Jim Percy's selected talks

Reviewed by John Percy
Building the Revolutionary Party. Jim Percy Selected Writings 1980-87. Resistance Books, 2008
Traditions, Lessons and Socialist Perspectives. By Jim Percy. New Course Publications, 1994

Jim Percy was a founder of Resistance and the Socialist Workers Party (renamed the Democratic Socialist Party in 1989 and the Democratic Socialist Perspective in 2003). He was the party’s national secretary for most of the ‘70s, ‘80s and early ‘90s. From the youth radicalisation of the ‘60s and the campaign against the war in Vietnam, through the continuing task of trying to build a revolutionary socialist party in Australian conditions, he played an important role. He died from cancer in 1992. Unfortunately, his political legacy is increasingly being negated by the current leadership of the DSP.

Of course it’s good to have more of Jim Percy’s talks and speeches available in print. This second volume, published in 2008, adds seven talks to the four published in 1994. But readers should be aware of a distortion imposed by this latest selection. Jim’s balanced views are available by also reading the first volume of his talks that the DSP printed, in 1994, and an even better picture would be obtained if other talks available from 1980-87 had been printed as well.

The first talk in the selection, “Four features of our revolutionary party”, is a report to the SWP national committee (NC) in September 1980. This marked our “declaration of independence” from the US Socialist Workers Party (although this is not revealed in Dave Holmes’ introduction to the book). It was a polite warning to the leadership of the US SWP, and they would have read it as such. We were aware that they were starting to regard us as insolent upstarts for raising any political differences with them, and we concluded that they intended to use their full-time leadership school to undermine our leadership team, so we responded with a four-month full-time party school of our own, to preserve those four features: an inclusive team, an independent party, a Leninist organisation and an ambitious party. We set up our own school; we didn’t send our party’s leaders to sit at the feet of US SWP national secretary Jack Barnes, and suffer the sorry fate of groups in New Zealand, Canada and Britain.

The second talk, “Further steps in proletarianising the party”, is a report to the NC in July 1982. This report clearly marked the end of the “turn”, the push we launched in 1978 to get a majority of our members industrial jobs. At this time another major difference with the US SWP was becoming clarified — they made a fetish of the turn, declared it permanent, converting it from a tactic into a strategy.

The fourth talk, “Recent experiences in party-building”, is a report to the SWP 11th National Conference, in January 1986, assessing the previous few years of party-building. These were important years — the election of the Hawke Labor government, the Accord, the Social Rights Campaign, the experience of the Nuclear Disarmament Party, the adoption of two important resolutions, “The Cuban Revolution and its extension” and “The struggle for socialism in the imperialist epoch”, which we also presented to the Fourth International’s World Congress in 1985 — but no talks by Jim from that period have been included in this volume.

Attempts at unity

This 1986 report was also preparation for some new steps, attempts at unity with the Communist Party of Australia and then with the Socialist Party of Australia. Both at the beginning of the report and at the end, Jim warned against getting caught up in schemas. Discussing the turn to industry, and the schema that the US SWP came to grief with, Jim wrote:

“The general lesson of this was that our organisational approach must above all be concrete. We cannot afford a timeless approach. Our approach cannot be based on our wishes, or on schemas about how the class struggle should unfold.” (p. 88)

“If we keep our nerve, if we’re ruthlessly objective about what’s happening, if we don’t latch onto schemas about how the class struggle will supposedly develop, we’ve got every chance of coming through the present period intact and stronger than ever.” (p. 104)

The last three selections concentrate on the “New Left Party” period, when we were trying to engage in a project for a broad left party with the old Communist Party of Australia, in 1986-87. It comprises half of the book. This weighting is understandable, since a distortion of the lessons of the SWP’s political work at that time was used by the current DSP leadership as their model during the 2005-08 debate in the DSP over tactics, strategy and the Socialist Alliance. The majority often quoted from reports from that period, including from Jim Percy, to try to justify their course. But mostly they omitted the context of the quote, or the balance sheet of the experience.

The CPA pulled back from the united party effort, and scuppered it rather than have unity with us, even though they would have been in a majority. Later, in 1991, as their last gasp before they finally dissolved their party, the CPA leaders made another attempt at a broad party, but very pointedly without us. We didn’t propose to participate. The publication of Green Left Weekly was partly a response to the declining circulation of the original Direct Action, and the desire for a broad publishing initiative when all our regroupment attempts of the 1980s had not succeeded, but was also a pre-empting of the CPA’s new publication, Broadside. Their new publishing project lasted only a year, and the CPA dissolved completely, only the Search Foundation remaining as a repository of the assets.

Broad left party schema

The current DSP leadership has harked back to those days of trying to build a broad party with the CPA, and seemed to think that this approach should be permanent — regardless of the political situation and the balance of forces.

The possibility of the SWP being involved in a new party project with the CPA at the time was opened up by a slight shift to the left by the CPA on the issue of the Accord, the social contract between the unions and the Labor government. The CPA had supported the Accord, and in fact some of its union leaders had helped to initiate it. As the horrible consequences for the unions and the working class became increasingly stark, the CPA felt pressured to be slightly critical. We jumped at the opening. The unity effort was made relevant by the fact the CPA had some real weight — it was declining rapidly, but it still had a significant membership and strong support in several trade unions.

In 2001, the Socialist Alliance began as a response to signs of an upsurge of radical activism and a possible unity of socialist groups. With the political situation changed since then — the expected upsurge and radicalisation did not occur — and with all the original allies having left it, the SA is little more than the DSP, but a smaller, weaker and increasingly politically miseducated DSP.

