April 2, 2005
John Percy’s book, A History of the Democratic Socialist Party and Resistance, is a boring, self-interested curiosity. It is extremely derivative of other, better written, more objective and interesting books. It bears a striking resemblance to Denis Freney’s equally self-serving autobiography, A Map of Days. Like Denis Freney’s book, in this one the two heroes rarely make major mistakes and all the left opponents and enemies of John Percy and his brother, Jim Percy, emerge in the narrative as knaves, fools or both.
Bob Gould is the devil ex machina, like the Goldstein character in George Orwell’s 1984. In the index Gould gets mentioned on 73 pages (mostly derogatory references), Jim Percy on 64 and the ever-modest John Percy on 58 pages.
Politically, the book is bizarre. It’s a long, convoluted and biased account of the efforts of John and Jim Percy to establish and build their own political group. The book is obviously influenced by Grigory Zinoviev’s History of the Bolshevik Party, and James P. Cannon’s History of American Trotskyism.
The ironic thing is that the whole political program, sociology and tactics of the traditional Trotskyist movement, which John Percy’s group was initially constructed around, have been renounced by the modern DSP. All that’s left of the initial political fundamentals around which the group was constructed is a timeless, narrowly conceived, out-of-space-and-time mantra about constructing a Leninist party, in the narrow, Zinovievist sense of the term.
Politically, the book is quite schizophrenic, in that it describes the heroic efforts of Jim and John Percy to construct an organisation around the Trotskyist program, which they’ve now renounced except for the organisational aspect. One wonders what the Vietnamese Communist Party delegation and the assorted former Maoists from Asia, who attended the Easter 2005 Asia-Pacific Solidarity Conference in Sydney as honoured guests, made of this strange book, which was launched at that event.
The first 100 or so pages of the book consist of a really mad polemic with the ghosts of the Percys’ former selves. John Percy polemicises at enormous length against the old Trotskyist strategic analysis and sociology of labour movements, around which the group was initially constructed.
The political practice of the beleagured pioneer Trotskyists in Australia is generally treated with a certain disdain. According to John Percy the early Trotskyists were all right when they were unemployed in the early 1930s and could work full-time politically, but they weren’t so good in the late 1930s when they managed to get jobs. They failed to establish Percy’s only ongoing political criterion, a substantial full-time apparatus, you see. In addition to that, along with the CPA, they generally adopted a more strategic approach towards the Labor Party from about 1940 on, and this is the biggest crime of all in John Percy’s exotic political cosmology.
The fact that the DSP has renounced most of its initial political program doesn’t prevent Percy from performing nasty hatchet jobs on most people who had even marginal tactical disagreements with him and his brother during the initial development of their group. On the other hand, Percy adopts quite a smarmy tone towards his old friends who have dropped out of Marxist politics, and who are unlikely to argue the point with leaders of the DSP about its current semi-Stalinist ultraleft politics. In years to come this oddball book will occupy a prominent place in the sectarian curiosa produced in the farthest reaches of the revolutionary socialist movement, a bit like the Socialist Labour League’s old book on the Communist Party, Betrayal.
John Percy’s book obviously has some current political purposes, including to hoe into and discredit Bob Gould, politically and personally, who has been arguing with the DSP in recent times, and to a lesser extent to inoculate DSP members against a too-close association with the Greens, which contains political backsliders from Percyism such as Sylvia Hale.
The appearance of this book is a significant development in the crisis of the DSP. John Percy has made use of his extensive personal files and has trawled every ASIO file he could lay hands on, probably at considerable expense. He has used this material very selectively to present himself and his brother as the heroes, and all political opponents on the left as misguided or bad people.
The tone throughout is grandiose, mean-spirited and vituperative, and Percy makes no attempt at objectivity, again like Denis Freney in his book.
In discussing a book by Ira Kipnis in a letter to the historian Theodore Draper, the US Trotskyist leader James P. Cannon wrote: “Ira Kipnis’s book, The American Socialist Movement: 1897-1912, published in 1952, gives some interesting information about the evolution of the Socialist Party up to 1912. I assume you are familiar with it … From what I have read I am inclined to be a bit suspicious of Kipnis’s objectivity. There are some tell-tale expressions in the Stalinist lingo which should put one on guard. His book is overstuffed with references. They may all be accurate, but as you know, a history can be slanted by selectivity of sources as well as by outright falsification. In skimming through the book for the first time I was torn between my own unconcealed partisanship for the left wing and my concern for the whole truth in historical writing.”
Cannon’s point about falsification by selection of sources and material applies in spades to John Percy’s book, and indeed it is the method Percy uses throughout his book.
I will write a more detailed and longer critique of many aspects of Percy’s book quite soon. For now, however, I’ll discuss John Percy’s vicious slander (by way of omission) of myself.
On page 63 he writes:
“At that Canberra demonstration, in addition to learning more about the CPA, I first made acquaintance with Bob Gould, who was one of the 16 arrested. He wasn’t a student and the police gave him special attention, claiming that there was a long list of outstanding charges against him — on things like indecent exposure, even child molesting. Gould was able to convince them that someone else had used his name in relation to these charges, and he later said that his main suspect was a former Trotskyist turned libertarian, turned right-wing journalist. After the police had smeared his reputation thoroughly, the court was forced to let Gould off without a fine. [Magistrate] Dobson found the offence proven, but ‘having regard to the character and antecedents of Gould, dismissed the information and discharged him’”. — Canberra Times.
What a nasty little hatchet job John Percy has performed on me in this paragraph. He leaves hanging the ever-so-slight implication that there may have been something in the ostensible police record of past arrests, but that by some unstated means I had persuaded Dobson, the magistrate, to let me off.
Percy throws in several red herrings. I never said, ever, that a former Trotskyist was among the couple of people I regarded as possibly having impersonated me when they had been pinched by the police. Percy has sexed up the story a bit by the mention of child molesting. I don’t remember any mention of child molesting when the list of convictions recorded against the phantom Bob Gould were read out in the court before sentence. I remember that the crimes for which this phantom Gould had been convicted were mainly drunk and disorderly and indecent exposure (the latter of which may have been associated with the drunk and disorderly).
Percy was in the court, and he has clearly consulted the Canberra Times in writing his book, so he would remember, and no doubt the Canberra Times will show, that I didn’t beat the rap by some kind of appeal to the police or the magistrate. When the list of offences this other Bob Gould was supposed to have committed was read out, his address was given as 16 Holdsworth St, Woollahra, not 61 Holdsworth St, where I lived at the time. I forcibly pointed this out to Kep Enderby, who was defending me, and clearly for a moment even he looked at me a bit sceptically. I insisted strenuously that this wasn’t me, and I demanded that the fingerprints of this other Bob Gould be brought up from Sydney.
The case was adjourned to the next court sitting day, the Monday, and when the fingerprints turned up from Sydney the very embarrassed coppers had to admit that the prints weren’t mine. That’s what led to the collapse of the case against my character, and to the embarrassed magistrate releasing me without a conviction.
John Percy will no doubt say when challenged about this that he has made an innocent error and that anyway Gould’s character is a matter of little importance. I don’t believe for a second that it is an innocent error. Percy has been sweating over his biased narrative of events for 30 or so years and giving lectures about it. His hatchet job on me in this paragraph is carefully crafted.
Percy’s falsification by omission in this case has a deliberate political purpose: to leave just a hint hanging in the air that Bob Gould is some kind of bad character.
Throughout his book Percy tends to attribute the activities and views of his opponents on the left and in Trotskyist groups, to their bad character, and Bob Gould is the baddest character of them all (obviously because he argues with the DSP on current strategic and political questions).
