John Percy: the activist who was ‘A Gentle Wind Borne of a Storm’

Sydney Morning Herald – September 18, 2015
By Max Lane

John Percy addressing John Percy addressing Occupy Sydney rally, October 22, 2011.

John Percy 1946-2015

Many people visiting Glebe any time during the last 25 years would have seen a man standing on Glebe Point Rd selling a socialist newspaper. In fact, he had been selling socialist newspapers since the 1960s, every week and at all major demonstrations in whatever city he was living in.

John and his brother Jim were founders of a new socialist political current in Australia which sustained itself as a growing group until 2007 before suffering a major setback, but then regrouping with another group current in 2013. The movement was first formed as a radical youth organisation, Resistance, but later a party was also established, first called the Socialist Workers Party and then the Democratic Socialist Party. At its height at the end of the 1990s and during the first year or so of the new century, its newspaper, Green Left Weekly, had thousands of readers and was the main systematic left-wing voice in Australia. Percy was National Secretary during that 1990s period of growth.

John Percy was born in April 1946, to John and Dot Percy. He spent his childhood in Cowra, but John and Jim later went to boarding schools in the UK when their step-father was posted to Germany by the Department of Immigration. John completed his schooling at North Sydney Technical High School before starting study in civil engineering at the University of Sydney in 1964. As he became more politically active, he switched to an Arts degree.

His political life began with opposition to the Vietnam War. He was probably the first person detained at an anti-war demonstration, in 1968 in Canberra. He and Jim were central figures in the Vietnam Moratorium. They were part of the wing of the movement that doggedly insisted on the demand of “Troops Out Now!” rather than for negotiations or something else lesser. He was part of the troika of the Left core then: John and Jim, and Bob Gould.

To build a serious socialist group over the last 50 years meant swimming against a very strong current, a current which, in some ways, got stronger after the collapse of the Soviet Union – although Percy’s socialism always saw the Soviet Union as an extreme and ugly betrayal of socialism. He persisted during those 50 years without detour or break.

In 2008, he and about 50 other of his comrades were expelled from the party he had helped build over the previous 35 years. This followed a two-year-long internal struggle over what kind of party the DSP should be. In Percy’s eyes, and those of the 50 others, the party was drifting away from its revolutionary origins. So they formed a new group, which published the Direct Action newspaper and eventually fused with another group, Socialist Alternative.

Percy collapsed in the street with a mild stroke while selling the new newspaper, Red Flag, a few years ago. He returned to his selling spot as soon as he could stand again.

Percy was well known in like-minded milieus around the world. He was centrally active in the campaign to gain justice for the victims of Agent Orange in Vietnam, visited Vietnam and had friends and contacts there. He had worked in New York helping produce Intercontinental Press, one of the most important left international journals of the time. In the 1990s, while he was National Secretary of the DSP, he hosted scores of activists in at least three big international conferences held in Sydney.

Condolence messages have come in from around the world. There were especially many from India, a country in which he took a special interest and which he had visited, including to address rallies of tens of thousands of peasants and workers. And one of Indonesia’s veteran activists against the Suharto dictatorship wrote a poem dedicated to Percy, “A Gentle Wind Borne of a Storm”.

John Percy is survived by his partner Eva and step-daughter Emma. There is a large exhibition of protest posters taken from Percy’s collection now at the Addison Road Community Centre in Marrickville. There will be a Memorial Meeting for John Percy there on October 15.