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A political legacy

by Dave Riley

This month marks the 15th anniversary of the death of Jim Percy who died from cancer at his home in Sydney on October 12th,1992. He was 43 years old.

From its inception in 1972 Jim had been national secretary of the Democratic Socialist Perspective (nee Party) and had been its leading figure. This was especially the case throughout the eighties when Jim began to foster new thinking and a new political orientation for the DSP.

As we deal with the political terrain of the 21st century I think it is worthwhile to review , 15 years on, Jim's contributions to socialist politics and how they fit in with the our perspectives and potentials today.

You can read a collection of his major speeches as published by Resistance Books but these talks won't give you a feel for his massive, almost overbearing, political passion and gregarious engagement with what is possible in the here and now. Jim was always dedicated to squeezing the utmost from any political moment as though this chance to advance the socialist project was sure to be our last opportunity for a while.

As he said (and I'm quoting from memory), "what we can do today, can build socialism tomorrow" and for Jim that day was a 24 hour thing. He had a manic drive that could imbue others such that the way he formatted what needed doing was almost enshrinement.

Nonetheless he was aware of where the socialist project was at. While many things were indeed possible today and soon enough, we nonetheless faced this brutal reality which had sentenced 'our' politics more or less to the political margins in a country like Australia.

So there was a lot of hope mixed in with coarse reality in Jim's thinking. It was never politics-by-numbers. In effect, it was dedicated to overcoming schematism and banishing shibboleths. So during the eighties, and what proved to be the last years of his life, Jim fostered a qualitative break from the old formulations that had underpinned what you could refer to as "the Trotskyist left". This was a major change -- something that set the DSP apart from many other Marxist projects on the planet so that today despite its geographical isolation and limited weight in Australian politics -- the DSP's politics is watched with interest (and maybe much else besides) within the international left.

In my estimation, it was Jim's creativity and political restlessness that helped to prevent the DSP from becoming a sect -- a fate that stalks any doctrinal outfit which is sentenced to live out a marginal political existence in times of limited political struggle.

It's Marxian politics' black dog.

Jim Percy engineered this prophylaxis by promoting the following core tactical orientations that resonate today and seem, in fact, even more relevant:
  1. That the break from the politics of the Labor Party was essential and that break would not necessarily be in the form of new "labour" parties or counterposing socialist formations. That the initial promise of the Nuclear Disarmament Party in 1984 indicated that environment politics and green oriented parties would be a major component of any break from the hold social democracy had over the social change movements.
  2. That the real potential for growth and political relevance for the far left lied with regrouping elements on the left and among the greens into new party formations rather than relying on the stolid process or recruiting in ones and twos to standalone & separate party building projects. That challenge wasn't something you waited for, but was an exercise you actively promoted and engaged with.
  3. That such a process of coming together could be facilitated by a broad, open, green left journal that could act as a forum for any political amalgamation that was pending or could be possible.
  4. That any motion in any direction required that it be fostered and driven by a activist core of dedicated socialists who could facilitate and drive any new political convergence, that in effect the motor of any long term political gain had to also be the creation of an activist cadre.
I won't review how this perspective panned out over the following period as in turn the DSP shared a range of experiences -- in the NDP, with other socialist party formations, with the fledgling Greens, as part of the Green Left Weekly publishing venture, in various trade unions and more recently with the Socialist Alliance.

But I think it's worthwhile to point out -- fifteen years on -- how much insight Jim Percy had in understanding our present -- especially since he died before the Greens were formed and the advent of the Socialist Alliance project. And as we approach this federal election with Labor so much being seen as a mirror of the Coalition it seems a good time to review what Jim was saying. As James P. Cannon was ever keen to remind us, "the art of politics is deciding what to do next."

Of course Jim Percy was part of a team -- a leadership team -- a collective he was totally dependent upon. But the spark had to start somewhere and be driven regardless of what editing and reformulation happened en route.

So when considering where we find ourselves in 2007, I cannot help think back to 1983 -- the year that the Hawke Labor government was elected -- during which I served, in effect, as Jim's secretary. There are many analogies and comparisons I could list as I have a deep sense of deja vu.

But the irony is that while our side cannot now refer to purkey movements and buoyant trade unionism (which collapsed primarily due to the corporatist machinations of Hawke's Accord and the complicity of the 'official' left) -- as touch stones for confidence, we do in fact have new tools at our disposal and we are in effect living out Jim's legacy.

While I dropped out of socialist politics in the nineties, after being inspired by and working to foster the new party perspective in the Socialist Alliance, I rejoined the DSP in 2005. My journey in fact was a re-discovery that what Jim and the DSP was arguing was correct:that there was no piecemeal route to political convergence. That if you wanted to be serious about creating a political alternative or new left party or even advancing the socialist agenda, much more than a polling day exercise was required. You had to keep your eyes on the prize and consciously and rigorously work toward that end.

No one else is going to do it for you and it won't happen by default.

3 Com:

Anonymous | October 21, 2007

The DSP "Not a sect"... I've heard it all now!