Later in the book, on page 268, Percy with extraordinary pomposity quotes himself and his brother, Jim, writing the following:
“We replied [to Ian MacDougall]: ‘We do not have a subjective view about whom you ally yourself with. For us it is based on program. We suggest that Ian looks at his record seriously here in his relationship with Gould and Barnes. Why did the minority (pro-USFI) fall apart after 1965? Why did you maintain no links with Gould? We know he was an obnoxious character but we had as many personal clashes as you did. But the split came over important political matters of program and democratic centralism. And again when we told you that Barnes had approached us with a view to unity, you were hesitant on the grounds of the personal character of Barnes. When the split was starting you characterised him to us from your long personal association in terms which were far more harsh than those we have used against Quinn and Jolliffe. You were for harsh measures on this basis. We also knew (at that time) that Barnes was not a charming character. But it was essential to go through the experience of attempting to unite all the Trotskyists who stood on the basic program. Whatever their record and character. We have always acted like this and always shall. They have always left us — we have never left them.’”
(I will reply to this particular falsification at length in the future, but suffice to say at this point that careful perusal of my ASIO file reveals heaps of conversations between John and Jim Percy and their supporters that show they were clearly preparing to hunt out Gould and his supporters initially and Barnes and his supporters at a later stage. John Percy here is just repeating his own myth-making. If you believe Percy’s account of these splits, you might as well believe in fairies.) Clearly, establishing a hint about my bad character in Canberra in 1965 is a part of setting up Gould as the bad guy of all bad guys.
John Percy has a considerable problem with this aspect of his story. How does he explain the close personal association of himself and his brother with me over four years, during which they were kind of my apprentices? Those were not any old four years, but the four years from May 1965 to May 1969, when we built the Vietnam antiwar movement from a small force into an enormous force in Sydney.
How does he explain that even after the Resistance split the Percy brothers and their supporters voted for me at the Socialist Left caucus in the NSW Labor Party to be the Socialist Left representative at the ALP federal conference? How does he explain Jim Percy asking me to speak at the joint far left public meeting at Glebe Town Hall during the Broad Left conference in 1986? How does John Percy explain asking to me to speak at the memorial meeting for Jim Percy in 1992? How does he explain asking me to speak at the memorial meeting for Ernest Mandel in 1995? How does he explain that Green Left Weekly published several of my articles before the recent outbreak of argument between myself and the DSP over strategy and tactics in the labour movement?
How could the all-seeing, all-understanding, omniscient DSP leadership have anything to do with a barbarian such as the Gould who emerges from Percy’s strange narrative? The obvious answer is that if you make yourself available in a passive way for the DSP leadership’s political projects, you’re all right, but if you argue with the DSP, or struggle with it, within to some extent a common tradition, on major points of strategy and tactics, John Percy will pour any kind of essentially apolitical verbal abuse on you from a great height!
Nick Fredman tries to pass off some of the historical points I’ve initially raised about John Percy’s book as unimportant trivia.
These matters are not trivia. I’ve raised them initially because they’re things that pertain to me, personally, and they anger me, mainly because of Percy’s false historical method.
I have made a very initial response and those who are interested can expect a systematic critique of Percy’s book from me, section by section.
I’m currently working on the initial part, the ahistorical approach Percy adopts to the history of the labour movement in Australia, and I’m taking as my rhetorical point of departure his throwaway remark about the “weird theories of Henry George”, which is in striking contrast, for instance, to the attitude of Frederick Engels to Henry George and the mass labour movement in the US, of which Henry George was a part.
The contrast between the approaches of Engels and Percy underlines the sharp conflict between the Marxist approach to history, exemplified by Marx’s often repeated aphorism, “history is whole cloth” and Percy’s retrospective moralising, which is the core method of the DSP leadership’s approach to working-class history.
Having said this, I don’t want to overstate my objections to many features of Percy’s book. It is of considerable interest to me. He gets many of the dates and events more or less right, and I’m finding it a book of similar use to my own attempts at autobiography, in part using my ASIO and Special Branch files, with their 6000 discrete entries.
Discounting and refuting Percy’s biases, which I will do in due course, along with the two police files, and Denis Freney’s A Map of Day and Hall Greenland’s far better Red Hot, Percy has more or less completed the primary documentation for a serious history of the period.
I thank John Percy very much for that, and I will sell his book in my shop despite its errors and occasional falsehoods, and encourage everyone I can to read it, obviously encouraging them also to read my critiques of it.
Alan Bradley’s dopey remarks are of a slightly different order. He either hasn’t read my piece about the Lund-Miah industrial proposals, or he can’t remember what he reads from one half-hour to the next.
Nowhere do I say that breakaways from existing unions are always wrong. Obviously, in exceptional circumstances they are sometimes necessary, and I allow for that in my analysis and overview of experiences.
Rather than ignoring or falsifying what I say, Bradley would be far better served by taking up a serious discussion of all the issues involved in this question, which I tried to do in my piece.
April 21, 2005
John Percy’s book is an ideologically curious little animal. It’s very strange indeed to focus the first section of the history of your organisation, over seven years or so, on a polemic with that organisation’s former self, and on an attempted demolition of a major part of the political sociology and program around which you initally constructed the group. There’s a rare kind of schizophrenia involved in this sort of historiography.
It’s also rather forbidding that the book is ostensibly only about the first seven years, which Percy regards as the foundation period, from 1965-72. On form, if he ever completes his project, Percy will need considerably more than the promised two more volumes, unless he views this foundation period as the decisive moment, which is entirely possible.
It’s worth noting Percy’s curiously egocentric dating of these apparently decisive seven years from the moment when Childe Harold John Percy discovered socialist politics. Apparently, Percy is such a world historic figure that the first two or three years of his political involvement qualify as the first years of the history of his tendency. No political apprenticeship, apparently, for Childe Harold Percy. He and his brother seem to have emerged fully clothed in Bolshevism as if from the mouth of Zeus, at least in Percy’s own estimation. Such are the perils of merging autobiography with the history of a Marxist organisation.
If 1965-72 is indeed the decisive moment, Percy’s schizophrenia is dramatically intense, because the modern DSP has repudiated almost all the core political views that emerged at this decisive moment, except the notion of the tight, “Leninist” (really Zinovievist) party.
In a crude polemical way Percy runs down the colonial working class in Australia. He does this by taking the colonial working class out of space and time, exaggerating the importance of racist views that were common in the 19th century, and ridiculing the working class’s achievements in struggle as being of little importance because the shortage of labour in the Australian colonies made trade union victories relatively easy.
Percy here is further developing an incoherent construction about the alleged domination of a labour aristocracy over the early development of the Australian labour movement. He’s reading into the record, as if it were fact, a half-developed collection of musings by other DSP leaders, such as Peter Boyle and Jon Strauss, who tossed in some preliminary impressions on this question in the past couple of years, constantly threatening a fully fledged exposition of their thesis, which they never completed. John Percy here incorporates this intellectual jumble of ideas as some sort of self-evident fact that undermines the importance of the colonial proletariat.
Over several years I argued the point at great length on these questions with Peter Boyle, Jon Strauss and others, on the Marxmail and Green Left lists. These debates can be found on this site and in the Green Left and Marxmail archives.
Percy then goes on to dismiss the formation of the Labor Party, saying it was pretty well hopeless from the start.
For example, on page 11:
The left has been handicapped very often by illusions in the ALP as a gain for the working class, when on balance it has clearly been a shackle.
And on page 16:
Many on the left, and we did so at first, have characterised the formation of the Labor Party as ‘a historic step forward’ for the working class. However, it was more like a small step forward and then almost immediately the same step backward, reaffirming a racist, nationalist outlook and committing itself not to break with the ruling class. It wasn’t a step toward independent working class political action. We can assess how little it aided working-class struggles and how little it was independent of the capitalist class by its actions over the next 100 years. It’s been an alternative party of rule for the bosses in times of crisis. Its goal is class peace and preservation of the status quo.
Its influence is directed to convincing workers that their needs can and must be met through parliament and arbitration (objectively an employers’ policy), rather than through their own organisation and activity. From its inception, the role of the ALP has been to integrate the working class and its struggles into the capitalist framework, not to break from it. It hasn’t been a “historic step forward”.
