Magazine of Socialist Action in Australia

The life and times of William Lane

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William Lane has been regarded as one of Australia’s most important early socialists. In his short life, Lane was to have a profound impact on the development of trade unionism and the Labor Party in Australia.

But objective conditions prompted Lane to draw the wrong political conclusions. These saw him drift away from struggle and sail across the seas to Paraguay to form New Australia, a utopian commune.

Early life

William Lane’s family descended from an Irish peasant background. By the time of his birth, the 6th September 1861, they were living in Bristol, England, in dire poverty.

William’s brother, Ernie, wrote of their childhood in his own memoirs: “I have no Chartist or rebel ancestors or a traditional progressive background… I was steeped to the neck in idolatrous worship of the Church and State, British infallibility, and justice, and shuddered with childish horror at the mere thought of radicalism or Atheism… Socialism, to us and millions of others… was utterly unknown”.

Lane migrated to Canada, then to the US, at the age of 16. He arrived in North America during a time of widespread strikes and brutal oppression. This period politicised Lane. Working odd jobs as a printer, compositor, and reporter for the Detroit Free Press, Lane’s view of the world changed dramatically. During this time he also discovered the works of utopian socialists Henry George and Edward Bellamy.

Utopian socialists generally don’t believe that any form of struggle or political revolution is necessary for socialism to emerge. All classes could voluntarily adopt their plan for society if it’s presented in a convincing way. In their view, socialism can be established, among communities of like-minded people, within the existing structures of capitalist society. These small communities would then act as a model for others.

In 1884 Lane left the US for Australia, to join his brothers in Queensland. On his arrival, Ernie Lane recalled being shocked at his brother’s new radicalism.

Australia in the 1880s

William Lane was a product of his era. Australia had seen periods of struggle and the emergence of a new working class: the Eureka rebellion had occurred in 1854, followed by workers winning the eight-hour working day in Melbourne in 1856 and a series of subsequent victories. However in 1884, when Lane arrived, the objective conditions had a tendency to shore up his more conservative and utopian views.

While the 1880s saw a series of meetings of the Intercolonial Trade Union Congress, their slogan was “Defence and not Defiance”. By this they meant defence of the eight-hour day, without defiance of the capitalist state. There was a great surge of enthusiasm and class consciousness around the enormous gains workers had won through militant strike action. However, the trade union leaders wanted to distance themselves from accusations that they were fomenting revolution, and confined themselves to economic struggles.

This was partly due to the economic character of Australia. Australia in the 1880s had no big industry – it was a country of primary producers. In 1923 socialist archaeologist V. Gordon Childe summarised the limited industry that had existed before the turn of the century, saying that industry “could be grouped under two main heads,

(1) the refining of raw products, without, however, converting them into consumables – smelting, wool scouring, tanning and milling operations which are on the border line between primary production and manufacture proper;

(2) small industry – baking, brick making, furniture making, brewing and so on. In the main secondary production was on a small scale and progress was slow.”

For the most part, Australia produced raw materials for export, primarily wool.

As Lenin wrote, “Marxism is most easily, rapidly, completely and lastingly assimilated by the working class and its ideologists where large-scale industry is most developed. Economic relations which are backward, or which lag in their development, constantly lead to the appearance of supporters of the labour movement who assimilate only certain aspects of Marxism, only certain parts of the new world outlook, or individual slogans and demands, being unable to make a determined break with all the traditions of the bourgeois world outlook in general and the bourgeois-democratic world outlook in particular.”

Isolation from the lessons being learned by struggles in Europe also played a role. The Australian labour movement of the 1800s – and Lane’s own ideas – formed largely in the absence of Marxism. Marx’s Capital didn’t appear in English until 1887, and would have been extremely rare in Australia even then.

Nevertheless, Lane has been credited with one of the earliest Australian attempts at what Lenin described as the “extremely difficult” task of fusing socialist ideas with the broader labour movement.

Agitator in Queensland

Upon Lane’s arrival in Queensland he worked as a journalist. Within two years of his arrival Lane would carry enormous weight in labour circles.

He began work as a journalist on Figaro, a society weekly, and later worked for the Brisbane Courier and the Evening Observer. His articles on poverty and squalor in Brisbane brought him into the public eye. At one point Lane, a teetotaller, posed as a drunk to deliberately get arrested and write an exposé on the conditions in Brisbane’s prisons.

In November 1887 he founded his own paper, The Boomerang. The Boomerang carried articles on the conditions faced by the working class and hoped for a future more equal society. It had a massive circulation of more than 10,000 subscribers. Contributors included the famous poet Henry Lawson, and it was boycotted by Queensland advertisers for the views it expressed.

Lane was forced to sell The Boomerang in 1889. He proposed to the Brisbane Trades and Labor Council that they found a paper to present trade union views and labour news, and that the paper operate as a cooperative. His plan was accepted and he became editor on a salary which was exactly equal to that of other workers. Within months of its first print the new publication, The Worker, had 12,000 subscribers.

