Nick D, July 2020
John Percy’s book, Keeping the Red Flag Flying was published in 2020 by Interventions. It focuses on the 1990s and early 2000s when the Democratic Socialist Party (DSP) was the largest revolutionary socialist group on the Australian left. As it follows Percy’s two books, A History of the Democratic Socialist Party and Resistance, Volume 1: 1965-72 (2005) and, Against the Stream, Volume 2: 1972-92 (2017), it will be referred to throughout as ‘Volume 3’.
This review is organised into three sections. The first explores the historical value of Volume 3. Not only do Percy’s writings provide a history of the 1990s and early 2000s, they also shed light on the histories of many contemporary left-wing groups. The second section will focus on the political value of the book. In particular, this section will draw out several key political lessons relevant in the current period.
Nick is a recent graduate of Indonesian Studies and Political Economy at the University of Sydney. He is not affiliated with any specific party group or organisation in Australia and particularly interested in building connections between activists in Australia and the Asia-Pacific. He has also been involved in the movement for climate justice in Sydney.
The final section is the longest and is related to the DSP’s international solidarity work during the period covered in Volume 3. International solidarity, particularly in relation to the Asia Pacific, is of particular interest to me. I think it is a crucially important topic for the Australian left given the almost complete lack of organised international solidarity work in the current period. This section will end by outlining some steps that can be taken to increase the level of solidarity with the Asia-Pacific.
Understanding the Past to Understand the Present
For young people interested in Anti-Capitalist resistance, understanding the contemporary constellations of the Australian far-left can be a daunting and confusing task. What this book firstly provides is a range of useful insights into the origins, histories and traditions of various contemporary left-wing organisations. This includes large groups such as Socialist Alternative, Solidarity and The Communist Party of Australia (CPA), as well as smaller groups such as the Spartacists and The Communist Party of Australia Marxist-Leninist (CPA M-L). Volume 3 covers a period that a significant proportion of today’s youth, born in the late 1990s and early 2000s, would be unfamiliar with. Reading Volume 3, therefore, provides an in-depth background to those wanting to better understand our current situation.
Percy argues that the 1990s began as a difficult period for the Australian left. The ACTU-ALP Accords had smashed many working-class organisations and drastically reduced the power of trade unions. Internationally, this period also saw the collapse of various ‘Eastern Bloc’ regimes including the Soviet Union. The significance of these pressures was encapsulated in 1991 when the Communist Party of Australia (CPA) dissolved 70 years after its formation. These difficulties continued with the Coalition Government under John Howard winning an election landslide in 1996. As Percy describes, this new government picked up the neoliberal baton and continued what the ALP had started. They did so more ruthlessly.
With the twentieth century drawing to a close, much of the globe was thrown into economic collapse which saw instability, uncertainty and recession spread rapidly throughout the world. By the turn of the century, a myriad of anti-globalisation movements were taking root, particularly in core imperialist countries such as Australia and the United States. In the final chapters of Volume 3, Percy vividly unpacks these developments as well as the immediate aftermath of September 11 and the subsequent ‘war on terror’. In direct response to these events, Percy asserts that “the September 11 terrorist attacks and the imperialist response have certainly created a new world political situation. But the main features were already in preparation and developing – the world economic recession, neoliberal attacks on the working class, imperialism’s war drive and the aggressive hegemonic designs of the US ruling class” (190). As the forces unleashed by these developments continue to have global significance, it is important that we have a firm grip on their political, social and economic origins. Furthermore, Percy’s account helps form an important antidote to mainstream narratives and accounts of the early 21st century.
Having a comprehensive understanding of the historical origins of today’s left, as well as the material conditions of the 1990s, is crucial for anybody serious about activism in the current era. Not only do these histories shape contemporary realities in Australia, they also influence the limits of possibility for today’s left forces.
