Henry Edmund Holland was born on 10 June 1868 at Ginninderra, New South Wales, the second child of farmer Edward Holland and his wife Mary Chaplin. Harry, as he was known, attended a local elementary school until he was 10, then worked on a farm until, at 14, he was apprenticed as a compositor to the district Queanbeyan Times. There he was introduced to the industrial commonplaces of the time – long hours and an oppressive employer – and developed two characteristics central to his future life. One was the habit of voracious and indiscriminate reading. Thereafter Holland increasingly evidenced the marks of a self-taught mind: the compilation of a massive amount of knowledge without selective rigour or analytic penetration. The other characteristic was personal commitment to doctrines of perfectionist world renewal, which he first pursued within religion: he joined the Salvation Army in Queanbeyan.
At the end of his apprenticeship in 1887, Holland left Queanbeyan to find work in Sydney, where he met Annie McLachlan at a Salvation Army meeting. They married on 6 October 1888. Beneath an aloof and solitary public surface lay Holland's deep reliance on his wife, whose lively, warm, yet effacing personality complemented his seriousness and reserve and gradually mitigated its harshness.
His move to Sydney also further widened Holland's direct experience of the workers' lot. Shortly after the birth of the couple's first child in April 1890 (they were to have five sons and three daughters), he became unemployed, a protracted situation which brought not only privation but affront to his pride. It also brought disillusionment with religion's social relevance: regarding the Salvation Army's response as inadequate, Holland left and was never to return to organised religion. Yet he was always of a deeply religious disposition, self-disciplined and severe, certain of his own ideological rectitude, and dedicated to universal well-being.
Holland turned in 1892 to active membership of the tiny Australian Socialist League. His socialism remained at heart emotional, not intellectual. It was socialism's passionate attack on the injustice and degradation associated with the status quo, rather than the complexities of its philosophical apparatus, that attracted and held him. It seemed a total and satisfactory solution to society's problems; anything less was evasion, or betrayal, or stupidity, and he always opposed any weakening in labour's social critique or any movement toward mere reform or accommodation with capitalism.
Holland became increasingly disillusioned with the reformism of the Labour party in New South Wales, and split from it in 1898. Meanwhile he, with his friend Tom Batho, had begun a career of socialist journalism, launching the Sydney Socialist in October 1894. Its belligerent tone and aggressive stance may be judged by Holland's conviction in 1896 for libelling the superintendent of the New South Wales Labour Bureau. He was unwilling to apologise, unable to pay the fine, and consequently spent three months in prison. The Australian Socialist League supported his family, but Holland suffered personal humiliation and resentment, which nurtured his sense of being a persecuted rebel. It also fed his considerable sense of self-importance. Short, and slightly built, careful of his neat appearance, Holland long retained boyish good looks. This and his unmistakable air of sincerity, together with an intense reserved charm, imparted to his persona, and the message he preached, a curious attractive power.
On his release from gaol Holland transferred his newspaper to Newcastle, calling it the Socialist Journal of the Northern People. In 1900 he moved it to Sydney as the People. The following year he stood as Socialist Labor Party of Australia candidate, both for the federal Senate and the state seat of Lang; he attracted insignificant support. In July 1901 he organised the Tailoresses' Union of New South Wales, leading them into a bitter strike in November.
Harry Holland, despite his conviction of righteousness and air of moral superiority, was not immune from the disillusionments and lessons of consistent rejection and the realities of earning a living. Between 1902 and 1906 he edited labour papers in Grenfell and Queanbeyan. He seems to have seen this as a possible way in to labour structures. Confrontation having failed, perhaps infiltration from within might succeed: it did not.
By 1906 the Australasian labour climate was rapidly changing, with a vigorous resurgence within the socialist movement (particularly in its syndicalist form) and a major increase in industrial unrest. In February 1907 Holland returned to Sydney to launch a new publication, the International Socialist Review for Australasia. He stood as a socialist candidate in the New South Wales state elections of 1907, coming under intensified attacks from labour and becoming the focus of bitter personal infighting and doctrinaire disputes among the various groups of socialist fringe-dwellers. All this attention inflated Holland's sense of self-importance; as a rival socialist faction put it, he demonstrated 'inordinate self-love in conjunction with the sensorial illusion that he is dictator of the universe'. Increasingly he was losing touch with the reality of worker opinion and claiming his own views and doctrines as the only possible.
What became a virtual frenzy reached its height with Holland's intrusion into the Broken Hill metal miners' strike of 1909. His tirades against capitalism extended to incitement to revolutionary violence. He was convicted of sedition and served five months of a two-year gaol sentence. By now almost the entire labour movement was out of sympathy with Holland and indeed regarded his role as destructive posturing. His initial reaction was abuse and claims of martyrdom, but the effect of all this, plus another major strike defeat at Newcastle in 1909, was to force him to consider insistent questions about the role of socialists in the labour movement.
