Philip Josephs and anarchism in New Zealand

Philip Josephs – a Latvian-born Jewish tailor, recent arrival to New Zealand by way of Scotland, and self-proclaimed anarchist – took to the floor of the Wellington 1906 May Day demonstration amidst orchestral outbursts and a flurry of motions. “This meeting,” moved Josephs, “sends its fraternal greetings to our comrades engaged in the universal class war, and pledges itself to work for the abolition of the capitalistic system and the substitution in New Zealand of a co-operative commonwealth, founded on the collective ownership of the land and the means of production and distribution.”[1] The motion, as well as highlighting his involvement in the radical milieu of New Zealand’s capital, conveys the key concepts of his anarchism – internationalism, mass collective action, and free communism.

However, if readers were to form an understanding of anarchism based on the newspapers of the day, or from the accounts of New Zealand’s labour movement by certain historians, a very different conclusion would be drawn. On the occasions it is mentioned, anarchism is used hysterically by the press to denounce or decry; by labour leaders in order to show the fallacy of their opponents’ positions; and by labourist historians to symbolise wayward ideas or acts of extremism – painting a nightmarish picture of anarchist practice in the vein of Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday.[2]

Yet as Vadim Damier illustrates in Anarcho Syndicalism in the 20th Century, anarchism was a global working class movement, one “that spread to countries as different as Spain and Russia, France and Japan, Argentina and Sweden, Italy and China, Portugal and Germany,” and “was able to attract hundreds of thousands, indeed millions, of wage workers.” Anarchists “not only took an active part in the most important social upheavals and conflicts of the twentieth century, often leaving their own indelible imprint on these events, but also in many countries they formed the centre of a special, inimitable, working class culture with its own values, norms, customs, and symbols.”[3] Against this reality of anarchism as a socialist movement, a focus on its most controversial deviations reaffirms the stereotype of the anarchist terrorist, dressed in black and wielding a bomb – insane, dangerous, and against civilisation itself. “‘Gods Own Country’ is not safe from the vagaries of the person who believes in the bomb as opposed to argument,” bellowed one daily New Zealand paper in 1907.[4]

Although highly exaggerated, the article contained one truth. God’s Own Country – the ‘workingman’s paradise’ that was New Zealand in the early years of the twentieth century – had anarchists in its midst. To describe this small number as a coherently organised movement would be another exaggeration, but nonetheless, those that subscribed to anarchism in New Zealand were a valid part of the labour movement, imparting uncredited ideas and influence. Likewise, anarchist agitation and the circulation of radical literature contributed significantly to the development of a working class counter-culture in New Zealand.

The most substantial work to date on anarchism in New Zealand during the turbulent teens is the indispensable 32-page pamphlet, ‘Troublemakers’ Anarchism and Syndicalism: The Early Years of the Libertarian Movement in Aotearoa/New Zealand, by Frank Prebble. Drawing on snippets of primary and secondary sources, his research was pioneering in that it was the first specific work on anarchism – highlighting a definite strand of libertarian praxis in New Zealand that has long been overlooked. Yet as Prebble notes in the introduction, “this pamphlet is not complete, much of the information is very fragmentary and a lot more work needs to be done.”[5]

By drawing on the work of Prebble, information garnished from living relatives of certain anarchists, and with a transnational lens, my forthcoming book (Sewing Freedom: Philip Josephs, Transnationalism & Early New Zealand Anarchism) will explore anarchism in New Zealand before 1921 through a biography of one of its key players. The transnational nature of anarchism in the period between its emergence in the workers’ movement of the late 1860s, and the interwar years, can be seen in the migration and activity of Philip Josephs (1876-1946). His sustained activism, whether from the soapbox or through the mailbox, and his involvement in the class struggle that swept through the country, makes Josephs one of New Zealand’s most important and pioneering anarchists.

As well as providing previously scarce biographical information on Josephs, I hope to convince the reader of three main claims. First, before the arrival of Josephs in New Zealand the ‘broad anarchist tradition’ – defined by Schmidt and van der Walt as a revolutionary form of libertarian socialism against social and economic hierarchy (specifically capitalism and the state), in favour of international class struggle and revolution from below in order to create a socialist, stateless social order[6] – had next to no organised presence. There were anarchists and various forms of antiauthoritarian ideas in New Zealand before Josephs, but it was his activity within the New Zealand Socialist Party and later through his formation of one of New Zealand’s first anarchist collectives, The Freedom Group, that ensured a level of organised anarchism previously lacking in the wider labour movement.