Percy’s formulations vary on this question, but in context it’s hard to avoid concluding that he regards the formation of the Labor Party as a reactionary development because the founders of the Labor Party didn’t form a modern Marxist sect like the DSP. No “history is whole cloth” (Karl Marx’s famous aphorism) for DSP general secretary Percy.
It’s useful to contrast Percy’s approach to these questions with that of Marx and Engels, and retrospectively of Lenin quoting Marx and Engels about the US labour movement.
It is highly instructive to compare what Marx and Engels said of the British, American and German working-class movements. Such comparison acquires all the greater importance when we remember that Germany on the one hand, and Britain and America on the other, represent different stages of capitalist development and different forms of domination of the bourgeoisie, as a class, over the entire political life of those countries. From the scientific point of view, we have here a sample of materialist dialectics, the ability to bring to the forefront and stress the various points, the various aspects of the problem, in application to the specific features of different political and economic conditions. From the point of view of the practical policy and tactics of the workers’ party, we have here a sample of the way in which the creators of the Communist Manifesto defined the tasks of the fighting proletariat in accordance with the different states of the national working-class movements in the different countries.
What Marx and Engels criticise most sharply in British and American socialism is its isolation from the working-class movement. The burden of all their numerous comments on the Social-Democratic Federation in Britain and on the American socialists is the accusation that they have reduced Marxism to a dogma, to “rigid [starre] orthodoxy”, that they consider it “a credo and not a guide to action”, that they are incapable of adapting themselves to the theoretically helpless, but living and powerful mass working-class movement that is marching alongside them. “Had we from 1864 to 1873 insisted on working together only with those who openly adopted our platform,” Engels exclaimed in his letter of January 27, 1887, “where should we be today?” And in the preceding letter (December 28, 1886), he wrote, with reference to the influence of Henry George’s ideas on the American working class: “A million or two of working men’s votes next November for a bona fide working men’s party is worth infinitely more at present than a hundred thousand votes for a doctrinally perfect platform.”
These are very interesting passages. There are Social Democrats in our country who have hastened to utilise them in defence of the idea of a ‘labour congress’ or something in the nature of Larin’s “broad labour party”. Why not in defence of a “Left bloc”? we would ask these precipitate “utilisers” of Engels. The letters the quotations are taken from refer to a time when American workers voted at the elections for Henry George. Mrs Wischnewetzky — an American woman married to a Russian and translator of Engels’s works — had asked him, as may be seen from Engels’s reply, to give a thorough criticism of Henry George. Engels wrote (December 28, 1886) that the time had not yet arrived for that, the main thing being that the workers’ party should begin to organise itself, even if not on an entirely pure programme. Later on, the workers would themselves come to understand what was amiss, “would learn from their own mistakes”, but “any thing that might delay or prevent that national consolidation of the workingmen’s party — on no matter what platform — I should consider a great mistake …”
It goes without saying that Engels had a perfect understanding, and frequently spoke, of the absurdity and reactionary character of Henry George’s ideas, from the socialist point of view. The Sorge correspondence contains a most interesting letter from Karl Marx dated June 20, 1881, in which he characterised Henry George as an ideologist of the radical bourgeoisie. “Theoretically the man is utterly backward” (total arrière), wrote Marx. Yet Engels was not afraid to join with this socialist reactionary in the elections, so long as there were people who could tell the masses of “the consequences of their own mistakes” (Engels, in a letter dated November 29, 1886). Preface to the Russian Translation of Letters by Johannes Becker, Joseph Dietzgen, Frederick Engels, Karl Marx, and Others to Friedrich Sorge and Others (V.I. Lenin, 1907)
Ever the banal philistine, John Percy talks about Henry George’s “weird” economic views as an influence on the early Labor Party. This underlines Percy’s invincible ignorance in such matters. George’s views weren’t particularly weird, and they had immense influence in the labour movement. Marx and Engels disagreed with George’s theories about land rent and polemicised against them, but they took them very seriously and they treated Henry George very seriously as a politician, as the above paragraphs clearly show. Percy’s approach to the history of the labour movement, in this as in many other areas, is instrumentalist, piecemeal and superficial. Clearly, from this section, Marx and Engels, and later Lenin, were soft on Laborism, to use the modern DSP lingo.
It’s important to note that the US discussed by Marx and Engels is a colonial settler state evolving into a capitalist imperialist state, and yet Marx and Engels hadn’t the slightest doubt about the importance of the proletariat and its evolution in the US, and even at that early stage they were looking to the possibility of a broad labour party in which the Marxists would be a force, rather than a separate sect outside it.
To achieve his version of the evolution of the colonial working class and the formation of the Labor Party, Percy is reduced to making a series of crude assertions, which he tries to bolster by reference to a tiny number of sources, mainly the early Humphrey McQueen.
Percy’s tone towards the actual struggles of the colonial working class is implacably condescending:
“The social gains and better conditions were won in struggle, yes. Capitalists will always try to screw the maximum profit for themselves. But the natural wealth was there, so they were often able to buy industrial peace, and were pushed to do so by the labour shortage.” (Page 12)
“The long boom from 1860 to 1890 provided the material conditions for the rise of a strong trade union movement, winning relatively easy victories. The Australian colonies as they developed also benefited from the superprofits extracted by the British Empire from its Asian and other colonies. As the Australian capitalist class developed strength, it was able to exploit directly some of the nearby Asian and Pacific colonies. These superprofits could provide sops to buy industrial peace when needed.
“However, this strong trade union and democratic tradition was built on the dispossession of the original inhabitants and accompanied by extremely racist attitudes and ideas. ‘White Australia’ was not pushed only by the bourgeoisie, but was also championed by privileged white workers wanting to protect their patch. This racist poison thoroughly infected the Australian labour movement.” (Page 13)
What a condescending, one-sided approach to the development of a working class and its consciousness. Percy tends to reduce this development mainly to the question of racism, overstates that issue substantially, and ascribes the racism mainly to the working class when it clearly came from the dominant imperialist ideology of the British Empire.
In addition, Percy’s analysis is severely flawed factually. The social gains were not achieved easily at all. They resulted from constant, bitterly won proletarian self-organisation that gave rise to the sharpest class struggles, of which the big strikes of the 1890s were the culmination. Percy’s analysis is directed at undermining any idea of the significant development of the Australian working class and labour movement.
Another glaring and important factual inaccuracy is Percy’s wild overstatement of the economic importance of the exploitation of the South Pacific to capital formation in Australia. This is nonsense. Exploitation of the South Pacific, which certainly existed, was a relatively small part of Australian capital formation.
The first major phase of Australian capital formation was the export of gold and other minerals from the 1840s onwards. The second, and even mo,re important phase of capital formation resulted from the expansion of the pastoral sector, and the exports of meat, wool and other agricultural products, mainly to Britain.
Certainly, the expansion of the pastoral industry was underpinned by the brutal dispossession of the Aboriginal people, but it’s stretching the truth considerably to make the rural proletariat the main player in that exploitation. The main player was the emerging Australian capitalist class. The emerging colonial proletariat came into the sharpest conflict with that emerging Australian ruling class.
Percy constantly exaggerates what he claims was the ease of the victories of the working class. He should consult carefully Stuart Svensson’s books on the bitter pastoral strikes of the 1880s and 1890s.
Percy ignores the large and important range of sources that don’t suit his purpose: authors such as Bede Nairn, John Rickard, Ian Turner, Frank Bongiorno, Bruce Scates, Noel Ebbels and Russell Ward, all of whom wrote extensively about the colonial period. In particular, Percy ignores the extraordinary collection of writings about the colonial working class by Terry Irving and Bob Connell, and he ignores the books of Andrew Wells and Noel Butlin about the development of capitalism in Australia.