Dave Riley | October 21, 2007

As Rosa Luxembourg pointed out:"On the one hand, we have the mass; on the other, its historic goal, located outside of existing society. On one hand, we have the day-to-day struggle; on the other the social revolution. Such are the terms of the dialectical contradiction through which the socialist movement makes its way. It follows that this movement can best advance by tacking betwixt and between the two dangers by which it is constantly being threatened. One is the loss of its mass character; the other, the abandonment of its goal. One is the danger of sinking back into the condition of a sect: the other the danger of becoming a movement of bourgeois social reform." *

My point is that unless you aggressively reach out -- push the envelope as far as you can given the limitation of your resources -- you will tend to revert to a sect or sect like  existence. Not to recognize that 'black dog' would be a grievous mistake and fosters the politics of fools.

As to who is or who is not a sect -- then it comes down to the question of trajectory and attainment. The most comfortable existence on the far left is that of secthood. You're always right. You don't have to do much but pontificate and propagandize. And, of course, everyone else is wrong -- so you have no interest whatsoever in partnering them, even fusing with them -- let alone sharing the same party formation with them.

That's not the history of the DSP. If you were to take the time to read the text of jim Percy's speeches I referred to -- you would see what I'm trying to get at.

I expand on this point in  regard to the SA here.

*Rosa Luxemburg, "Organisational Questions of Social Democracy", in Rosa Luxemburg Speaks, ed. Mary-Alice Waters, New York, 1970. Quoted in Paul Le Blanc, "The revolutionary orientation of Rosa Luxemburg", (accessible on Rosa Luxemburg, "Organisational Questions of Social Democracy", in Rosa Luxemburg Speaks, ed. Mary-Alice Waters, New York,
1970. Quoted in Paul Le Blanc, "The revolutionary orientation of Rosa Luxemburg", (accessible on http://www.marxsite.com/ )

Dave Riley | October 23, 2007

[In like mode I was drawing on this theme -- explored so well by Jim -- in regard to the dispute in Respect at the present time with a comment on Nicka Wrack's post on Socialist Unity.]


PARTYISH PERSPECTIVES: MS points out (Comment #74) that the German PDS was a key element in harnessing the De Linke experience. Point taken — but the remark also suggests another element in play: conscious party building.

Who does that? In the Scottish Socialist Party, the SA here in Australia … in Respect — given the partyish dynamic that exists, who puts in the hard yards to foster the best outcomes from the aggregation that may be coming together?

I think these new left parties can and do form and maybe can even prosper in the same way that green parties have developed over the past 25 years around the globe. But what sort of left parties they are –whether overwhelmingly electoralist, aggressively socialist or not — is another matter entirely.

That’s why I think cadre formations — like the SWP — can have an essential role to play in moulding the process. It’s political underwriting.

This may seem a little schizoid.Why would a “revolutionary party” (such as the SWP or another) merge with some other party formation that wasn’t formally ‘revolutionary’? Or why would such a party constantly try to relate all its work and interventions back to these new party formations(as Wrack urges)? That’s what united fronts are for, aren’t they? They’re supposed to facilitate reformist and transitional interventions while the rev party maintains its political integrity and independence. Even the old entrism sui generus was premissed on the same operating principle: us versus them.

But there’s a very good reason why revolutionary parties would want to and need to do this: there is no other way forward.

How we do that is another question. I think those of us who are committed to that perspective are still learning both from our own experiences and monitoring other peoples’ regroupment projects. But I think the first operating principle is being confident in your own politics — your own revolutionary politics — and negotiating through the shared collective experience of struggle in one and the same party to a new agreement on what to do next. I think that can be done while continuing to assert your own revolutionary continuity so long that it is clear to everyone that this is a voluntary partnership –one as open as you can make it, but one that shares the same over-riding loyalty.

This is not the way the SWP operated in the SSP.

A related issue is the angsty problem of “liquidating” one’s politics. Why commit to these projects, it is argued, if you cannot advance your full program as an everyday method of struggle? Isn’t the revolutionary party supposed to do that separately and autonomously and primarily somewhere else as well? Afterall that’s why the ‘revolutionary party’ was set up in the first place — wasn’t it — it was designed to intervene in its own name ‘everywhere’?

But your everyday run of the mill rev party subscribes to the view, I’d hope, that the essence of politics is struggle and that the revolutionist’s task is to go through that experience with many many others, seeking at all times to advance it and foster changes in political consciousness. If that is so, then why not do that as part of a broader collective within which you seek to advance your own struggle program?

When it comes down to the wire, would you prefer radicalising elements in society to function as isolated atoms in their work places or communities, or would you prefer that they were with you fighting and organising together in the same outfit — the same party?

This essentially what Wrack is arguing isn’t it?

No one is saying that the revolutionists give up their own program or that they don’t continue to organise as a body within these formations. This is not the end of cadre-isation. At stake is where they invest their energies, where they project their allegiance and in whose name they do the bulk of their political work.

On that point I don’t think there’s a ready formula, except one: these party projects have to be as open, accountable and as democratic as we can make them.

Comment by Dave Riley — 23 October, 2007 @ 1:19 am

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