Building the Party During a Tough Period
Volume 3 is essentially a compilation of material composed by John Percy between 1992-2002 including reports to DSP national committees, conferences, congresses and plenums. Because these documents were not supposed to be consumed in rapid succession, the book does not read in the same manner as say, The Catcher in the Rye or Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. By using this structure however, it clearly demonstrates how the DSP survived during a difficult period by being alert to potential openings, staying true to fundamental perspectives and experimenting with different tactics.
An important dynamic that emerges in Percy’s historical account of the 1990s is how the DSP was able to grow into a large and influential force while so much of the left was in crisis. This relative success is evident in the fact that the DSP had branches in both large and small cities across Australia, a respected newspaper with a large national readership, the consistent publication of Marxist literature and a strong membership base. How this happened and the take-home lessons for young people today will be explored throughout this section.
Widespread pessimism and a lack of mass movements during the 1990s proved corrosive for much of the Australian left. One way that the DSP avoided falling victim to this sense of defeatism was by staying on the lookout for potential opportunities, openings and breakthroughs, even when the situation looked dire. Domestically, this saw the DSP become involved in a variety of anti-racism, worker, student and women’s campaigns. With this said, the approach also required a certain level of realism about the period. As Percy explains, “given our still extremely limited core of activists, we’ll have to continue to be very careful in selecting our political priorities, and not get dragged into every new committee by accident without assessing the political gains we might make” (37). Ensuring a lookout for potential fightbacks, while retaining a level of realism, was crucial during a downturn in the level of political radicalisation.
The DSP’s approach in the 1990s also provides an important insight into the nature and functioning of capitalism during all periods of history. As is explained by Percy, “the objective social and political circumstances we face as revolutionary Marxists have certainly changed during the course of the 20th century, but the irreconcilable contradictions of capitalism, and the need and possibility of socialist revolution, still remain” (182). While the situation in contemporary Australia is typified by moments of significant mobilisation, particularly around climate change, there are regular downturns of political activity. In such periods, it is crucial to remember that contradictions such as the exploitation of the working class, the gendered division of labour and the degradation of the natural environment will exist as long as the fundamental processes and dynamics of capital are in motion. These realities will inevitably give rise to future frictions, contradictions and opportunities. In Percy’s view, however, it is not possible to take advantage of opportunities as they arise without having first built a strong organisation that collectively embodies past lessons from the history of working class struggle.
Different stages of the struggle against capitalism require different political strategies. Throughout Volume 3, Percy argues that the DSP was in the ‘propaganda stage’ of struggle and must, therefore, maintain the perspective of a Leninist cadre party with the main task of building and recruiting to the party. According to this perspective, a cadre party is crucial in leading the struggle during periods of mass revolutionary upsurge. During periods of relative downturn, however, the main goals are educating, training and consolidating recruits in anticipation of periods of revolt. The decision to adopt this political perspective was determined through democratic means which were preceded by intense debate including, “…15 NC reports or other party information; 70 pre-conference discussion items from more than 50 comrades; and 25 informational reprints” (97).
Although this political perspective was affirmed by the majority of members, there nonetheless remained dissent within some sections of the party. This was partly because there had been experimentation with alternative political strategies before the 1990s. In the early 1980s, many in the DSP expected there to be an upsurge of social discontent and radicalism in Australia. Therefore, the party was temporarily ‘opened up’ to allow the entry of these radicalising social forces. In the late 1980s, there was again experimentation with organisational aspects of the party. This was because opportunities had arisen to collaborate and regroup with other parties on the Australian left. Neither of these expectations became a reality and the party building perspective was therefore re-established in the 1990s. As this process of transition was taking place, an alternative perspective was proposed which sought to lower the level of dedication, activity and commitment expected of members, open the party to people who do not adhere to the same political perspectives and rethink the DSP’s foundations in both Leninism and Bolshevism.
In response, Percy asks, “but, it’s been said, the sort of Leninist party we’re trying to build is not really appropriate at this stage of the struggle, when the working class is not revolutionary and we don’t have a mass base; a democratic-centralist vanguard party was appropriate for the Bolsheviks because they had a mass base in the working class. At what stage of the struggle, or at what size of organisation, does such a party become justified?” (101).
