Australia: The DSP in the 1980s

[This first appeared as the introduction to Building the Revolutionary Party: Jim Percy Selected Writings 1980-87 (Resistance Books: Chippendale, 2008). Dave Holmes is now a leader of the Socialist Alliance in Melbourne. This and other writings are also available at Dave Holmes' blog, Arguing for Socialism.]

By Dave Holmes

This is the second volume of writings and speeches by Jim Percy, one of the founders of Australia's Democratic Socialist Perspective and its longtime central leader until his death in 1992. These seven items — reports given by Jim to conferences and leadership gatherings of the DSP (or SWP, Socialist Workers Party, as it was known in this period) — span the years 1980 to 1987.

This was a period of considerable ferment in Australian and world politics. In 1978 and 1979 there occurred a number of anti-imperialist revolutions — in Afghanistan, Iran, Grenada and Nicaragua. At home, the March 1983 federal elections resulted in the ouster of the conservative Liberal Party government of Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser and the beginning of more than a decade of Australian Labor Party (ALP) rule under prime ministers Bob Hawke and Paul Keating.The ALP s general neoliberal orientation and the experience of the ALP’s wage-restraining "Accord" with the peak Australian Council of Trade unions (ACTU) produced significant disillusionment.

Small cadre organisation

Right through the 1980s the SWP remained a small cadre organisation of several hundred members. But it was extremely active and reacted with considerable dynamism to the political openings that presented themselves while holding fast to its basic Marxist-Leninist ideas.

During the 1980s the SWP engaged in some significant rethinking on a number of key questions — on Trotskyism and the Fourth International, our international connections, the Labor Party and how to build a mass socialist party — without which we would not have been able to respond adequately to the challenges of the period.

To enable the reader to place these reports in a more fruitful context, this introduction will briefly sketch some of the background. To make things clearer, the key issues are treated separately but it should be remembered that a lot of this overlaps.

Turn to industry

In 1979 the SWP took the decision to attempt to implant the great bulk of its cadre in industrial jobs in order to link up with working-class militants in what it hoped would be a labour movement fight-back accompanying the late 1970s economic downturn.

A large part of the SWP's membership were students or ex-students who had obtained white-collar jobs following university. The party's base in the industrial working class was very weak. The "turn to industry", as it was known, was a wrenching experience for the party. Its success demonstrated a tremendous commitment on the part of the membership to reorient their lives; the SWP's composition changed significantly; and the party gained valuable workplace and trade union experience and a big boost in its self-confidence.

But the fundamental political premise of the turn was mistaken — the anticipated fightback was only a hope and it did not eventuate. The sharp all-out turn based on an incorrect schema needlessly lost a lot of members. Jim's report to the January 1986 party conference ("Recent Experiences in Party Building") makes a sober assessment of the whole experience.

Break with US SWP

Through the 1970s we had a very close relationship with the US SWP. Founded by James P. Cannon in 1928 and collaborating closely with Leon Trotsky in the 1930s, it had a tremendous and inspiring history. We learned a lot from it. We organised Australian tours of US SWP leaders such as George Novack and Evelyn Reed. In the debates in the the Fourth International — the world Trotskyist organisation to which both parties belonged — we were closely aligned with the US party.

But towards the end of the decade and into the 1980s, strains began to emerge in this relationship. Cannon had always stressed that revolutionary parties had to stand on their own feet and make their own decisions. Parties that aren't really independent, he said — that don't develop their own authentic leadership teams — aren't going to get anywhere. But as our party developed the US SWP seemed reluctant to treat us as equals. Differences emerged over Cuba, Afghanistan and the nature of the turn to industry as well as several other questions.

It became apparent that the US party was developing into a cult around the US SWP national secretary, Jack Barnes. Our relations with the US SWP came to a head at its  August 1983 national committee meeting. There it launched an unprecedented, unheralded, all-out attack on our party, accusing us of all manner of things and saying our leadership was "finished". When we heard of this we broke off all relations with them and any of their international co-thinkers who endorsed this outrageous attack.

Our attitude was that comradely discussion and debate between revolutionaries is one thing but this is impossible with people who think you are "finished". We also ended up expelling five comrades who had become a secret faction loyal to Barnes.

The US SWP's degeneration under Jack Barnes marked a sharp break with the traditions of the party. Today the US SWP is a bizarre pro-Cuba sect. An analysis of the reasons for this degeneration can be found in Doug Lorimer's article "Cannonism versus Barnesism", in our book, Building the Revolutionary Party: An Introduction to James P. Cannon (Resistance Books: Chippendale, 1997).

Opposition to Labor's Accord

In the first years of the 1980s the SWP experienced significant growth, both numerically and in the impact of the party.