Commentary before the 1890s

Lane’s writings during this period showed that he was not concerned with changing the structure of society but merely reforming it to make life better for working class people.

He discouraged class antagonism. In 1886, Lane advised against the use of strike action to gain weekly, instead of fortnightly, payment of wages. He condemned the Melbourne ironworkers’ assistants for rejecting the arbitration proposal submitted by the ironmasters, calling for “the best peace between capital and labour”. When workers descended on Queensland parliament, Lane advised that “before workers abuse the Premier, they should recollect the circumstances in which he is placed”.

Lane reflected a movement that had gone backward from a more militant period. The Brisbane Trades and Labor Council set up the ‘Anti-Chinese League’, spreading the idea that non-union Chinese labour competed with local unionised workers to undermine their victories.

A socialist approach would attempt to win the super-exploited Chinese workers over to unionism. This is the only way to raise conditions for all workers – racism is a tool used to divide the working class. But a tendency toward racist ideas meshes with a “Defence and not Defiance” slogan: a method that seeks to protect the gains of past struggles, but without advancing the fight any further.

Lane fully embraced this backwardness, writing vitriolic attacks on both Chinese workers and other non-white immigrants. Some of his statements could have come from modern-day hate groups in 2016: “Unless Australia is to be white, what does it matter to us what becomes of it?”

At the same time, he opposed discrimination and segregation when it came to Aboriginal people, and hoped for a society where working people control the means of production. He had a belief that this could be achieved through gradual change, without conflict.

In 1848, Frederich Engels described socialists like Lane as ‘bourgeois socialists’: “improvers of the conditions of the working class” who pursue reforms that “in no respect affect the relations between capital and labour”.

Lane’s shift to the left

Lane came to prominence during a period of economic boom. The development of his political thought didn’t exist in a vacuum. It was influenced by the social and economic factors at play. In Lane’s era, unionism had won workers an increasing wage during the boom, but this would soon be undermined by a crisis of capitalism.

Prosperity had been based on an investment boom. International capitalists invested in Australian wool, which was sold overseas. There was a rush on purchasing land in Australia, and speculators drove property prices up, creating a property bubble based on a huge amount of debt.

But between 1875 and 1894 the wool price almost halved on the world market. Investors withdrew funding, the government cut back on public works, and as the economy crashed unemployment rose.

The ruling class had made some concessions to the growing union movement during the boom, but now they moved to undo everything that had been won. They moved to smash the power of the unions. Workers fought for closed shop unionism – ensuring that workplaces could be fully unionised and workers were not required to work alongside those who had not signed up to defend their rights.

The early 1890s saw what became known as the Great Strikes – by dockworkers in 1890, shearers in 1891, and miners at Broken Hill in 1892.

The state once again showed its true colours to the working class – unionists were jailed and the police and military brought in to break the strikes. Even though the Great Strikes were ultimately crushed, the experience still radicalised a large number of people.

Lane was boosted by the outbreak of the strikes. He not only used his papers and books to support the striking workers – profits from his 1892 book, The Working Man’s Paradise, went directly to striking shearers – but threw himself into the action too. Lane was influential in establishing and building the Australian Labor Federation (ALF) in Queensland.

Within 12 months, the ALF united more than 15,000 workers, including marine, printing, building, and ironworkers. Under Lane’s influence, the ALF, for a brief time, adopted a quasi-socialist objective that called for the “nationalisation of all sources of wealth and all means of producing and exchanging wealth”.

Foundation of the ALP

The defeat of the Great Strikes led to a growing understanding by workers that they needed to be represented both inside and outside the workplace. They sought protection from anti-union legislation and from the repression of the state machine. They needed laws and policies to improve their living standards. This would necessitate a workers party to fight for political change. Lane embraced the idea.

When the Australian Labor Party (ALP) was founded in 1891, Lane correctly recognised it as a substantial advance, a step towards independent working class political action in Australia.

Many workers believed that a worker’s party would go beyond other political parties and move towards the replacement of capitalism by a new kind of society, but this doesn’t happen automatically. Lane envisaged a reformist, rather than a revolutionary policy. He hoped that “capitalism would yield without a word” and be gradually transformed.

Unfortunately the ALP did not fully embrace socialist ideas. Very quickly, many Labor MPs and party leaders thought their own interests would be better served by working within the system rather than striving to change it. The prestige of being an MP saw them drift into an elite group and their role as representatives of the working class became much lower in their order of priorities. As early as 1892 a struggle developed to keep the newly elected members under control. Pledges were broken and factional fights developed.

This process deeply concerned Lane. Lane’s lack of revolutionary politics, and a growing disillusionment with the reform he hoped for from the Labor Party, led him to another conclusion: to start a new society from scratch. He wrote “Those who seek to change the world must first of all show the world that change is possible.”