To answer this, Percy draws on the experiences of the Bolshevik Party in the lead up to the October Revolution. Speaking about the Bolsheviks in the difficult years prior to 1917, Percy points out that, “…in periods of reaction and retreat for the working class, they were sometimes isolated, sometimes quite small…” (103). A key reason why the Bolsheviks not only survived these difficult years, but went on to play a leading role in 1917, was because they adhered to strict norms and discipline while maintaining a democratic centralist and a homogenous vanguard party. In Percy’s words, “…whether they were leading the advanced sections of the working class in revolutionary struggle, or just struggling to keep alive the skeleton of their organisation in difficult times, the Bolshevik leaders always maintained the necessity of their revolutionary cadre party” (104). Rather than abandoning core organisational principles in the face of extreme hardship, the Bolsheviks prepared for the revolutionary upsurge which eventually took place in the late 1910s. Had they adopted an open, unstructured party, it is unlikely that they would have played such a central role in 1917.
Volume 3 can be therefore read as a compendium of political lessons that are useful in the current period. The attitude of the DSP during the 1990s, in which alertness to potential openings was combined with a sense of realism, is crucial to consider given the ebb and flow of political activity in contemporary Australia. Furthermore, Percy’s evaluation of different political tactics which includes discussion of their origins and usefulness is helpful for activists attempting to introduce or assess tactics within present-day struggles. Perhaps the most important aspect of Percy’s political writing is his ability to combine the lessons of past revolutionaries with an assessment of material conditions and realities of his time. While this section has focused on how Percy drew upon the experiences and writings of the Bolsheviks, contemporary activists could draw on the lessons provided by revolutionaries from across the world and combine them with a material analysis of the political economy of contemporary Australia.
International Solidarity Work
As Revolutionary Marxists, the DSP saw internationalism as a fundamental duty and core political principle. As a result, Volume 3 continually places a strong emphasis on solidarity work and developing international links with contacts across the globe. This project expanded from the early 1990s and saw strong relations built with parties, both big and small, in all continents of the world. Not only was this a clear area of success, but it also provides a range of important political lessons and practical information that is useful for organising international solidarity work in the contemporary period.
During its earlier years, the forerunner to the DSP had been part of the Trotskyist Fourth International and tended to view building the International as the way that revolutionary internationalism was carried out. However, factors including the Sandinista Revolution in Nicaragua (1979) contributed to a re-think in the 1980s which resulted in the DSP formally disaffiliating from the Fourth International. This opened up a period of broadening the orientation of the DSP’s international outlook and led to fruitful collaborations, especially with Marxists in Asia who came from a range of different backgrounds. This new approach to internationalism tended to bear fruit in the period of Volume 3.
During the period covered in Volume 3, the DSP was involved in campaigns for progressive movements across the world. While there was this broad focus, particular emphasis was placed on Indonesia and East Timor. Solidarity with the Indonesian left was initially achieved through ‘Aksi Solidaritas Indonesia’ (AKSI) which organised public actions and published the newsletter ‘Suara Aksi’. Through this early work, the foundations for close ties with the Indonesian pro-democracy movement were established. This was then expanded to the Asia-Pacific region more broadly through ‘Action in Solidarity with Indonesia and East Timor’ (ASIET) which grew into an influential national organisation.
Through ASIET, regular activities were organised including international tours, demonstrations, educational seminars and public forums. Of particular note are the various conferences discussed by Percy such as ‘The Asia-Pacific Solidarity Conference’ of 1998 and ‘The People’s Asia-Pacific Conference’ held in Jakarta during 2001. These large and vibrant events were hallmarks of global solidarity, and brought together a range of international speakers, delegates and guests. While many of these activities were organised by either the DSP, AKSI or ASIET, they were largely open to all participants which allowed for collaboration between different political perspectives and tendencies.
