Solidarity Forever

Chapter Five


Leaving Broken Hill, Laidler stopped off in Adelaide for a couple of weeks and whilst there spoke on Sunday, July 25th, on the Socialist Party platform in Botanic Park.

He spoke on "Unemployed and Poverty". The Advertiser of the 26th July reported that Mr. Laidler of Broken Hill spoke and Mr. E. A. Anstey M.P. moved a vote of thanks to the speaker. Laidler also addressed a meeting of the unemployed. On his return to Melbourne "he was welcomed home in a round of handclasps and handclaps" at the Bijou Theatre meeting (Socialist). He resumed propaganda meetings and spoke at a "first rate" meeting at Port Melbourne with Curtin and Mann.

At the Speakers' Class in September he was appointed organiser of open-air meetings and was in charge of the speakers' list. He addressed union meetings and was well received. Another field in which he was energetic, was the campaign for the release of Holland. In Melbourne, already in March, the VSP invited other working class organisations to unite in an agitation of protest against the arrests and trial at Albury of Broken Hill industrialists. At the initial meeting held in the Socialist Party Hall were: THC—C. J. Bennett and J. H. Gregory; Political Labor Council—R. Solly MLA, L. Cohen and Mrs. Felsted; Socialist Labour Party (SLP)—Phil Halfpenny, J. K. Wilcox and E. A. McDonald; Industrial Workers of the World Club (IWW Club)—J. F. Solano, A. Gray and Mrs. Roth; VSP—Joe Swebleses and R. S. Ross. After Holland's savage 2-year sentence was inflicted, this group formed the nucleus of the Release League.

The Collingwood Council refused to let the Town Hall to the Release League so a meeting was held alongside the hall. Speakers were: J. W. Fleming, M. Miller, R. S. Ross and Mrs. Jarvis under the chairmanship of Percy Laidler.

The socialist band drew a crowd and a resolution of protest at the Council's refusal was carried.

A meeting of 2,000 was held on the Yarra Bank on Sunday when the VSP and anarchist meetings were dropped to give full support to the Release League. The socialist band assisted. Speakers were P. Laidler, R. Ross, T. B. Frederics, T. P. Mottram and W. Ford, under the chairmanship of J. W. Fleming.

These meetings continued on a monthly basis. Money was collected for the upkeep of Mrs. Holland and children until Holland's release in October. Donations came from England.

Tom and Elsie Mann depart

Towards the end of 1909, Tom announced he intended going home. He had some idea of going a year earlier, when the invitation arrived from Broken Hill and he decided to take it up.

There were a number of official farewells and a purse with 50 guineas in it was given them.

A huge crowd came down to the wharf to see the Manns off on the Blue Anchor liner, "Commonwealth". Departure was delayed and the VSP held a meeting on board ship at 4 p.m. Speeches were made and songs were sung to the astonishment of passengers.

Finally the ship sailed on the 30th December and Tom and Elsie waved goodbye to a large emotional crowd, many of whom were in tears.

Tom tried to come back in 1918 and again in 1923 and on both occasions the Government refused permission. It will be noted that he had not been deported, and left of his own free will in 1909.

There was considerable agitation over the embargo placed on Tom Mann in 1923. The Socialist Party and Trade Unions were particularly concerned. The Trades & Labour Council, New South Wales guaranteed £150 for Mann's expenses here. The Cycle Trades' Union gave a notice of motion to suspend ordinary business of the T.H.C., Melbourne, to discuss the refusal of a passport. The Timber Workers' had a similar notice.

A Committee to arrange his tour in Melbourne consisted of J. P. Jones MLC, A. Foster, W. Smith, D. Cameron and R. S. Ross.

A motion was moved Riley, seconded Chandler: "That the Council co-operate with the ALP in a deputation to the Government to request that a passport be granted to Mr. Tom Mann." Carried.

J. P. Jones explained that the Commissioner for South Africa in London had endorsed Tom Mann's passport. The High Commissioner for Australia refused to do so.

The campaign was unsuccessful.

Tom Mann on his return to England

Tom had taught Australia a great deal. He had pioneered mass organisation, emphasised theory, showed that socialism was not purely "continental" but applied to all countries; he broke down chauvinism and introduced internationalism; he taught them the necessity of militant class struggle in a class war. Above all he taught them not to fear the word "revolution".

He also gained a lot in Australia and learned much. It is a debatable point whether he would have seen the inadequacies of "pure labour" or social democracy so quickly if he had not been in the intimate position that he was in Australia, to see it operate.