In the March 1983 federal elections we ran an ambitious campaign — easily the most significant socialist electoral effort by any left-wing group for a long while — standing 48 candidates for the House of Representatives and the Senate. Half a million campaign leaflets and 80,000 posters were produced.

We campaigned on a radical program, especially against the ALP-ACTU social contract — the notorious Accord which was the hallmark of the incoming Hawke ALP government.

While our vote was modest — we received 41,000 votes in the 38 seats where we stood, an average of 1.5% — the whole exercise was a great success in reaching thousands of people with a militant message.

That Easter in Melbourne we held a very well-attended Karl Marx Centenary Conference. Guest speakers included Fourth International leader Ernest Mandel and US socialist Peter Camejo.

The increased profile of the SWP was noticed by many on the left. Not long afterwards the Trotskyist SWP began discussions with the decidedly pro-Moscow Socialist Party of Australia (today the Communist Party of Australia — the old Eurocommunist CPA wound itself up in the early 1990s). While it surprised many, the twin bases of this new collaboration were both principled and timely — opposition to the Accord and defence of the Soviet Union against imperialism.

With the SPA we were able to launch the Social Rights Campaign which sought to rally support to fight the Accord. In Easter 1984 a very successful Social Rights Conference was held in Melbourne — the first nationally organised action against the Hawke-Keating wage freeze. It was attended by almost 700 people from across the left (but not, of course, from the Communist Party of Australia, which was solidly behind the Accord and which had been instrumental in selling the project in the union movement).

Rethinking our line on the ALP

The hated Fraser was no longer in office but the new Hawke ALP government was a big shock to many Labor supporters. This came to a head at the party’s July 1984 federal conference where the commitment to no uranium mining was ditched.

Along with the anti-worker Accord, the big switch on uranium mining spurred a big rethink of our line towards the ALP. Hitherto the SWP shared the general Trotskyist attitude that the ALP was a workers' party with a procapitalist leadership — a so-called two-class party — and the struggle was to replace this leadership with a genuine left one. Studying more closely Lenin, Trotsky and Cannon we realised that this analysis was dead wrong and would shut us off from real opportunities to move forward.

At the SWP's September 1984 National Committee meeting Jim gave a report — "The ALP, the Nuclear Disarmament Party and the 1984 elections" — which argued that the Marxist view of the ALP was that it was a bourgeois party — albeit with a significant working-class electoral base. We could give it critical support at election times against the traditional bosses' parties in order to gain a hearing from the workers who followed it. We could also apply this critical support tactic to any other capitalist or middle-class formation whose followers we were trying to influence. Our pamphlet Labor and the Fight for Socialism (New Course Publications; Chippendale, 1988) contains Jim's 1984 report along with a 1986 SWP resolution on the Labor Party.

Equipped with our new line we were able to plunge into the ferment around the Nuclear Disarmament Party and the December 1984 federal elections. The NDP had been formed in June 1984 on the three planks of closing all US bases in Australia, no nuclear weapons or visits of nuclear-powered ships to Australia and no uranium mining. With the sellout at the ALP conference, the fledgling NDP got a tremendous impetus. Branches formed around the country; Midnight Oil singer Peter Garrett joined the NDP and campaigned to be its lead NSW senate candidate — a campaign the SWP actively endorsed. In its enthusiastic support for, and participation in, the NDP the SWP was alone on the left.

In the event, the NDP gained more than 600,000 primary votes, marking a watershed in Australian politics. The idea that no serious left-wing political formation could exist outside the ALP had been decisively disproved.

However, after its great debut, rather than looking outwards and reaching out to the masses who had voted for the party, the NDP leadership around Garrett turned inward, intent on entrenching their own dominance by undemocratic means, driving out the left-wing forces (especially the SWP) and taking the party to the right. Defeated at the April 1985 national conference, this clique walked out, shouting loudly to the media about the SWP's supposed stacking of the gathering. The NDP continued for many years but the split had irreparably damaged its prospects. [Garrett subsequently joined the ALP and backtracked on many of the NDP's core policies. He became a minister in the Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard governments after 2007.]

Break with Trotskyism

From its inception our current had seen itself as part of the world Trotskyist movement. At the 1972 founding conference of the Socialist Workers League (as we were then called) we applied to join the Fourth International. During the 1970s we invested considerable financial and human resources in the international organisation, with Jim Percy and other leading comrades doing solid stints overseas working on leadership bodies of the FI in Europe and the FI-sponsored magazine Intercontinental Press in New York.

We learned a lot during our time in the Fourth International but our involvement also brought with it significant problems as debates spilled over into our own organisation. Six months after our founding congress we suffered a damaging split, not over questions of the class struggle in Australia, but because of the differences in the Fourth International. (The split was only healed some six years later.)

