Vale John Percy — veteran socialist activist

Green Left #1067 – August 28, 2015
By Jim McIlroy & Dave Holmes

John Percy, veteran socialist, died on August 19 in Sydney, aged 69. He was a co-founder of the revolutionary youth organisation Resistance and the Socialist Workers Party, later the Democratic Socialist Party.

John, together with his brother Jim, began his political career as a student activist at Sydney University in the mid-1960s in the growing movement against the Vietnam War.

John and Jim — widely known as “the Percy brothers” — co-founded Resistance with other student radicals in 1967. John recounts in his book, Resistance: A History of the Democratic Socialist Party and Resistance: Volume 1: 1965–72, that he had a chequered career as a student, considering first architecture, then engineering, and finally settling on an extended period as an arts student — but in practice a full-time political activist.

John became famous in the mainstream media in 1968 for authorising publication of the pamphlet, How Not to Join the Army. As a result of the publicity, he recounted: “We had to print tens of thousands more copies of the pamphlet. Pirate editions appeared in other states. We produced an edition of the pamphlet authorised by dozens of people.”

Due to political differences within Resistance, John and Jim left with others in 1970 to form the Socialist Youth Alliance (SYA). (SYA renamed itself Resistance again in 1980.) The SYA, along with the Socialist Workers League (SWL), which was established in 1971, became an organised, Trotskyist current within the Australian left and soon affiliated with the Fourth International, based in Europe.

John moved to Melbourne at that time to help set up a local branch of SYA there. Melbourne was a hotbed of student radicalism and the centre of the largest anti-Vietnam Moratoriums, which attracted up to 100,000 people at marches in 1970 and 1971.

John personally sold 430 copies of the new Direct Action newspaper, published by SYA, at the September 1970 Melbourne Moratorium demonstration — an all-time record.

John was also the editor of the Socialist Review magazine, published by the Socialist Review group, the precursor to the SWL.

Both of us first met John in Melbourne in 1971, when we joined SYA. John was a key leader of the branch, which grew rapidly in those years.

John played a central role in establishing and consolidating the SYA and SWL, both in Melbourne, and nationally. He was organiser of the branch until 1974, and a key member of the national leadership.

During 1974 and 1975, John contributed significantly to the international work of the party by moving to New York to become a journalist on Intercontinental Press, published by the US Socialist Workers Party for the Fourth International. The SWL changed its name to the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) in 1975.

He wrote on world politics from a revolutionary-socialist viewpoint under the name Peter Green.

John was editor of the weekly newspaper Direct Action for a few years from 1976 before moving back to Melbourne in the early 1980s.

There he took up a job as a tram conductor for several years, as part of the SWP’s “turn to industry”, which continued up until the mid-1980s. The anticipated “revolutionary upsurge” of the industrial working class failed to materialise at that time. But our movement learned many vital lessons about union struggle and continued to maintain a base in industry.

During the 1980s, Jim and John, together with other leaders of the SWP, changed the direction of the party by reaching out to other socialist and progressive forces in several attempts to regroup the left in Australia.

The SWP also withdrew from the Fourth International, seeing it as too narrow a movement to encompass the variety of political traditions and organisational forms that the worldwide revolutionary movement was taking.

John was Melbourne secretary of the SWP in the latter part of the 1980s during those tumultuous regroupment moves involving first the Nuclear Disarmament Party, then the Socialist Party of Australia, the short-lived New Left Party (involving the then-declining Communist Party of Australia), and lastly the formative years of the Australian Greens.

All those unity projects failed in the end. However, the SWP regrouped in 1990 and changed its name to the Democratic Socialist Party (DSP). In 1991 it played the key role in launching this newspaper, Green Left Weekly.

Then, Jim tragically died of cancer at the age of 43. John had moved from Melbourne to Sydney, and became national secretary of the DSP following his brother’s death.

The 1990s were a period of relaunch and consolidation for the DSP and the youth organisation Resistance. John played an important role in this process.

This re-consolidation occurred in the midst of the crisis of the Communist movement, and the socialist left more generally, caused by the collapse of the Soviet bloc. The DSP and Resistance tried to defy the “end of communism” mantra of the neoliberal ideologues.

In Australia, the end of the Hawke-Keating Labor government and the rise of the right-wing Howard Coalition regime posed further challenges to the socialist movement.

At the turn of the 21st century, the DSP leadership, including John, decided to launch a new left unity project, Socialist Alliance (SA), along with other socialist groups, including the then International Socialist Organisation and many non-aligned socialists. This project worked well for a time, but eventually all the left groups apart from the DSP left.

This led to a debate inside the DSP about the future of SA. John and other comrades opposed the DSP’s involvement in SA, arguing that there was no future for a broad, left party at that time.

A large majority of the DSP leadership and membership voted to continue with the Socialist Alliance project as the best option for building the socialist movement. This led to a fierce faction fight within the DSP, and eventually a split between the majority and a minority led by John and other comrades.

John and the others then formed the Revolutionary Socialist Party in 2008, but the organisation was not able to consolidate an independent existence in the end.

Eventually, in 2012, the RSP decided to join with Socialist Alternative and became integrated into that organisation. John was elected to the Socialist Alternative national committee.

John was already experiencing health problems, and suffered from throat cancer in 2008. Although the cancer was successfully treated, the effects may have influenced his later contracting of an aneurysm of the brain, and the two strokes that eventually took him away.

Despite his growing ill-health in recent years, John continued to be as active as he could in left political life in Sydney. In particular, he maintained his life-long solidarity with the struggle of the Vietnamese people through the Agent Orange Justice campaign.

Despite the political differences we had with John in recent years, we will always appreciate his important contribution to the re-founding and consolidation of the modern socialist movement in Australia. The experiences that longstanding comrades have in common can never be forgotten.