John McCarthy (1948-2008)

By John Percy

John McCarthy, a Brisbane doctor who in the 1970s played a significant role in the development of the revolutionary socialist movement in Australia, died on November 1 after a long battle with cancer. While in Britain in the 1960s McCarthy joined the International Marxist Group (IMG), the British group supporting the Trotskyist Fourth International (FI). Returning to Brisbane at the end of the 1960s, McCarthy was a key figure in establishing the Labor Action Group (LAG) in 1970, which supported the FI.

Meanwhile in Sydney another Trotskyist group had been established – the socialist youth organisation Resistance was founded in 1967, the main initiators being Bob Gould, myself, and my brother Jim Percy. We started to lay the groundwork for a revolutionary socialist party, having to break with Gould in 1970, and started publishing the newspaper Direct Action. We expanded to Adelaide and Melbourne, growing quickly there, and had supporters in Canberra and Hobart as well. Our main contacts with the FI tended to be via its US supporters, the Socialist Workers Party.

In January 1972 we held the founding conference of a new party, setting up the Socialist Workers League (SWL) which became the Socialist Workers Party in 1976, and then the Democratic Socialist Party in 1990. Representatives of the LAG attended the conference with speaking rights, including John McCarthy, and at the end of the conference the LAG united with the newly formed SWL. But the unity didn’t last long. The FI was undergoing an intense internal political debate, initially sparked by a debate over whether the FI’s supporters in Latin America should follow Che Guevara’s example and engage in rural guerrilla warfare. By the early 1970s the debate had extended to a range of other issues, including party-building tactics.

John McCarthy and the Brisbane comrades generally supported the FI majority, the European groups led by Ernest Mandel. Those of us who had developed the group in Sydney supported the minority positions argued for by the US SWP. In August 1972 the SWL split. McCarthy and the Brisbane group, plus some others in Melbourne and Sydney, split away to form the Communist League (CL), which began publishing Militant.

The debates in the FI, and between the SWL and CL, were important, instructive, educational, and often bitter. But all the participants were committed revolutionaries, campaigned intensively for socialism, and were actively involved in the class struggle. In November 1975 Direct Action had gone to a weekly schedule in response to the political crisis provoked by the sacking of the Whitlam Labor government, and continued as a weekly in 1976.

The CL felt the need to match the SWL (now SWP) even though they only had about a quarter of the SWP’s active membership. McCarthy and his supporters in the CL put in a heroic effort to put Militant out on a weekly basis. But the strain was too great. It led to a split in the CL, with McCarthy, Marcia Langton (now a right-wing Aboriginal academic) and Peter Robb (now a well-reviewed novelist) and their supporters proposing unity with the SWP. This unity with a section of the CL was cemented at the SWP’s January 1977 congress. We were able to unite with the rest of the CL a year later.

McCarthy should be especially remembered and respected for the part he played in helping establish and then reunite the forces of revolutionary Marxism in Australia. He remained true to the socialist convictions that he’d embraced in his youth, although for the last few decades he had concentrated on his heavy responsibilities as a doctor. Since 1990 he was director of intensive care at the Prince Charles Hospital, earning great respect for his skills, his commitment, and fiercely caring attitude to his patients. The hospital’s new intensive care unit has now been named after him.

[For more details of the early development of the revolutionary socialist movement in Australia, see John Percy, A History of the Democratic Socialist Party and Resistance, Volume 1: 1965-72, Resistance Books, Chippendale, 2005.]