John Percy has a very cavalier attitude to past disputes among labour movement historians. Percy refers in passing to the extensive debate on labour history between Humphrey McQueen and all the other labour historians, sparked by McQueen’s book, A New Britannia. Those interested in the rounded texture of those debates, which were very important, should have a look at Ian Turner’s comments in the introduction to the 1979 edition of Industrial Labour and Politics, Humphrey McQueen’s Afterword to the 1986 edition of A New Britannia and my article disputing Stuart Macintyre’s rather conservative approach to labour history.
The curious thing about all this is that when these disputes in labour history were going on in the 1970s the DSP had very little interest in them and only in recent times has the DSP grabbed hold of Humphrey McQueen’s earlier point of view (most of which he has considerably modified) because that early point of view suits the DSP’s current ultraleft political construct.
As serendipity would have it, Tom O’Lincoln has just produced an important little book on class struggle in colonial Australia, United We Stand: Class Struggle in Colonial Australia, that is an effective refutation of Percy’s view of the colonial working class. All Percy can do is shelter behind the early McQueen as his only major authority.
Percy also avoids serious discussion of the three or four major assessments of the evolution of the Australian labour movement written within the labour or communist movements: J.N. Rawlings’s series of historical pamphlets in the 1930s, E.W. Campbell’s Short History of the Australian Labour Movement, Mick Armstrong’s History of the ALP, and even Peter Conrick’s History of the ALP, although he refers to the latter in passing, as Conrick was an early SWP-DSP member.
John Percy makes a completely artificial point of repudiating all aspects of the reformist labour movement and asserting that the DSP’s tradition is only that of the IWW, the early Communist Party and the early Trotskyists.
This assertion of DSP continuity with the IWW, the Communist Party and the early Trotskyists deserves careful examination. I’ll deal with the early Trotskyists in a future article, and with the IWW and the CPA here.
For Percy to make such a total separation between the IWW and the rest of the labour movement is a historical absurdity, and for the modern DSP leadership, with its inward focus and its smug and singular fetish about the universal significance of its own organisation, to claim continuity with the tradition of the IWW is a melodramatic travesty.
The mainstream IWW members in Australia were classical syndicalists. The IWW was a sort of syndicalist party. Its members were courageous agitators deeply rooted in the existing labour movement, and the literature suggests they had considerable influence in the traditional unions and even in the Labor Party. Percy’s account of labour history has a lot in common with the Stuart Macintyre school of labour history, in that it ignores or downplays all spontaneous upsurges with centrist or reformist leadership.
In Macintyre’s case this approach is driven by conservative instincts. At least, however, Macintyre in his Concise History mentions the defeat of conscription in two referenda in World War I and the major role of the Labor Party in the defeat of conscription. Percy’s labour movement historiography is so crazy, and his animosity to all spontaneous upsurges led by Labor or centrist figures is so total, that he can’t bring himself to even mention the defeat of Labor renegade Billy Hughes’s support for conscription and the role played by the Labor Party and the unions in that defeat.
Percy also falsifies and crudifies the 1917 general strike. He paints a picture of this strike being initiated by the IWW, and opposed by the traditional union bureaucracy. The reality was not nearly so simple. It’s clear that IWW was a substantial political driving force in the 1917 strike, but it was also an official strike, called in NSW by the majority of the traditional unions. You wouldn’t know that if you relied solely on Percy’s peculiar narrative about the IWW.
The IWW was certainly a major force in the successful battle to defeat conscription for World War I, but it wasn’t the only driving force. Other driving forces were the Labor Party, which expelled the parliamentary members who supported conscription, and the Irish Catholic section of society, led by the redoubtable Archbishop Mannix.
When the IWW was suppressed in 1916 and 12 of its leaders were framed and jailed for long periods, the agitation for their release was supported throughout the labour movement, and was spearheaded partly by leading figures in the traditional labour movement, such as the Victorian Labor MP Frank Anstey, and Henry Boote.
The eventual release of the IWW 12 was largely achieved by Percy Brookfield, the independent labour member for Broken Hill, and engineered by the NSW Labor government of John Storey.
Many of the IWW leaders and rank and file went on to found the CPA, and many others went into the Labor Party. In the radicalisation after World War I there was no Chinese wall between the IWW and the official labour movement.
The IWW was a bunch of courageous agitators who bore very little resemblance to the smug, inward-looking, self-satisfied and rather middle-class Zinovievist sect that the DSP has unfortunately become. There are, indeed, quite a few examples of the transformation of socialist groups into such smug, middle-class sects, but the IWW is definitely not one of them.
The second tradition to which John Percy pompously lays claim is that of the Communist Party. He does this in a rather peculiar way, attacking retrospective CPA historiography in which CPA historians reject episodes of CPA ultraleftism towards the Labor Party.
By way of contrast, Percy is rather soft on the CPA’s major Third Period episodes of ultraleftism, and the minor Third Period episodes in 1939-41 and 1948-51. Those interested in the Third Period in Australia should have a look at Barbara Curthoys’s article, The Communist Party of Australia and the Comintern, first published in Labour History.
In Percy’s self-interested cosmology, even an oppositional orientation towards Labor contains the seeds of betrayal and capitulation. He doesn’t discuss the quite spectacular success of the CPA’s entry work in the Labor Party from 1936-41, which is discussed in some detail by David McKnight.
The significant thing about this is that all of the CPA’s Third Period episodes were directly and brutally imposed on the CPA by Moscow. When the hand of Moscow was relaxed a little the CPA, despite its fairly leftist tradition by the standards of international Stalinism, always drifted back to some variant of a united front with Labor.
This obviously flows in part from the CPA’s considerable influence in the trade union movement. Full-blown CPA ultraleftism towards the labour movement was always an artificial construction, imposed in each instance from Moscow.
The increasingly bizarre leadership of the DSP doesn’t need the intervention of Stalin to turn them into chronic ultraleftists at the political level. They’ve managed to manufacture a whole schema for themselves, and even to take it another step by bemoaning the very foundation of the Labor Party.
The DSP’s evolution in these matters flows from its deliberate self-isolation from the difficult task of agitation in most parts of the broader labour movement. In the necessary task of setting priorities, the DSP leadership always puts the construction and development of the DSP itself ahead of any considerations of realistic long-term implantation and agitation in most parts of the labour and popular movements.
It’s also worth noting that the DSP now, retrospectively, bemoans the foundation of the Third and Fourth internationals, and by implication the First and Second internationals. The rejection of the foundation of the Third International obviously has a good deal to do with the flexible strategy towards labour parties advocated by Lenin and Trotsky at the first four congresses of the Comintern.
It’s beyond John Percy’s comprehension, or more probably it doesn’t suit him to recognise, that the considerable success of the CPA in establishing itself in Australian life, even despite the high Stalinism imposed from Moscow, had a good deal to do with the CPA’s serious attention to very professional militant trade unionism and its systematic and very wide implantation in the labour movement.
In the history of the CPA there clearly is a good deal of tension between the needs of constructing the party apparatus and the needs of implantation in the labour movement, but the CPA for most of its history tried to both “build the party” and implant it, frequently in a relatively non-sectarian way, in the existing labour movement, and in Australian life in general.
Largely because of its excessive preoccupation with the internal life of the sect as its only serious consideration, the DSP leadership has singularly failed to achieve anything like the influence of the old CPA, despite the high Stalinist baggage that the CPA carried for most of its existence (see The Communist Party in Australian Life).
The DSP has now been untrammelled by considerations of intervention in, or united fronts with, the Labor Party for 20 years. Where are the political successes resulting from this 20 years of ultraleftism? Where are the influential DSP trade unionists, where are the DSP historians and academics, where are the DSP creative writers and film-makers, etc, etc? The major strands of leftist influence in Australian life, which are still considerable despite the rightward shift in society, almost entirely spring from traditions other than that of the DSP. Surely this must have something to do with the sterility and bootstrap-lifting quality of the DSP’s perspectives for the past 20 years.
