Dressing Wellington’s radicals, David Grant

Sewing Freedom: Philip Josephs, Transnationalism and Early New Zealand Anarchism
Jared Davidson
AK Press, $15.00, ISBN

Philip Josephs was a Latvian-born Jewish tailor who escaped religious persecution in his home country. He emigrated firstly to Glasgow – the industrial powerhouse of the Scottish economy – where he had found an ideological home within the powerful tradition of radical politics that infused its large working-class population, centred where he lived and worked in the Gorbals slum. In 1904, Josephs, with his wife Sophia and four children, sailed for Wellington, found a home in working-class Aro Street, and then established a small tailor’s shop in Taranaki Street. New Zealand was then widely perceived and advertised internationally as a “workers’ paradise”, and Josephs was lucky that he landed in a country on the cusp of political change. Indeed, Wellington was beginning to blossom as a centre of a working-class culture, a conscious community that emphasised a shared identity “in assertive conflict”, as Fran Shor wrote, “with the imposed values and ideology of the employing class”.

Within this milieu, Josephs’s political activity began early, as he became involved in a solidarity demonstration against injustices suffered by Russian workers in the 1905 revolution. He quickly joined the nascent and growing Wellington branch of the New Zealand Socialist Party (NZSP), which encompassed among its members, in its early days, a wide range of revolutionary and evolutionary political positions. So did anarchism, defined rather diffusely by one writer as a “revolutionary form of libertarian socialism against the social and economic hierarchy (specifically capitalism and the state) in favour of an international class struggle and revolution from below in order to create a socialist, stateless order”. Josephs was instrumental in the formation of one of New Zealand’s first anarchist collectives, the Freedom Group, and organised and edited New Zealand’s only anarchist newspaper, Freedom: A Journal of Anarchist Communism. 

Whereas socialists called for nationalisation and political reform – and therefore power being taken over by a minority which became entrenched as a new ruling class (as we saw after the Marxist revolutions in Russia and China) – anarchists, like the hugely influential Russian, Peter Kropotkin, denied the need for any transition period and argued for immediate communism. Josephs believed that the abolition of the state and the “expropriation of the whole of the social wealth” by the people themselves would ensure a “self-managed, socialist and stateless social order”. He agreed with this extremist position, and this was at the core of his anarchist argument.

Over the following years, Josephs ran the NZSP’s economics classes on Sunday mornings, gave lectures on Sunday night, wrote articles on a variety of radical topics for the NZSP’s magazine, Commonweal, and, from 1910, for the Federation of Labour paper, The Maoriland Worker. Yet, on a more personal level, his main activity was his importation into New Zealand of masses of socialist/communist/anarchist literature and its dissemination throughout the country. Months after his arrival in Wellington, and right through until his tailor-shop-cum-bookshop was closed down by the state in 1915 for propagating “seditious” literature, he was ordering a steady stream of anarchist propaganda from the Freedom Press in the United Kingdom and other anarchist print shops around the world. This initiative played a major part in the influx of revolutionary material and was instrumental in creating informal anarchist contacts between New Zealand adherents and those abroad. His tailor/bookshop also became a meeting hub for budding revolutionaries to have their coats ironed, to peruse radical literature, and engage in stormy debate. As Davidson relates, it is likely that Josephs dressed most of Wellington’s radicals.

This book is, however, more than a biography of one man; indeed, there are significant gaps in Josephs’s life which, despite Davidson’s assiduous and wide-reaching research, remain unfilled. There is another layer which focuses his story within a broader, and satisfying, context of radical politics: socialism, communism and anarchism, with their various links and permutations in New Zealand from the 1880s to the WWI period. The great value of the book is the way Davidson places anarchism at the centre of the discussion of the origins of far left political radicalism in this country, unlike other labour historians who often marginalise such discussions. Around this fulcrum, the author articulates, with much lucidity, anarchism’s relationships to the other far left movements of the time, both home and abroad.

Tautly written, Davidson’s book requires close reading, but those who do will be rewarded. It offers a thoughtful, expansive and sophisticated exposition of anarchist philosophy and activism through the evocation of Philip Josephs’s life and of the lives of others whose ideas so influenced him and Davidson himself. Sewing Freedom fills a much-needed gap and deserves a treasured place within the pantheon of serious studies of the origins of the far left in New Zealand.


David Grant’s The Mighty Totara: The Life and Times of Norman Kirk is reviewed on p15. 


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