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In his History of the DSP cum personal memoir, John Percy crudifies details of the 1956 upheaval in the Communist movement
By Bob Gould

"In February 1956 Nikita Khrushchev denounced Stalin's crimes at the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Later that year, the Soviet Union invaded Hungary to quell a workers' uprising and smash reform currents in the Hungarian Communist Party leadership. These two events had a big impact on the Communist Party here, but not nearly on the scale they did in Britain.

"In Britain the CPGB's Daily Worker editor, Peter Fryer, [as in many other instances, John Percy is none too careful with detail; Peter Fryer was a journalist for the Daily Worker, but not the editor] was expelled and a whole wing of intellectuals and activists walked out. Some were won to British Trotskyist groups, especially to Healy's. A large number formed a current that was later to be one component of New Left Review. New Left Review was launched in January 1960 as a fusion of Universities and Left Review, produced by new left intellectuals on campuses and The New Reasoner, which regrouped Marxist intellectuals who had left the Communist Party following the twin shocks of 1956. By 1962 a new editorial team led by Perry Anderson had taken over, some of those replaced, such as Ralph Miliband and John Saville, going on in 1964 to start publishing the annual Socialist Register.

"In Australia this movement was smaller and slower to develop. Helen Palmer's Outlook, based in Sydney, began in July 1957; it was a refuge for those fleeing the CPA and often tending to look for a safe haven in the ALP, and was unable to build an alternative organisation. It folded in November 1970, having failed really to relate to or build from the '60s youth radicalization and antiwar movement.

"In Sydney and Melbourne, Socialist Forums were established in the late 1950s to try to group independent socialists and intellectuals exiting the CPA, but they were short-lived. Any "new left" break from the CPA became a dead end, intellectualist rather than activist, and either folded or lapsed into an esoteric separate journal like Arena."

(John Percy, A History of the Democratic Socialist Party and Resistance, pp40-41)

Lifetime DSP General Secretary John Percy's treatment of the events surrounding the 1956 upheaval in the international communist movement is ahistorical and bizarre.

Percy crudifies, distorts and lies by omission about almost every aspect of the history of the workers' movement in his constant pursuit of his own mythology about the unique, world-historic importance of his small political current.

The upheaval in the international Communist movement caused by Khrushchev's denunciation of Stalin at the 1956 20th Congress of the CPSU was the beginning of the political earthquake that culminated in the collapse of the Stalinist regimes in 1989, and eventually destroyed Stalinism as the dominant socialist political influence worldwide.

The crushing of the Hungarian revolution in 1956 by Soviet tanks was a turning point for millions of socialists and communists globally and in Australia.

Percy's approach, even to the new left that emerged in Britain, is peculiar. He fails to mention the towering intellectual figure who emerged from the upheaval in the British Communist Party, E.P. Thompson, whose later intellectual activity and particularly his book, The Making of the English Working Class, had such influence on socialists and leftists the world over. (The Canadian Marxist historian Bryan D. Palmer has produced two useful books on Thompson, the second of which, published after Thompson's death: E.P. Thompson. Objections and Oppositions, by Verso in 1994. As serendipity would have it, Palmer who is broadly in sympathy with the Trotskyist tradition as well as being a Thompson enthusiast, is currently in the last stages of completing a major political biography of James P. Cannon.)

In Australia, as Percy says, the 1956 upheaval wasn't quite as spectacular as it was in Britain. Nevertheless, it was widespread and important. Percy doesn't even mention the critical turning point in Australia in that series of events: the CPA leadership, despite its knowledge that Khrushchev's secret speech was genuine, tried to maintain the fiction that the speech was a CIA fabrication.

CPA members Bob Walshe, Jim Staples and others reproduced the secret speech in Australia and were promptly expelled for producing and circulating it. Denis Freney, Helen Palmer and others were also expelled from the CPA for circulating the secret speech. (Last year, the Labour History Society held a seminar in Sydney on the events of 1956, attended by nearly 50 people, many of them former members or supporters of the CPA. The event was addressed by Bob Walshe, Bob Gould, Eric Aarons and others. Bob Walshe in particular is an extraordinary individual, still an active member of the Greens in his eighties. He was a postwar student leader of the CPA and he did the primary research on Eureka for the 1954 Eureka centenary, as a member of the CPA. He also did primary research for the 2004 Eureka 150th anniversary, and was the keynote speaker at the Sydney celebration of that event at the Writers' Centre in Balmain. No one from the DSP attended the Labour History event on 1956, and one person from the DSP attended the 200-strong Eureka 150-year celebration.)

Many hundreds of people departed from the CPA over the two or three years after 1956. They included intellectuals, industrial workers and others. The intellectuals included a large number of people whose influence in Australian political and cultural life was considerable, such as the novelist Eric Lambert, the historians Bob Gollan and Daphne Gollan, and the important Melbourne intellectuals Stephen Murray-Smith, Ian Turner and Ken Gott.

