Maximilian Hirsch – Politicial Idealist, Free Trade evangelist

From Australia’s Jewish Past:

Maximilian Hirsch

leading light in the colony’s free-trade movement

First published in J-Wire January 10, 2023

Maximilion Hisrch portrait
Maximilion Hisrch – Wikimedia Commons

Maximilion Hirsch was born in Cologne, in the German state of Prussia, on 21 September 1852. He was educated at the local primary and secondary school but it appears that was the end of his formal education.

At the age of 19 Max began a career as an adventurous, global, commercial traveller – another example of a non-conformist who was better educated in the ‘’University of Life’’ than in some tradition-bound educational institution. He was first sent to Persia to buy carpets and obtained many fine old specimens which he brought to London by way of Russia. He had an amazing appetite to question and explore, taking himself off to Italy to study art for a period and then returning to the commercial travelling business where he represented British linen manufacturers in Europe, North Africa and Western Asia. In 1879 he attended exhibitions in Sydney and the following year in Melbourne. After returning to Germany, his next career move was as a coffee planter in Ceylon, where he achieved his first and proudest success as an agitator and reformer culminating in the abolition of the rice tax.

In February 1890 he returned to Melbourne and, for the next decade, became prominent as Victoria’s chief spokesman for land values taxation, as well as a leading light in the colony’s free-trade movement. He became president of the Single Tax Society and at the inaugural meeting of the Free Trade Democratic Association in May 1890 he was elected treasurer and quickly became a leader in the anti-tariff party.

In Victoria, the Free Trade Democratic Association was an uneasy alliance between radical single taxers and politically conservative land-owning merchants and squatters. Max made a decision to insert a single-tax plank into the platform at this time and split the organisation.  However, Robert Murray Smith – a politician and businessman – led the conservatives into the Free Trade League of Victoria in December 1894.

Max lectured and debated up to five times a week at indoor and outdoor city venues and claimed to have visited almost every town in Victoria. He produced many pamphlets and books on statistical, economic and political themes, the most important being Democracy vs Socialism (published by Macmillan in London in 1901 with a third edition in 1940). He also belonged to the 1898 Rating Reform League which collected evidence for the Royal Commission into local government in 1899. He supported the Federation and in 1894, became the Vice -president of the Australasian Federation League. He visited England in 1905 as a guest speaker at the London Free Trade Congress as well as in his capacity as the Victorian correspondent for the British Board of Trade.

As a reformer, Max was very interested in the conditions of workers and in 1900 he became secretary to the Victorian Board of Inquiry on unemployment which gave him the opportunity to write many articles criticising labour conditions. He was also a keen supporter of women’s causes, notably female suffrage and was associated with the Queen Victoria Hospital in Melbourne.

He first stood for the Victorian Legislative Assembly seat of Benalla in 1893. He was disqualified when found to have been naturalised only in May 1892. He tried again in 1897, this time bidding for the seat of Mandurang but again was unsuccessful. In 1902 – third time lucky – he won the Mandurang seat. He was a frequent speaker in the House, joined in debates on rural matters but spoke best on subjects such as income taxation and tariff proposals. He resigned in November 1903 to contest the Federal seat of Wimmera but was defeated. His opponents did not forget to remind the public that he was German and a Jew.

In 1891 Max was declared by the Bankers’ Magazine of Australasia to be too earnest to be popular, but the article paid tribute to his impressive personality and great intelligence; other observers found him less sombre. He was totally consumed by his beliefs. He gave up his business interests in 1892 for full-time activism, supporting himself by lecturing, freelance journalism and donations from friends. Writing became his passion and between 1895 and 1901 published works including The Fiscal Superstition and Economic Principles: A Manual of Political Economy, Social Conditions: Materials for Comparisons between New South Wales and Victoria, Great Britain, United States and Foreign Countries. Land Values Taxation in Practice, a survey carried out by Max of recent legislative reforms in multiple jurisdictions, was substantially completed by 1908, but was published posthumously in 1910. A collection of his shorter writings, under the title The Problem of Wealth and Other Essays, was published as a memorial volume in 1911.

Max never married and lived in rented rooms. His health began to fail in 1895 and by 1906 he had had several breakdowns. Following Australia’s Federation, he returned to commerce, taking up an interest in the Oriental Timber Corporation Co. Pty Ltd. In October 1908 he sailed for Siberia to conduct company negotiations with the Russian government. He died suddenly in Vladivostok on 4 March 1909.

Max’s friends considered that he would have become a rich man if he had devoted himself entirely to business. He was, however, devoted to his ideals and preferred to work for causes that brought him little personal reward but what would be for the good of the people. He was a clear and vigorous writer and speaker, keenly logical, careful of his facts, and always prepared to meet the difficulties of his case. He was no revolutionary, stating on one occasion that ‘if he were appointed dictator, he would bring in the single tax system gradually so that people who had acquired property under the present system should not be unfairly treated.’

From Australia's Jewish Past is written by Ruth Lilian OAM for AJHS and published weekly in J-Wire. ​