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Secret Societies and the Labour Movement

by Bob James

This is Part 1 of a pamphlet produced by Bob James for the 6th Biennial Conference of the Australian Society for the Study of Labour History, which was held 1-4 October 1999 in Wollongong. Part 2 is The Knights of Labor and their context. Visit the Display Catalogue.

Pamphlet cover: Secret Societies and the Labour Movement The term 'secret societies' brings spies, terrorists and illegality to mind. These are the negative, definitional spins imparted to a very simple idea - that certain knowledge generated and kept within one group of people may be considered intrinsically or potentially dangerous by a second group.

A late-20th century view of democratic practice is that organisations, such as the ALP for example, should be open and transparent. This contrasts with the approach of 'Secret Services' towards 'their' knowledge which is that it is made available only on a 'need to know' basis.

Profit-making businesses increasingly insist on 'commercial privilege', thus, claiming legitimacy for the secrecy of 'their' information, and Governments increasingly restrict access to their 'sacred knowledge' under Freedom of Information legislation.

In other words, secrecy around information can be legitimated, if the organisation generating the information and the logic of exclusion is powerful enough to maintain that the security of 'their' information is necessary to their welfare and/or identity. Aboriginals are another case in point.

At a time when secret ballots are being legislated into industrial law, most trade-based societies are not sufficiently powerful to publically argue privilege for much of 'their' information. In practice, of course, they exercise a normative privilege available to all, and in time, their administrative minutes, internal office memos and accounts, etc, can be placed under an embargo when handed over to archivists.

Though they could easily be made, onslaughts on that secrecy in practice are rarely, if ever, carried out these days by Government or corporate entities - because trade-based information is rarely regarded as intrinsically or potentially dangerous to those entities.

But the history of manual labour and the history of the dignity, even the sacredness of physical work, is necessarily the history of secret societies. A second, more benign, 'insiders' view of the need for 'sacred knowledge'is that it is information kept hidden until the society member is considered ready. Implicitly hierarchical, the test of readiness is also a test of the committment of members to the values of the society and of their perseverance in the face of challenges to the society itself. It just happens that this 1000 year-old history has at its confusing 20th-century extremity, such diverse organisations as the Ku Klux Klan, the Loyal Orange Institution, the ACTU, the United & Ancient Order of Druids and the Knights of Columbus.

For nearly a thousand years, the trades claimed privilege for 'their' knowledge. They said, quite reasonably, that they needed to be able to distinguish 'those who know', ie how to do the job, from those who don't, and to be able to do this across potential barriers of language or culture. Today, the quickest 'test' comes in the form of a request that educational/technical qualifications be displayed and the marks of approval be sighted - C-Grade licence, BA, PhD, etc. Before this century, the tests and the marks of approval were more often made with the hands - signs known only to those who had been admitted or 'made', and attracting countersigns only from 'brothers' of that same occupation.

From the time the Gothic cathedrals were under construction, stonemasons, and other artisans in guilds controlled entry into their trade or 'misterie'. Thus they controlled who worked, what they were paid and under what conditions, with secret handshakes, passwords and secret signs of recognition. Apprentices were taught the skills 'in lodge' and qualification was marked by their being 'made', or admitted, at the higher degrees of Craftsman and Master Mason, for example. Natalie Zemon Davis is useful here, as is serious Freemasonry research. (See below)

The guilds were successfully integrating functions which we see today as inevitably separate. The guild was simultaneously a religious society, an industrial (ie, a working conditions enhancer, ie, trade union) society, a convivial society and a secret society. Because of its success in combining these four functions, it held a central place in its community, and was able to develop its fifth function, which is the best descriptor of the whole, that of a benefit society.

The guild organisation integrated those 5 distinct functions, because its membership alone had responsibility for its physical well-being. The glue that held the disparate functions together was the regular contributions by each member into a common purse out of which payments could be made to cover a member's sickness, accident, unemployment or funeral needs.

Over 1,000 years the administrative structure developed in complexity and formality, particularly in the areas of ritual, of financial security and specialised executive responsibilities. By the 1700's lodge officers included Wardens, Grand Masters, Financial Secretaries, Tylers, Conductors, Stewards, Treasurers, and Trustees. Emphases over time have, of course, changed. The actual setting up of hospitals by benefit societies is not new but health delivery services such as lodge doctors, ambulances, drug companies and pharmacies, as opposed to just donating funds to assist such things, are comparatively recent innovations.