Holland maintained his separatist policies but by 1910 confessed privately that he was exhausted and despondent, to the degree where death would be a release. In May 1911 this emotional collapse, together with general physical breakdown and a knee injury, forced him into hospital. For the rest of his life he walked with a limp; the disability further embittered him. The hospital sojourn and a very slow recovery left another legacy – the turning, in times of anxiety and stress, to the writing of therapeutic verse, strident and assertive, full of violent imagery and vague extravagant emotions and hopes. Holland published these sentimental but aggressive outpourings as Red roses on the highways (1924).
In 1912 he was again under siege, fined for refusing to register his son for compulsory military training. He never paid it, leaving for New Zealand in May. The Waihi branch of the New Zealand Socialist Party had asked him to become its organiser and lecturer, an invitation Holland had sought: he had told a New Zealand socialist visiting him in Sydney that he wished to come to New Zealand to seek treatment for his knee at the Rotorua hot springs. He accepted the invitation, but a strike began at Waihi on 13 May and the Socialist Party asked him to postpone his departure. He refused, said he would adapt to circumstances, and left Sydney.
Holland was immediately plunged into the violent socialist-led miners' dispute, in which a mine worker was killed during a clash with police. This event, moves towards labour unity in 1913, and further spectacular industrial strife seemed to Holland to presage imminent class war. But the optimism he shared with socialists in New Zealand was of a different kind. They would take socialism as far as it would carry them and their ultimately pragmatic reformist purposes. Holland would take socialism as far as it could be pushed – by him. The New Zealand socialists were coming to socialism's practical problems for the first time: for Holland, at 44, it was a second chance to realise his frustrated doctrinaire ambitions in circumstances which seemed to suggest that this time, in this place, the majority of workers were on socialism's side. He was wrong, and his misreading of the unique and particular militancy of 1912–13 as a general law predicting worker reactions favourable to his theories placed him at odds with the electorate, and in tension with his colleagues for the rest of his life.
For the present, there was constant action which drew Holland, to his great relief, into the New Zealand labour movement. His co-authorship of what was to become a labour classic, The tragic story of the Waihi strike, added immensely to Holland's prestige. Then followed, in April 1913, the editorship of the New Zealand Federation of Labour's influential newspaper, the Maoriland Worker, and in July the victory of the socialist parliamentarian, P. C. Webb, for Grey. This saw Holland's reluctant departure from a rigid class war position, for Webb had won with reformist Liberal party support. His election marked out – for all Holland's reiterated theories about socialists driving all other parties into one capitalist camp – the realities of labour's political way ahead.
However, the immediate future seemed to confirm Harry Holland's hopes of a class war. In November 1913 a waterfront dispute escalated into a general strike, a trial of strength between the recently formed United Federation of Labour and the government-backed New Zealand Employers' Federation and farmers. Holland was charged with sedition and sentenced to 12 months' gaol, after a trial which he exploited for its dramatic potential and opportunity for casting himself as martyr; he served 3½ months. Nevertheless, the move to New Zealand was already softening his life-style, with, for the first time, some security, comfort and time for leisure.
On the outbreak of war in August 1914 Holland swung the Maoriland Worker into an uncompromising international socialist position – world revolution was at hand. In December 1914 he stood as the Social Democratic Party candidate in Wellington North. He was defeated but was moving towards a broader labour rather than a narrowly socialist position. Holland accepted worker unity as necessary in the face of the imminent collapse of capitalism; most workers hoped that a united labour movement would gain them better wages and conditions. These were the divergent understandings that underlay the formation of the New Zealand Labour Party in 1916.
By the end of 1917 Holland, increasingly unhappy with these compromises and the constriction they imposed on him, had determined to return to Australia. But his campaign as a by-election candidate for Wellington North in February 1918 brought him under a government attack so extreme and so personal as to make him a national figure on his own ideological terms: he was portrayed as the local variation of the Bolshevik revolution incarnate. It was exactly the type of recognition Holland craved. In March 1918 Webb was gaoled for refusing military service, and Holland stood for Grey in the by-election in May. Whereas Webb had held it with a large majority, Holland was barely elected. He was delighted, maintaining that his victory was one for undiluted socialism. His party was far less pleased, confronted by the sharp decline in the Labour vote, and by the reasons: Holland's austere personality and repellently doctrinaire socialism. Holland remained convinced that practical politics would nevertheless lead to socialist revolution and that he must continue to point this out. His colleagues were convinced that his insistence needlessly alienated voters and stood in the way of Labour's path to power.
In 1919 Harry Holland narrowly defeated the moderate James McCombs for the chairmanship of the parliamentary Labour Party. That he should have been elected at all reflected not his extremism, but his national prominence and his extraordinary ability to encapsulate labour protest. No one could come near to Holland in his scarifying denunciation of capitalism, in identifying its poisonous agencies in government, or in championing with both rage and compassion the plight of the worker. He was the ideal leader for a party seeking to attack the status quo and to champion the cause of the deprived, the powerless and the embittered. The waning of that phase and the need to construct steps beyond this groundwork made Holland's role less important, indeed potentially obstructive. Questions and issues he could not resolve he tended to consign to the future socialist economic revolution in which all would be made clear. But what of the workers' lot and the gaining of power by the workers' party until then?