Before dissecting the DSP’s approach to international solidarity work, it is useful to highlight three political lessons that can be drawn from Percy’s writing. Firstly, while capitalism is a global economic system, a significant amount of power remains concentrated at the national level. Therefore, one of the most effective ways of challenging Australian imperialism is by defeating the domestic bourgeoisie. As Percy explains, “our goal is the unification of the working people and oppressed of the world in the complete overthrow of the capitalist system and the ushering in of a classless, socialist society. But capitalist power is concentrated at the level of state power in national states, so…building…parties to defeat our own bourgeoisie is our prime responsibility” (182). In the same sense, supporting struggles in the Asia-Pacific is also crucial because it helps to weaken both the power of capital in that country as well as the capitalist class in Australia.
The second lesson is related to exposing the contradictions of Australian imperialism through public education. As well as organising educational activities such as public forums, seminars and conferences, the DSP produced a variety of publications about the Asia-Pacific region including, The History of the Left Movement in Indonesia, The Indonesian Revolution and Imperialism and the Asian Crisis. It is important to highlight this program of public education because in the contemporary era the level of knowledge of the Asia-Pacific region in Australia is very low, even among elements of the progressive community. A tangible step that can be taken in the current period is the establishment of an organised and consistent program of public education about the Asia-Pacific region.
The third political lesson stems from Percy’s attitude towards parties in the Third World. As he asserts, “the task in imperialist countries is to build working-class parties able to think for themselves, independent of capitalists and their institutions. The task in the Third World is also building revolutionary parties, not sects taking direction from some mother party based in the First World” (187). In contrast to such an attitude, Percy instructs cadre in Australia to take note of, and learn from, their comrades in the Global South. This was partly because while the political climate in Australia could be subdued, the level of activity in other countries could be increasing. More importantly, however, it was argued that the struggle of comrades in the Global South is a constant source of inspiration. Percy explains that “being a revolutionary today is ‘tougher’, it seems. But of course, this is very subjective and very relative. You only have to consider the conditions of life for revolutionaries in the Third World” (81). In other words, while the situation in Australia may be tough, it is almost always better than the conditions facing activists in the Third World, particularly those living under violent and tyrannical dictatorships.
In a practical sense, the DSP’s approach to international work centred on building parties at the national level and then working to establish networks on a global scale. As Percy continually emphasises, “we stress: parties on a national basis; networks or alliances of parties internationally…this is based on the reality of the emergence of new parties in a number of countries, and greater contact and collaboration between parties coming from different traditions” (187).
This was particularly important in the period following the collapse of the Soviet Union as various parties around the world were re-evaluating and rethinking previously entrenched political ideals. Responding to this context, Percy emphasised the necessity of maintaining a fundamentally open, principled and non-sectarian outlook. In particular, Percy asserts that “some revolutionary parties of the future will come from a Stalinist background. Some that we are working closely with today have those origins, and it’s a tribute to our ability to think politically, and not scholastically, that we’ve been able to make those links, unlike dogmatic sects who can’t see change, who think in terms of labels and timeless categories, mistaking form and content” (127). In the late 1990s when new networks were forming in the Spanish-speaking world, the DSP was able to establish links with Cuba and the Latin American Left due to their open, principled and non-sectarian approach.
Such an approach to international solidarity work was in contradistinction to other groups on the Australian left, many of which advocated a narrow conception of internationalism. Various groups identifying as Trotskyist for instance argued that relations should only be developed with parties that strictly adhered to their interpretation of socialism. As a result, they expounded a ‘cloning perspective’ wherein other parties were to adopt their politics and form sects based on these political perspectives. Parties that did not adhere to their political perspectives, such as the Cuban Communist Party (PCC), were rejected. In contrast to the program outlined in Volume 3, such an overwhelmingly sectarian approach can only work to hamper potential collaboration and growth. This is particularly counterproductive during periods such as the 1990s when there were significant opportunities for political clarification and regroupment.
