Reflections on a political journey

A contribution written on the 5th anniversary of the death of John Percy, Australian socialist.

By Max Lane

It is five years since John Percy passed away from illness. I knew John for a long time and I knew him very well from about 1991. In 1991 he was National Secretary of the Democratic Socialist Party (DSP), a task he performed for almost 15 years. After that his main task was that of the National Secretary of the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP), until the RSP fused into another organisation, Socialist Alternative, where he was a member of its National Committee, until his illness and death. I myself was a full-timer for the DSP for most of the 1991-2007 period working on the same floor as John.

Apart from participating in meetings with him and other comrades – National Executives, Political Committees, and so on – I also dropped in to his office almost every day for a chat for 30 or 45 minutes. He would grow restless if the chat went on too long and I could see his mind running through his extensive “to do” list. Right up until 2015, I was away from Sydney and Australia for some extended periods. Even then, we had our chats on most days, mainly by phone and Skype. Skype kept us in touch on almost daily basis while I was living in Jakarta, Indonesia.

We had developed a very close relationship during 2005 and 2007 when we were part of the leadership of a minority section of the DSP opposing the party’s drift away from the cadre party idea and towards being a kind of (inevitably anaemic) social democratic, community left milieu vehicle. This was a very intense period of bitter struggle, ending many friendships and with many deep disappointments. It was a period in which a deeper comradeship with John was forged. It was inevitable after that that we would continue to talk on an almost daily base, thanks to Skype, for that whole ten year period 2005-2015. There was no person in Australia with whom I had a closer political relationship than with John during that period.

John was also thinking about and working on writing his history of the DSP. The first volume was published while he was still alive. The second volume was completed through the editorial work of Allen Myers. The third volume dealing with the 1990s, which John had not been able to actually start writing was produced by Allen Myers, another former DSP leader. Allen compiled a number of internal party reports written by John during the 1990s.  

For me, these three books are invaluable.

2020

There are a number of far left parties in Australia today, as well as less formal groups and networks.  Of the parties, we can mention Socialist Alternative (S.A.), which John along with the rest of us still in the RSP joined and where he was an active member until he died. S.A. is the largest of the far left parties in Australia at the moment. There is Solidarity. Both Socialist Alternative and Solidarity come out of the International Socialist Organisation (ISO) tradition. There is the Communist Party of Australia (CPA) and the more recent Australian Communist Party (ACP). There is also Socialist Alliance (the Alliance), the organisation maintained by those who had expelled John, myself and others from the DSP. The Alliance was their new formation after liquidating the DSP.

The internal struggle in the DSP, its decline and liquidation unfolded starting in 2005 – 15 years ago. It is also 7 years ago that the RSP fused into S.A.

A young worker or a student active today – say at age 20 – would have been five years old when that process began. He or she would have been only 13 when the RSP fused into S.A.  On the one hand, 7 and 15 years do not seem so long. But clearly, politically, it is longer than it seems.

One development over these 15 years has been the emergence of a climate justice movement, or at least, the emergence of a plethora of climate justice campaigns. We have seen both high school student and university student mobilisations. I think these are the most visible signs of an increasing restlessness and politicisation among young people around a range of frustrations. Not being a member of a functioning party able to collectively consider the inform,ation flowing from the use its full cadre resources through extensive committee work, this kind of conclusion must be impressionistic, but it is certainly my impression of how things are.  At least three of the far left parties – S.A., Solidarity and the A.C.P. – continue to recruit students and young people. Independent campus climate change committees, where they exist, also recruit. Anarchist groups attract people. There are many other signs of this if we make sure our antenna are attuned to pick up early scattered signals. Our sociological imagination must remain sensitive – something necessary when we have that valuable instrument of a party able to deploy its cadre, but even more so when without that.

One thing that has shocked me – although logically it need not have done so – is that even among the most active campaigners among students and youth many did not know that the DSP had ever existed. This seems most true for those in their teens and early twenties, and especially for those who have not yet joined a party group. It is not that they had a minimal or wrong or partial knowledge of the DSP, but rather they didn’t know the DSP had ever existed. Well, you may ask, is this important?

Yes, it is very important – for at least two reasons.  

  • Between the late 1960s and 2000, the DSP, in its various forms, played a big role in the political activity of the left in Australia. In order to understand the state of the left today and the challenges faced by those wanting to build an effective socialist movement into the future, it is always beneficial to analyse the origins of the current situation. This means being able to assess the strengths and weaknesses of the DSP, as well as that of other socialist groups that have risen and fallen or evolved during that period.
  • Assessing strengths and weaknesses, also means being able to learn from achievements and failures and thus be able to further develop the skills and capabilities of left forces today, rather than having to learn everything from scratch again.

At face value, one would think everybody would agree with such simple propositions as above. But clearly that has not been the case. Neither those who are direct descendants of the DSP – the Alliance or former members of the RSP nor those of similar outlook – have given some priority to making sure that this historical knowledge grew on the Left. Of course, one clear early exception was John’s commitment to write and publish a history of the DSP and then also Allen Myers’ work to bring two of the books to fruition. More recently (2020) a few former members of the RSP have start establishing a new archival website of DSP and RSP material. Socialist Alternative did put up on their website a good selection of the writings of DSP theoretician, Doug Lorimer, but these writings have not been used for the education of its members. The publisher , Interventions, whose key people were associated with S.A. took the great initiative to bring out the second and third volume of John’s books. The second volume was launched at a S.A. conference in Sydney, where I spoke.