The question must be asked: why do John Percy and the only other DSP member who tries to write labour history, Jim McIlroy, belt out such obviously ahistorical, unbalanced, undialectical pseudo-history of the Australian labour movement?
The answer obviously lies in the absolute preoccupation of the DSP leadership with preserving their tiny sect as a thing in itself. A total and artificial separation from all the contradictory features of the actually existing and past labour movement is seen as useful in persuading the cadres of the small DSP organisation of their group’s unique historic role, almost out of space and time.
Such an approach to history may partly inoculate a small number of cadres against the external world, but it’s a hopelessly poverty-stricken historical method.
The DSP’s sterile historiography presents the DSP as a unique formation with none of the perceived weaknesses of the mass labour movement. This attempted mental separation of the DSP from the labour movement, and the poverty of reading of broad labour movement history that this entails, only deprives the cadres of the DSP of any chance of developing any real knowledge of the complex and contradictory traditions of the labour movement.
Real life, however, is rarely so simple. The complex and contradictory traditions of the mass labour movement are still one of the major social factors dictating the terrain on which socialists must operate, even in the 21st century.
Creating a group of socialists who you try to train in complete contempt for the better traditions of the mass labour movement is a very dangerous thing politically. The evolution of one socialist sect like that, Frank Furedi’s Living Marxism group in Britain, has taken that group straight into the camp of the ruling class. One hopes that won’t happen to the DSP, but the seeds of such a possible development are present in John Percy’s contemptuous and dismissive attitude to the progressive features of the development of the Australian labour movement.
I will discuss the Trotskyist tradition in Australia, and Percy’s contemptuous attitude towards it, in the next part of my overview of Percy’s book. This is the second part of what will probably run to five or six articles on various aspects of Percy’s book.
PS. A preliminary comment about Percy’s book in general, which I will expand later. Percy’s tone throughout his volume I is pontifical and grandiose, clearly modelled on James P. Cannon’s History of American Trotskyism. Cannon, who was a real workers’ leader, with a rich, contradictory and complex history of leadership in workers’ struggles, could to some extent get away with such a tone. In Percy’s case, the result is farcical. This is particularly so in the curious way Percy retrospectively claims for his allegedly separate tendency (in reality, for himself and his brother, Jim) the major role in the early development of the Vietnam antiwar movement. This megalomania reaches a peak when he chides Hall Greenland for not recognising the unique role of the Percy group in Red Hot, Greenland’s biography of Nick Origlass. This exaggerated view of his own role is also present in Percy’s venomous attack on historians of the Vietnam antiwar movement. Percy is clearly irritated that he and his brother rarely get mentioned in the literature of the Vietnam period and he attributes that to some kind of conspiracy against them. I’ll return to this point by recounting the history of the Vietnam antiwar movement as it actually developed, as I saw it and participated in it, in another article.
“In February 1956 Nikita Khrushchev denounced Stalin’s crimes at the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Later that year, the Soviet Union invaded Hungary to quell a workers’ uprising and smash reform currents in the Hungarian Communist Party leadership. These two events had a big impact on the Communist Party here, but not nearly on the scale they did in Britain.
“In Britain the CPGB’s Daily Worker editor, Peter Fryer, [as in many other instances, John Percy is none too careful with detail; Peter Fryer was a journalist for the Daily Worker, but not the editor] was expelled and a whole wing of intellectuals and activists walked out. Some were won to British Trotskyist groups, especially to Healy’s. A large number formed a current that was later to be one component of New Left Review. New Left Review was launched in January 1960 as a fusion of Universities and Left Review, produced by new left intellectuals on campuses and The New Reasoner, which regrouped Marxist intellectuals who had left the Communist Party following the twin shocks of 1956. By 1962 a new editorial team led by Perry Anderson had taken over, some of those replaced, such as Ralph Miliband and John Saville, going on in 1964 to start publishing the annual Socialist Register.
“In Australia this movement was smaller and slower to develop. Helen Palmer’s Outlook, based in Sydney, began in July 1957; it was a refuge for those fleeing the CPA and often tending to look for a safe haven in the ALP, and was unable to build an alternative organisation. It folded in November 1970, having failed really to relate to or build from the ’60s youth radicalisation and antiwar movement.
“In Sydney and Melbourne, Socialist Forums were established in the late 1950s to try to group independent socialists and intellectuals exiting the CPA, but they were short-lived. Any ‘new left’ break from the CPA became a dead end, intellectualist rather than activist, and either folded or lapsed into an esoteric separate journal like Arena.”
(John Percy, A History of the Democratic Socialist Party and Resistance, pp40-41)
Lifetime DSP General Secretary John Percy’s treatment of the events surrounding the 1956 upheaval in the international communist movement is ahistorical and bizarre.
Percy crudifies, distorts and lies by omission about almost every aspect of the history of the workers’ movement in his constant pursuit of his own mythology about the unique, world-historic importance of his small political current.
The upheaval in the international Communist movement caused by Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin at the 1956 20th Congress of the CPSU was the beginning of the political earthquake that culminated in the collapse of the Stalinist regimes in 1989, and eventually destroyed Stalinism as the dominant socialist political influence worldwide.
The crushing of the Hungarian revolution in 1956 by Soviet tanks was a turning point for millions of socialists and communists globally and in Australia.
Percy’s approach, even to the new left that emerged in Britain, is peculiar. He fails to mention the towering intellectual figure who emerged from the upheaval in the British Communist Party, E.P. Thompson, whose later intellectual activity and particularly his book, The Making of the English Working Class, had such influence on socialists and leftists the world over. (The Canadian Marxist historian Bryan D. Palmer has produced two useful books on Thompson, the second of which was published after Thompson’s death: E.P. Thompson. Objections and Oppositions, by Verso in 1994. As serendipity would have it, Palmer who is broadly in sympathy with the Trotskyist tradition as well as being a Thompson enthusiast, is currently in the last stages of completing a major political biography of James P. Cannon.)
In Australia, as Percy says, the 1956 upheaval wasn’t quite as spectacular as it was in Britain. Nevertheless, it was widespread and important. Percy doesn’t even mention the critical turning point in Australia in that series of events: the CPA leadership, despite its knowledge that Khrushchev’s secret speech was genuine, tried to maintain the fiction that the speech was a CIA fabrication.
CPA members Bob Walshe, Jim Staples and others reproduced the secret speech in Australia and were promptly expelled for producing and circulating it. Denis Freney, Helen Palmer and others were also expelled from the CPA for circulating the secret speech. (Last year, the Labour History Society held a seminar in Sydney on the events of 1956, attended by nearly 50 people, many of them former members or supporters of the CPA. The event was addressed by Bob Walshe, Bob Gould, Eric Aarons and others. Bob Walshe in particular is an extraordinary individual, still an active member of the Greens in his eighties. He was a postwar student leader of the CPA and he did the primary research on Eureka for the 1954 Eureka centenary, as a member of the CPA. He also did primary research for the 2004 Eureka 150th anniversary, and was the keynote speaker at the Sydney celebration of that event at the Writers’ Centre in Balmain. No one from the DSP attended the Labour History event on 1956, and one person from the DSP attended the 200-strong Eureka 150-year celebration.)
Many hundreds of people departed from the CPA over the two or three years after 1956. They included intellectuals, industrial workers and others. The intellectuals included a large number of people whose influence in Australian political and cultural life was considerable, such as the novelist Eric Lambert, the historians Bob Gollan and Daphne Gollan, and the important Melbourne intellectuals Stephen Murray-Smith, Ian Turner and Ken Gott.
The lives and political activities of the latter three Australian left-wing intellectuals have recently been comprehensively described and analysed in the important book, Free Radicals, by John McLaren (Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2004).