Jim Percy would have been sad to see where the DSP has got to today. It’s not the same type of party that he worked so hard to build. Since the decision to become just a tendency in the Socialist Alliance, and then the persistence with this perspective when it was clearly not working, the DSP has gone downhill. Those comrades who initiated the Revolutionary Socialist Party and Direct Action waged a struggle within the DSP from 2005 to early 2008 to turn things around, but were unsuccessful, and the DSP majority finally expelled us in May 2008.

The Socialist Alliance was supposed to be the path to a broader party, or at least a bigger party. But it’s led to a much smaller and weaker DSP. As for the Socialist Alliance, it’s not much more than the DSP masquerading as a broader, non-revolutionary party. At the outset in 2001 eight other left groups affiliated to SA, but they all withdrew from it long ago. In the first year or two, SA was able to join up many independent members — movement activists, former members of left parties — so that the SA membership quickly grew to more than 1000. Today it is nothing like that, but the DSP leadership maintains the facade, parading SA as a broad left party, a unity initiative and a step towards a mass party.

The actual membership of the Socialist Alliance has recently been inadvertently revealed by the DSP. SA national convenor Dick Nichols reported to the DSP National Committee meeting on January 9-10 this year that during 2008 the SA financial membership had declined from 750 to 460. Its active membership is considerably less. In his report, Nichols admits that the 2008 SA conference, held last December and attended by “more than 150 people” (according to Green Left Weekly), was really “a Potemkin conference”, with no resolutions coming from the branches, no pre-conference discussion, no conference resolutions until the last minute.

Nichols acknowledged that the 2008 SA conference “confirmed the core problem we face, namely that, even while this is a broad disenchantment with existing bourgeois politics, the vast majority of disenchanted people are passive (‘Good on you, you’re doing a good job’). The discontent is generating only a small layer of activists (including people we have managed to make active) yet we have given ourselves as the DSP the job to trying to organise and energise a bigger leadership to strengthen and give direction to that disenchantment” through the Socialist Alliance. He also admitted that as a result there has been “a slipping of our [the DSP’s] revolutionary morale, zest and discipline”. Indeed, according to another report to the DSP’s January NC meeting, this is most clearly indicated by the decline in the number of DSP members who participate in selling Green Left Weekly: “The sales rate has stayed relatively the same for years. But in 2002 we averaged 188 sellers on the street every week; in 2008 we averaged 110, 78 less.”

Despite claiming that the SA conference “reconvinced” people “about the [SA] project”, Nichols told the DSP national committee: “We have to try to inspire comrades to become involved in building the Socialist Alliance, in expanding and re-energising the Socialist Alliance membership.” There were differences on the DSP national executive about the relationship between DSP and SA activities, “about the interface between the two organisations”, as Nichols put it, so his report was not put to a vote at the NC meeting. Instead, the meeting voted on and unanimously approved a series of specific motions designed to have the DSP “relaunch” the SA for the nth time.

Some of the unselected talks

If it weren’t for the bias necessitated by the current DSP leadership’s ongoing need to justify their failed Socialist Alliance strategy, a selection of Jim Percy’s talks from 1980-87 would have been more comprehensive. Here are some of Jim’s talks, just from the 1980-87 period, not printed in volume 2, that are already in text form and could have been included to give a more balanced picture of his views (not to speak of his reports from the 1988-90 period):

  • “The Labor Party and the Struggle for a Revolutionary Leadership”, report to the January 5-9, 1980, SWP Socialist Educational Conference.
  • “The Capitalist Crisis and the Coming Australian Socialist Revolution”, report to the January 4-9, 1981, SWP 8th National Conference.
  • “The ALP, the Nuclear Disarmament Party and the 1984 Elections”, report to the September-October 1984 SWP NC.
  • “Trotskyism and the SWP”, world movement report to the September-October 1984 SWP NC.
  • “Labor’s Gravediggers”, talk to September 1985 Brisbane Resistance Conference.

Volume 1

The first volume of Jim’s writings consisted of four speeches from 1991-92, which were in many ways a summing up of our experiences in the ‘80s, a balance sheet that reaffirmed the absolute necessity of building a revolutionary party: “All through the 1980s, we’ve maintained the need for the party and rejected the anti-party attitudes that have developed in other sections of the left. Through all of this our major decision was to keep building our party, although at different points perhaps we may have been tempted by an attitude that soon we would unite with someone else and that would make our party-building tasks easier, or that soon we would have a situation like they have in New Zealand and then things mightn’t be so hard.” (p. 16). (This was a reference to the formation at the time of the NewLabour Party, a split to the left from the New Zealand Labour Party.)

In the report to the last DSP conference he attended, in 1992, he concluded:

“... we made all the moves we could in the 1980s to overcome our relative isolation. Even if they seemed very dodgy in terms of developing the process we tried everything we could to break out of this isolation. One thing we’ve got to affirm about all of these moves that we made, from the Nuclear Disarmament Party to the Greens, is that they did not have as their aim the liquidation of a revolutionary organisation or the liquidation of a cadre party or saying this no longer mattered; that education, program, training, commitment, devotion, all of those things were now irrelevant providing we could just have 5000 members. On the contrary, they had as their aim increasing the number of revolutionary cadre, increasing the development of many, many more people who would have devotion, self-sacrifice and commitment, and be active in a revolutionary organisation.” (pp. 105-6)

[John Percy was a founder of Resistance and the SWP, and was national secretary of the DSP from 1992 to 2006. He is the author of A history of the Democratic Socialist Party and Resistance. Volume 1, 1965-72. In May 2008 he and all other minority supporters were expelled from the DSP by the current DSP leadership. He is currently national secretary of the Revolutionary Socialist Party.]