What explains the disappearance of the DSP from contemporary activist consciousness? Of course, the first reason is simple: the DSP itself disappeared and there has been no organisation working to continue its perspective. That is the most fundamental reason.  Of course, other political currents on the Left that had been historical rivals of the DSP had no interest in doing that either: except perhaps purely as presenting memoirs of a time past.

The question then arises as to why those of us who were descendants of the DSP have not prioritised such work.  As the Alliance was formed on the rejection of the DSP model of a revolutionary cadre party, it is not surprising that promoting a sympathetic study of the history of the DSP is not a priority. For those who organised through the RSP and then joined S.A., this work was posed within a new framework with two key features. First, as we joined as individuals, defending what was considered correct features of the DSP’s perspective became an individual and no longer a collective endeavour. This weakened enormously the potential to do that as each individual had other political work to do. Furthermore, it was also possible that as time passed, what people thought was important or not so important from the DSP’s outlook in the current context could evolve differently.

Second, the initial assumption of all of us was that the arena for such work would predominately be within S.A. Sam King, for example, a former member of the DSP and RSP, raised the DSP’s perspectives on imperialism through the Marxist Left Review and at a Marxism Conference. Allen Myers contributed a commentary in defence of Sam’s argument in the S.A. internal Discussion Bulletin.

There was another way in which aspects of the DSP programme that were starkly different or reflected different priorities than those of S.A. were continued even after fusion with S.A. but on an individual basis. Some remained active in solidarity work with Vietnam and Cuba, including John Percy, two socialist governments condemned by S.A. To S.A.’s credit neither John nor anybody else doing such work as an individual was prevented or harassed in carrying it out. Another example was that a couple of ex-RSP members were active for a while in campaigns opposing Australia’s attempt to squeeze East Timor over its oil, which S.A. did not allocate resources to, although it covered the issue in its newspaper.  There may be other examples around the various cities that I am not aware of.

Against nostalgia, for the best politics

For people who committed a large part of their life to building the DSP, such as myself, there may be the danger that a hankering after a DSP presence could be mostly just nostalgia – nostalgia for something that is now extinct and must remain so, however a noble contribution it may have once made. I don’t think this is the case; I hope not.  It comes down to whether one considers the programmatic perspective (strategy), as well as the tactics and method of work of the DSP still has something to offer as regards building the left today, or even whether it provides the basis for a superior perspective than those espoused by the far left groupings operating today. (If it is superior, why did the DSP collapse? Short answer: because we veered away from implementing it.) At least 15 years have passed since the DSP (RSP) programme was written and the world has changed. The Left has experienced more ups and downs whose lessons need to be studied. The question is thus not whether the DSP programme should or could be adopted in toto today, but whether it provides a good or better basis, a framework, a foundation for today’s needs.

For myself – and for reasons that hopefully will be elaborated by those who think the same way on red-ant.org over the coming months – I think the DSP programmatic perspective is still basically correct and needs to be the basis for a renewed socialist political programme in 2020 and onwards.

Two places to start reading

One key document to read is the DSP programme, or its 2008 version in the form of the RSP programme.

The other key readings are the three volumes of the history of the DSP written by John Percy, or based on his reports. The organisational continuity with the DSP was broken when RSP members joined S.A. For people who have no awareness of the DSP – because they grew up after it disappeared – the programme by itself won’t present a sufficiently vivid picture. It will help greatly if it is possible to see how the programme was implemented in practice – and at the moment the best and most efficient way for new activists to access this is to read the John Percy three volume history of the DSP. Perhaps it is just a glimpse of the extensive work done by the DSP, but is glimpse so very well presented that it is a glimpse that reveals a great deal. On top of the narratives written by John, the third volume with its collection of internal reports on the DSP’s party building efforts during the 1990s also reveals much of how the party thought, planned and assessed its work.

Keeping the Red Flag Flying: The Democratic Socialist Party in Australian  Politics: Documents, 1992-2002: Percy, John, Myers, Allen: Amazon.com.au:  Books

Reading critically the DSP programme and then the three history volumes will probably leave most new activists with more questions about the history and experiences of the party, and about all of the left than it supplies answers. In some ways, the three books could operate as a detailed inventory of the activities and ideas of the DSP, all of which could be the subject of more research in the appropriate archives. Hopefully, there will be good historians who do this work. That, however, is not the most pressing challenge. The pressing challenge is for the development of a Left programme and practice that is adequate to the times which I don’t think has emerged or re-emerged yet.

How such a renewed left might, armed with a better programmatic perspective and method, emerge? I have no answer to that question. One can conjur up in the mind some elemental possibilities: an evolution of one of the existing groups, a re-groupment that involves renewal of perspectives, a split, crystallisations out of increased protest movement activities,  people grouping around a publication with specific ideas, or a combination of any of these, or something as yet to be imagined? With an organised far left of probably under a thousand people in total and it being impossible to know exactly how many revolutionary inclined activists there are out there not wanting to join any of the existing groups, it is too early to speculate beyond listing very general and obvious possibilities and making sure one adds “or something as yet to be imagined”.

However, it can only help to have the DSP’s programmatic perspective easily available in written form and being promoted and circulated. It can only help to have those who agree with it, wherever they are located organisationally, try to apply it wherever they can, either in activity or writing – or debate over its interpretation. This is especially the case for those aspects of the perspective that wouldn’t otherwise be articulated or advocated publicly, but which are crucial. 

And it can only help if more people become more familiar with the details of the DSP’s experience – its history of ideas and practice. Thank you John Percy. Presente!

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