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John Percy's invincible ignorance of Australian labour history

How not to write serious labour movement history. The first part of John Percy's History of the DSP and Resistance as the ultimate development of the eccentric DSP school of labour history
By Bob Gould

A history of the Democratic Socialist Party and Resistance, 1965-72
John Percy, Resistance Books, Sydney, 2005
John Percy's book is an ideologically curious little animal. It's very strange indeed to focus the first section of the history of your organisation, over seven years or so, on a polemic with that organisation’s former self, and on an attempted demolition of a major part of the political sociology and program around which you initally constructed the group. There's a rare kind of schizophrenia involved in this sort of historiography.

It's also rather forbidding that the book is ostensibly only about the first seven years, which Percy regards as the foundation period, from 1965-72. On form, if he ever completes his project, Percy will need considerably more than the promised two more volumes, unless he views this foundation period as the decisive moment, which is entirely possible.

It’s worth noting Percy’s curiously egocentric dating of these apparently decisive seven years from the moment when Childe Harold John Percy discovered socialist politics. Apparently, Percy is such a world historic figure that the first two or three years of his political involvement qualify as the first years of the history of his tendency. No political apprenticeship, apparently, for Childe Harold Percy. He and his brother seem to have emerged fully clothed in Bolshevism as if from the mouth of Zeus, at least in Percy’s own estimation. Such are the perils of merging autobiography with the history of a Marxist organisation.

If 1965-72 is indeed the decisive moment, Percy's schizophrenia is dramatically intense, because the modern DSP has repudiated almost all the core political views that emerged at this decisive moment, except the notion of the tight, "Leninist" (really Zinovievist) party.

Was the early Australian working class a hopeless labour aristocray, a pack of racist drongos really, and was the formation of the Labor Party a mistake, or a step backwards?

In a crude polemical way Percy runs down the colonial working class in Australia. He does this by taking the colonial working class out of space and time, exaggerating the importance of racist views that were common in the 19th century, and ridiculing the working class’s achievements in struggle as being of little importance because the shortage of labour in the Australian colonies made trade union victories relatively easy.

Percy here is further developing an incoherent construction about the alleged domination of a labour aristocracy over the early development of the Australian labour movement. He’s reading into the record, as if it were fact, a half-developed collection of musings by other DSP leaders, such as Peter Boyle and Jon Strauss, who tossed in some preliminary impressions on this question in the past couple of years, constantly threatening a fully fledged exposition of their thesis, which they never completed. John Percy here incorporates this intellectual jumble of ideas as some sort of self-evident fact that undermines the importance of the colonial proletariat.

Over several years I argued the point at great length on these questions with Peter Boyle, Jon Strauss and others, on the Marxmail and Green Left lists. Pointers to these debates are available in the list of my writings on Ozleft.

Percy then goes on to dismiss the formation of the Labor Party, saying it was pretty well hopeless from the start.

For example, on page 11:

The left has been handicapped very often by illusions in the ALP as a gain for the working class, when on balance has clearly been a shackle.

And on Page 16:

Many on the left, and we did so at first, have characterised the formation of the Labor Party as ‘a historic step forward’ for the working class. However, it was more like a small step forward and then almost immediately the same step backward, reaffirming a racist, nationalist outlook and committing itself not to break with the ruling class. It wasn’t a step toward independent working class political action. We can assess how little it aided working-class struggles and how little it was independent of the capitalist class by its actions over the next 100 years. It’s been an alternative party of rule for the bosses in times of crisis. Its goal is class peace and preservation of the status quo.

Its influence is directed to convincing workers that their needs can and must be met through parliament and arbitration (objectively an employers’ policy), rather than through their own organization and activity. From its inception, the role of the ALP has been to integrate the working class and its struggles into the capitalist framework, not to break from it. It hasn’t been a "historic step forward".

Percy’s formulations vary on this question, but in context it's hard to avoid concluding that he regards the formation of the Labor Party as a reactionary development because the founders of the Labor Party didn't form a modern Marxist sect like the DSP. No "history is whole cloth" (Karl Marx's famous aphorism) for DSP general secretary Percy.

It's useful to contrast Percy's approach to these questions with that of Marx and Engels, and retrospectively of Lenin quoting Marx and Engels about the US labour movement.

