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Review of Sewing Freedom by Chris Brickell

By christa | April 11, 2013

Jared Davidson’s new book is a history of both an influential figure – Philip Josephs – and a movement: anarchism in New Zealand. It is a beautifully-written and impeccably-researched volume that brings to our attention an often overlooked aspect of our political history.

Sewing Freedom traces the journey of Josephs and his family from Latvia to Scotland and then to Wellington in 1903, where he ran a tailor’s shop and distributed anarchist literature. ‘Between sewing machines, pulleys, pressing irons and a button-hole machine, workers could converse, browse anarchist pamphlets … and measure up for a custom-made suit’. Over time, Josephs helped to spread anarchist ideas from one end of New Zealand to the other, including the work of key international figures: Pyotr Kropotkin, Mikhail Bakunin and Emma Goldman, among others. The indefatigable Josephs also took part in protests on behalf of workers and against the tyrannies of governments and bosses.

Davidson clearly situates anarchism in relation to wider transnational labour movements over the first two decades of the twentieth century, and demonstrates the relationships between anarchist thinkers and activists both here and overseas. Along with Josephs, we meet Christchurch chemistry professor Alexander Bickerton as well as several immigrants: English doctor and eugenicist Thomas Macdonald – an acquaintance of Kropotkin – and German billiard table maker Johann Trunk. The reader gains a clear sense of international connections as well as Josephs’ ‘key role in the establishment of a distinct anarchist identity and culture’ in New Zealand.

Sewing Freedom offers an excellent discussion of class politics, adding Davidson’s voice to the critique of the myth of New Zealand as a classless society. There are useful discussions of the strikes at Blackball in 1908 and Waihi in 1912, and the (sometimes complex) relationships between anarchism, socialism and the state. The latter ramped up the pressure in the Wellington waterfront strike of 1913, when ‘Massey’s Cossacks’ violently clashed with workers. Philip Josephs was there, standing on a platform near Queen’s Wharf, loudly expressing his horror at the government’s actions. Soon the forces of repression came for him. Although Josephs escaped imprisonment – on a technicality – his shop was raided, his anarchist materials confiscated and his pamphlet operation shut down. ‘Despite its liberal façade’, Davidson argues, ‘New Zealand was one of the most stringent suppressors of dissent in the Western world’. Josephs left New Zealand for Australia in 1921, having ‘placed New Zealand anarchism firmly on the global anarchist map’.

Sewing Freedom works on several levels. It is a meticulous biography, a portrait of an era, a sophisticated discussion of anarchist philosophy and activism, and an evocation of radical lives and ideas in their context. Davidson has designed a fresh, crisp book with visual impact, nicely enhanced by Alec Icky Dunn’s wonderful sketches of key places in this history: working class backyards, a miner’s hall and striking workers under attack by the forces of the state. This beautifully-executed book tells an important story in New Zealand’s political history.

Chris Brickell is Associate Professor of Gender Studies at Otago University. His work explores histories and theories of gender and sexuality, adolescence, citizenship and the social sciences. His recent book is Manly Affections: The Photographs of Robert Gant, 1885-1915 (Genre Books, 2012).

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