Jim Percy, the founder of the Democratic Socialist Party and for two decades its national secretary, died from cancer on October 12, 1992, 20 years ago, at the age of 43.
Jim’s important political contributions, and the depressing gap left by his absence of 20 years, make it timely to reflect on his life and achievements on this anniversary. From 1965 as a high school student to the last months of his life in 1992, Jim struggled tirelessly for socialism, and worked to build a revolutionary socialist party in Australia that could bring that goal closer.
He was won to a revolutionary socialist perspective as a high school student in Sydney, during the struggle against the US and Australian war in Vietnam. This was an exciting period, of youth radicalisation and questioning of the conservative norms and restrictions of a relatively affluent capitalist society, emerging from the stifling restrictions of the Cold War days.
From among the radicalising young people and students protesting the war and conscription, he was a central founder of the radical youth organisation Resistance in 1967. We started building a revolutionary socialist party and in September 1970 published the first issue of our paper Direct Action. We expanded to other cities, and in January 1972 held the founding conference of the Socialist Workers League, which became the Socialist Workers Party in 1975, later changing its name to Democratic Socialist Party.
Jim was national secretary of this party as it grew, split, united, matured and learned. We engaged increasingly in all the important political struggles, and some trade union campaigns, and in 1975 Direct Action started publishing weekly. The SWP joined the Fourth International, one of the international Trotskyist organisations, and we participated fully in the intense internal debates that were engaging the FI at the time. For several years Jim served at the FI centre in Paris.
By the end of the ’70s, Jim was national secretary of a larger organisation, still a small propaganda group, but one which was independent and could increasingly think for itself. The majority of our members were now workers, some gaining invaluable experience in a range of industrial struggles.
In 1980 the SWP took an ambitious step, setting up its own school, with 8-10 of its activists taking time off from the struggle for four months at a time to read, study and discuss the classics of Marxism, especially the works of Vladimir Lenin, the inspirer and leader of the Russian Bolshevik Revolution. This school continued into the early ’90s, just before Jim died, and educated more than 300 SWP cadres.
Jim gave a report to the SWP National Committee in September 1980 that launched the school. It has often been reprinted, with the title “Four Features of our Revolutionary Party.” Jim stressed four of the most important features of the party we had built, and they’re important for any revolutionary party we build in the future:
Firstly, he emphasised we had assembled an inclusive leadership team. “We’re always trying to absorb new leaders and expand the base of that team”, he said.
Expanding and broadening the team provides “a framework for new and developing leaders”, and makes us “able to assimilate into the team comrades who came from different experiences”. Our structured team is “not a hierarchy”, is relatively politically homogenous and is able to correct our mistakes.
Secondly, he stressed we were an independent party. Even if we were part of an international, as we were then, in the FI, we still had to be able to stand on our own feet, to think for ourselves, to make our own decisions, to build our own leadership. We were not anti-internationalist, and certainly very international in our concerns and perspectives. He stressed we were willing to learn from other parties, and willing to collaborate internationally, because of our party’s own leadership, and the confidence it had built.
Thirdly, we were a party built on Leninist organisational principles. As part of that, he mentioned not just relying on authority to win arguments. “We must have a real clash of ideas, because out of that we want the correct ideas to emerge.” He also noted the comradely tone in the party we’d established going into a period of discussion.
Fourthly, he stated we were an ambitious party. “Our ambition flows from the very nature of the task we have set ourselves, the overthrow of capitalism.” He pointed to the early weekly paper we published, and the international solidarity and international work we carried out, and the full-time party school we were launching.
“It’s the framework for a needed overhaul of all our equipment. The four features of our party that I’ve outlined indicate that we can do it for ourselves. Moreover, if we’re going to continue to strengthen our party along those lines, we must do it for ourselves. If we’re to continue to have an inclusive party with a strong leadership we must do it for ourselves. If we’re going to be an independent party, we must be self-sufficient. If we’re to continue to be a Leninist party, we must develop our leaders and our ranks with a full understanding of Marxism so that we can have a genuine democratic discussion with Marxist ideas as the property of everyone. And to continue to be an ambitious and confident party, we must take this step because it will be the biggest step in developing the morale of the party since the weekly Direct Action.”
During the following decade of the ’80s, we tried many tactics for building the party – regroupments, new party possibilities, attempts at mergers. In the ’80s we thrashed out many new ideas, and wrote many useful and innovative documents. Often it was Jim who initiated the new tactics, and developed the good new ideas. We tested the tactics, and when a tactic failed, there was no problem in admitting a mistake, and relinquishing it, ready to try something new. It was a decade of creative thinking and experiments, backed up by the solid educational development as a result of our full-time Lenin party school. For financial reasons, we were forced to relinquish the school in 1991.
Jim gave an important report to the DSP National Committee a year before he died, on October 7, 1991. It was published as “Party-building perspectives for the 1990s”, and reprinted in a book of four of Jim’s talks or reports from the last few years of his life, published in 1994. This report is well worth reading. It was in a period when it was necessary to reorient the party, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, a result of the final squandering of the legacy of the Russian Revolution as a result of Stalinist degeneration. (It’s available on Google Books: The Democratic Socialist Party:Traditions, Lessons and Socialist Perspectives)
Jim felt very concerned to hammer on the continuing necessity of building a revolutionary Marxist party.
When? “We have got to build it now, not just when the situation is more advanced. This point can’t be stressed enough.”
And what sort of party? “Our basic point is that a party that strives for revolutionary social change must be composed of revolutionaries. It’s a simple but controversial proposition, because it involves selection of our members. Selection both before you join, but also after you join because there are ongoing expectations of membership.” He stressed the need for a party of loyal, active and conscious members.
As I wrote in the conclusion to my book on the History of the Democratic Socialist Party and Resistance:
“Jim’s political leadership was grounded on his strength of character, his seriousness, his tactical shrewdness and his socialist politics. His political judgement was sharp and quick, based on a deep understanding of Marxism – he had absorbed the methods of Marx and Lenin into his bones. Jim had a tremendous appetite for politics. He was a 100 percenter; he didn’t dabble with his ideas. If a belief was worth having, it was worth acting on. Jim acted. He could sense political trends and opportunities we would otherwise have overlooked, or recognised more slowly. He had extraordinary organising skills – not necessarily on the administrative side of things, but he had the ability to get things done. He could organise others, he could weld together a team, he could plan a line of attack on a problem and carry it through. He organised the party team.”
He had a firmness and clarity the socialist movement would benefit from today. He’s fondly remembered, and sorely missed.
Direct Action – October 12, 2012