The industrial revolution, which must be taken to include accounting and administrative pressures, shattered the integrated whole and forced benefit societies into competition for members and for funds and therefore into role specialisation. It is only then that divergent strands which could be called freemasonry, trade-based societies and friendly societies appear. Another strand, of course, is life insurance, another is the religious 'orders'. Freemasonry can no longer be called an industrial organisation and the trade-based societies are no longer seen as religious, but neither have yet lost the organisational imperatives inherent in their common heritage. All have been concerned with survival and thus are part of working people's history, and all have sought gentry patronage.

By this view, 'trade unions' are not a modern form, they are a residual form, specialising in industrial matters, but clearly carrying fragments of the other guild functions long after any proposed 'cut off' date, when the irrational, superstitious past supposedly gave way to a 'modern', scientific present. The practice of Eight Hour Day and May Day, for example, showed continuing use of 'guild' symbolism well into the 20th century.

Before approx 1700 it makes no sense to speak of 'friendly societies', 'freemasonry' or 'trade societies.' Considering all the post-1700 evidence, the use of 4 major visual elements, arbitrarily adopted or not, most clearly links the separating 'strands' with the previous 700 years: the Eye of Providence; other representations of 'God', including the 'Light on the Hill'; the Temple form, including the triangular canopy or over arch, and 'Greek' columns; and the paraphenalia of lodge. By this last, I mean the regalia, ritual, both public and private, certain highly significant administrative practices, and a large number of other symbols, usually associated with the Bible's Old Testament - eg, the bundle of sticks, the Ark, beehive, cornucopia, iconic female figures, mirror, hour-glass, skull & crossbones, etc, etc.

While the symbols may appear to have been arbitrarily adopted and modified at certain times, the underlying belief system has been genuine and remarkably consistent. The evidence indicates a very long-standing and a very deep-seated cultural stream based on the dignity of work, a generalised and hierarchical Christianity and what we now understand as fraternalism, group solidarity and democratic practice.

These thoughts strengthen the further conclusion that the 'secret' knowledge was deliberately psychically-charged. The lodge journey from darkness into light, from ignorance to self-knowledge, was an individual's rite of passage, and links the 'misteries', through what is called the Hermetic tradition, with contemporary psychology. At the same time, it has to be said, the organisational processes generated 'in lodge' to convey the information developed in such a way as to make the information less and less accessible even by lodge members.

The extent to which 'the labour movement' has embraced scientific rationalism and materialist agendas is a further measure of its loss of self-awareness, individually and collectively, and a pointer to its difficulties with change and adaptation.

Societies of significance, such as the Loyal Orange Institution which is neither part of freemasonry, a friendly society nor a trade-based society, show such close parallels with regard to beliefs, lodge practices and structure, that they are normally thought to belong to this same benefit society tradition. (See Conference Paper) Others in a similar position, such as the Catholic Knights of Columbus and the Methodist Order of Knights, were launched after the most popular 'superstition/scientific rationalism' cut-off date, the 1890's, and yet utilised recognisable lodge practices and structure. That is, they chose to be 'secret societies.'

The methods used to protect the 'sacred' knowledge from exposure varied - from straight out intimidation and the exclusion of those thought untrustworthy, to the use of such cultural artefacts as the Bible, or rigid community customs learned over generations. The swearing of an oath to maintain the secret once imparted, such as that sworn by the Tolpuddle labourers, is an important part, but only one part, of that process of secrecy, and if the process is to be understood, should not be abstracted from the accompanying passwords, ritual or regalia. These in turn require an understanding of the roles of lodge officials. While the details of the 'lodge' process may vary over time - at the time of the Tolpuddle Trial, surplices, death's heads, chains and ghostly noises were in vogue - these are not essential to the process, indeed are among the minor props. Nor do they, by themselves, tell us anything about the function of secrecy.

From guild times, swearing an oath was a common social phenomenon and courts, Royal and civil, often handed out penalties or warned witnesses and others in very similar terms to those used in benefit society initiations. Penalties incurred before 1730 by an 'old mason' should he break his oath included:

my heart plucked from my left breast, my tongue plucked from the roof of my mouth, my Throatt cut, my body to be torn to pieces by Wild Horses, to be buried in the Sands of the Sea where the Tide flowes in 24 Houres, taken up and burnt to Ashes and Sifted where the four winds blow that there may be no more remembrance of me.

