Dawn to Dusk – reminisences of a rebel: childhood and youth

Dawn To Dusk, E. H. Lane 1939

Childhood and Youth

Chapter I. Early Influences

It is a far cry from the old worn-out beliefs of the conservativism and reactionary political policies of 50 years ago, to the virile working class movement that is to-day insistently smashing down the gates of capitalist imperialism and exploitation. Yet with countless others I have travelled that road, and, in the journeying, have had many and varied experiences.

To record this pilgrimage, which may be of interest and value, also throw a badly needed light on some dark and nauseous corners of the Australian Labour Movement as misinterpreted by many of its so-called leaders, is the principal motive of these memoirs. Since my first participation, in early youth, in the working class movement, I have undeviatingly adhered to the Socialist or Communist philosophy, and from that angle and none other herewith review and comment upon the outstanding epochs and events of the past 50 years.

Consequently there is of necessity a scathing and uncompromising condemnation of those who, for place and power or other ignoble motives, have debased the Labour movement and sold the pass to the enemy. There can be no toleration for this “legion of the lost” that has brought the workers to their present parlous and humiliating position, but only righteous scorn and contempt.

It was suggested to me by the late Vic. Smith, bohemian and book lover, that in imitation of Frank Harris I should write a book entitled “Men I have Known.” I replied that if I wrote such a book I would term it “Men I Thought I Knew.” But bitter experience has taught me and others, and I know them now, and the knowing is a revelation of betrayal of principle and unscrupulousness that leaves one aghast.

Reverting to my childhood and early training, unlike some, I have no Chartist or rebel ancestors or traditional progressive background. The youngest of five brothers, William was the eldest, I was steeped to the neck in idolatrous worship of Church and State, British infallibility, and justice, and shuddered with childish horror at the mere thought of radicalism and Atheism, the two bogies of those days. Our father had emerged from a peasant environment in Ireland to that of a humble member of the petty bourgeoise, and that was the orbit round which the whole family revolved in glamourous abasement. Disraeli and Queen Victoria were our god and goddess, while Gladstone and John Morley symbolised all that was evil and destructive. Socialism, to us and millions of others, in the seventies of last century, was utterly unknown. Though very young I was precocious, due chiefly to father being an active Tory politician, strongly supported by my eldest brother Will, and at seven or eight years of age was primed with political wisdom (?) obviously extremely conservative. My greatest delight was to get a talk started on England’s history and naval and military heroes. I knew no others. I once said that I would rather have a talk on great (?) men than a piece of cake.

Our mother died when I was nine years of age and six years later a move was made to Australia. My brother Frank, 16 years of age, and I were the first of the Lane family to arrive in Brisbane in 1884. We landed penniless and without a friend. I was engaged for 12 months by Andrew Wagner, a milk farmer at Nundah, then known as German Station, at 7/6 per week.

For twelve months I had to start work at 1.30 a.m. Sundays and holidays included. But the experience was not altogether wasted.

The following year my brothers Will and John arrived in Brisbane, and to my horror I discovered that Will had evolved into a radical or worse. When he had left England for America some years before he had given me as a parting gift a Church of England prayer book in the fly leaf of which he had written “Fear God and Honour the King.” That was the very foundation of our material and spiritual life. I reminded him of this. He had forgotten, and I said sadly “Don’t you believe that now?” He laughed and replied “No! And you won’t some day, when you know better.” Shocked, I repudiated this blasphemous prophecy, which, however, was fulfilled to the uttermost in the course of two years, when I was seventeen years of age.

So in 1886 I had shed my swaddling clothes and became a passionate rebel against all those sacred things that in my earlier years had been held inviolate and unassailable. Undoubtedly my brother Will’s influence hastened this dramatic change of heart and outlook, but my own experiences, reading, and temperament would undoubtedly have quickly shown me the evils and fallacies of my childish beliefs and compelled me become a Socialist, or rather Communist.

