Against the Stream – The Socialist Workers Party, 1972-1992 (Vol 2)

Interventions – August 2017
By John Percy


Volume 1 of this history, focusing on our tendency’s origins and the early years of Resistance and the founding of our party, was published in early 2005, and I had already drafted the outlines and taken some notes for Volumes 2 and 3. But shortly after publication, a major political struggle broke out in the Democratic Socialist Party. This is not the place to recount that struggle and its aftermath, except to mention that those of us in the minority in that struggle were expelled from the DSP and, in 2013, united with Socialist Alternative just before the opening of its Marxism conference in Melbourne.

Reclaiming, reviving and benefiting from the positive traditions of the DSP and Resistance is certainly a task for Socialist Alternative. Younger revolutionaries being spurred into action today by the horrors and inequities of capitalism can learn from the experiences of those of us who struggled in previous decades – avoiding our mistakes, not having to learn the lessons all over again and being inspired by the successes and struggles we went through.

A political history like this of course will have to maintain a balance between the history of the party, and the main lessons and themes from that history, and the political developments in Australia and the world, and the struggles and campaigns and issues. My main focus is on building the party, and not a general history of those years.

Nevertheless, while concentrating on our party history and party building, I hope the book gives readers a feeling for the main political events and developments, the ups and downs in the class struggle.

And even though I was centrally involved in the organisation and direction of the party in this period, I also acknowledge the story is going to be distorted because of the particular sources I had access to. The documents, talks and reports will inevitably skew the balance in my direction, as well as my memory favouring particularly interesting stories and anecdotes. Also, I was based in Melbourne from 1982 to 1991, and not directly involved in the weekly national leadership meetings, although I received news of any important developments and participated in all the National Committee meetings and conferences and in some of our international work.

But I hope the story will be interesting and the lessons useful to a wider readership, not just those of us who have been engaged at some time in this narrative, or those who are committed activists today. I hope the history of this struggle will inspire new young comrades to take up the banner.

The story so far

To make the second volume comprehensible to readers who haven’t read Volume 1, or haven’t read it recently, I’ll briefly sketch out the main events of our development in 1965-1972 in very condensed form.

The first chapter of Volume 1 describes the revolutionary traditions we drew on, from the Industrial Workers of the World, the early Communist Party and the old Trotskyist movement.

All these traditions were important, but to build an organisation able to respond to the needs of the times, a new start was necessary: the old Trotskyist group was tiny and divided, unable to relate to the changing political conditions and the worldwide radicalisation of youth, and never very good at party building.

Around the world, but especially in countries like the USA and Australia, young people were in revolt against the stifling social, cultural and political mores of the older generation. Capitalist universities were changing; students were demanding their right to a decent education and defending the rights of others; in the US, the civil rights movement exploded in defence of the rights of Black people; and the protests against the war in Vietnam were spurred on by the heroic resistance of the Vietnamese people against the military might of the US and allied invaders. The ‘60s and ‘70s were a special period of radicalisation of young people.

The old Trotskyist group in Australia was unable to recruit and build a revolutionary Marxist party. For that, a democratically functioning organisation was necessary, and an ability to relate to the new layers and new political issues, especially conscription and the Vietnam War and the escalating protests against it.

Some of us who had joined the Sydney University Labor Club, traditionally controlled by the Communist Party of Australia, generally sons and daughters of CPA members, were recruited and won to Trotskyism in 1965 by some comrades from the old Fourth International section. We were influenced by Bob Gould, who had set up the Vietnam Action Committee and organised protests against the war and provided us with overseas magazines and books, and by Ian MacDougall, who helped give classes on Marxism. Although we were won to a Trotskyist perspective, there was not really a group that we could join, just a loose association of former members of the old Trotskyist group, the minority remaining after the majority led by Nick Origlass had split from the Fourth International in 1965.

In 1966 we won leadership of the Sydney UniversityLabor Club, and started republishing the club’s magazine, Left Forum, which I edited. My brother Jim, who was still in high school in 1965, also got involved and played an increasingly central role. From early on, we were pushing those who recruited us to Trotskyism to establish a proper party group. It was an increasingly hectic political pace, with Vietnam demonstrations and protests on many other issues – a real political awakening for us. The main narrative of those early years was our efforts to build a revolutionary Marxist organisation, learning from Lenin and the Bolsheviks, against the reluctance, foot-dragging, cynicism, scepticism and sometimes downright opposition from that older generation of Trotskyists. Socialist Perspective was produced as a very irregular roneoed magazine (six issues between October1966 and June 1969), largely under our prodding, giving the views of the Fourth International in Australia.

Our efforts to build a party arose out of and in opposition to the CPA, which was still very dominant on the left, although declining. An early effort to intervene was the pamphlet “30 Questions and Answers on the History of the Soviet Union”, by Ernest Germaine (Ernest Mandel). It had no authorisation or contact address, only an enigmatic “fi” logo. It was printed for us by Southwood Press, set up by some of the other former members of the old Trotskyist group, who thought that the way forward was to organise a printing business and produce a social democratic magazine, called Comment.


In mid-1967 we set up Resistance. The radicals recruited to revolutionary Marxism recognised the need for an off-campus youth organisation, to relate to the radicalising youth, high school students and young workers, as well as to campus students. We rented an old disused shop downtown in Goulburn Street, opposite the Trades Hall, and initially called ourselves SCREW – the Society for the Cultivation of Rebellion Every Where; or the alternative acronym, the Sydney Committee for Revolution and the Emancipation of the Working class, for the more serious, taking our lead from an organisation once led by Lenin. After a few months we changed our name to Resistance, after a fight with some anarchists in the group, who were much too attached to the name SCREW.