Holland's limitations began to be evident as early as 1919 in regard to the need to devise a land policy. His proletariat did not include farmers, and he was torn between his belief that complete socialisation rendered a land policy of little importance, and acceptance of the electoral need for some attractive practical programme. Others devised this. But he learnt quickly and painfully from parliamentary experience that issues were more complex than theory allowed, and that the rashly dogmatic journalistic assaults at which he excelled did not suit the face-to-face confrontation of the House: he found criticism hard to endure and learnt a degree of caution and moderation. The passionate belief of Holland and other militants in inevitable world revolution led them at each election to predict that the electorate would reject capitalism: it did not. Each election saw Labour support grow, but grow together with decreasing internal confidence in the correctness of its militants. Holland, less through arrogance than through a childlike faith that socialism explained and predicted the world, failed to see that his position was being eroded by history.
As parliamentary leader Harry Holland drove himself and his colleagues unrelentingly, easily surviving several moderate challenges. The continuance of his leadership always depended on his belief that the party must operate on the basis of teamwork and majority rule, a conviction which in practice allowed freedom for the other strong personalities in the party (Peter Fraser, Bob Semple, John A. Lee) or those of moderate cast (such as McCombs) to voice their opinions publicly without challenging Holland. His leadership was not one of faction or manoeuvre, but of personal stature and of inherent authority: he was the elder statesman of humanised militancy, leader in spite of himself and his theories, whose dedicated integrity gradually won the respect even of opponents.
Holland's wide-ranging interests often led him far from practical politics. A parliamentary salary enabled him to build a massive personal library of the history and literature of social reform. Nor did he inhabit the centres of power. When Parliament was in recess he either went on lecture tours or returned to his home in Westport. There he read, and wrote well-prepared parliamentary speeches and a procession of popular pamphlets on the economic issues of the day and on current international affairs. Holland had visited Samoa in 1920 as a member of a parliamentary party investigating New Zealand's colonial mandate, a matter in which his interest continued into the unrest of 1928–29. But in this, as in all his other international interests, his analysis suffered from ignorance and doctrinaire idealism; Samoa apart, he had never been to any of those distant places on which he pronounced from socialist sources.
The 1928 election was won, to Labour's astonishment, by the new United Party – essentially the old Liberals under Sir Joseph Ward. This brought Holland to the end of his patience with an electorate which he had believed would eventually recognise Labour's truths. And it took him as far as he could honestly go in supporting reformism. It also took his party critics as far as they were prepared to tolerate Holland, or at least his public image as socialist trouble-maker. Would Labour ever win under Holland?
The question was buried by the onset of depression in 1929. Again it seemed as if capitalism was about to collapse, and the style of labour analysis epitomised by the Holland of 1913–22 experienced a revival; the Holland of protest seemed relevant again. But he himself was overwhelmed by the magnitude of the economic catastrophe. By 1930 he was growing old and tired, and beset by the poverty that came to his door. He gave away all that he could – money, coal, his favourite furniture – until the Hollands had only the bare necessities themselves. Bereft of ideas beyond those that had failed, he took refuge in constant, and often pointless, work.
In Parliament in the early 1930s a new, saddened Harry Holland emerged obsessed not by theory but by the desperate need for amelioration of distress; this was the message he took to the 1931 election that saw another increase in votes, but another failure. Inevitably the issue of Holland's leadership arose again, sharpened by the failure of his earlier vitalising energies, and his virtual withdrawal, in exhaustion, from the councils of the party. Effectively his role by 1931 was that of a back-bencher. Worse, he was tormented by doubt. Could Labour solve New Zealand's problems? Would the depression destroy a Labour government? Perhaps reformism might be the only escape from the morass. Holland's critics in the party questioned whether Labour could afford to carry the burden of Holland's historical reputation and unsympathetic image. It could not, but to attempt to remove him – he still commanded significant support and respect – could be very costly.
The impasse was resolved by Holland's sudden death at Huntly on 8 October 1933; he had suffered a heart attack while attending the burial of Te Rata Mahuta, the Maori King. He was survived by his wife, five sons and two daughters. With a state funeral and the formality of Anglican burial, in death Harry Holland captured the imagination and hearts of the public in a way he had never done while he lived: he was the compassionate champion of the common people. This surge of popular emotion was orchestrated and exploited by Labour Party propagandists in order to emphasise the Holland who was the humanitarian idealist and to bury the revolutionary socialist. The image of benign reformer that M. J. Savage was to carry to victory in the 1935 election had its origins in the sanitising applied to the dead Holland.
The monument erected in 1937 above Holland's grave – featuring a group of marble figures aspiring upwards towards universal prosperity – carried the inscription: 'He devoted his life to free the world from unhappiness, tyranny and oppression'. True, this was a valid way in which the limited and the timid and the trimmer could made sense of him. But the core of the man lay in his permanent faith in the inevitable victory of socialism. Even his confusions, his failures, his blindnesses, sprang from the depth of this conviction. Had he, not Savage, taken Labour to victory in 1935, the unyielding and courageous socialist in him, despite doubt and exhaustion, may well have hazarded the impossible – the great leap towards social revolution.