It is highly instructive to compare what Marx and Engels said of the British, American and German working-class movements. Such comparison acquires all the greater importance when we remember that Germany on the one hand, and Britain and America on the other, represent different stages of capitalist development and different forms of domination of the bourgeoisie, as a class, over the entire political life of those countries. From the scientific point of view, we have here a sample of materialist dialectics, the ability to bring to the forefront and stress the various points, the various aspects of the problem, in application to the specific features of different political and economic conditions. From the point of view of the practical policy and tactics of the workers’ party, we have here a sample of the way in which the creators of the Communist Manifesto defined the tasks of the fighting proletariat in accordance with the different states of the national working-class movements in the different countries.

What Marx and Engels criticise most. sharply in British and American socialism is its isolation from the working-class movement. The burden of all their numerous comments on the Social-Democratic Federation in Britain and on the American socialists is the accusation that they have reduced Marxism to a dogma, to "rigid [starre] orthodoxy", that they consider it "a credo and not a guide to action", that they are incapable of adapting themselves to the theoretically helpless, but living and powerful mass working-class movement that is marching alongside them. "Had we from 1864 to 1873 insisted on working together only with those who openly adopted our platform," Engels exclaimed in his letter of January 27, 1887, "where should we be today?" And in the preceding letter (December 28, 1886), he wrote, with reference to the influence of Henry George’s ideas on the American working class: "A million or two of working men’s votes next November for a bona fide working men’s party is worth infinitely more at present than a hundred thousand votes for a doctrinally perfect platform."

These are very interesting passages. There are Social Democrats in our country who have hastened to utilise them in defence of the idea of a ‘labour congress’ or something in the nature of Larin’s ‘broad labour party’. Why not in defence of a ‘Left bloc’? we would ask these precipitate ‘utilisers’ of Engels. The letters the quotations are taken from refer to a time when American workers voted at the elections for Henry George. Mrs Wischnewetzky — an American woman married to a Russian and translator of Engels’s works — had asked him, as may be seen from Engels’s reply, to give a thorough criticism of Henry George. Engels wrote (December 28, 1886) that the time had not yet arrived for that, the main thing being that the workers’ party should begin to organise itself, even if not on an entirely pure programme. Later on, the workers would themselves come to understand what was amiss, ‘would learn from their own mistakes", but "any thing that might delay or prevent that national consolidation of the workingmen’s party — on no matter what platform — I should consider a great mistake ..."

It goes without saying that Engels had a perfect understanding, and frequently spoke, of the absurdity and reactionary character of Henry George’s ideas, from the socialist point of view. The Sorge correspondence contains a most interesting letter from Karl Marx dated June 20, 1881, in which he characterised Henry George as an ideologist of the radical bourgeoisie. ‘Theoretically the man is utterly backward’ (total arrière), wrote Marx. Yet Engels was not afraid to join with this socialist reactionary in the elections, so long as there were people who could tell the masses of “the consequences of their own mistakes” (Engels, in the letter dated November 29, 1886). Preface to the Russian Translation of Letters by Johannes Becker, Joseph Dietzgen, Frederick Engels, Karl Marx, and Others to Friedrich Sorge and Others (V.I. Lenin, 1907)

Ever the banal philistine, John Percy talks about Henry George’s “weird” economic views as an influence on the early Labor Party. This underlines Percy’s invincible ignorance in such matters. George’s views weren’t particularly weird, and they had immense influence in the labour movement. Marx and Engels disagreed with George’s theories about land rent and polemicised against them, but they took them very seriously and they treated Henry George very seriously as a politician, as the above paragraphs clearly show. Percy’s approach to the history of the labour movement, in this as in many other areas, is instrumentalist, piecemeal and superficial. Clearly, from this section, Marx and Engels, and later Lenin, were soft on Laborism, to use the modern DSP lingo.

It's important to note that the US discussed by Marx and Engels is a colonial settler state evolving into a capitalist imperialist state, and yet Marx and Engels hadn't the slightest doubt about the importance of the proletariat and its evolution in the US, and even at that early stage they were looking to the possibility of a broad labour party in which the Marxists would be a force, rather than a separate sect outside it.

To achieve his version of the evolution of the colonial working class and the formation of the Labor Party, Percy is reduced to making a series of crude assertions, which he tries to bolster by reference to a tiny number of sources, mainly the early Humphrey McQueen.

Percy’s tone towards the actual struggles of the colonial working class is implacably condescending:

“The social gains and better conditions were won in struggle, yes. Capitalists will always try to screw the maximum profit for themselves. But the natural wealth was there, so they were often able to buy industrial peace, and were pushed to do so by the labour shortage.” (Page 12)

“The long boom from 1860 to 1890 provided the material conditions for the rise of a strong trade union movement, winning relatively easy victories. The Australian colonies as they developed also benefited from the superprofits extracted by the British Empire from its Asian and other colonies. As the Australian capitalist class developed strength, it was able to exploit directly some of the nearby some of the nearby Asian and Pacific colonies. These superprofits could provide sops to buy industrial peace when needed.

