- Keeping the Red Flag Flying – The Democratic Socialist Party in Australian Politics: Documents, 1992-2002. Interventions 2020, 480pp. Also available from Thrift Books.
The early 1990s, after the collapse of the Stalinist regimes in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, were a time of capitalist triumphalism. Capital’s academic hirelings proclaimed ‘the end of history’, an absurdity nevertheless repeated in popular media. Really existing capitalism had been proven to be all that was possible, declared those who benefited from it. Socialism, along with the Soviet Union, was dead.
They were wrong – about both history and socialism.
In Australia, it was true that the left as a whole had been in more or less continuous decline since the early 1970s, with the waning of the 1960s radicalisation. Among the groups that realised that capitalism was not capable of solving its problems in anything but the short term – and only at the expense of working people – the largest was the Democratic Socialist Party, which had emerged as the most influential socialist organisation after the collapse and dissolution of the Communist Party of Australia.
With the new, widely read and respected newspaper Green Left Weekly, a sizeable nucleus of experienced cadres and Resistance, a vibrant youth organisation, the DSP was able to orient to the new political climate, including the growth of Green political formations, to seize on new opportunities and to grow modestly. Moreover, it was able to reach out to and help to influence some of the international efforts at rebuilding a revolutionary current.
Well before the turn of the millennium, ‘the end of history’ had become a sorry joke even for capitalist commentators. The DSP and other socialist organisations were a not insignificant part of ongoing history in Australia. Many of the campaigns and struggles they engaged in are now in danger of being forgotten – or, perhaps more commonly, misrepresented.
Today, as new generations take up the fight to stop capitalism from destroying civilisation, the history of these struggles can provide lessons and examples to help illuminate possible ways forward. The documents in this volume, consisting of DSP party-building reports by John Percy, are a very important part of a record that can aid the current generation of activists to learn from the successes and failures of those who have gone before.
The story so far
The first quarter-century of DSP history is described in two earlier volumes by John Percy. Volume 1 Resistance (Resistance Books 2005) covers the years 1965-72 and Volume 2 Against the Stream (Interventions 2017) the years 1972-92.
The story begins in the youth radicalisation of the 1960s, and particularly the movement against the Vietnam War. John Percy, a student at Sydney University, joined the campus Labour Club in 1965 and became involved in antiwar activities, in which he was soon joined by his younger brother Jim.
In the course of their activities, the Percy brothers were won to the political stance of Trotskyism, as advocated by Bob Gould and Ian Macdougall, members of a small and not very active group supporting the Fourth International (FI).i
In mid-1967, Gould, John, Jim and others they had persuaded of the need for an ‘off-campus’ and ‘comprehensive socialist youth organisation’, as John wrote at the time, established a group with the unfortunately flippant name of SCREW (Society for the Cultivation of Rebellion Every Where). The more serious name of Resistance was adopted in November 1968.
Resistance soon became internally divided between groupings supporting the views of John and Jim and those supporting the views of Bob Gould. The former saw the youth organisation as only a step towards the eventual creation of a revolutionary political party, while Gould supported a strategy of ‘entryism’ – the idea that revolutionaries should organise only loosely and should conduct their political activities mainly through the Australian Labor Party, hoping eventually to win it, or a sizeable portion of it, to revolutionary positions.
The differences came to a public split shortly before Resistance held its first national conference in August 1970. To indicate the organisation’s socialist political outlook, the conference changed the name of Resistance to Socialist Youth Alliance. A month later, SYA launched its 12-page monthly tabloid, Direct Action. The editorial in the first issue clearly set out the paper’s intended role:
To publish a paper without an organisation to build and be built by it is political irresponsibility … Only when a paper has an organisation to build, and that organisation has a program to guide it, does a little left-wing venture such as ours take on any meaning.
The fledgling SYA benefited from the still continuing radicalisation. The first five issues of Direct Action achieved average sales of nearly 8,000 per issue, and the organisation itself grew noticeably by the second conference in April 1971. By January 1972, the supporters of a party perspective were able to convene the founding conference of a new organisation, the Socialist Workers League. Direct Action moved to fortnightly publication and became the joint paper of the SWL and SYA.
