In a sweltering courtroom in Perth in December 1916, members of the outlawed radical syndicalist organisation the Industrial Workers of the World were put on trial for their campaign against conscription to World War 1.
One of the accused was lifelong working class rebel Montague Miller, who was by this time in his 80s. “The lawyer managed to get the Magistrate to allow bail for him after the final day”, wrote his daughter, Annie Westbrook. “‘What!’ said he. ‘Come out on bail and leave my mates in? Never!’ He straightened his then slightly bent frame and walked back to the cell. A proud rebel to the last.”
Miller was born in the late 1830s, the son of a carpenter. At an early age he was apprenticed as a joiner in Ballarat and participated in the Eureka uprising while still in his teens. From this moment, he nailed his colours to the mast of working class radicalism and organisation.
He spent a few years in the employ of the Australian Labor Party but quickly grew disillusioned. He became a most colourful polemicist against parliamentary cretinism. He wrote to the International Socialist paper in 1913:
“… capitalists have ceased to be at all alarmed at Labor in politics, that is owing to their experience of the deterioration of principle and moral fibre of men in the sinks of political corruption, owing to the richly gilded baits of emoluments and gifts of office spread on the traps of human ambition.”
Such invective found a home in the Melbourne Anarchist Club, which he helped establish in 1886. Miller was also an active member of the Rationalist Society and the Social Democratic Party of Perth. He later discovered the Industrial Workers of the World and said of it, “It is the organisation I have been looking for my whole life.”
Miller travelled the highways and byways of the Western Australian countryside, agitating for working class radicalism. He participated in hundreds of strikes.
By the time he was put on trial in 1916, he had had many brushes with the law. From his experiences at Eureka onwards, Miller understood that the courts existed to defend the status quo. So he and his co-accused insisted on defending themselves.
In a three hour speech to the jury, Miller argued that the IWW was perfectly justified in redressing the class imbalances of capitalist society through direct industrial action such as strikes and workplace sabotage. He maintained that it was only through the class struggle that workers could improve their conditions.
The speech was passionate and erudite, and even the conservative West Australian newspaper had to concede his defence was delivered with “a wealth of gesture and a wonderful flow of language”. Despite this impressive display, he and his comrades were found guilty of conspiracy.
Because of his age, Miller was granted a good behaviour bond, which he almost immediately broke by giving an anti-war speaking tour of Sydney. He was sentenced to six months with hard labour at Long Bay Gaol but was again released.
He had his pension denied to him, but lived on a special fund gathered by the miners at Broken Hill, who toured him across the country as a feted hero of the labour movement.
Monty Miller led a hard but morally upright life. He fought for working class control of society, despite repression, from the Eureka Stockade until his death.
His daughter put it like this: “He bore the marks of coercive government to the end of his life. Smarting from bayonet and bullet wound on that cool December morn, he registered a vow that he would ever be the enemy of coercive government, and he kept that vow for 66 years.”