The lives and political activities of the latter three Australian left-wing intellectuals have recently been comprehensively described and analysed in the important book, Free Radicals, by John McLaren (Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2004).

Turner wrote Industrial Labour and Politics and Sydney's Burning (about the IWW frame-up in World War I), and a collection of articles called Room for Manoeuvre, which included considerable autobiographical material. His then wife, Amirah Inglis, wrote her version of these events in The Hammer and Sickle and the Washing-up (Hyland House, 1995).

In 1982, after Helen Palmer's death, the Helen Palmer Memorial Committee published a collection of articles from Outlook, including a brief autobiographical piece. The book was called Helen Palmer's Outlook, and it had an introduction by Robin Gollan.

John Percy's utterly self-serving reference to Outlook: "it was a refuge for those fleeing the CPA and often tending to look for a safe haven in the ALP and was unable to build an alternative organisation. It folded in November 1970, having failed to relate to or build from the 1960s youth radicalisation and the antiwar movement" is an inane caricature and stands reality on its head, which is pretty typical of Percy's historical approach. Percy treats Laborism as original sin, and all past labour movement issues are measured retrospectively against the yardstick of Percy's strange DSP political sect.

The actual history of Outlook, in particular, was quite different to Percy's summary version. In the context of its time, the magazine was a very leftist and serious attempt to come to terms with Australian political reality from a broadly socialist point of view, and its end, when its supporters judged in 1970 that it had served its purpose, was by no means the "dead end" that Percy says it was. By that time Outlook had influenced a generation of activists who were already, or were to become, important in the antiwar, anti-apartheid, women's, youth and other movements, and in developments such as the growth of the Socialist Left in the Labor Party.

As a publication that came out of the ferment in the CPA in 1956, Outlook was inevitably, and entirely correctly, a multi-tendency magazine, to use the current DSP lingo. That in itself makes Percy's retrospective hostility to the magazine rather bizarre.

By any standard, Outlook was well to the left of, for instance, the current DSP-backed magazine, Seeing Red. Any issue of Outlook, taken at random, was well to the left of the three issues so far of Seeing Red. It was quite long-lived as magazines go, publishing every two months from 1957 to 1969. Outlook went through 82 issues over 13 years, I'll be surprised if Seeing Red survives more than a couple more issues, judging by its content and the DSP's patchy history in producing contemporary Australian magazines.

Outlook started and continued in a period very similar to the current one, of an overtly conservative political climate and gave rise to a loose grouping of socialists, the major expression of which was an annual conference, which took place in a pleasant waterfront house in Louisa Road, Balmain (a much cheaper address then than it is now).

Anti-Stalinists such as myself, Denis Freney and George Petersen went to these conferences and we formed the systematic Marxist left wing within this milieu. We won a few people over to our particular group and we maintained, in a non-sectarian way, good relations with most of the other people in the Outlook milieu.

Percy's deliberately insulting reference to "safe haven in the ALP" and Outlook, for people coming out of the CPA, says nothing about Outlook or the people associated with it, but it speaks volumes about Percy's own ignorant attitude.

Outlook had a considerable audience among people who had always been in the Labor Party. The anti-Stalinist Marxists such as Freney, Petersen and myself were active in the ALP as a strategic orientation. There were people in the Outlook milieu who were drifting to the right after their very painful experience of Stalinism, but they tended to be like the people who drift out of the DSP after their encounter with Percyism. It's to the credit of the Outlook people that they had energy and commitment to go on and work in the Labor Party. Most of those leaving the DSP don't do that, and they clearly take away a much poorer education in the theory, tactics and strategy of socialism than the earlier generation who came out of the CPA. In the DSP they probably develop about the same level of understanding of the Australian labour movement as Percy reveals in his dopey comments about a very brief encounter with the Lane Cove branch of the Labor Party.

Inevitably in the circumstances of the time, Outlook was a milieu rather than an organisation, but it was a very useful milieu for those, such as myself, Petersen, Freney and others, who were interested in promoting Marxist organisation.

The Outlook milieu was rather varied and in a certain amount of flux throughout its existence. A constant factor was the presence of George Petersen and myself, looking around for likely types to join in revolutionary socialist activity, but by far the most notable feature of the group was the dogged and constant activity of Helen Palmer and her partner Grace Bardsley in keeping the magazine coming out.

They put in quite a lot of the money themselves, they raised quite a lot of money, and they had a civilised relationship with a leftist Jewish businessman who had transferred his financial allegiance from the CPA to Outlook in 1957, partly in response to growing evidence of anti-Semitism in the USSR.

The other spinoff from 1956 that maintained a loose association with Outlook was the Melbourne leftist literary magazine, Overland, which Stephen Murray-Smith and Ian Turner had managed to make independent of the Communist Party when they left or were expelled.

Overland still exists and has become the pre-eminent left-of-centre literary magazine in Australia.

Turner and Murray-Smith initially were not unsympathetic to the efforts of the Trotskyists to de-Stalinise members of the CPA. At one point I remember them discreetly passing over to me a comprehensive list of CPA members and sympathisers so that we could reach them with literature critical of Stalinism, including Khrushchev's secret speech.