An accumulation of things — a re-thinking on the Cuban Revolution, the 1979 Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua, the 1983 break with the US SWP — caused us to question whether Trotskyism was an adequate framework for us. We looked at Lenin with fresh eyes and discovered that his theory of two-stage revolution far more correctly described the general dynamics of revolution in the semicolonial countries than did the Trotskyist theory of permanent revolution.

We wrote a document — "The Struggle for Socialism in the Imperialist Epoch" — and put it forward for a vote at the 1985 congress of the Fourth International. This document represents our settling of accounts with Trotskyism.

In August 1985, the SWP national committee voted to end our affiliation with the Fourth International, a decision ratified by the party’s 11th congress held in January 1986. Of course, this decision did not mean ending collaboration with the FI or those sections playing positive roles in their own countries. Since this decision our international contacts and connections have expanded dramatically.

The reader is referred to our pamphlet, The Democratic Socialist Party and the Fourth International (Resistance Books: Chippendale, 2001), which contains reports by Jim Percy and Doug Lorimer on the question of Trotskyism and the Fourth International.

Left unity attempts

It's worth mentioning several later developments, even though they fall outside the scope of this book. But they further illustrate the tremendous drive of the SWP/DSP to forsake sectarianism and seek out new openings and new possibilities of collaboration — even with forces with which we had long been locked in combat.

In 1986 the Communist Party of Australia (CPA) moved away from its previous slavish adherence to the Accord. Noting this important development, we sought to enter into discussions with it. This led to our involvement in 1986-87 in the New Left Party project that the CPA had initiated with some of its allies. Despite some encouraging signs at first and the very positive attitude of a section of the CPA membership, in the end the whole thing blew up because of the sectarianism of the dominant leadership of the party and its refusal to break with Laborism.

As the New Left Party episode ended we began fresh talks with the leadership of the Socialist Party of Australia (SPA). It must be remembered that this was the period of the Mikhail Gorbachev-led Perestroika process in the Soviet Union and the SPA was feeling the ground shifting beneath it. Both parties were very pro-Soviet — we in our way and the SPA in its — and we had both opposed the Accord from the start. In addition, a section of their membership warmly welcomed the thought of unity with the more youthful and energetic SWP.

However, just as we had embarked on trying to draft a joint program, events in China intervened. On June 4, 1989, the Stalinist Chinese regime carried out a massacre of pro-democracy demonstrators in Beijing's Tiananmen Square. The SPA supported this action whereas we vehemently condemned it. The unity process was finished. We renamed ourselves the Democratic Socialist Party — perhaps not the most exciting name in the world but we wanted to make a clear political point about our conception of socialism and put ourselves in the best position to withstand the anti-socialist propaganda barrage.

In 1990-91 the DSP participated in various Green Alliances around the country. We considered ourselves the left wing of the green movement, with far more right to call ourselves green than many of the right-wing elements that rallied to the new banner. But as things crystallised out, the dominant forces in what went on to become the Australian Greens of today sought to proscribe socialist forces and we were frozen out of the new formation.

Green Left Weekly

Since it first appeared in September 1970, the [newspaper] Direct Action had been the SWP/DSP's flagship, the main public face of our tendency. We had very much built ourselves around it. But in 1990 we explored the possibility of launching a new independent, broad left paper and sought to involve other forces in the project.

There was a lot of interest in the idea and it was publicly launched at an extremely successful Socialist Scholars Conference held in Sydney in late September-early October, attended by some 1100 people. At the end of the year we suspended Direct Action and threw our resources behind Green Left Weekly, the first issue of which appeared early in 1991, in the midst of the ferment around the first Gulf War.

Jim Percy was not only the inspirer of the whole project but was also responsible for the wonderful name. As things have turned out, while members of the [Socialist Alliance] and the socialist youth group Resistance still carry the heavy burden of the actual production, distribution and fundraising, Green Left Weekly has proved to be an excellent vehicle for spreading the socialist message far and wide and reaching out to new forces. And while still very much a shoestring enterprise, the paper has attracted a significant number of devoted readers and supporters.

The period sketched above was a momentous one for our movement. We cleared away a lot of debris from our past and demonstrated a tremendous energy and flexibility in trying to find a way forward and engage with broader forces.

Jim Percy was very much the architect of this process. But life took an unexpected turn and he was cut down by cancer in October 1992 — he was only 43 years old. We have included as an appendix the obituary article which appeared in Green Left Weekly. It helps to round out the picture of Jim as an extremely gifted and committed leader who made an enormous contribution to the struggle to build the revolutionary socialist movement in Australia and abroad.

[Dave Holmes is now a leader of the Socialist Alliance in Melbourne. This and other writings are also available at Dave Holmes' blog, Arguing for Socialism.]