In addition to these practical concerns, advocating a sectarian approach to international work also ignores fundamental principles of Marxism. Even in The Manifesto of the Communist Party, Marx and Engels wrote that “The Communists do not form a separate party opposed to the other working-class parties. They have no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole. They do not set up any sectarian principles of their own, by which to shape and mould the proletarian movement” (Marx & Engels, p. 61). In other words, the role of Revolutionary Marxists, particularly in imperialist centres such as Australia, is to support the struggle of workers, peasants and other oppressed peoples when they emerge in other parts of the world as well as their own country. Because revolutionary parties develop amidst divergent historical and material conditions, disagreement and difference is often inevitable. Given this reality, it is almost always more productive to pursue unity while engaging these different parties in debate and polemic. However, to use these differences to justify outright rejection is at best blatantly dogmatic and at worst counter-revolutionary.
In recent times, some interest in Australia has been given to progressive campaigns in the Asia-Pacific region. In Sydney for instance, a handful of solidarity activities have been organised by political organisations, single-issue groups and individuals. In February 2019, ‘Anti-Colonial Asian Alliance’ and ‘Fighting in Resistance Equally’ (FIRE) held a joint protest outside the Indonesian consulate in Maroubra demanding an end to the violence, repression and genocidal tactics being carried out by Indonesian security forces in West Papua. Meanwhile, the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) have been actively campaigning for workers in Indonesia, most notably for Rio Wijaya, a trade unionist held as a political prisoner by the Indonesian state. ‘Apheda – Union Aid Abroad’ have also continued to work with Australian trade unions to provide material aid, training and logistics to communities in nations such as the Philippines, Cambodia and Laos. What this demonstrates is that there are indeed groups and individuals in Australia that are supportive of, or at least sympathetic to, issues and movements in the Asia-Pacific region. A key limitation however is that many activities in Australia are somewhat sporadic or non-unified and tend to focus on singular issues or campaigns. In the case of Apheda, securing funding and access to different countries in the Asia-Pacific often means that they are unable to formally support ‘controversial’ campaigns or ‘radical’ groups.
What is therefore needed is a group that is dedicated to organising and carrying out consistent solidarity work with progressive forces in the Asia-Pacific region. Although there is no ‘mother party’, such a group could certainly draw on the lessons and experiences of AKSI and ASIET as well as the aspects of Volume 3 which have been explored and highlighted in this section. In particular, it could firstly work to establish a program of public education about worker, farmer, student and women’s liberation struggles, as well as movements for environmental justice in the Asia-Pacific region. Secondly, it could organise activities against Australian imperialism and in support of struggles for social justice, genuine democracy and self-determination in the Asia-Pacific. Finally, it could work to establish close links with progressive and radicalising forces in the region. Together, these three activities would significantly increase the level of international solidarity work being carried out in contemporary Australia.
In late 2019, important steps were taken in Sydney to build such a group. The focus of these early activities were public education and action for campaigns in the region, particularly around the detention of political prisoners in Indonesia. While these important steps were taken, the Covid-19 crisis has meant that much of these efforts have been temporarily suspended. Anybody interested in building genuine support for the Asia-Pacific, particularly those located in Sydney, are encouraged to join these efforts once it is safe to do so.
Over the last few decades, the organised far-left has been dealt a series of blows by capital and the ruling class in Australia. Consequently, the overall power and influence of radical forces has been significantly weakened. At the same time however, the realities and consequences of Late Capitalism are being acutely felt and recognised throughout society, particularly among young people. As a result, the level of frustration, discontent and outrage continues to simmer. To transform these sentiments into revolutionary change, there needs to be a renewed process of organisation. It is only through organising a mass revolutionary force that we will be able to divert humanity away from its current trajectory towards barbarism. As a young person committed to building this movement for revolutionary change, I recommend reading John Percy’s book. As I have outlined in this piece, Volume 3 provides insight into the historical conditions that directly preceded the current period, practical lessons for political organising in the contemporary era as well as a comprehensive program of international solidarity work that is needed in Australia today.