The Complicated History of the First Australian Internationalist

Radical history is littered with unknown people, anonymous figures who nevertheless – in their own modest ways – contributed to the development of socialism and the workers’ movement generally. Some were very important, others less so. An example of a man that falls into the latter category is William Edwell Harcourt. Virtually nothing has been written of him so far; this article is, as far as I know, the first piece to deal with him directly. He would be of essentially no interest, if he did not possess two very special honours: he was the first Australian internationalist socialist, and a participant in the Hague Congress of the First International – the founding split between Marxists and anarchists.

What was the First International?

The International Workingmen’s Association (IWMA) was founded in 1864 at the instigation of French mutualists and British trade unionists, who realised the practical importance of international coordination among workers to prevent the importation of scabs from foreign countries during strikes. The organisation, predominantly English and French and based in London, also took in radical Italian, Polish and German émigrés, like Karl Marx, who sat on the commission to write the statutes. Within a few years, the International rapidly expanded to include highly active sections in Italy, Spain, Belgium, the Netherlands and Switzerland, and smaller ones representing other countries.

Though a full account of the International and its internal disputes is beyond the scope of this article, a quick explanation is necessary. At the founding of the International, it was decided that a General Council be formed to facilitate the relationships between the different workers’ associations that belonged to it. Marx was elected to the body as one of its German representatives.

In time, the Council began to represent Marx’s views, even when they diverged from the wider views of the IWMA’s constituents. The tendency of Marx and his allies (including Engels and the other German social-democrats) was to centralise power in the General Council, ostensibly to make the organisation more effective, giving the body of the IWMA a brain. Marx and his allies sought to mandate a political strategy on the IWMA’s sections, to induce them to contest elections; he resolved that “the conquest of political power” was an essential task of workers and their organisations. Practically speaking, this conquest was to take the form of socialists gaining power through parliament.

On the other side of the battle was Bakunin and his federalist, social-revolutionary comrades, who had entered the International after dissolving their previous international alliance and reforming as an IWMA section, based in Geneva, Switzerland. The federalists of the International regarded the involvement of workers in parliament as inevitably leading to the degeneration of the workers’ movement; instead, they pushed for struggle through labour action.

Though they originally – and naïvely, by their own admission – voted to give the General Council significant powers of authority within the International, by the Hague Congress they were regarding it as having becoming authoritarian; they argued that its powers should be greatly reduced and that it be returned to “its normal role, which is that of a simple correspondence and statistics bureau”. They believed that no one political program should be mandated on the International; instead, the local sections should have the ability to determine their own strategies based on their knowledge of their own local situation.

The divide between these two factions grew fierce, and it is from this feud that the two primary strands of socialism emerged: Marxism, and anarchism.

Who was William Edwell Harcourt?

William Edwell Harcourt was a gold miner from Victoria, born around 1841. He was a member of the Democratic Association of Victoria. He appears to have travelled around the country for work, involving himself in a number of labour disputes along the way. He claimed to have known Frederick Vern, a Hungarian veteran of the 1848 revolutions and a prominent leader at the Eureka stockade. Harcourt connected with him at Forbes in 1862, and then “on the Macquarie” in 1864.

The Democratic Association of Victoria (DAV), the organisation Harcourt belonged to, was a workers’ society oriented primarily towards education and co-operativism. It subscribed to the publications of the English labour movement, learning about the International this way. It adopted the preamble to the International’s general rules as its foundational document and published two papers, a weekly named “The International” and a more detailed paper named “The Australian Internationalist Monthly”.

The DAV does not appear to have lasted very long; only thirteen editions of “The International” and two of their monthly were printed. Despite this, it was able to have something of an impact on the local labour movement, if only for a brief time: it influenced the development of a boot-makers’ union and sponsored a needle-women’s co-operative. The DAV’s president, John Ross, lectured frequently on the idea of co-operativism at Trades Hall and other places.

Though they were on the main insignificant, they were nonetheless greeted with revulsion by the Victorian establishment. The media of the time connected them to the Paris Commune, to paint them as crazed revolutionists and atheists. One legislator in the Victorian parliament would argue in favour of a compulsory secular education bill on the grounds that it would take the winds out of the DAV’s sails in their advocacy for popular education.