Turner wrote Industrial Labour and Politics and Sydney’s Burning (about the IWW frame-up in World War I), and a collection of articles called Room for Manoeuvre, which included considerable autobiographical material. His then wife, Amirah Inglis, wrote her version of these events in The Hammer and Sickle and the Washing-up (Hyland House, 1995).
In 1982, after Helen Palmer’s death, the Helen Palmer Memorial Committee published a collection of articles from Outlook, including a brief autobiographical piece. The book was called Helen Palmer’s Outlook, and it had an introduction by Robin Gollan.
John Percy’s utterly self-serving reference to Outlook: “it was a refuge for those fleeing the CPA and often tending to look for a safe haven in the ALP and was unable to build an alternative organisation. It folded in November 1970, having failed to relate to or build from the 1960s youth radicalisation and the antiwar movement” is an inane caricature and stands reality on its head, which is pretty typical of Percy’s historical approach. Percy treats Laborism as original sin, and all past labour movement issues are measured retrospectively against the yardstick of Percy’s strange DSP political sect.
The actual history of Outlook, in particular, was quite different to Percy’s summary version. In the context of its time, the magazine was a very leftist and serious attempt to come to terms with Australian political reality from a broadly socialist point of view, and its end, when its supporters judged in 1970 that it had served its purpose, was by no means the “dead end” that Percy says it was. By that time Outlook had influenced a generation of activists who were already, or were to become, important in the antiwar, anti-apartheid, women’s, youth and other movements, and in developments such as the growth of the Socialist Left in the Labor Party.
As a publication that came out of the ferment in the CPA in 1956, Outlook was inevitably, and entirely correctly, a multi-tendency magazine, to use the current DSP lingo. That in itself makes Percy’s retrospective hostility to the magazine rather bizarre.
By any standard, Outlook was well to the left of, for instance, the current DSP-backed magazine, Seeing Red. Any issue of Outlook, taken at random, was well to the left of the three issues so far of Seeing Red. It was quite long-lived as magazines go, publishing every two months from 1957 to 1969. Outlook went through 82 issues over 13 years, I’ll be surprised if Seeing Red survives more than a couple more issues, judging by its content and the DSP’s patchy history in producing contemporary Australian magazines.
Outlook started and continued in a period very similar to the current one, of an overtly conservative political climate and gave rise to a loose grouping of socialists, the major expression of which was an annual conference, which took place in a pleasant waterfront house in Louisa Road, Balmain (a much cheaper address then than it is now).
Anti-Stalinists such as myself, Denis Freney and George Petersen went to these conferences and we formed the systematic Marxist left wing within this milieu. We won a few people over to our particular group and we maintained, in a non-sectarian way, good relations with most of the other people in the Outlook milieu.
Percy’s deliberately insulting reference to “safe haven in the ALP” and Outlook, for people coming out of the CPA, says nothing about Outlook or the people associated with it, but it speaks volumes about Percy’s own ignorant attitude.
Outlook had a considerable audience among people who always had been in the Labor Party. The anti-Stalinist Marxists such as Freney, Petersen and myself were active in the ALP as a strategic orientation. There were people in the Outlook milieu who were drifting to the right after their very painful experience of Stalinism, but they tended to be like the people who drift out of the DSP after their encounter with Percyism. It’s to the credit of the Outlook people that they had energy and commitment to go on and work in the Labor Party. Most of those leaving the DSP don’t do that, and they clearly take away a much poorer education in the theory, tactics and strategy of socialism than the earlier generation who came out of the CPA. In the DSP they probably develop about the same level of understanding of the Australian labour movement as Percy reveals in his dopey comments about a very brief encounter with the Lane Cove branch of the Labor Party.
Inevitably in the circumstances of the time, Outlook was a milieu rather than an organisation, but it was a very useful milieu for those, such as myself, Petersen, Freney and others, who were interested in promoting Marxist organisation.
The Outlook milieu was rather varied and in a certain amount of flux throughout its existence. A constant factor was the presence of George Petersen and myself, looking around for likely types to join in revolutionary socialist activity, but by far the most notable feature of the group was the dogged and constant activity of Helen Palmer and her partner Grace Bardsley in keeping the magazine coming out.
They put in quite a lot of the money themselves, they raised quite a lot of money, and they had a civilised relationship with a leftist Jewish businessman who had transferred his financial allegiance from the CPA to Outlook in 1957, partly in response to growing evidence of antisemitism in the USSR.
The other spinoff from 1956 that maintained a loose association with Outlook was the Melbourne leftist literary magazine, Overland, which Stephen Murray-Smith and Ian Turner had managed to make independent of the Communist Party when they left or were expelled.
Overland still exists and has become the pre-eminent left-of-centre literary magazine in Australia.
Turner and Murray-Smith initially were not unsympathetic to the efforts of the Trotskyists to de-Stalinise members of the CPA. At one point I remember them discreetly passing over to me a comprehensive list of CPA members and sympathisers so that we could reach them with literature critical of Stalinism, including Khrushchev’s secret speech.
It’s true, as Percy says, that Outlook and Overland didn’t establish a new revolutionary socialist organisation. Most of the people who were involved, by this stage of their lives, were a bit beyond starting new movements. Nevertheless, some did join, or assist, the small revolutionary socialist groups of the time.
In Sydney, later on, when those of us in the revolutionary socialist groups appealed over the heads of the CPA leaders to the CPA rank and file to start the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and later the Vietnam Action Committee, we also started with a considerable audience with whom we had widespread civilised connections as the extreme left in the Outlook milieu.
Particularly at the start of both ventures, when we were a comparatively small force competing with a much bigger CPA peace movement, support of people in the Outlook milieu was of considerable importance. As well, the Outlook milieu had considerable influence and connections in the broader labour movement, and that was of great practical value in building up antiwar organisations independent of the CPA.
Percy talks pretentiously about how his sect was born out of the youth radicalisation. There’s an element of truth in that, but he chooses to ignore the fact that the existence of any kind of anti-Stalinist revolutionary socialist formation to which he could attach himself was a product of our earlier socialist work, which included non-sectarian activity in the Outlook milieu.
In creating his own mythological origin for his group, Percy platonically claims descent from the IWW, the CPA and the old Trotskyists, while heaping disdain on the CPA’s and the Trotskyists’ frequent practical orientation to the Labor Party.
In practice, he treats the real contribution of all these real people to the history of the class struggle with contempt. Thankfully, few of these people were half as Calvinistic, politically speaking, as lifetime DSP General Secretary Percy.
In a very real sense, the revolutionary socialists of today stand on the shoulders of those who’ve gone before, and those people include a much wider and more complex variety of individuals and social groups than John Percy can afford to recognise.
Part of the function of Ozleft is to reproduce the literature of many of these unsung socialist heroes, and celebrate their lives and their contribution to the class struggle. Between them, the varied individuals who made up the wave of socialist intellectuals and workers who left the CPA in 1956 contributed very widely to the radicalisation of Australian life that took place a little later, from the mid-1960s to the 1980s, and that still hasn’t been reversed despite the current rightward shift in the political culture.
Turner, who died comparatively young, as one individual alone, produced more serious socialist history and theory than everyone in the DSP milieu (such as it is). Stephen Murray-Smith became a major intellectual influence in the sphere of education from a broadly socialist point of view. Helen Palmer’s literary output and activity in itself was quite extraordinary. She wrote a number of books of Australian history, and she went on to become a very serious activist in the anti-apartheid movement for a number of years.
At a Labour History seminar in Sydney 18 months ago on the 1960s, attended by about 100 participants in, or students of, those years John Myrtle, who spoke about the anti-apartheid movement, paid tribute to Helen Palmer’s activity. (He also, in passing, reminded me of the function that I used to perform in the turbulent years of the 1960s, as a kind of clearing house for radical activism. He described how, as a young student he went down to the old Third World Bookshop in Goulburn Street and asked how he could get active about South Africa, and I pointed him towards John Brink. Myrtle commented that I had constantly played that sort of role in the 1960s. That kind of practical ecumenism was one part of my political activity in those days, and was actually an issue in later conflicts that developed between myself and Jim and John Percy.)