Communal experiments

While it seems strange today, the idea of founding a utopian colony was common in the 1890s. In June 1891, after the shearer’s strike was defeated, 72 shearers left to found the Alice River Commune in central Queensland. Several other government-supported communes were also established. Lane visited the Alice River Commune and corresponded with similar movements in North America.

When these experiments failed, the capitalist press would gleefully describe them as “a socialist failure” – that was the headline of one paper in 1904 as the Alice River Commune fell apart. In truth, these experiments were failures in utopianism – it is not possible to build a new society from scratch. History shows that new societies are transformed from the old.

Socialism must be based on the highest development of industry to succeed. Agricultural communes remain at the mercy of capitalism, they cannot withdraw from the world and flourish. At best, they can look back to a pre-capitalist form of society, incapable of sustaining the level of production needed to support any large population.

In May 1891, The Worker newspaper announced that an agent had been sent to scout out land in South America. The continent had a romantic attraction to Europeans of Lane’s generation, who had grown up on stories of Guiseppe Garibaldi, an Italian bourgeois revolutionary who had joined the nationalist anti-colonial revolutions in Uruguay and Brazil. But a large part of the attraction was Lane’s failure to secure land he found suitable in Australia. He turned to Paraguay.

Paraguay was only two decades out from a devastating war, the Guerra Grandé. More than half the population had been killed in the conflict, including 90% of the male population. In the aftermath, the government had a pro-immigration policy that saw 12,000 immigrants arrive in the port city of Asunción between 1882 and 1907. A number of European political thinkers attempted to establish colonies there.

When Lane put the call out for the establishment of a commune, ‘New Australia’, hundreds signed up. Workers sold their homes, small business owners their shops, and all put in significant sums to be part of the new project. Lane wrote, “We will write the history of the world on the rocks of the Andes.”

New Australia

By December 1892, 600 people had enrolled. Available land was found 176 km south-east of Asunción. Lane, with 220 colonists, left on July 16, 1893. On the Sunday before the sailing, a crowd of 10,000 people, including John Christian Watson, future Labor Prime Minister, gathered in the Sydney Domain to farewell them.

Lane’s conservatism came back in force when he established New Australia. He had a puritanical approach; alcohol was banned, and Lane forbade colonists from having relationships with the indigenous Guaraní people.

Lane gave himself absolute authority over the commune. He described it as being bound by “the Code of the Medes and the Persians” – a reference to a bible verse that continues: “no decree or edict that the king issues can be changed.”

Many settlers refused to comply. Lane complained bitterly in a letter, “Some among us would never have joined us had they known that under the movement was a real, albeit a flickering, belief in God”, and later, “The crooked ones will have to go.”

Under this regime, the dissenters eventually formed into factions. At one point 85 people left the colony at once, and were granted land elsewhere by the Paraguayan government. As new colonists arrived from Australia, one of Lane’s friends turned against him and led a revolt.

Lane resigned from the colony and left, with 63 others, to settle at a new site called Cosme. Others came to join them from both England and Australia. But neither colony was ever more than self-sufficient. People left, seeking better living standards. Lane abandoned the project, demoralised, and both colonies fell apart in time.

Later years

Lane moved to New Zealand in 1900 and became a journalist for a right-wing paper in Auckland, The New Zealand Herald. His brother, Ernie, stayed in the workers movement organising in Queensland, and went on to join the Communist Party. However William abandoned working class politics, and became an imperialist. At the outbreak of WWI, Lane showed himself to be a supporter of the capitalist war, and wrote patriotic and racist anti-German diatribes.

He died on 26 August 1917, in Auckland, aged 56. The left-leaning newspaper Ross’s Monthly declared: “Billy Lane is dead – dear old Billy Lane. And he died in the camp of the enemy!” The Worker, which stayed in publication in Brisbane until 1974, wrote that the record of his time in Queensland would last as long as the labour movement itself.

The ultimate conclusion drawn by William Lane, as well as some others at the time, was that the prospect for a new social order in Australia was virtually lost with the defeat of the 1890s Great Strikes. Lane and his followers thought that the best way to promote socialism was to withdraw from the difficult capitalist environment and build a socialist utopia in Paraguay. This was a conclusion born from defeat and despair.

Lane’s mistaken ideas flowed from his basic theoretical weaknesses: his flawed understanding of class society and his idealism. His retreat not only took some of the most capable unionists away from the Australian struggle, but the confusion the New Australia project sowed amongst those who remained contributed to the ineffectiveness of the labour and socialist movements in the following years.

Nevertheless, what the life and times of William Lane show is that the broad ideas of socialism have often had widespread support in Australian society. In the period we are moving into we can expect these ideas to once again come to the fore in the labour movement and beyond.

By Conor Flynn


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