A Jewish tailor and fox terrier owner; a Wellington carpenter and staunch family-man—not your typical anarchist-cum-bomber stereotypes. Yet one hundred years ago today, Philip Josephs and Carl Mumme were two founding members of the Freedom Group—one of New Zealand’s first anarchist collectives.
“Although the image of a cloak-and-dagger figure dressed in black springs to mind” notes Jared Davidson, author of Sewing Freedom: Philip Josephs, Transnationalism & Early New Zealand Anarchism, “anarchists such as Josephs and Mumme were everyday people. They were active in their trade unions, on the street corners, and in their communities.” What set them apart, says Davidson, was “their critique of coercive relations, wage slavery, and a vision of a more equitable and humane world.”
The Freedom Group was formed on 9 July 1913 at Philip Josephs’ tailor shop, on the first floor of 4 Willis Street, Wellington. “A matter that should have an effect in clearing the somewhat misty atmosphere in this city is the movement to form an Anarchist Group in Wellington,” wrote the radical labour newspaper, the Maoriland Worker, “for it will provide those who accept the Anarchist philosophy with the place where they belong… we understand that this will be the first Anarchist group formed in the history of New Zealand.”
Little material exists on the Freedom Group and its members, but as Davidson argues, “the emergence of the Freedom Group in 1913 signified a real advance in New Zealand anarchist praxis.” As well as importing popular pamphlets from the around the globe, the Freedom Group held regular discussion nights on a range of radical topics.
“So popular were these talks” writes Davidson, “they were soon moved from Willis Street to the larger Socialist Hall at Manners Street.”
On one night in September 1913, 120 people attended an anarchist social event the likes of which had never been seen in New Zealand. Billed in the “form of an Anarchist-Communist society, where one is equal to another, where no criminals, no officials, and no authority exists,” attendees could enjoy short speeches, readings of prominent authors, recitations and musical entertainment, “enjoying for at least one evening the benefits of a perfectly free society.”
Freedom Group co-founder Josephs was also involved in the Great Strike of 1913—another centennial marked this year—by expressing “his views publicly from a platform in the vicinity of the Queen’s wharf.” Rumour has it that the Freedom Group also engaged in running scraps with special constables during the strike.
Josephs had been in constant contact with notable international figures such as Emma Goldman since 1904. Later, during the First World War, it was letters to Goldman and the distribution of anti-war literature that saw the home and office of Josephs raided by Police.
Carl Mumme, a German naturalised in 1896, also felt the wrath of the National Coalition Government. In May 1916 he was taken from his workplace and interned on Somes Island due to his anti-militarist views. The ex-Freedom Group speaker was finally released back to his wife and five children in October 1919—11 months after the war had ended.
According to Davidson, this and other anarchist activity shows that “the activism of Josephs and others like him, whether from the soapbox or through the mailbox, 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.” Not only did anarchists exist in New Zealand; they were a part of some of our most tumultuous industrial disputes, and conveyed a uniquely radical message to workers across the country.
“At the very least, the Freedom Group was obviously a visible and vibrant feature of Wellington’s working class counter-culture, and the facilitator of thought-provoking (maybe even politically changing) conversation.”
The Freedom Group’s struggle for social change—for a society based on people before profit—linked New Zealand to the global anarchist movement of the day. It also signaled the first of many anarchist collectives to play a vibrant part in the history of the New Zealand left.