That recent seminar on the 1960s was, in itself, a demonstration of the different attitudes of myself and John Percy. I initiated the seminar, and I saw to it that Percy was invited to speak on youth and students. He came and spoke, all right (and he flew his kite for his slanderous version of the attempt to frame me after the Canberra demonstration in 1965). He didn’t bring anyone else to the seminar, except one Green Left Weekly seller who stayed outside, and they both decamped smartly when Percy had finished speaking at this rather useful event attended by many veterans of the struggles of the 1960s.
In his sweeping and contemptuous dismissal of the contribution of the CPA rebels of 1956 to socialist political struggle in Australian life, Percy inadvertently reveals volumes about the approach of himself and the DSP leadership to socialist politics.
The CPA rebels contributed very substantially to radical reform in Australian society and to preserving socialism as a political current. These activities were useful in themselves, although they didn’t lead to the construction of the kind of sect that John Percy calls a Marxist party.
Socialists should be trying to develop independent Marxist organisation, but such a project can only be relevant when it meshes into broader struggles for change in society.
If you choose, as Percy does, to ridicule Helen Palmer and her associates for not building a Marxist “party” of the Percy type, and don’t note the multitude of her other socialist political activities, you impoverish yourself. Compare, for example, Percy’s miserable assessment of Outlook with Ian Turner’s The Long Goodbye, in the final issue.
Helen Palmer wrote the Ballad of 1891, which became the leitmotif of the socialist musical, Reedy River, a show that contributed to the radicalisation of tens of thousands of Australians. How is it possible to contemplate the development of socialist organisation of any sort if you treat with narrow-gutted and cavalier contempt, as Percy does, the radical activities of previous generations that don’t measure up to your self-interested stereotype?
The content of John Percy’s History of the DSP and Resistance suggests that all questions in the history of the socialist movement are now judged by the writer from the standpoint of whether they conform to the present-day DSP’s permanent ultraleftism towards the Labor Party.
On page 30, discussing the coal strike of 1949, Percy offers this imperishable piece of alleged Marxist analysis:
“In 1949 the CPA led a seven-week coal strike, over important issues of wages and conditions, which began with strong rank-and-file support. The bosses, their newspapers and the Chifley ALP government waged an all-out attack. Chifley sent troops into the mines to break the strike. The CPA simplistically assessed the defeat as due to its ‘sectarianism’ towards the ALP. The Cold War anti-communist onslaught was bearing down, and the bosses were determined to smash the CPA and militant unions whether they fought back or not. Perhaps it was better to fight and lose, rather than capitulate without a whimper.”
What an irresponsible, light-minded commentator on industrial matters lifetime DSP General Secretary Percy is. From his modest office, Percy passes sweeping judgment on the issues in the coal strike without offering any evidence for his view.
The first thing that has to be said is that the Trotskyists of the time, who had considerable industrial experience, were critical of the CPA tactics in the coal strike. The second thing that has to be said is that the CPA was an utterly serious, although Stalinist, party with vastly more widespread implantation in the trade union movement than has ever been achieved by the DSP.
The tactics and strategy adopted by the Communist Party in the coal strike are among the most widely analysed and discussed issues in the history of the Australian labour movement.
The literature satisfactorily establishes that while there were many unfulfilled workers’ demands in the mining industry, the launching of a strike in head-on confrontation with the Chifley Labor government, at a moment when the industrial upsurge of the post-war years was declining rapidly, was due to a political decision taken essentially by the leadership of the CPA.
Had the leadership of the CPA taken a more cautious approach, they could have tipped the balance in the miners’ union against launching an indefinite strike in rather adverse conditions.
The strike came a year after Lance Sharkey’s 1948 speech at a meeting of Communist parties in Southeast Asia in which he, obviously in consultation with Moscow, applauded their launching of insurrections in several countries.
In 1949 the CPA leadership seriously thought that a social revolution in Australia, led by themselves, was possible and relatively imminent. It was in that framework that, disposing of far more forces in the labour movement than the DSP has ever had, the CPA took major initiatives that led to an indefinite coal strike.
The results were disastrous. The miners lost the strike, right-wingers displaced the CPA leaders in the Miners’ Federation for a couple of years, and the Chifley government fell, to be replaced by the Menzies Liberal government, which held power for 23 years. CPA union leaders lost positions in a number of other unions, some of which were never regained, and the left in the trade union movement was generally weakened.
The coal strike had significant repercussions on the left of the Labor Party. In the immediate postwar years the CPA had been rebuilding influence among a re-emerging left in the ALP, particularly in NSW. This rebuilding of a Labor left influenced by the CPA had been a difficult process after the split of the NSW Labor Party under CPA influence away from the ALP in 1940-41.
One aspect of the CPA’s growing ultraleftism around 1949 was a happily brief mini-Third Period concerning the ALP from about 1948 to 1951. As the coal strike developed, the CPA practised a classic “united front from below” tactic, encouraging its supporters in the Labor Party to conduct a revolt of the branches in support of the miners, and to split away from the Labor Party.
For one account of this, see Roger Millis’s useful book, Serpent’s Tooth, in which he describes the experiences of his father, Bruce Millis, an undercover member of the CPA in the Labor Party in Prime Minister Ben Chifley’s electorate.
A smallish split from the ALP was led by the Paddington branch, whose main personality was the tally clerk Tom Morey, and by the Summer Hill branch, with Jack Heffernan as president and Mary Greenland (Hall Greenland’s redoubtable agitator mother) as secretary. After the CPA ditched its mini-Third Period strategy and the split with the Groupers unfolded, most of the left-wing militants involved in this split moved back into the Labor Party.
Tom Morey ended up a leftist Labor member of parliament for the state seat of Bligh. Jack Heffernan, an official of the Sheetmetal Workers Union, became a leader of the left-wing Steering Committee faction of the Labor Party and ended up a leftist member of the NSW executive. Mary Greenland, an extraordinary woman, became my close associate in the Vietnam Action Campaign in the late 1960s and I eventually made the major tribute speech at her funeral.
All the ALP leftists who had been involved in the 1949 split over the coal strike, that I knew (and I knew a lot of them) later viewed the split as a big mistake.
The later political discussion in the CPA about a balance sheet on the coal strike was also in part a discussion of the mistaken view that the CPA was in a position to launch a bid for power in Australia in 1949.
For the CPA, it was a relatively responsible and serious discussion. Eventually Jack Blake and Jack Henry were made the internal scapegoats for mistaken policies, which was typical of the way things went in the Stalinist movement.
Nevertheless, the lessons of the coal strike were widely discussed in the CPA and on the left in general. The CPA recognised that launching an indefinite strike in the coal industry at that time was a mistake. This discussion and its outcome was actually the beginning of the departure of the CPA from absolute control by Moscow.
There is considerable literature about the coal strike, to which Percy does not refer in any serious way. He just reduces it simply to the question of the Labor Party, which is ignorant and myopic. It was first and foremost a question of industrial strategy. The political aspects are only comprehenisble in that context.
The most useful book on the coal strike is the 100-page collection by Phillip Deery, published by Hale and Iremonger in 1978, called Labor in Conflict: The 1949 Coal Strike. It consists mainly of documents, plus a number of illustrations. The bibliography is very useful.
On the tactics of the CPA in the strike, useful references include Alistair Davidson’s Short History of the CPA (Stanford 1969) and Robin Gollan’s Revolutionaries and Reformists (Canberra 1975). Also mentioned are Edgar Ross’s History of the Miners Federation (Sydney 1970) and Robin Gollan’s The Coalminers of NSW (Melbourne 1963).