Temperament is one of the most potent factors in the make-up and making of a rebel, and lacking the rebel temperament is a serious handicap to the revolutionary who with a thorough knowledge of the economic basis strives to impart Promethean fire to his agitational work.

Of course, the rebel temperament alone is unstable as water and shifting as sand. It leads to anarchism and other vague and vain strivings to find a way out of the present slough of universal misery. But, plus a sound understanding of the materialist foundations of society, the born rebel is the cream of the working class movement.

In relating my emergence from darkness to light, from the soul destroying philosophy of capitalist individualism to the inspiring humanitarianism of Communism, one or two points may be noted.

Although at first I had little knowledge of the sound economic basis of the Socialist theory, having read very little at that time, its ethical appeal to me was overwhelming in its intensity. There was born within me an instinctive and passionate love for the workers of all lands, a scorn of the cowardly expediences which have wrecked countless brave endeavours. Happily, through weal and woe, down the long, often heart-breaking years, this passion for my fellows has never deserted me and has been a dear source of comfort when all else has failed. While the purely ethical phase of the Socialist movement does not meet with much enthusiasm from the Marxian dogmatist, is even regarded as “suspect,” I am absolutely convinced that it is the corner stone of any bona-fide Socialist or Communist Society. Such a society must axiomatically be based on a solid economic foundation. The Communist theory unquestionably supplies that, but the ethics or religion of Communism is an integral part of the whole and any attempt to establish a Communist Society without a proper realisation of this position will inevitably fall.

My own personal experiences serves to emphasise this very fixed opinion on this subject, and although I have no desire to further dilate on this important phase of the working class movement, I would reaffirm this declaration. No Communist State could live on a purely ethical basis, neither, just as surely, could it do so lacking that spiritual realisation of Communistic ethics.

I must confess that largely through life I have been guided by my emotions and that hard materialism has not appealed to me or given me that courage and inspiration so essential in fights during times of crisis. Some of the harder headed and less temperamental comrades may condemn this attitude, or question its wisdom. I can, however, say without fear of denial, that this emotionalism has never played me false. It has never lead me wandering up blind alleys to betray the workers into a defeatist position. Under all and every circumstance it has brought me to the true haven, and has ever strengthened, not weakened, my attachment to the workers and their dearest ideals. Based fundamentally on a sound economic background, emotion, temperament, ethics, call it what one will, will never lead one to betray or desert the workers cause. Can as much be said for the undeviating materialist leader?

* * *

With an irrepressible love of poetry from my earliest youth, I naturally looked to the poets at this stage of development. Nor did I search in vain, but discovered a wealth of inspiration that has never since deserted me, and has been a never-ending solace in life’s darkest hours. Burns, Byron, Walt Whitman, William Morris, Swinburne’s earlier poems – and Shelley. How I devoured their revolutionary thoughts and aspirations, and indeed felt comradeship with all the great ones of the earth.

I ascribe to this poetic exaltation the enthusiasm and inflexibility of purpose that has ever made it impossible for me to abandon or betray the Communist path I so passionately pursued in my youth. No other path, however tempting or seemingly fair, has caused me to stray, and to-day, for all who have eyes to see, the end of the road is in sight. Therefore in sketching the foundation and background of my life, this record would be sadly incomplete if I did not, with deep thankfulness, remember and note my unpayable debt to humanities poets. Neither is it too much to assume that there are countless other good comrades, who have fought, and are still fighting, the good fight, who have found similar strength and inspiration through life’s journey.

Of all these seers and prophets of the Future’s Day, when “All will be better than well” – Shelley was the greatest – and the best beloved. I have more to relate of him later on.

My reading in regard to economics during my embryonic existence was scant, chiefly because books of a radical character were rare. At the present time there is a superabundance of Communistic and radical literature. Of the making of books there is no end, so that it is impossible for anyone to read and keep pace with the ever increasing number. In the early eighties of the last century the publication of a worthwhile book of a revolution nature was hailed as a heaven-sent gift and eagerly procured and diligently digested.