It's true, as Percy says, that Outlook and Overland didn't establish a new revolutionary socialist organisation. Most of the people who were involved, by this stage of their lives, were a bit beyond starting new movements. Nevertheless, some did join, or assist, the small revolutionary socialist groups of the time.

In Sydney, later on, when those of us in the revolutionary socialist groups appealed over the heads of the CPA leaders to the CPA rank and file to start the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and later the Vietnam Action Committee, we also started with a considerable audience with whom we had widespread civilised connections as the extreme left in the Outlook milieu.

Particularly at the start of both ventures, when we were a comparatively small force competing with a much bigger CPA peace movement, support of people in the Outlook milieu was of considerable importance. As well, the Outlook milieu had considerable influence and connections in the broader labour movement, and that was of great practical value in building up antiwar organisations independent of the CPA.

Percy talks pretentiously about how his sect was born out of the youth radicalisation. There's an element of truth in that, but he chooses to ignore the fact that the existence of any kind of anti-Stalinist revolutionary socialist formation to which he could attach himself was a product of our earlier socialist work, which included non-sectarian activity in the Outlook milieu.

In creating his own mythological origin for his group, Percy platonically claims descent from the IWW, the CPA and the old Trotskyists, while heaping disdain on the CPA's and the Trotskyists' frequent practical orientation to the Labor Party.

In practice, he treats the real contribution of all these real people to the history of the class struggle with contempt. Thankfully, few of these people were half as Calvinistic, politically speaking, as lifetime DSP General Secretary Percy.

In a very real sense, the revolutionary socialists of today stand on the shoulders of those who've gone before, and those people include a much wider and more complex variety of individuals and social groups than John Percy can afford to recognise.

Part of the function of Ozleft is to reproduce the literature of many of these unsung socialist heroes, and celebrate their lives and their contribution to the class struggle. Between them, the varied individuals who made up the wave of socialist intellectuals and workers who left the CPA in 1956 contributed very widely to the radicalisation of Australian life that took place a little later, from the mid-1960s to the 1980s, and that still hasn't been reversed despite the current rightward shift in the political culture.

Turner, who died comparatively young, as one individual alone, produced more serious socialist history and theory than everyone in the DSP milieu (such as it is). Stephen Murray-Smith became a major intellectual influence in the sphere of education from a broadly socialist point of view. Helen Palmer's literary output and activity in itself was quite extraordinary. She wrote a number of books of Australian history, and she went on to become a very serious activist in the anti-apartheid movement for a number of years.

At a Labour History seminar in Sydney 18 months ago on the 1960s, attended by about 100 participants in, or students of, those years John Myrtle, who spoke about the anti-apartheid movement, paid tribute to Helen Palmer's activity. (He also, in passing, reminded me of the function that I used to perform in the turbulent years of the 1960s, as a kind of clearing house for radical activism. He described how, as a young student he went down to the old Third World Bookshop in Goulburn Street and asked how he could get active about South Africa, and I pointed him towards John Brink. Myrtle commented that I had constantly played that sort of role in the 1960s. That kind of practical ecumenism was one part of my political activity in those days, and was actually an issue in later conflicts that developed between myself and Jim and John Percy.)

That recent seminar on the 1960s was, in itself, a demonstration of the different attitudes of myself and John Percy. I initiated the seminar, and I saw to it that Percy was invited to speak on youth and students. He came and spoke, all right (and he flew his kite for his slanderous version of the attempt to frame me after the Canberra demonstration in 1965). He didn't bring anyone else to the seminar, except one Green Left Weekly seller who stayed outside, and they both decamped smartly when Percy had finished speaking at this rather useful event attended by many veterans of the struggles of the 1960s.

In his sweeping and contemptuous dismissal of the contribution of the CPA rebels of 1956 to socialist political struggle in Australian life, Percy inadvertently reveals volumes about the approach of himself and the DSP leadership to socialist politics.

The CPA rebels contributed very substantially to radical reform in Australian society and to preserving socialism as a political current. These activities were useful in themselves, although they didn't lead to the construction of the kind of sect that John Percy calls a Marxist party.

Socialists should be trying to develop independent Marxist organisation, but such a project can only be relevant when it meshes into broader struggles for change in society.

If you choose, as Percy does, to ridicule Helen Palmer and her associates for not building a Marxist "party" of the Percy type, and don't note the multitude of her other socialist political activities, you impoverish yourself. Compare, for example, Percy's miserable assessment of Outlook with Ian Turner's The Long Goodbye, in the final issue.

Helen Palmer wrote the Ballad of 1891, which became the leitmotif of the socialist musical, Reedy River, a show that contributed to the radicalization of tens of thousands of Australians. How is it possible to contemplate the development of socialist organisation of any sort if you treat with narrow-gutted and cavalier contempt, as Percy does, the radical activities of previous generations that don't measure up to your self-interested stereotype?
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SinceMay 24, 2005