The CPA’s reassessments are listed as E.A. Bacon, Outline History of the CPA (Brisbane 1966), Ralph Gibson’s My Years in the Communist Party (Melbourne 1966), Lance Sharkey’s The Trade Unions (Sydney 1959) and Bernie Taft’s Postwar Industrial Policy, (Australian Left Review, no 28, Dec-Jan 1971).
All of these leftist sources take the view that launching an unlimited strike in the conditions of the time was a mistake and they give cogent argument as to why it was a mistake. Most of those sources acknowledge that the strike was essentially a political initiative by the CPA leadership.
John Percy’s cavalier and ignorant neglect of the literature on this question, while making a sweeping judgment, is political clownishness of the highest order. What a light-minded approach it is for a Marxist leader, such as lifetime DSP General Secretary Percy, to say it was better to “fight and lose than capitulate without a whimper”.
Percy is so contemptuous of serious issues in the labour movement that he doesn’t even try to elaborate on his stupidly, tendentiously framed statement. Percy has no serious interest in, or detailed knowledge of, such industrial questions. He only engages in very general demagogy to make a dubious political point.
The alternatives, of course, weren’t to launch an unlimited strike or to “capitulate without a whimper”. The CPA, which at the trade union level was a very serious outfit, could have continued and intensified the industrial campaign for the miners’ demands rather than launching an unlimited strike.
Those were the options that were subsequently discussed in the CPA and on the left in drawing a balance sheet on 1949.
All of the above raises the question of the industrial history of the DSP and of General Secretary John and of deceased DSP eminent person Jim Percy.
The crude historiography that permeates Percy’s book throws into bold relief how the Percy brothers and the modern DSP leadership have always viewed the interests and role of their organisation, vis a vis serious implantation in the trade unions. The constant preoccupation with a public exposure posture of Laborism, as the philosopher’s stone of Percy’s book, raises inevitably the major industrial incidents in the history of the DSP.
There has only been one ongoing industrial agitation conducted largely by the DSP that the DSP didn’t pull out of in a relatively short time, and that was the lengthy agitation in the mines of the west coast of Tasmania, associated with the activities of Ian Jamieson.
It’s possible to put a moment on when I began my current argument with the DSP leadership on industrial and political strategy in the labour movement. That moment was when, at a DSP conference about five years ago, I heard Sue Bull deliver a bizarre justification of the DSP leadership’s adventure in smashing up the integration of DSP members in the Wollongong steelworks, and in the left wing of the Ironworkers’ Union, by imposing on them an irresponsible electoral challenge to the then most left-wing union leadership in the country, who happened to be the left-wing stronghold in the right-dominated Ironworkers Union.
This incident is discussed in at some length by George Petersen in his self-published autobiography, the relevant excerpt of which is available on Ozleft.
In July 2002, at a seminar on Trotskyism in Australia, some former members of the DSP and a number of other leftists with a Trotskyist background discussed that industrial experience. The gathering heard reminiscences of two centrally involved then-DSP participants in the events in Wollongong, and one who had been in the Newcastle steelworks.
(Serious students of the industrial history of the Trotskyist movement in the English-speaking world will be struck by the similarity of the intervention of the DSP leadership under Jim Percy in the struggles in the Ironworkers Union and the way the temporary majority of Burnham and others on the political committee of the US SWP in 1939 instructed the autoworkers’ fraction to support the notorious right-winger Homer Martin in the factional war in their union, despite the overwhelming opposition of the fraction to that line of action. This event became known in the US SWP as the Autoworkers Crisis, and was quickly reversed because of the revolt of the SWP autoworkers. John Percy and his late brother weren’t as good students of the history of the US SWP as they claimed to be, or they wouldn’t have imposed such a line of action on the DSP ironworkers in Wollongong, more or less against the views of the majority of the fraction members.)
The participants in the Trotskyism seminar remembered the very direct intervention of Jim Percy, with all his authority in the very tightly run SWP, to force through this tactical change on the steelworkers’ fraction, which to say the least had severe misgivings about it.
The comrade who had been in the Newcastle steelworks described how Jim Percy had explained the situation differently to the steelworker members of the DSP in Newcastle and Wollongong. The same story apparently wouldn’t wash in both centres.
The justification advanced by Jim Percy and the DSP leadership was the crisis in the steel industry produced by large-scale retrenchments. The DSP leadership argued that the only way to defeat the layoffs was an indefinite strike for the nationalisation of the steelworks under workers control, and since the union leadership wouldn’t lead such a strike, the DSP had to launch an electoral challenge to that leadership.
This was presented as a moral question, rather out of space and time. Unlike the CPA in the coal industry in 1949 the DSP leadership didn’t have sufficient influence to get within cooee of being able to initiate an indefinite strike.
The actual outcome was that the DSP-led Militant Action Group got about one sixth of the votes in Wollongong, where there was a very high turnout, the DSP was totally isolated from the rest of the left and seen as political wreckers, which in this instance they were. Even worse, the developing national challenge to the right-wing leadership of the Ironworkers Union was disrupted, and within a comparatively short time, rather soured by the experience, most of the DSP steelworkers left the industry and over time left the DSP.
Internal DSP mythology, demonstrated by Sue Bull’s curious lecture, presents this disastrous piece of industrial adventurism as a great achievement.
The important question here is that in the DSP, industrial questions are viewed extremely instrumentally, and in a rather idealist way. Industrial or electoral tactics are presented as high-flown moral imperatives, which cuts across practical Marxist tactics in trade union matters.
In trade union activity, serious Marxists give great weight to the objective conditions, the balance of class forces and the likely response of the workers in the industry to particular initiatives.
In the Wollongong steelworks in 1982 it was reasonably clear that it was impossible to get mass support for an indefinite strike over redundancies. At the 2002 seminar on the history of Trotskyism, those who had been involved in the Wollongong experience were, it’s fair to say, genuinely a bit puzzled as to what motivated the DSP leadership, and particularly Jim Percy, in forcing on the steelworkers’ fraction a course that was clearly going to blow up the civilised relationship with the left-wing leaders of the Wollongong ironworkers, and have bad effects on the support of the Ironworkers Union leadership in Wollongong for the Jobs for Women campaign, which was strongly influenced by the DSP.
After a lengthy discussion at the 2002 Trotskyism seminar, the main conclusion was that Jim Percy was afraid that the DSP members in the Wollongong steelworks would be drawn out of party activity into mainly union activity, and that the enforced electoral tactic was a deliberate way of blowing up the relationship of the DSP members with the rest of the left in that city, which in Percy’s view was becoming too cosy.
In the event, the outcome was the opposite of that desired by Jim and John Percy and the DSP leadership of the time. Most of the cannon fodder in that series of event left the DSP and the steel industry fairly quickly rather than being drawn back into intense DSP activity, which seems to have been the aim of the leadership.
I juxtapose the above two issues deliberately. The significance for the current industrial-political situation of John Percy’s revealing remark about the coal strike is pretty obvious. When you associate this remark with the events in the steel industry in 1982, and you examine closely those events, which are still regarded internally in the DSP as a seminal DSP industrial struggle, a distinct pattern emerges of subordination of the necessary dynamics of industrial struggle and agitation to the narrow organisational interests of the DSP as a group.
This pattern is still strongly apparent in the way the DSP leadership prosecutes, as a matter of principle, an ultraleft policy towards most labour movement institutions despite the obvious need of the moment, which is the maximum united mobilisation against the Howard government’s industrial proposals.
John Percy’s ignorant and dangerous throwaway remark on the coal strike, in a book published a couple of months ago, reveals quite clearly the basic irresponsibility of the DSP leadership’s approach to industrial struggle, and that’s a dangerous thing in current industrial circumstances.
See also: Dubious history (Ed Lewis), John Percy’s lonely morsel (Sol Salbe), Don’t mention the war, The labour aristocracy and groundhog day, Response to Sol Salbe (Bob Gould), The long goodbye (Ian Turner), Birth of an old bush ballad (Helen Palmer), Nick Fredman, Discussion