Outside of the poets mentioned, Morrison Davidson’s “Old Order and the New,” “Gospel of the Poor,” “New Book of Kings,” with Morris’s “Dream of John Bull” and “News from Nowhere” and “Story of an African Farm” and “Dreams” by Olive Schriner, provided me with much enlightenment and joy. These, and a few other radical books, were the highlights that served to keep all those who ever engaged in the Labour movement in touch with the growing progressive thought that was emerging from the long dark night of ignorance and despair. Thus did I, like many others, find the light and embark upon a lifelong crusade against the capitalist exploiter.

The outstanding feature of this period of my development was the influence and magnetic personality of my brother Will. As far as I was concerned all else in life was completely overshadowed, and with many other I sat enraptured at his feet and eagerly drank from the cup of inspiration which poured from his soul.

Lloyd Ross, in his recently published book, “William Lane and the Australian Labour Movement,” brilliantly and truthfully records Will’s amazing work and influence during this period.

I could add but little to that invaluable history of Will’s genius in the moulding of a rejuvenated Labour movement that swept a continent, and ,brought hope to many thousands of weary searchers for a new world.

It is impossible for the present generation to more than dimly vizualise the power, beauty, and uplifting influence that W. Lane exercised over the minds – and destinies – of men and women throughout Australia. The time was indeed ripe for a new faith whereby to point the way out of a brutal and soul damning system of society. Will gave that message, translating it into language and deeds that spurred men into action.

When he died in 1917, his death evoked grief and appreciation of his life work from those who never forgot his work and self sacrifice for the workers he loved so dearly.

I received many touching letters of condolence of which the following from a life-long battler in the Labour movement is typical, giving some indication of the love and comradeship Will had created in the hearts of many who had never personally known him:

“I used to read his work in the “Boomerang” And they were grand and inspiring. Ah! Those were the days to live in, and there is only a few of us who have kept true and never wavered. Your dear brother was a great man and one of the greatest journalists who ever struck Australia. But that was not all. His writing breathed of life and soul and lifted one right out of the mud and made one look up and see that there was such a thing as a blue sky overhead. I can remember how he used to lift my weary sad soul out of the mire of selfishness and self-pity, so that I began to live a man’s life without whimpering and stand on my feet up to anyone. Vale William Lane!”

As a brother of the man whose name was ringing throughout Queensland and also in the other States, I received a full share of reflected glory. This was all I was entitled to, as my part in agitation or any sort of work relating to the working class movement was practically nil. There was little opportunity in Brisbane in the middle eighties of the last century for one to become associated with any radical organisation (none existed) or the few craft unions and waterside and seamen’s unions, unless working in these occupations. I worked in a grocery store and it was undreamt of that a shop assistants’ union was in the realms of possibility. So, although seized with a hot revolt against the established order of things, my rebellion was of a somewhat vague and indeterminate character, obviously lacking the knowledge and experience that came quickly in later years. I was only seventeen years of age and I was content to adore Will and enthusiastically agree to all his growing revolutionary pronouncements.

I well remember a forgotten page of Labour history in Brisbane (1887). My brother started a “Bellamey” society. “Looking Backward” was just then in the boom. We met regularly on the closed-in balcony of George Marchant’s hop beer factory in Bowen Street, and there were about a dozen of us used to attend. Mr. Marchant became a very wealthy man and has devoted his money to charitable institutions, with a special regard for crippled children.

Another remembrance of that period is Francis Adams, the poet, and his wife who were close friends of my brother. Heated arguments sometimes arose on various aspects of revolutionary thought and I found myself actually closely in sympathy with the extreme rebelliousness of Francis Adams, who was impatient of Will’s more demure methods. I still retain a very loving remembrance of Adams, who, young as I was, had a magnetic appeal to my then unformed and unbalanced mind.

