Tom Mann, Social and Economic Writings

Edited and introduced by John Laurent and newly published by spokesman books. Price $12.50 plus postage from AMWU National Office (Mark Andrews), 136 Chalmers Street, Surry Hills, 2010.

Chris Ray

Tom Mann’s seven-year stay in Australia at the start of this century caused the authorities so much concern that they never allowed him to return, twice refusing him a visa in the period between the wars. Within weeks of getting off the ship in Melbourne in 1902 Mann was appointed full-time organiser for the Political Labor Council, forerunner of the ALP, where he worked tirelessly to get workers’ representatives into Parliament.

In 1905, already somewhat disenchanted with Labor politicians he helped form Victorian Socialist Party and a “Socialist Sunday School” movement which introduced thousands to left wing ideas. His Australian experience climaxed in the 1908-9 Broken Hill lockout in which Mann, now an organiser for the Amalgamated Miners Association, was tried and acquitted for sedition and incitement to riot.

Mann’s progression from Parliamentary campaigner to leader of the Broken Hill miners in their bitterest struggle paralleled the erosion of his faith in reform through Parliament and his growing attachment to union organisation as the vehicle for radical change. The Broken Hill dispute, which forced families to leave the city because they could get nothing to eat, seems to have confirmed Mann in the belief that capitalism had to be overturned by direct action and replaced with a system f workers’ control of industry.

According to John Laurent’s introduction to Mann’s writings, such “syndicalist” views, which emphasised the co-operative element rather than management by a state apparatus, horrified Labor politicians and middle class reformists such as Beatrice Webb. For Webb the general strike represented “the death gasp of that pernicious doctrine of ‘workers control’ of public affairs through the trade unions, and by the method of direct action … introduced into British working class life by Tom Mann.”

Mann’s socialism maintained a strong humanitarian streak and kindly aspect, though, unlike comfortable do-gooders such as the Webbs, Mann had every reason to hate the capitalist class. Mann’s efforts to break down divisions in the union movement extended across national boundaries. He was a delegate to various multinational socialist organisations and as president of the International Transport Workers Federation was expelled from both France and Germany.

Back in England after his trial in Australia, and according to Laurent, “moving increasingly towards a more revolutionary, Marxist, stance” Mann threw his efforts into the biggest class confrontations of the pre-war period. He was chairman of the Strike Committee during the 72-day Liverpool transport workers stoppage of 1911 when 7000 troops and 80,000 police specials were sent into action against the strikers and two gunboats were anchored in the Mersey off Birkenhead with their guns trained on the city.

The strikers won but Mann was jailed for six months for “incitement to mutiny”, meaning that he urged the troops not to shoot civilians. Mann played a significant role in rationalising the metal unions, becoming the first general secretary of the Amalgamated Engineering Union in 1919.

On April 15, 1936 a red flag flew over the Melbourne Trades Hall to mark Mann’s 80th birthday. Maurice Blackburn, a Victorian Labor MP said at the time: “Mann it was, who, above all, gave Australasia a socialist and international inspiration.”