Harcourt’s adventures

In 1872, Harcourt was dispatched to Europe by the DAV to learn more about the European workers’ movement. In June, he attended a meeting of the International’s General Council in London. The minutes of the meeting note his presence, and make mention of the DAV’s emphasis on land reform, defending the public ownership of land against sell-offs. In July, he attended the first Congress of the English Federal Council in Nottingham as an official representative. Though he is not on the record as saying anything, the resolutions of the Nottingham Congress in favour of the nationalisation of the land and banking would have likely satisfied him.

By August he had returned to London, and prepared to depart for the Hague Congress of the International, due to begin on September the 1st and end on the 7th. His letters back to Australia were received well by the DAV, and they resolved to formally affiliate to the International on the 4th of September. Despite this late resolution, Harcourt was nonetheless admitted to the Hague Congress as a delegate with full voting rights. This technically improper allocation of voting rights was likely arranged for him by his friends, the English delegates.

In most history books, the Hague Congress is known primarily as the key confrontation between anarchists and Marxists, with the key decision to expel the libertarians Bakunin and James Guillaume resolving in Marx’s favour. Though this was certainly the action with the greatest repercussions, other feuds would erupt at the International.

Marx’s coalition against the anarchists was more fragile than the libertarians had known, thanks to the lack of communication between the members of the different sections. By the time of the Hague Congress, Marx and Engels’ allies against the libertarians – the English unionists and the French Blanquists – were already becoming frustrated. These tensions would erupt at the Hague, and the result of the Congress became not simply a split between anarchists and social-democrats, but also a split between Marxists and most of the rest of the socialist movement of the time.

Though there is no record of Harcourt intervening in these disputes, he was nonetheless at the centre of them. This was as much by circumstance as anything else. When the libertarian delegates Guillaume, Adhémar Schwitzguébel and Carlo Cafiero arrived in the Hague, they discovered by chance that they were staying in the same hotel as a number of the English delegates. Guillaume gives an account of this in his memoir and archival work “L’Internationale: documents et souvenirs (1864-1878)”:

“[Upon arriving in the Hague] we dispersed to go and stay at various addresses that had been indicated to us: Schwitzguébel, Cafiero and I went to a modest inn, in a district not far from the royal palace; and we were pleasantly surprised to find there, seated round the table in the small dining room and having tea, my old comrade from the Lausanne Congress, Eccarius, and four other members of the English delegation, John Hales, Roach, Sexton, and the cheerful Irishman Mottershead, plus an Australian delegate with a herculean frame and simple manners, the gold miner Harcourt.

This chance meeting allowed them to discuss the situation in the International openly for the first time in years. They discovered that the English delegates had deliberately chosen their lodgings to be away from where Marx and his allies were staying. They were even more surprised to hear that the council members Roach, Sexton, Mottershead, Hales and Eccarius would be, in Guillaume’s words, “openly at war with those who formed the majority” – the majority being those who were lining up against the libertarians. The English claimed that they had not even signed the centrepiece anti-libertarian document, the “Fictitious Splits in the International” text – their names had apparently been added without them knowing its contents.

Staying at the same hotel was the Irish delegate McDonnell. McDonnell was a close ally – or perhaps sycophant – of Marx and Engels; Engels was in fact paying all his travel expenses. The meetings between the libertarians and the English delegates had concerned him so much that he sent a desperate private letter to his benefactor:

“Dear Engels,
There is a plotting going on. Mr. Guillaume and his confrères are at work. They have a meeting just while I am writing this and our beautiful English members are with them, Sexton, Roach, Mottershead, etc. They are securing the addresses of the disaffected and have even – in a mild way – essayed to catch me. I fear they will work harm to us in the Hague. Mr. Eccarius is a leader. He says the most shameful things of Dr. Marx.”

Harcourt is on record as voting only once at the Congress: he voted in favour of Engels’ motion to move the seat of the General Council to New York. On all other issues, he abstained. He also left early with a number of other delegates and was thus unable to vote on the decision to expel Bakunin and Guillaume. Interestingly, both Guillaume and the historian Wolfgang Eckhardt mark him down as being a member of the minority – the libertarians and their sympathisers, who protested against the centralisation of the International and expulsions.

Only once does Harcourt appear to have intervened in the discussions of the Congress. In a set of minutes covering a debate over the admission of American delegates, this appears: “Harcourt has not understood the question”.