At the age of nineteen I felt the urge of travel and with a severe attack of wanderlust went to Sydney. It was then that I first met A. G. Yewen, a remarkable and intriguing personality who had been closely associated with the early history of the British Socialist movement. A stonemason by trade, Yewen was quickly repudiated by his family when he became an active member of the Social Democratic Federation. A personal friend of William Morris, Yewen assisted him to form the Socialist League (1884) in a breakaway from the S.D.F., whose high priest was H. M. Hyndman, on account of the growing parliamentarianism of that body. Owing to ill health Yewen was ordered to go to Australia. He had a letter to W. Lane in Brisbane and Will sent him up to Umbiram, Darling Downs, where my brother John was school teacher. Yewen stayed with John for six months and in improved health, went to Sydney. There he threw himself into the work of the Australian Socialist League, of which McNamara was secretary.

Socialism in those days was indeed a maligned and hated creed, and its few expounders and adherents were subject to every form of social ostracism and persecution, which it is hard for the present generation to realise. To be branded as a Socialist was to incur untold penalties, victimisation, and scorn. The old Socialist rooms in the back premises of a shop on Brickfield Hill were, it must be admitted, redolent of the untidiness and squalor with which it was always credited by its enemies. “Mac” and Yewen used to sleep on a mattress on the floor, where I joined them on occasions. There was a very good lot of Socialist and Radical papers from all parts of the world, and ‘as there were German, Austrian, French and Italian members, the League was often of an international character.

Yewen was a widely read man and his Socialist dogma and practice was of an intense character. Over a period of years, on many occasions he literally starved in propagating the truth of Socialism. In 1891 he became sub-editor of the Queensland Worker, under W. Lane as editor. Two years later he returned to Sydney, and with two other enthusiasts they sold and mortgaged their entire worldly possessions to establish a Socialist weekly paper, with the particular object of securing the election of W. M. Hughes, M.H.R., to the New South Wales Parliament. Hughes was an avowed Socialist and largely through Yewen’s paper was elected as a Labour member. However, as soon as he was elected, this chameleon of politics repudiated his Socialist principles – and friends – and viciously kicked away the ladder whereby he had clambered into parliament.

This brutal betrayal of principles and friends alike had a devastating effect on Yewen. He told me that the Hughes experience had altered his whole outlook on life. He (Yewen) was now convinced that, owing to the perfidy and unreliability of Labour representatives, no permanent progress on those lines could be made. The movement, he said, would evolve in the course of time and irrevocable events, and was not worth anyone’s personal sacrifice, nor would such sacrifice be of any advantage to the cause.

So one of the results of Billy Hughes’ renegadism was the loss for all time to Australian Labour of A. G. Yewen, a man who had proved his worth by many searing tests. It always appeared amazing to me that a man of Yewen’s intensity could thus abandon the cause he had so unselfishly devoted his life to.

But he did, and until he died, some years ago, never took the slightest activity, and very little interest, in the Labour movement. However, whenever he happened to meet Hughes in the streets of Sydney, Yewen would stop him and say in a loud tone to Hughes for public hearing: “Hughes, you rat!”

After a hard struggle Yewen secured a job as sub-editor of the “Stock and Station” journal, and although at that time he did not know a sheep from a lamb, within a few years he was recognised as one of the greatest wool authorities with regard to compilation and finance, in Australia. He was appointed editor of “Dalgety’s Review” and wrote the weekly wool column article in the “Sydney Morning Herald” for years, as well as the Smithfield market reports.

Yewen, shortly after abandoning the Labour Movement, married, and purchased a large block of land right on the headland at Newport, where he built a delightful stone house. Whenever Mrs. Lane and I visited Sydney we always spent our Week-ends at Yewens and enjoyed their warm hospitality; but Socialism was not one of our topics.

[Next WeekDawn to Dusk: Revolutionary Period]

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