In the front of the building we set up the Third World Bookshop. Some of the main activists lived upstairs. In the back we held our meetings and forums, social events, film nights and folk-singing nights. After a while we expanded to the building next door and knocked a hole in the wall, so had a double shop front, more comrades living upstairs and a permanent silk-screening workshop. We organised protests and demonstrations from there on Vietnam and many other issues. We organised High School Students Against the War in Vietnam, and produced and distributed huge numbers of our school newssheet Student Underground as well as individual school newssheets. It was a busy, exciting youth political and cultural activist centre.

Resistance was run by “Gould and the Percy brothers”, as others on the left described us, but the description was true – we did have problems of democracy and organisation, and waged a long struggle to overcome this. We had a fierce faction fight with Gould in 1969-70, for a democratically functioning party and youth organisation. We had the majority in Resistance, and broke with our initial mentor and collaborator. We left him to the bookshop; we got the political organisation.

Meanwhile, we had also formed the Socialist Review Group, as a “party group”, uniting for a while with some of the other former comrades from the old Trotskyist group who supported the Fourth International and who had set up the printing business, Southwood Press – Roger Barnes, Sylvia Hale, Tony Kelly. With them we published the magazine Socialist Review.

Having broken with Gould and his mixed bag of anarchistic supporters, we held our founding national conference of Resistance on August 29-30, 1970, mostly with Sydney comrades, plus a few from Adelaide and Canberra, and started publishing Direct Action in September as a monthly socialist newspaper. It certainly made a splash! It was a big challenge to the CPA’s drab weekly, Tribune. We also changed our name to Socialist Youth Alliance (switching back to Resistance at the end of the decade).

Resistance came first. We had no party, so Resistance activists had to found and build the party, the Socialist Workers League, which eventually became the Democratic Socialist Party. The young comrades still had to lead it, even though we’d recruited some of the earlier generation from the old Trotskyist group. Over the decades Resistance continued to renew the party, and continued to build it. New generations of leaders were recruited and trained in Resistance. Trotskyism began as the fight against Stalinism, in Australia as well as internationally. In the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s, it was very hard going building the old section of the FI. In the ‘60s and ‘70s, it was also difficult, starting from nothing much, but with the youth radicalisation we made progress against a declining CPA. We built in opposition to the CPA and their youth group, the Eureka Youth League. (We won over some of the sons and daughters, at one stage having a “faction” of 10 in the EYL.)

Early on, our ideological identification with the Trotskyist movement was still fairly nebulous.

As we consolidated the party organisationally and politically, we also formalised our ties with the international Trotskyist movement. We were especially impressed and influenced by the US Socialist Workers Party, for its leading role in the antiwar movement in the US. Within the Fourth International, they were in a minority, having opposed the “guerrilla warfare” line adopted by the majority at the 1969 FI World Congress. We avidly followed their activities and used their publications. Trotskyism was slower to develop in other cities. In Melbourne, it was initially the Maoists, especially at Monash University, who benefited from the ‘60s youth and student radicalisation. In Adelaide and Brisbane, it was more semi-anarchist groups modelled on the US Students for a Democratic Society.

In late 1970, we heard of another Trotskyist group that had started, in Brisbane, the Labor Action Group, led by John McCarthy. They were supporters of the majority current in the FI, and had been influenced by the International Marxist Group in Britain. We initially thought: great, let’s unite our forces. But they backed off for a year, until agreeing at the end of 1971 to get together and attend our founding conference.

Socialist Workers League

The Socialist Review Group organised our founding national conference in Sydney on January 1-3, 1972, attended by just over 100 members and supporters. We adopted the name Socialist Workers League, adopted a program, constitution and documents on the international situation and Australian perspectives. We took a big leap in our level of organisation and political clarity. We fused with the Labor Action Group immediately after the conference, and applied to become a section of the Fourth International.

But soon afterwards we suffered two splits. In February 1972 a group of 11 comrades around Roger Barnes and Sylvia Hale from the old FI group resigned. They were not willing to be part of a disciplined party, and still adhered to the old Trotskyist line of “deep entry” into the Australian Labor Party.

Our youth organisation was still carrying the weight of our activity and recruiting. We held the SYA third national conference in Melbourne, March 31-April 3, 1972, attended by

170 people. DA went fortnightly immediately after the conference.

But we were headed for a major split, roughly along the lines of the division in the FI. The Communist League was formed in August 1972 as a third of the membership split along with John McCarthy and supporters who sided with the FI majority, the European leadership. The CL split was aided by some forces in the FI; we learned that internationalism was a two-edged sword.

But we were pleased to receive a letter from the FI United Secretariat signed by Belgian FI leader Ernest Mandel and Jack Barnes of the US SWP (representing both tendencies in the FI), condemning the split as unjustified, and refusing to make the CL a sympathising organisation of the FI.

We had established our “party”, the SWL, and Resistance/SYA was still healthy. Most of us had been aroused to acute political awareness by major international events, so we were very conscious of breaking out into the wider world politically. We formed our new party just in time in a sense. The radicalisation period was ending. In 1972 Vietnam was not yet liberated, but most thought the war over.