“However, this strong trade union and democratic tradition was built on the dispossession of the original inhabitants and accompanied by extremely racist attitudes and ideas. ‘White Australia’ was not pushed only by the bourgeoisie, but was also championed by privileged white workers wanting to protect their patch. This racist poison thoroughly infected the Australian labour movement.” (Page 13)

What a condescending, one-sided approach to the development of a working class and its consciousness. Percy tends to reduce this development mainly to the question of racism, overstates that issue substantially, and ascribes the racism mainly to the working class when it clearly came from the dominant imperialist ideology of the British Empire.

In addition, Percy’s analysis is severely flawed factually. The social gains were not achieved easily at all. They resulted from constant, bitterly won proletarian self-organisation that gave rise to the sharpest class struggles, of which the big strikes of the 1890s were the culmination. Percy’s analysis is directed at undermining any idea of the significant development of the Australian working class and labour movement.

Another glaring and important factual inaccuracy is Percy's wild overstatement of the economic importance of the exploitation of the South Pacific to capital formation in Australia. This is nonsense. Exploitation of the South Pacific, which certainly existed, was a relatively small part of Australian capital formation.

The first major phase of Australian capital formation was the export of gold and other minerals from the 1840s onwards. The second, and even more important phase of capital formation, resulted from the expansion of the pastoral sector, and the exports of meat, wool and other agricultural products, mainly to Britain.

Certainly, the expansion of the pastoral industry was underpinned by the brutal dispossession of the Aboriginal people, but it's stretching the truth considerably to make the rural proletariat the main player in that exploitation. The main player was the emerging Australian capitalist class. The emerging colonial proletariat came into the sharpest conflict with that emerging Australian ruling class.

Percy constantly exaggerates what he claims was the ease of the victories for the working class. He should consult carefully Stuart Svensson's books on the bitter pastoral strikes of the 1880s and 1890s.

Percy ignores the large and important range of sources that don't suit his purpose: authors such as Bede Nairn, John Rickard, Ian Turner, Frank Bongiorno, Bruce Scates, Noel Ebbels and Russell Ward, all of whom wrote extensively about the colonial period. In particular, Percy ignores the extraordinary collection of writings about the colonial working class by Terry Irving and Bob Connell, and he ignores the books of Andrew Wells and Noel Butlin about the development of capitalism in Australia.

John Percy has a very cavalier attitude to past disputes among labour movement historians. Percy refers in passing to the extensive debate on labour history between Humphrey McQueen and all the other labour historians, sparked by McQueen’s book, A New Britannia. Those interested in the rounded texture of those debates, which were very important, should have a look at Ian Turner’s comments in the introduction to the 1979 edition of Industrial Labour and Politics, Humphrey McQueen’s Afterword to the 1986 edition of A New Britannia and my article disputing Stuart Macintyre’s rather conservative approach to labour history.

The curious thing about all this is that when these disputes in labour history were going on in the 1970s the DSP had very little interest in them and only in recent times has the DSP grabbed hold of Humphrey McQueen’s earlier point of view (most of which he has considerably modified) because that early point of view suits the DSP’s current ultraleft political construct.

As serendipity would have it, Tom O'Lincoln has just produced an important little book on class struggle in colonial Australia, United We Stand: Class Struggle in Colonial Australia, that is an effective refutation of Percy's view of the colonial working class. All Percy can do is shelter behind the early McQueen as his only major authority.

Percy also avoids serious discussion of the three or four major assessments of the revolution of the Australian labour movement written within the labour or communist movements: J.N. Rawlings’s series of historical pamphlets in the 1930s, E.W. Campbell’s Short History of the Australian Labour Movement, Mick Armstrong’s History of the ALP, and even Peter Conrick’s History of the ALP, although he refers to the latter in passing, as Conrick was an early SWP/DSP member.

John Percy makes a completely artificial point of repudiating all aspects of the reformist labour movement and asserting that the DSP’s tradition is only that of the IWW, the early Communist Party and the early Trotskyists.

This assertion of DSP continuity with the IWW, the Communist Party and the early Trotskyists deserves careful examination. I’ll deal with the early Trotskyists in a future article, and with the IWW and the CPA here.