The choice of the names SWL and SYA was a certain acknowledgement of the Australian groups’ developing ties with the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and Young Socialist Alliance (YSA) in the United States. The SWP was a supporter of the Fourth International, despite reactionary legislation in the US that prevented it formally joining. The goal of the SWL was eventually to become the Australian section of the FI. A fillip for this goal occurred at the end of the SWL founding conference, when members of the Labour Action Group (LAG), supporters of the FI based in Brisbane, decided to fuse with the SWL.
However, at that time the FI was riven by what became a prolonged factional dispute over the majority’s support for a strategy of guerrilla warfare in Latin America and certain other questions. Most of the SWL, like the US SWP, supported the FI minority, while those who had come from the Labour Action Group supported the FI majority. The relatively inexperienced leaders and members of the fused Australian organisation proved unable to overcome the tensions caused by these differences, and only eight months after the fusion, the former LAG members split from the SWL, forming a new organisation called the Communist League (CL), which began publishing its own paper, Militant.
The divisions in the FI and the inexperience of the young comrades were not the only factors behind this split; objective circumstances were making it more difficult for socialists. The radicalisation of the 1960s began to ebb in the early 1970s, particularly as the Vietnam War wound down. While the 1972 election campaign and victory of the Whitlam Labor government was a time of mass rallies and heightened excitement at ending twenty-three years of Liberal-Country Party reaction, widespread illusions in Labor encouraged a shift from unions relying on their own strength to relying on promises of the ALP government.
During this time, members of SWL were frequently active in their local ALP branches as open socialists and supporters of Direct Action; there was still real activity and political discussion in the Labor Party. But the main areas of activity were outside the ALP – in political movements such as support for Palestine, women’s liberation and gay liberation, in student politics and in union struggles, which gradually revived after an initial downturn following Whitlam’s election.
Large sections of the Australian ruling class had supported Whitlam’s election, trusting in the ALP’s ability gradually to defuse worker militancy. When international capitalism entered a major downturn in 1973-74, Australian capitalists took fright, fearing that Labor would be unable in time to rein in the working class sufficiently, and they therefore encouraged the Liberal parliamentary swindles that resulted in the sacking of the Whitlam government and the election of Malcolm Fraser’s Liberals at the end of 1975.
The SWL had grown modestly and consolidated cadre in the preceding years, and in January 1975 a National Committee meeting decided that the organisation was ready to begin standing candidates in elections. The December 1975 election had of course not been foreseen, but the SWL reacted swiftly when Whitlam was sacked. The fortnightly Direct Action was immediately transformed into a weekly, and SWL candidates for the Senate were registered in the ACT and all states except Western Australia. At its conference in January 1976, the organisation decided to continue publishing Direct Action as a weekly and to change the name SWL to Socialist Workers Party (SWP).
In the following months, some members of the CL decided that maintaining a separate organisation from the SWP was no longer desirable or possible. Three leading members resigned from the CL and joined the SWP in November 1976, and others made a similar decision in early 1977. Later in that year, the majority of the CL decided to seek a formal fusion with the SWP. The process involved the preparation of several common political documents and the publication for several issues of a joint paper, combining Direct Action and Militant. The fusion was completed at a conference in January 1978.
In that year, the SWP decided on a major shift in its activity: the turn to industry. This was a party-wide campaign to get a large majority of the organisation working in basic industries. Such a campaign was seen as necessary because of the understanding that only the working class has the power to defeat the ruling class and begin the construction of a socialist society. The membership of the SWP was largely made up of students, former students and people in white collar jobs or jobs that were less central to the functioning of capitalism. So it was clear that the SWP would have to become a party of mainly industrial workers if it was ever to lead a successful struggle to overthrow capitalism.
But such an understanding does not by itself dictate a date by which a majority of a revolutionary party’s members must become employed in basic industry. In this case, the impetus came from a mistaken analysis of the state of the class struggle, internationally and in Australia. The analysis, which was adopted at least in words by the FI, originated with the US SWP, which said that the working class was ‘moving to centre stage’ on a world scale: the crisis of capitalism had reached such a degree that ruling class attacks were certain to engender a widespread working class radicalisation, one that had already begun. Hence, revolutionary parties must be embedded in the industrial working class immediately in order to be able to channel and lead the coming struggles in a revolutionary direction.