The second point is one of legitimacy: anarchism was a valid part of the New Zealand labour movement and its working class counter-culture – directly through the activity of Philip Josephs and other anarchists, or indirectly due to anarchist literature and ideas. Although often missing from the indices of New Zealand labour histories, anarchism was “more influential than most have realised.”[7] The anarchist communism of Josephs reflects the rejection of violent individualism (propaganda by the deed) and the move back to collective action taken by the majority of anarchists in the late 1890s. His tireless distribution of anarchist literature, numerous public speeches, and his tailor shop-cum-radical bookshop helped to create a radical counter-culture in New Zealand; while his support of syndicalist class struggle and the general strike, and his activity alongside the local branches of the Industrial Workers of the World, typifies the relationship of anarchism with revolutionary syndicalism. Indeed, if one went so far as employing Schmidt and van der Walt’s definition of syndicalism being a variant and strategy of the broad anarchist tradition, the era of the first New Zealand Federation of Labor of 1908-1913 can be seen in a whole new light.[8]

Finally, New Zealand anarchists, and Josephs in particular, were rooted in the international anarchist movement. Josephs’ birth in Latvia, his radicalisation in Glasgow, Scotland, and his almost two decades in New Zealand before leaving for Australia highlights the transient nature of labour; while his distribution of international anarchist literature, and personal networking with overseas revolutionaries and groups such as Freedom Press (UK) and the Mother Earth Publishing Association (USA), illustrates the doctrinal diffusion and sharing of information so vital to informal, intercontinental anarchist networks. This sharing went both ways. Josephs’ activities, the bankruptcy of state-socialist legislation, and accounts of New Zealand strikes popped up on the pages of various anarchist journals abroad, lending weight to the notion that:

    anarchism was not a Western European doctrine that diffused outwards, perfectly formed, to a passive ‘periphery.’ Rather, the movement emerged simultaneously and transnationally, created by interlinked activists on many continents – a pattern of interconnection, exchange and sharing, rooted in ‘informal internationalism.’[9]

Josephs played a key role in the establishment of a distinct anarchist identity and culture (in New Zealand and abroad), a culture that emerged and enveloped simultaneously around the globe. His New Zealand activity personifies the transnational deepening of the day, and illustrates how interlinked (and often un-recognised) activists operating within small local scenes but with an eye towards international events and developments advanced the anarchist project worldwide. As a result, Josephs’ struggle for social change linked our South Pacific nation to the global movement, and furthered anarchism in New Zealand itself – the Freedom Group of 1913 being one of the first of many anarchist collectives to play a vibrant part in the history of the New Zealand left.

Jared Davidson

[Sewing Freedom: Philip Josephs, Transnationalism & Early New Zealand Anarchism will be published by AK Press in early 2013. The Kate Sharpley Library has been instrumental in providing rare archival finds for this research, including Mother Earth articles and its confiscated subscription list.]



1. Evening Post, 7 May 1906.

2. G.K. Chesterton, The Man Who Was Thursday, J.W. Arrowsmith Publishing: London, 1908.

3. Vadim Damier, Anarcho-Syndicalism in the 20th Century, Black Cat Press: Canada, 2009, p.3.

4. Marlborough Express, 1907.

5. Frank Prebble, “Troublemakers” Anarchism and Syndicalism: The Early Years of the Libertarian Movement in Aotearoa/New Zealand, Libertarian Press, 1995.

6. Michael Schmidt & Lucien van der Walt, Black Flame: The Revolutionary Class Politics of Anarchism and Syndicalism, AK Press, 2009, p. 71.

7. Eric Olssen, email to the author, 20 August 2010.

8. Schmidt & van der Walt, Black Flame.

9. Steven Hirsch & Lucien van der Walt, ‘Rethinking Anarchism, Syndicalism, the Colonial and Postcolonial experience’ in Hirsch & van der Walt (eds.), Anarchism and Syndicalism in the Colonial and Postcolonial World, 1870-1940: The Praxis of National Liberation, Internationalism, and Social Revolution, Brill, 2011, p. iiv.

From: Reproduced courtesy of the Labour History Project Newsletter (issue 54).