .
These are a few only of the many exciting happenings described by Bertha Walker in "Solidarity Forever!" which tells the story of the life and times of her father, Percy Laidler.
[. . .] Some readers may feel at times there is too much detail, and at other times not enough, but this is bound to happen in any book covering such a number of happenings. And in the main the detail is important in reminding us of how our early socialists thought and felt; it is interesting, for instance, to read the "Ten Commandments of Socialism" taught in Socialist Sunday Schools sixty years ago: "Love your schoolfellows who will be your fellow workers in life. Love learning. . . Do not think that he who loves his own country must hate or despise other nations. . ."
[. . .] Particularly vivid are the descriptions of the Melbourne police strike and the British seamen's strike.
It Is good also to see the stress laid by the author on unity of action, on the need for socialists to approach people tolerantly and humbly, to win them rather than antagonise them. But this is natural in a book about Percy Laidler. The fact that "Solidarity Forever" was his favorite song was typical of the man.
This book is a fitting tribute to him, and more than that it is informative and interesting reading.
Bruce Muirden in Nation Review, January 26 - February 1, 1973:
[. . .] In uneven style Ms Walker covers a sweep of years not yet tackled, outside professional journals, by anybody else. But although she does it with evidence of extensive industry and is motivated by partisan sympathy, she does it without much insight or power of synthesis. This is probably a little churlish because she has done a good stroke within her own limits but unfortunately she has moved into purist territory; Labor historians, like all historians, must be purists.
Her list of authorities shows she has drawn not only on established works like George Dale's Industrial History of Broken Hill and Dr Jauncey's study of conscription, but also on some fugitive radical literature and on the memories of some sixty witnesses (a few of whom have since died). The problem is that the reader can never be sure of the origin of any particular incident [. . .]
Tom Audley in The Seamen's Journal, January-February, 1973:
[. . .] One of the largest chapters in the book describes the British Seamen's strike of 1925, as it happened in Australia. The strike began in Adelaide, when the men walked off the Balranald, and then spread over the globe with ships tying up in every port of the world, including the home ports.
The Australian Seamen's Union supported the strike and rallied sufficient money to keep approximately 2,500 men for 15 weeks.
At the same time the Bruce Government tried to deport Tom Walsh, General Secretary and Jacob Johnson, Assistant Secretary of the Union, alleging they were responsible for the strike, even though it was world wide. This caused a great storm in trade union and labour circles. A huge campaign was mounted and the deportation defeated.
[. . .] This book might be called a history, but it is not such in the usual sense, it is rather an easily read story about the early part of this century, as it affected the working class [. . .]
Melbourne Times, January 17, 1973:
[. . .] Taken as a reference book, 'Solidarity Forever' may be valuable for the genuine scholar of the growth of the socialist movement in Australia. In small doses it would probably be interesting and informative — though one often doubts the impartiality of facts posited.
The division of the book into many chapters and sub-headings renders it very effective as a historical dictionary, although it cannot really be regarded as gripping for the general reader.
J.M. in Socialist (Socialist Party of Australia), March 1973:
It's nearly too late for some people to "take time off" to document with personal knowledge and feeling the rich story of the Australian labour movement. Much of the detail will be lost or forgotten; perhaps only the bare salient facts will be researched by future historians who will give a more or less accurate general picture.
For this reason alone Bertha Walker's book is of tremendous value and interest.
[. . .] Her writing is at times a little rough because of an obvious haste to "get it down on record" before it is lost . . . And more power to her for a painstaking job of accumulating the wealth of facts and personalities which make up the story [. . .]
Solidarity Forever! — the life and times of Percy Laidler.
My Revolutionary Childhood by Bertha Walker — previously unpublished memoirs of the author's childhood and early teenage years.
A Magical Place by Dale Vagg — memories from the 1940s and 1950s of the "Play Shop" run by Percy Laidler.
Arbitration and the Strike — Percy Laidler's 1919 pamphlet.
Andrew Reeves, "Laidler, Thomas Percival (Percy) (1884—1958)" in Australian Dictionary of Biography, MUP, 1983. Available online at the Australian National University website.
The website Reason in Revolt: Source Documents of Australian Radicalism has scanned copies of the magazine The Proletarian Review / The Proletarian that Laidler produced with Guido Baracchi.
John Sendy, Melbourne's Radical Bookshops: History, People, Appreciation, International Bookshop, 1983, has a chapter on Andrade's Bookshop, with information about, and photographs of, Percy Laidler.
Jeff Sparrow & Jill Sparrow, Radical Melbourne: A Secret History, The Vulgar Press, 2001, also has a chapter on Andrade's Bookshop.
Jeff Sparrow, Communism: A Love Story, MUP, 2007, is a biography of Guido Baracchi, and includes several references to Percy Laidler.
The genealogy website WeRelate has information about Percy Laidler's family history.
As mentioned in Solidarity Forever!, "Percy Lambert", a minor character in Frank Hardy's Power Without Glory, was based on Percy Laidler.
Percy Laidler appears, under his own name, as a character in Jenny Pausacker's Can You Keep a Secret?, Angus & Robertson, 1989, a novel for young readers set in Richmond during the Depression.