Direct Action - two earlier versions

By John Percy

This is the first issue of a new paper, Direct Action, but it has two proud precursors, each with an excellent tradition.

The first Direct Action was the paper of the Wobblies (IWW - Industrial Workers of the World) from 1914 to 1917. The Wobblies were an organisation of militant workers that arose in the United States a century ago and took root in Australia soon after.

The second Direct Action, which began publication in 1970, was the paper of Resistance (then called the Socialist Youth Alliance), and then, from early 1972, also of the Socialist Workers League, which later became the Democratic Socialist Party. For 20 years, Direct Action presented the positions of revolutionary socialism in Australia before we switched to publishing Green Left Weekly.

The first Direct Action began in January 1914, produced by the IWW in Sydney. The editorial in the first issue explained: “For the first time in the history of the working-class movement in Australia, a paper appears which stands for straight-out direct-actionist principles, unhampered by the plausible theories of the parliamentarian.”

In my book on the history of Resistance and the DSP, I noted that the IWW’s “revolutionary message was ceaselessly hammered home in Direct Action. The paper ridiculed the petty-bourgeois reformism of the Labor Party. It attacked the arbitration system, the pet creation of the ALP leadership. It attacked the nationalism, the racism and the imperialist jingoism of the ALP hierarchy — against which it counterposed international solidarity of the working class in its struggle against capitalism.

“With the outbreak of war in Europe in August 1914, the social-democratic parties on both sides betrayed their working-class supporters and their own anti-war pledges. They fell in behind their own ruling classes and marched off to the slaughter. It was not just a betrayal of principles, but suicide for the labour movement. The ALP positively grovelled. Even before the outbreak of hostilities, ALP leader Andrew Fisher in July pledged our last man and our last shilling to the inter-imperialist conflict.

“The Wobblies’ was one of the few voices raised against the slaughter. The caption on the cover of the August 10, 1914, Direct Action said: `War! What for? ... War is Hell! Send the capitalists to hell and wars are impossible.’ They didn’t mince their words in scoring the Labor fakers. `Down all the stretch of that blood-red tragedy ... which is the history of the working class, men and women have been crucified and gaoled and tortured for their class, but our present-day representatives of labour must howl cheek by jowl with the capitalistic carrion for Blood! Blood! Blood! If the politicians of Australia want war, let them take their own carcases to the firing line to be targets for modern machine guns and food for cholera. If they want blood, let them cut their own throats. Workers of the World Unite! Don’t become hired murderers! Don’t join the army or navy!’

“The IWW played an outstanding role in opposing the war and conscription. The Sydney IWW club invited other radical groups to join it in an Anti-Conscription League, and they carried on an unremitting campaign. They organised against the desertion of the ALP, whose leader Billy Hughes supported conscription and eventually split to become Conservative prime minister.”

Direct Action went weekly from October 1915 and achieved an impressive circulation during the war, reaching a print run of 15,000. In 1916, IWW membership was estimated at 2000, the majority in the Sydney area.

The capitalists and the ALP were alarmed by the spread of IWW influence. The Sydney Morning Herald ranted: “IWWism has obtained a firm hold upon the trade unions of New South Wales, and through these unions, a good grip upon the helm of the Labour ship of this state.” The capitalist state escalated its repression, with hysterical propaganda, new laws, raids on IWW offices and violent attacks.

In March 1916, the government prosecuted Direct Action over a cartoon by Syd Nichols (creator of Fatty Finn). It portrayed a soldier crucified on a cannon, blood dripping into a skull labelled “war profits”, held by a fat capitalist cheering, “Long live the war! Hip Hip Ooray, Fill ‘em up again.” The publisher received 12 months’ jail. Other IWW leaders were framed, jailed, deported.

The IWW was smashed, and Direct Action closed down in 1917, but IWW members contributed to the founding of the Communist Party following the Russian Revolution.

The second Direct Action was the name of the paper of our movement from 1970 to 1990. We introduced the paper with an editorial that outlined our conception of the paper, and our goals: “Direct Action is not a paper ‘for the whole left’. It is a paper of a particular segment of the left, with a distinct and defined political position, and will attempt to present the position of the Socialist Youth Alliance in a clear and coherent way.

“To publish a paper without an organisation to build and be built by it is political irresponsibility. It is to play with politics. 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...

“Here is no place to try to give a rundown of what our political position is — that will come across in the rest of the paper and in future issues — but there are a few basic socialist principles that most other tendencies on the left seem to forget, and therefore they must be reaffirmed at every step.

“Firstly, the necessity for mass action independent of any of the bourgeois channels...

“Secondly, the unity of theory and practice, and the sterility of both blind activism and isolated theory...

“To us it is clear. The theoretical basis for building a socialist movement already exists. We make no claim to be theoretically brilliant but we have learnt some lessons that many socialist intellectuals have not. They merely play with theory, without bothering to build an organisation to put it into practice. For them it’s a game, a fad. This month’s plaything seems to be Althusser, and of course, the opportunists as well as the armchair revolutionaries clutch at this latest straw, in the hope that here may be yet another reprieve that will allow the intellectuals and opportunists to postpone once more into the still unripe and distant future, the central task facing revolutionary socialists — the construction of an organisation.”

We had a clear party-building perspective from then on.

The first issue of the second Direct Action, priced at 10 cents, was sold at the second national Vietnam Moratorium mobilisations in September 1970, and the demand for such a paper surpassed even the expectations of our enthusiastic young paper sellers. A new, exciting-looking left paper, hot off the printing press — it was long overdue.

DA served us well for those first 20 years, and contributed significantly to our tendency’s growth as, bit by bit, we began to challenge the Communist Party as the main organisation on the left in Australia. The name helped convey our championing of class-struggle militancy against the class-collaborationist politics of both the ALP and the CPA. The style and layout of the paper helped too, as we also drew on the tradition of the underground radical press that had emerged during the youth radicalisation of the 1960s.

Our experience of Direct Action for 20 years was overwhelmingly positive. The change to Green Left Weekly was a result of declining DA sales at the end of the 1980s, and the increasing urgency of responding to environmental issues. Unfortunately, over the last five years the current leadership of the DSP — renamed the Democratic Socialist Perspective at the end of 2003 — has drifted away from the revolutionary socialist politics espoused by the publishers of Direct Action 1970-90 and the first 15 years of GLW. Now they have expelled from the DSP many of the leaders and activists who contributed to the success of DA and GLW, and we are compelled to relaunch Direct Action, the third version.

We are confident that we can take up the challenge and rebuild on the proud history of those earlier Direct Actions.

[John Percy was a founding leader of Resistance, and the founding editor of Direct Action in 1970. He was national secretary of the DSP from 1991 to 2006. He is the author of A history of the Democratic Socialist Party and Resistance 1965-72, Resistance Books, Sydney, 2005. He is a member of the Revolutionary Socialist Party.]