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Maximilian Hirsch (1852–1909)

by Airlie Worrall

This article was published:

Maximilian Hirsch (1852?-1909), economist and political activist, was born in Prussia into a well-known Cologne family. He was educated at Cologne Gymnasium and the Humboldt University of Berlin before becoming a commercial traveller in 1872, representing British manufacturers in Europe, North Africa and western Asia; he attended the exhibitions at Sydney in 1879 and Melbourne in 1880. After a lengthy stay in Germany he spent three years as a coffee planter in Ceylon where he achieved his first and proudest success as an agitator and reformer: the abolition of the rice tax.

Hirsch returned to Melbourne in February 1890 and for the next decade was prominent as Victoria's chief spokesman for land values taxation and as a leading light in the colony's free-trade movement: he became president of the Single Tax Society, reorganized under that name after Henry George's visit in April 1890, and at the inaugural meeting of the Free Trade Democratic Association in May he was elected treasurer.

Backed by the Argus, Hirsch quickly became a leader in the anti-tariff party. George's visit had served to point out that there was no ideological conflict between supporting abolition of all taxes except a tax on land values, and supporting free trade. In Victoria the Free Trade Democratic Association was an uneasy alliance between radical single taxers and politically conservative land-owning merchants and squatters. While it restricted its activities to promoting free trade and preparing for the August 1894 elections this alliance held; but Hirsch's decision to insert a single-tax plank into the platform at this time split the organization, and R. Murray Smith led the conservatives into the Free Trade League of Victoria in December 1894.

Hirsch 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. As well, he produced many pamphlets and books on statistical, economic and political themes, the most important being Democracy vs Socialism (London, 1901; 3rd ed., 1940). He also belonged to the 1898 Rating Reform League which collected evidence for the royal commission into local government in 1899. He supported Federation and was in 1894 vice-president of the Australasian Federation League. He was an honorary member of the British Cobden Club and distributed its pamphlets through the Single Tax League. He visited England in 1905 as guest speaker at the London Free Trade Congress and had for some time been the Victorian correspondent for the British Board of Trade.

As a reformer Hirsch was keenly interested in the conditions of workers. He was secretary to the Victorian board of inquiry on unemployment in 1900 and wrote many articles in the Beacon and elsewhere criticizing labour conditions. Although an opponent of trade unions he was rumoured to belong to the Knights of Labor and certainly spoke regularly to their Newport Railway Workshop branch. He was a keen supporter of women's causes, notably female suffrage and the Queen Victoria Hospital.

Hirsch first stood for the Victorian Legislative Assembly in 1893 for Benalla but was disqualified when found to have been naturalized only in May 1892. His bid for Mandurang in 1897 was unsuccessful but in 1902 he won the seat. A frequent speaker in the House, he 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.

In 1891 Hirsch 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 remembered from a few years earlier as 'a giddy youth, chiefly remarkable for the ease with which he executed the “military valse”', and Beatrice Webb, who met him over dinner in later days, found him 'a courtly and attractive German Jew … and complete individualist'.

Hirsch was totally consumed by his beliefs. He gave up his business interests for full-time activism in 1892, supporting himself by lecturing, freelance journalism and donations from friends. He lived in rented rooms and never married. His health began to fail as early as 1895 and by 1906 he had had several breakdowns.

After Federation and consequent interstate free trade Hirsch had 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.

Select Bibliography

  • B. Webb, The Webbs' Australian Diary, 1898, A. G. Austin ed (Melb, 1965)
  • Bankers' Magazine of Australasia, 12 July 1895
  • Beacon (Melbourne), Sept 1897
  • Argus (Melbourne), 13 June 1892, 5, 10, 28 Oct 1893, 5 Mar 1909
  • Australasian (Melbourne), 23 Dec 1905
  • A. Worrall, The New Crusade: the Origins, Activities and Influence of the Australian Single Tax Leagues, 1889-1895 (M.A. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1978).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Airlie Worrall, 'Hirsch, Maximilian (1852–1909)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 14 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (Melbourne University Press), 1983

View the front pages for Volume 9

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]




4 March, 1909 (aged ~ 57)
Vladivostok, Russia

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