In Australia, the SWP did carry out the turn and find industrial jobs for a majority of its members. Sometimes these workers were able to participate in and even lead valuable struggles. This was because the turn was carried out in a rational and careful fashion – unlike in the US SWP and some FI sections that followed the US lead and simply burned out cadre in vain attempts to relate to a radicalisation that was largely non-existent. When it became clear that the scenario of impending working class mass radicalisation was mistaken, the Australian SWP was able to reorient to developing social movements and layers such as students that were radicalising around particular issues. Part of this recognition of potential growth among students and youth was the decision in 1980 to change the name of SYA back to Resistance to make it easier to relate to radicalising young people.
The US SWP’s rapidly developing sectarian degeneration, which soon spread across most of its politics, led to serious differences between it and the Australian SWP. The US group’s leaders even tried to organise a faction loyal to them within the leadership of the Australian SWP, after which the Australians cut off all relations with the US party. Also in the mid-1980s, the SWP decided to end its affiliation with the FI, viewing that organisation as only one of many socialist groups around the world that it wanted to maintain relations with.
During the same period, the Australian SWP changed its analysis of the Australian Labor Party. From the beginning, the SWL/SWP had considered the ALP to have a dual character. On the one hand, it was considered to be a proletarian party in the sense that it was based on, and had been created by, the trade unions. On the other hand, its political program was support for capitalism. This analysis dictated electoral support for the ALP, at least until there was a major left-wing split from it or another party with a proletarian character but a better program came along. In 1984, the SWP changed its characterisation of the Labor Party, based on Lenin’s argument that the fundamental determinant of a party’s character is its program. On this basis, the SWP now described Labor as a bourgeois party that used union affiliation to conceal its real character from the working class. Therefore, no principle required automatic support for the ALP over other parties if these parties advanced demands that made them a lesser evil than Labor. The change in characterisation was timely, allowing the SWP to support enthusiastically the arrival on the political scene of the Nuclear Disarmament Party in 1984 and later various Green electoral formations.
Another change in political theory that broke with the FI and most of the world’s Trotskyists involved a re-evaluation of Leon Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution.ii The new look at this theory was initially spurred by the Nicaraguan revolution of 1979, seen as an extension of the Cuban Revolution. The SWP had previously followed the US SWP and most of the FI in trying to make the Cuban Revolution fit into Trotsky’s theory; this required portraying the Cuban leaders as having been forced by circumstances (chiefly imperialist hostility) into a socialist revolution rather than following a definite Marxist strategy. The SWP rethinking of both the Cuban and Vietnamese revolutions led to the eventual conclusion that Lenin’s two-stage theory, in which the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry grew over uninterruptedly into socialist revolution, was a better guide than Trotsky’s theory.
Increasing theoretical and political independence led to the establishment of a party full-time live-in cadre school in 1980. For a dozen years, the party school conducted one-month and four-month courses for eight to ten comrades at a time, with a strong focus on Lenin but also covering topics from current political issues to Marxist economics. In 1992, the school was closed, for financial reasons and because it seemed impossible at the time to spare such a large number of cadre from the demands of daily political activity. Reopening the party school remained a goal, but one that was never fulfilled.
The Hawke Labor government established its Prices and Incomes Accord with the ACTU in 1983. Many on the left, particularly the Communist Party (whose leaders played a key role in creating the Accord), supported the deal or adopted an attitude of cautious criticism of the details. The SWP opposed the Accord as a class-collaborationist betrayal that would be paid for by working people and their unions. As the reality of declining real wages became more and more apparent, varying degrees of opposition to the Accord began to be expressed publicly on the left. This led to several conferences with titles like Fightback or Left Action, involving different left organisations, in an attempt to find some kind of coordinated action and/or combined organisation.
Among other things, this ferment led to the creation of a New Left Party Charter involving the SWP, the CPA and some non-party individuals influenced by the CPA, with the aim of creating a new party uniting the SWP and CPA. Charter group meetings were held throughout 1987, leading up to a national NLP conference in Melbourne in November. But at the last minute, the leaders of the CPA got cold feet about the whole process and cut off any real collaboration with the SWP. The CPA later established another NLP that gathered in no other significant forces and was only a thinly disguised way of disbanding the CPA.