For Percy to make such a total separation between the IWW and the rest of the labour movement is a historical absurdity, and for the modern DSP leadership, with its inward focus and its smug and singular fetish about the universal significance of its own organisation, to claim continuity with the tradition of the IWW is a melodramatic travesty.

The mainstream IWW members in Australia were classical syndicalists. The IWW was a sort of syndicalist party. Its members were courageous agitators deeply rooted in the existing labour movement, and the literature suggests they had considerable influence in the traditional unions and even in the Labor Party. Percy's account of labour history has a lot in common with the Stuart Macintyre school of labour history, in that it ignores or downplays all spontaneous upsurges with centrist or reformist leadership.

In Macintyre's case this approach is driven by conservative instincts. At least, however, Macintyre in his Concise History mentions the defeat of conscription in two referenda in World War I and the major role of the Labor Party in the defeat of conscription. Percy's labour movement historiography is so crazy, and his animosity to all spontaneous upsurges led by Labor or centrist figures is so total, that he can't bring himself to even mention the defeat of Labor renegade Billy Hughes's support for conscription and the role played by the Labor Party and the unions in that defeat.

Percy also falsifies and crudifies the 1917 general strike. He paints a picture of this strike being initiated by the IWW, and opposed by the traditional union bureaucracy. The reality was not nearly so simple. It's clear that IWW was a substantial political driving force in the 1917 strike, but it was also an official strike, called in NSW by the majority of the traditional unions. You wouldn't know that if you relied solely on Percy's peculiar narrative about the IWW.

The IWW was certainly a major force in the successful battle to defeat conscription for World War I, but it wasn't the only driving force. Other driving forces were the Labor Party, which expelled the parliamentary members who supported conscription, and the Irish Catholic section of society, led by the redoubtable Archbishop Mannix.

When the IWW was suppressed in 1916 and 12 of its leaders were framed and jailed for long periods, the agitation for their release was supported throughout the labour movement, and was spearheaded partly by leading figures in the traditional labour movement, such as the Victorian Labor MP Frank Anstey, and Henry Boote.

The eventual release of the IWW 12 was largely achieved by Percy Brookfield, the independent labour member from Broken Hill, and engineered by the NSW Labor government of John Storey.

Many of the IWW leaders and rank and file went on to found the CPA, and many others went into the Labor Party. In the radicalisation after World War I there was no Chinese wall between the IWW and the official labour movement.

The IWW was a bunch of courageous agitators who bore very little resemblance to the smug, inward-looking, self-satisfied and rather middle-class Zinovievist sect that the DSP has unfortunately become.  There are, indeed, quite a few examples of the transformation of socialist groups into such smug, middle-class sects, but the IWW is definitely not one of them.

The second tradition to which John Percy pompously lays claim is that of the Communist Party. He does this in a rather peculiar way, attacking retrospective CPA historiography in which CPA historians reject episodes of CPA ultraleftism towards the Labor Party.

By way of contrast, Percy is rather soft on the CPA’s major Third Period episodes, and the minor Third Period episodes in 1939-41 and 1948-51. Those interested in the Third Period in Australia should have a look at Barbara Curthoys's article, first published in Labour History.

In Percy’s self-interested cosmology, even an oppositional orientation towards Labor contains the seeds of betrayal and capitulation. He doesn’t discuss the quite spectacular success of the CPA’s entry work in the Labor Party from 1936-41, which is discussed in some detail by David McKnight.

The significant thing about this is that all of the CPA’s Third Period episodes were directly and brutally imposed on the CPA by Moscow. When the hand of Moscow was relaxed a little the CPA, despite its fairly leftist tradition by the standards of international Stalinism, always drifted back to some variant of a united front with Labor.

This obviously flows in part from the CPA’s considerable influence in the trade union movement. Full-blown CPA ultraleftism towards the labour movement was always an artificial construction, imposed in each instance from Moscow.

The increasingly bizarre leadership of the DSP doesn’t need the intervention of Stalin to turn them into chronic ultraleftists at the political level. They’ve managed to manufacture a whole schema for themselves, and even to take it another step by bemoaning the very foundation of the Labor Party.

The DSP’s evolution in these matters flows from its deliberate self-isolation from the difficult task of agitation in most parts of the broader labour movement. In the necessary task of setting priorities, the DSP leadership always puts the construction and development of the DSP itself ahead of any considerations of realistic long-term implantation and agitation in most parts of the labour and popular movements.