Today's Speculative Masonic oaths vary, those from the 'Entered Apprentice' to the 'Master Mason' having penalties of this kind, though the number of penalties diminish as the 'Obligation' lengthens. What is emphasised is the keeping of the 'secret knowledge', as in:

I, Mr......, in the presence of the Great Architect of the Universe, and of this waranted, worthy and worshipful lodge of free and accepted Masons, regularly assembled and properly dedicated, of my own free will and accord, do hereby and hereon, most solemnly and sincerely swear, that I will always hale, conceal, and never reveal, any part or parts, point or points, of the secrets and mysteries of....I further solemnly promise that I will not write those secrets, print, carve, engrave, or otherwise them delineate, or cause or suffer them to be done so by others, if in my power to prevent it, on anything moveable or immoveable, under the canopy of heaven, whereby or whereon any letter, character or figure, or the least trace of a letter, character or figure may become legible or intelligible to myself, or to anyone in the world, so that our secrets, arts, and hidden mysteries, may improperly become known through my unworthiness...

Early 19th century observers are agreed that 'English craftsmen had been long inured to secret combinations' and 'binding themselves by oath'. So, what made the Dorset labourers' oath special? One thing only - that it was not of the form sanctioned by the authorities. To be lawful an oath was to be one required by law, and sworn in public in front of a suitable JP or magistrate or court official. It was, of course, deliberate that the 'lawful' form excluded any attempt to keep information from those same authorities. The Tolpuddle oath was, almost by definition, one that bound its swearer not to disclose that it was sworn. The Tolpuddle Agricultural Labourers' Friendly Society and its Rules had no intrinsic need to be secret but the oath's intention of secrecy caused the authorities to regard it, the Society and its members as potentially dangerous.

Britain's colonies received numerous oath-takers as convicts and as settlers. Australian labour historians would do well to look more closely at Freemasonry and at Friendly Societies, but beyond these, at little-known lodge-based societies, for example, the 'secret, oath-bound agrarian confederacy, known as the Ribbon Society' which from 1820 to 1870 was 'the constant affliction and recurring terror of the (Irish) landed classes.'

It's neither accidental nor an aberration that reformers Garibaldi, Mazzini, Charles Bradlaugh and Karl Marx were all Freemasons, as were many 'labour movement' people in Australia. The key idea was by then that the lowliest 'brother' could, with 'square' practices, become the highest, but note that it necessarily involves a hierarchy. As management levels multiplied within benefit societies and the peaks of the administrative pyramid disappeared from common view, the significance of trade-based societies losing the power to locally discipline members should not be under-estimated. Authorities rendered oath-taking illegal but the ritualistic superstructure was progressively laughed off and abandoned by members, leaving very little in its place. By the 1914-18 War trade-based regalia had all but disappeared. No wonder the State ideology was so welcome. It provided a structure, and one which was easily-rationalised as a logical progression of the organisational imperatives within 19th century lodge practice, which had come to be widely identified with the democratic ideals of, among others, Tom Paine.

Giving up control of lodge practice because the State feared its secrets was one of the major steps made by working people into overall servitude. Secrecy was an essential element of the 'lodge' process whereby wages and working conditions were maintained at a preferred level through control of the numbers and quality of persons entering a trade, through assistance to old and infirm 'brothers' to retire gracefully, and through the accumulation of 'intelligence' for the public articulation of wider claims, eg, the retention of 'ancient' rights. It was an organisational form heavily dependent on internal disciplines and sanctions, and on those small but regular contributions from members.

The Knights of Labor attempted a 'modern' synthesis but foundered on the negative definition of secrecy. (See my Conference paper) Most Friendly Societies, whether affiliated like the Druids or not, retained secret signs, handshakes and passwords well into the 20th century, but today the fraternal memberships feel sidelined and lack a sense of purpose.

These Societies had made the provision of health professionals and services for lowly-paid families their speciality and available numbers show they recruited far more manual workers than explicitly trade-based societies up to 1914. Their benefit payments were often the financial mainstay of mining communities, but have been the most obvious casualty of the State-welfare system.

Freemasonry continues to be a society with secrets but has failed to devise a rationale as attractive as the original which combined God, sex and death, with social power and intellectual radicalism. Despite the work of women such as Annie Besant, it continues to define 'fraternal' as men-only, when other 'fraternities' have long since included women. (See Conference Paper)

There continues to be a need for benefit societies which protect working people from those who would undermine their health and welfare. The dilemmas of secrecy, discipline and alienation are, however, as strong as ever. Together, these inescapable facts do not mean that original lodge practices must be re-invigorated. It does mean they must be studied.

Part 2 is The Knights of Labor and their context


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