The quick response of the Australian workers, with a fairly militant trade union tradition and the similarity of their conditions with that of the American workers, to the ideas of syndicalism, reacted on Tom Mann. It is noteworthy that in writing up Tom Mann, the Encyclopaedia Britannica puts him under the subheading "Syndicalism" in its piece on the General Strike in Britain. In Australia he would be regarded as a great socialist. In the Britannica his claim to fame is that he was a syndicalist.

Widespread support for the general strike began to develop in Great Britain after the return from Australia of Tom Mann—one of the leaders of the great 1889 dock strike. . . Mann came back to Britain inspired by the doctrines of Syndicalism which had spread from France to America, later being adopted by the Industrial Workers of the World (founded in Chicago in 1905), and re-exported to Europe and Australasia. Mann established in 1911 the Revolutionary Syndicalist league and had a hand in most of the large-scale strikes which occurred in 1910, 1911 and 1912.

Thus his Australian experience helped mature him.

• • •

Laidler and many of the other young men soon departed from the VSP after Tom Mann left and several joined the IWW Club and later the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).

Under Bob Ross the VSP soon became emasculated of its revolutionary content. Eddie Callard remembers Ross complaining, "These young chaps who would do nothing in the VSP work like billyo in the IWW." The vigour of other organisations attracted them and Ross was derisively called "Fighting Bob Ross".

After Mann left, although Socialist reported a year later that the party was stronger than ever and claimed members had proven it was not a one-man party, things were not good.

In September 1910 it had to be reported that the membership was down to 331 financial and 300 slightly under financial. At the half-yearly meeting it was decided to reduce paid officials by one. Ross was paid as editor and all other positions were honorary, J. Curtin being the Hon. Secretary, Alf Wilson in charge of finance and Mrs. Anderson was literature secretary.

Already in March 1910 J. P. Jones had resigned because he had decided to stand as a Labor candidate for the Legislative Council in the electorate of East Melbourne. He thought his candidature might be criticized.

In March 1911, Ross went to New Zealand as he had accepted an offer to edit the Maoriland Worker, and returned to Melbourne in April 1913.

Whilst Ross was in New Zealand Mrs. Margaret Anderson, a very fine woman, was both Honorary Secretary and editor of the Socialist. It will be recalled she was one who went to gaol in 1906 in the Free Speech fight. She married Joe Swebleses and died at the ripe age of 94½ years, leaving her children faithful to the cause. Ross again became secretary on his return from N.Z.

The VSP was no mean factor in bringing about the anti-conscription victories in the plebiscites of 1916 and 1917. Again Tom Mann can be credited with playing some part in building up the understanding of imperialism, war and the need for a strong morale on the part of the anti-war forces.

However, the contrast between the Mann leadership and Ross leadership of the VSP seems well shown in the following quotation from a pamphlet published by Ross's Book Service in 1920, entitled "Revolution in Russia and Australia".

If we do not get the right sort of Labor Governments and parties our problem is how to get the right sort—not to destroy parties and Parliaments in favor of a violent and swift cataclysm. It looks to me like this:—On the day that education and events enable us to return to power a party with a mandate to establish the proletarian dictatorship and overthrow capitalism, on that day it shall be done. I believe it to be practicable to do it.

In 1915 a motion was carried by 17 votes to 11 "that Direct Action (organ of the IWW) be not permitted to be sold at any meetings of the VSP."


In 1918 the Socialist Party advertised for an organiser. Don Cameron came from Western Australia.

He was born in North Melbourne in 1878. As a young man he had gone to fight in the Boer War, and on his return became active in the trade union movement in W.A. and was elected president of the Trades & Labor Council.

His reputation in the working class movement was built by the leading part he took in the anti-conscription campaign.

Arriving in Melbourne the socialists gave him a great reception, but his was a hopeless task. The great days of the VSP had gone and his role was to try and keep an out of date organisation on its feet. He did this as well as it was possible until the late twenties when the VSP faded out. Don Cameron was well known in trade union and ALP circles and became the assistant secretary of the Melbourne THC, and in 1937 was elected to the Senate. During the war, whilst the Labor Party governed, he was Minister for Aircraft Production until 1945 when be became Post-Master General.

His speeches in the Senate in the last years of his life, were possibly his finest contribution.

The party carried on in gradual decline, and acted as a mildly socialist conscience of the Labor Party. Its V.I.P.s, politicians and trade union officials were in the main of no value, as they were more concerned to hide their beginnings, in the interests of holding their positions. There were some exceptions.

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