The SWP also explored the possibility of unity with the Socialist Party of Australia. The SPA was formed in 1971 by ex-members of the CPA who disagreed with the party’s criticism of the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. The SPA was critical of the Accord, and supported glasnost and perestroika under the Gorbachev leadership of the Soviet Union, which the SWP supported enthusiastically in the hope that it represented the beginning of the political revolution advocated by Trotsky; this brought the two parties closer together. The SWP indicated its backing and hope for democratic change in the Soviet Union by changing its own name to Democratic Socialist Party in 1989. Since both the DSP and SPA supported Gorbachev in their own way, the SPA no longer needed to consider the SWP as anti-Soviet. Unity efforts included several joint election campaigns and a Socialist Unity conference of members of both parties in January 1989. However, there were two factions or groupings within the SPA – one favouring unity and one dragging its feet as much as possible. The unity effort collapsed after the Chinese government’s brutal suppression of the Tiananmen demonstrators in June, which the SWP sharply condemned and which the SPA pretended hadn’t happened.
Although the attempts at organisational unity had failed, the DSP continued to believe that greater collaboration on the left was both possible and desirable. This could occur particularly around issues such as protection of the environment, which most left groups could agree was a desirable goal. The DSP therefore decided to seek collaboration beyond its own members and supporters for a new publication, Green Left Weekly. Unlike Direct Action, GLW was not a party paper even though the DSP was the major organisation behind it. The paper consciously included articles by a wide variety of sources and had a much wider readership than did Direct Action, which ceased publication with the founding of GLW. At the end of 1992, when Volume 2 of John Percy’s history concludes, the GLW website was the most popular political website in Australia.
The years since 2002
John believed that revolutionaries had to prepare for however long it might take to construct a mass Leninist party. But in the 1990s atmosphere of ‘the end of socialism’, many leaders and members of the DSP began looking for a way to avoid that long and difficult path.
The establishment of Socialist Alliance, intended to be a tactical experiment to create a more concentrated audience for revolutionary ideas, instead proved to be a heavy burden on DSP resources.
John and a minority of party leaders therefore advocated pulling back from the Alliance tactic. But a majority in the organisation turned the tactic into a principled strategy, insisting that events would shortly bring an influx of members into the Socialist Alliance and propel it into an important position in Australian politics, including electoral politics. In the hope of such a development, they began downplaying the DSP’s revolutionary program in favour of reforms that they thought might be electorally attractive.
The differences broke into open debate within the DSP in 2005. Despite the failure of all their hopes for Socialist Alliance advances, the majority refused to change course, and in 2008 they expelled the entire minority.
As one would have expected, John played a central role in the regroupment of expelled members as the Revolutionary Socialist Party. It was a difficult time, and two years later a substantial minority decided that it really was impossible to build towards a revolutionary party in the current climate, and they resigned from the RSP.
However, an important change was on the way. In 2012, Socialist Alternative approached the RSP with a proposal to explore the possibility of merging the two organisations. Since the major historical difference between the two tendencies – on the class character of the Soviet and Chinese states – had been removed by the changes in Eastern Europe and China, and since SA, like the RSP, was clearly committed to the construction of a revolutionary Leninist party, this was an eminently sensible proposal. RSP members voted unanimously to join Socialist Alternative, and this process was completed at SA’s annual Marxism conference at Easter 2013.
John was one of the RSP members elected to the National Committee of Socialist Alternative. Despite declining health, he threw himself into building the united organisation, especially into distributing its new newspaper, Red Flag. He also continued his decades-long solidarity with the people of Vietnam as part of the Agent Orange Justice campaign.
About the author
John Percy was a central figure in the development of the Australian revolutionary socialist movement for half a century.
John and his brother Jim, his closest political collaborator until Jim’s death from cancer in 1992, were key figures in the radical anti-imperialist wing of the movement against the Vietnam War in the 1960s. Their perspective was that it was necessary to start, now, toward building an eventual mass party that would be capable of leading an Australian socialist revolution, in the way that the Bolshevik Party of Lenin had been able to lead the Russian October Revolution. In this, they differed from most of the activists produced by the 1960s radicalisation, who tended to look for fundamental change to left capitalist politicians and/or movements that would somehow know spontaneously what to do next.