It’s also worth noting that the DSP now, retrospectively, bemoans the foundation of the Third and Fourth internationals, and by implication the First and Second internationals. The rejection of the foundation of the Third International obviously has a good deal to do with the flexible strategy towards labour parties advocated by Lenin and Trotsky at the first four congresses of the Comintern.

It’s beyond John Percy’s comprehension, or more probably it doesn’t suit him to recognise, that the considerable success of the CPA in establishing itself in Australian life, even despite the high Stalinism imposed from Moscow, had a good deal to do with the CPA’s serious attention to very professional militant trade unionism and its systematic and very wide implantation in the labour movement.

In the history of the CPA there clearly is a good deal of tension between the needs of constructing the party apparatus and the needs of implantation in the labour movement, but the CPA for most of its history tried to both “build the party” and implant it, frequently in a relatively non-sectarian way, in the existing labour movement, and in Australian life in general.

Largely because of its excessive preoccupation with the internal life of the sect as its only serious consideration, the DSP leadership has singularly failed to achieve anything like the influence of the old CPA, despite the high Stalinist baggage that the CPA carried for most of its existence (see The CPA in Australian Life).

The DSP has now been untrammelled by considerations of intervention in, or united fronts with, the Labor Party for 20 years. Where are the political successes resulting from this 20 years of ultraleftism? Where are the influential DSP trade unionists, where are the DSP historians and academics, where are the DSP creative writers and film-makers, etc, etc? The major strands of leftist influence in Australian life, which are still considerable despite the rightward shift in society, almost entirely spring from traditions other than that of the DSP. Surely this must have something to do with the sterility and bootstrap-lifting quality of the DSP’s perspectives for the last 20 years.

The question must be asked: why do John Percy and the only other DSP member who tries to write labour history, Jim McIlroy, belt out such obviously ahistorical, unbalanced, undialectical pseudo-history of the Australian labour movement?

The answer obviously lies in the absolute preoccupation of the DSP leadership with preserving their tiny sect as a thing in itself. A total and artificial separation from all the contradictory features of the actually existing and past labour movement is seen as useful in persuading the cadres of the small DSP organisation of their group’s unique historic role, almost out of space and time.

Such an approach to history may partly inoculate a small number of cadres against the external world, but it’s a hopelessly poverty-stricken historical method.

The DSP’s sterile historiography presents the DSP as a unique formation with none of the perceived weaknesses of the mass labour movement. This attempted mental separation of the DSP from the labour movement, and the poverty of reading of broad labour movement history that this entails, only deprives the cadres of the DSP of any chance of developing any real knowledge of the complex and contradictory traditions of the labour movement.

Real life, however, is rarely so simple. The complex and contradictory traditions of the mass labour movement are still one of the major social factors dictating the terrain on which socialists must operate, even in the 21st century.

Creating a group of socialists who you try to train in complete contempt for the better traditions of the mass labour movement is a very dangerous thing to do politically. The evolution of one socialist sect like that, Frank Furedi's Living Marxism group in Britain, has taken that group straight into the camp of the ruling class. One hopes that won’t happen to the DSP, but the seeds of such a possible development are present in John Percy’s contemptuous and dismissive attitude to the progressive features of the development of the Australian labour movement.

I will discuss the Trotskyist tradition in Australia, and Percy’s contemptuous attitude towards it, in the next part of my overview of Percy’s book. This is the second part of what will probably run to five or six articles on various aspects of Percy’s book.

PS. A preliminary comment about Percy’s book in general, which I will expand later. Percy’s tone throughout his volume I is pontifical and grandiose, clearly modelled on James P. Cannon’s History of American Trotskyism. Cannon, who was a real workers’ leader, with a rich, contradictory and complex history of leadership in workers’ struggles, could to some extent get away with such a tone. In Percy’s case, the result is farcical. This is particularly so in the curious way Percy retrospectively claims for his allegedly separate tendency (in reality, for himself and his brother, Jim) the major role in the early development of the Vietnam antiwar movement. This megalomania reaches a peak when he chides Hall Greenland for not recognising the unique role of the Percy group in Red Hot, Greenland’s biography of Nick Origlass. This exaggerated view of his own role is also present in Percy’s venomous attack on historians of the Vietnam antiwar movement. Percy is clearly irritated that he and his brother rarely get mentioned in the literature of the Vietnam period and he attributes that to some kind of conspiracy against them. I’ll return to this point by recounting the history of the Vietnam antiwar movement as it actually developed, as I saw it and participated in it, in another article.
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Comments welcome. Ozleft Bob Gould

Since April 21, 2005