Troublesome later history

Harcourt returned to Victoria not long after the Hague Congress. The DAV did not last very long, and he seems to have withdrawn from activism generally. He appears to have settled down in the suburb of Moonee Ponds, Melbourne, sometime around his 1883 marriage to a woman named Eliza Foy. Exactly what he did in this period is not clear, as he disappears from the historical record. The only exceptions come in the form of occasional letters to newspapers; the most prominent of which appears to be a letter to The Queenslander, the weekly literary supplement to the Brisbane Courier – now the Courier-Mail.

Harcourt’s letter was printed as an article in the 10th of December, 1910 edition, titled “Lambing Flat: the True Story of the Anti-Chinese Riots”. As one may infer from the title, it is not pleasant to read. Written in response to an account of the Lambing Flat riots that was printed in an earlier edition of The Queenslander, Harcourt gives his own account of the riots as a popular rebellion that led to the creation of the modern Australian nation.

The Lambing Flat riots were a series of race-riots that occurred in New South Wales, near what is now the town of Young. White Australians and other Europeans on the gold fields attacked Chinese migrants, who they regarded as competitors. It began over the summer of 1860/61 but continued for months, with the most serious riot taking place at the end of June, when approximately two and a half thousand white miners attacked the Chinese miners, with over two hundred of them seriously injured.

Harcourt depicts the attacks against the Chinese as an uprising from below. To Harcourt, they are hated by the whites, because they are – as he approvingly quotes a rebel leader named William Spicer – “uncleanly in their habits, that it was impossible for white men to live with them or near them, that they were thieves and assassins, that they were grossly immoral, and were tainted with leprosy”.

For him, the crucial moment is when the colonial authorities intervene to put down the rioters and offer protection to the Chinese. The confrontation between the rioters and the authorities is re-imagined as a Eureka-like battle. Harcourt states that an army corps of volunteers was formed, a republic declared, and a provisional government established with Spicer at its head. Frederick Vern – mentioned earlier – leads a “foreign brigade” of reinforcements to defend the nascent republic against the authorities.

Harcourt’s account is similar to the account of other Australian nationalists and republicans from the late 19th and early 20th century, who argued for independence on the grounds that the aloof British colonial authorities, based far away in London, were not fit to bring the local “coloured races” to heel; that should be left to the Australians, who knew them best. Such a line was quite prominent in the Australian labour movement, which vigorously supported the white Australia policy for decades, mixing white nationalism with a kind of crude economic protectionism.

For contemporary socialists, the way to deal with divisions of ethnicity and nationality seem obvious: the fraternisation and joint action of the working class across boundaries, against the common enemy in the ruling classes. This was the founding ethos of the First International in Europe and North America, and the common existence of the Chinese and Europeans on the goldfields appear to us now a potential opportunity for collaboration. However, when it came to extending the principle of internationalism to non-Europeans, the early socialists were by and large not forthcoming. 

Harcourt would pass away in November of 1913 at an aged care home in Clifton Hill. He has largely been forgotten by a leftist movement in Australia that is already somewhat ignorant of its own history; my hope is that this article will go some way in bringing to light this previously unknown character.

Recommended reading:

Wolfgang Eckhardt’s The First Socialist Schism: Bakunin vs. Marx in the International Working Men’s Association (2016, PM Press) – a very well-researched account of the conflict in the International; its footnotes alone are worth reading!
René Berthier’s Social-Democracy & Anarchism in the International Workers’ Association, 1864-1877 (2015, Merlin Press) – Berthier writes not as a historian, but as a committed libertarian socialist. This excellent book is as much a reflection on politics and economics as much as it is an account of the International, and though his conclusions may provoke some anarchists, they are nevertheless well-argued.
Henry Mayer’s Marx, Engels and Australia (1964, F. W. Cheshire) – a dated book, but it remains the best on the subject matter. It contains an exhaustive account of the DAV and its activities, as well as a compendium of all the times Marx and Engels ever referred to Australia in their printed works and correspondence.
Bill Schwarz’ The White Man’s World (2012, Oxford University Press) – particularly chapter two, “Colony and metropole”. It deals at length with the relationship between Australian radicalism, white nationalism and British colonialism.

Cover image: A mining license issued to William Edwell Harcourt.