By Stephen Gray
In recent years, governments have used public fear of violent extremism to justify draconian laws. Such laws are aimed, we are told, at radicalised young men prepared to commit horrific acts in pursuit of an other-worldly ideal – fanatics in the sway of a ‘death cult’, in Tony Abbott’s words.
Have we ever faced a threat like this before? How did we respond? Exactly one hundred years ago, an unarmed police officer was shot dead in the NSW town of Tottenham. His killers were members of the radical anti-war Industrial Workers of the World – their minds poisoned by the IWW’s ‘pernicious literature’, as the prosecution claimed.
Beyond a mutual preparedness to die, it might be questioned what similarities exist between the IWW’s philosophy, and that of modern Islamists. What is not debatable is the similarity in the government’s response. Such events were used, 100 years ago as today, to justify repressive measures.
Direct action and the ‘Wobblies’
The Industrial Workers of the World was first formed in Chicago in June, 1905. Soon known as the ‘Wobblies’, they believed that only ‘direct action’ would lead to the proletarian revolution, preceded by an apocalyptic general strike.
‘Direct action’ was an end-justifies-the-means philosophy, aiming ‘to use any and all tactics that will get the results sought with the least expenditure of time and energy… The question of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ does not concern us.’ Its opponents accused it of murder, and ‘Wobbly’ poet Joe Hill was hanged for this offence in Utah in November 1915, later inspiring Joan Baez’ famous song.
The Wobblies were loosely organised. Their leaders were orators and propagandists, famed for flaming power of thought, greatness of self sacrifice, and profundity of conviction.
Undoubtedly the Wobblies were an attractive – some would say seductive – movement, especially to young working-class men who felt cast out by capitalism’s rougher edge.
The IWW and the First World War
In October, 1914, Australia’s wartime Prime Minister, W M ‘Billy’ Hughes introduced the War Precautions Act, giving the Commonwealth government power to rule by regulation.
This draconian Act was aimed at the IWW, which, along with ‘German sympathisers’, Hughes blamed for miner’s strikes, and for the growing opposition in the labour movement to Australia’s involvement in the War.
Hughes had a pathological hatred for the IWW. ‘It is no use treating these people like a tame cat,’ he thundered in January 1916. ‘They must be attacked with the ferocity of a Bengal tiger’.
And Hughes did so. ‘Wobbly’ leader Tom Barker was jailed for his famous ‘To Arms’ poster, satirising the recruitment campaign. A Counter-Espionage Bureau secretly monitored the IWW’s activities.
Then in September, in the lead-up to the conscription plebiscite, it arrested the ‘IWW Twelve’ – men charged with treason and tried for sedition and conspiracy following factory fires in Sydney.
To the prosecution, the IWW was an octopus of German sympathisers and fifth-columnists, a ‘gigantic conspiracy’ to ‘levy war against the King within the State of New South Wales’. Politicians and the media stoked up public fear and hatred of the IWW.
The IWW and the Tottenham case
Meanwhile, in the NSW country town of Tottenham, nearly four hundred miles from Sydney, Roland Kennedy’s IWW agitation had cost him his job at the local mine. He was far from the only radical. By mid-1916 local authorities had become so worried about a ‘turbulent element’ that they requested police protection for the town.
In late September 1916, the extra ‘protection’ arrived in the form of Constable George Duncan, an officer of fearsome reputation, on a mission to ‘clean up’ the town.
On his second day on the job, Duncan arrested an IWW member for offensive language, to the sounds of some ‘hooting in the crowd.’ Amongst that crowd was Roland Kennedy, who exchanged strong words with Duncan.
Late the next evening, at about 9pm on September 26th, 1916, Duncan was sitting at a typewriter at the police station, working on a report about deceased cattle, when he was struck and killed through the open window by two .32 calibre bullets. Ballistics showed a third bullet, a .38, was also used.
Two CIB detectives rushed from Sydney to investigate. Within a couple of days they picked up Kennedy and Franz. Franz initially denied involvement, but on 30 September, he confessed to the murder. He blamed Roland Kennedy, along with Kennedy’s older brother Herb.
As Franz later said, ‘it was stated to him that, if he made a confession and gave evidence for the crown, his life would be spared and he or his family would probably receive the reward’, of some £200.
At trial in Bathurst, the prosecution blamed the IWW, saying the men ‘had their minds inflamed and saturated by the pernicious literature of that body, which was found at their residences.’
Roland Kennedy pleaded guilty. Although he soon changed that plea, he had effectively confessed in front of the jury. Franz’s evidence made the case against Kennedy almost water-tight.
As for Franz, he had already confessed. He could only hope his deal with the prosecution would save his life.
The jury took only an hour to find Roland Kennedy and Franz guilty of murder. The judge duly sentenced both men to death.
Despite a public campaign, and an appeal to the Executive Council and the Court of Criminal Appeal, the two were executed at Bathurst jail on 20 December 1916 – less than three months after their crime.
Franz was executed in breach of a deal, and as a police witness who had turned ‘King’s Evidence’. This was unique in Australian and probably British history, as the working-class weekly ‘Truth’ pointed out.
Repressive laws and the IWW
To the prosecution and the conservative press, IWW propaganda was squarely to blame for the shooting. Legislative Council member J D Fitzgerald summed it up: it was a case in which ‘weak minded Australians were drawn into nets cast by foreign intriguers’.
This view perfectly suited both the New South Wales and the federal governments, which were intent on clamping down on the IWW.
After all, the Franz and Kennedy trials were held in the bitter aftermath of the conscription referendum, and in the shadow of the trials of the IWW Twelve, held in November 1916.
Not only that, but just a few days before the executions, on 18 December 1916, the federal government passed its Unlawful Associations Act. Effectively this made the IWW illegal. In introducing the Act, politicians referred repeatedly to the shooting of the policeman.
A historian, Rowan Day, has compared the IWW men to the Russian radical Nechaev, as portrayed in Dostoyevsky’s Devils.
In J M Coetzee’s The Master of Petersburg, when a fictional Dostoyevsky goes to the police to ask for his dead son’s effects, they tell him his son was an associate of Nechaev himself;
‘… how deeply’, says the police officer, ‘he had fallen under the influence of the Nechaevites, who have led astray heaven knows how many of our more impressionable and volatile young people… Explain to me again: why are dreamers, poets, intelligent young men like your stepson, drawn to bandits like Nechaev?’
‘I do not know,’ responds Dostoyevsky. ‘Perhaps because in young people there is something that has not yet gone to sleep, to which the spirit in Nechaev calls. Perhaps it is in all of us: something we think has been dead for centuries but has only been sleeping’.
So did the IWW men also respond to something ‘we think has been dead for centuries but has only been sleeping’? Could some members of the ‘Islamic death cult’ have more in common with the anarchists and Nechaevites than we might realise? If we understood these similarities in our history, deradicalisation campaigns might stand a better chance.
After all, one hundred years ago, public reactions to perceived radical threats were not so different to today.