It is difficult to write about John without writing a history of the DSP, because he was always centrally involved in initiating or implementing its major activities. John had an outstanding ability to combine firmness of political principle with great tactical flexibility – primarily because he had a very clear understanding of the difference between the two. He was good at party building because he was a team builder. He helped the DSP create a conscious culture of developing the skills of each member and combining them into a whole that was often more than the sum of its parts. This included particular attention to the training of women cadres and comrades from disadvantaged backgrounds. In both word and personal example, John emphasised that all the tasks of party building, including the most mundane, were to be valued equally and carried out by all members, as professionally as possible.
John was the editor of Direct Action during its early years, before spending eighteen months in New York City in 1974-75 as a journalist for Intercontinental Press, the weekly news magazine produced for the FI by the US SWP. On his return, he moved into party-building work in the Australian SWP National Office and Sydney branch. In 1982, he was asked to move to Melbourne to strengthen the DSP branch and help lead the turn to industry there; this included two years working on trams, one as a conductor and one as a driver. He returned to Sydney to replace Jim Percy as national secretary in 1991, when Jim became ill. He was widely known both inside and outside the DSP as the partisan of a regular, attractive and party-building revolutionary press. Over the years, thousands of people met John selling a revolutionary paper on the streets of Melbourne and Sydney, at demonstrations and picket lines - wherever he could come into contact with people who might be thinking about politics.
In 2008 John was diagnosed with throat cancer. This was eventually treated successfully, but involved months of radiotherapy and chemotherapy that drained his time and energy and left various long-term effects on his health.
In 2013, John passed out while selling Red Flag on the street in Glebe. He had suffered a small stroke, which in itself was not too serious. But the doctors’ examination revealed another condition, an untreatable aneurysm in the brain. They described this as a time bomb that could kill him at any moment. Two subsequent strokes resulted in his death in August 2015.
About this volume
John understood the importance of revolutionaries studying and learning from their own history and experiences, and this moved him to write a history of the DSP and Resistance. John was always the unofficial DSP archivist, collecting shelf upon shelf and filing cabinet upon filing cabinet of documents, leaflets and posters from the Australian left, so he had extensive resources upon which to base this work.iii
The first volume was published in 2005. Most of the second volume had been completed by the time of his death, and John had left indications of sources he planned to use, so it was possible to publish Volume 2 in 2017.
However, there was no partial manuscript or notes for Volume 3. But I did have available the organisational reports he gave to meetings of the National Committee and other bodies. Most of these reports are contained in the Activist, the DSP’s internal discussion and information bulletin. I have therefore created Volume 3 as a documentary history of selections from those reports and talks
In selecting what to include, I have sought to present the DSP’s external and internal campaigns, their successes and weaknesses, while keeping the volume to a manageable size. Where a long-running activity or campaign might be mentioned prominently in several reports, I have tried to retain new information on its progress but cut material repetitive of an earlier report; therefore, readers should not assume that a campaign or activity given prominence in one year was dropped or downplayed in a subsequent year merely because it takes up less space in the reports included here.
The volume concludes in 2002 for two reasons. First, changing assignments in the National Office meant that organisational reports in the following years were usually given by a different comrade, and including those reports would have changed the character of this volume. Second, 2002 coincides with the beginning of the DSP strategic orientation to Socialist Alliance. While those events deserve their own history, they relate to a period clearly different from the one covered here.
A further explanation may be useful here regarding the language of this work. John was always aware and critical of jargon, and his writing generally avoids it. But in a report for DSP members, words that would have been jargon to non-members were quite clear to the intended audience. Rather than changing the language, I have tried to add explanations where necessary.
i. An organisation of followers of the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky, who fought against the Stalinist degeneration of the Soviet Union. The Fourth International was founded in 1938 and remained the largest of Trotskyist organisations despite later splits over subsequent political developments internationally.
ii. One of the problems with this theory as espoused by Trotsky’s followers was that they often disagreed as to its precise meaning. However, its basic argument was that democratic revolutions in lesser developed countries could succeed only if they quickly became socialist revolutions.
iii. The bulk of John’s political archive and his political poster collection now constitutes the John Percy Collection at the National Library of Australia in Canberra. A smaller part is collected at the International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam. Most of John’s extensive collection of political books has become part of the Katakultur Reading Room Library in Yogyakarta.