John Percy's lonely morsel
A critical review of
By Sol Salbe
A History of the DSP
Let me start by putting my cards down. I regard
myself as a personal friend of both John Percy and his strongest
critics like Bob Gould. I’m also a former member of the political
current described in John Percy’s book. Uncommon as it may sound I
drifted gradually away from the then SWP never needing major political
differences or a personal conflict with any of the other participants.
I was even consulted briefly during the writing process. These days I
have some political differences but they are not of a factional nature,
if anything Green Left Weekly
supporters have backed me on the two-states for Palestine issue against
some other members of the Socialist Alliance.
In other words this is a critical but not a hostile look at Volume I of
John Percy's History of the
Democratic Socialist Party and Resistance.
So what did I think of the book? Well there was a lot in it that I
liked. It does cover a lot of the history fairly thoroughly (more on
that later.) But honesty demands that I point to the large number of
errors in it.
When the errors were being listed and tallied a certain things became
obvious. For a start none appeared to be major – in fact a lot were
Virtually all the errors are of the undisputed variety. Here is a
typical example which took a few seconds to Google. On page 136 Percy recalls the My Lai
massacre: “A very powerful large colour poster was later produced, in
the US and here, showing a vista of bodies piled on a road and the
words 'And Children? And Children'.” In fact the message was even more
powerful “And Babies? And Babies.” I say undisputed because anyone can
check the poster
Having known John Percy for over 35 years I expect that he would kick
himself over these kinds of errors. He won’t come up with excuses.
Actually he should kick his editor, not himself. As a former GI, Allen
Myers ought to know that “R and R” stood for rest and recuperation and
not "rest and recreation".
The trouble wasn’t so much with the size of the errors or even their
number. The problem was with the pattern that developed. Generally
speaking when it comes to internal matters or dealing with other
members of the left, Percy generally gets it right. But everything else
seems to be out of focus and therefore blurred. Some critics like Bob
Gould think that the book's errors are deliberate. Gould seems to think
it’s a vendetta against him. It’s an old saying that if you have to
choose between a conspiracy and a stuff-up, pick a stuff-up every time.
It’s not that Percy doesn’t regard Gould as a serious opponent. It is
more that Percy has never taken a great deal of interest in Gould’s
major area of activity, the Labor Party. (Nor has he taken much
interest in peak unions bodies either.) These matters seem to have
slipped under Percy’s radar. Frankly, he doesn’t seem terribly
interested, which is a pity when you need to put your book in context.
So John Percy gets the name of George Petersen’s electorate wrong (p 136) – so what? What could be
more trivial? And besides Gould gets it wrong in his
article on Ozleft (since corrected). The trouble is that Percy gets
more serious facts wrong. What on earth drove him to state that Jim
Cairns was elected Whitlam’s Deputy in 1967? Had Cairns been part of
the official ALP leadership team he wouldn’t have been able to play the
major role that he did in the Vietnam Moratorium.
Once Labor was elected in 1972, Whitlam formed a two-person Cabinet
with his real deputy, Lance Barnard, carrying on some urgent tasks, a
lot of which was highly positive and that we cheered on.
A few weeks later Cairns topped the poll in the ALP caucus. It was
simply not something that Direct
Action ignored at the time. We attribute the vote for
Cairns to the strength of the antiwar feeling in the country. How can
you miss it?
Getting dates wrong is one thing. Omitting vital, relevant history is
another: This is what the book says about election of the Labor
government: “Nevertheless, there were many immediate gains for the
working class from Labor’s victory – the government ended support for
US policies in Vietnam, the call-up was scrapped and draft resisters
released from jail … But the euphoric honeymoon of Labor’s election
wasn’t to last long – on December 18, Nixon resumed the bombing of
So that’s it. After December 18 it didn’t make any difference to the
antiwar movement that we had a Labor government. Being charitable, let
me point out that’s not quite right. It is certainly not the way Direct Action saw it in the time.
An unsigned article on the top of page 3 of DA 34 (January 18,
1973) headed “ALP government and Nixon escalation” started by
quoting PM Whitlam saying that his government had a mandate “to do all
it can to stop the continuation of this war”. Pointing out that
hitherto this promised antiwar activity had been limited to words not
deeds the article continued: “However the words of the three cabinet
ministers have been useful as an initial contribution to the antiwar
movement. Jim Cairns, Clyde Cameron and Tom Uren all lashed out against
We didn’t just think that those strong statements should be limited to
our own use. I vividly recall being told by Jim Percy to gather all the
relevant material and send it to our co-thinkers in the US to assist
the antiwar movement there.
John Percy reflects the DSP’s historical change of their assessment of
the ALP. Unlike Gould I do not take an issue with that change, as I
have an open mind about it. There is no question that it is a matter
for legitimate debate. But what disappointed me about the debate is
that all the protagonists so far seem to take the ALP as something
static. Whether you are looking it the 1890s or 2005 it is seen in the
same light by Gould (essentially positive) and Percy (essentially
Most people in this country actually would have noted that the ALP has
evolved. Its links with the unions have been gradually been severed.
Its policies are hardily distinguished from those of the Liberals.
Again, this wasn’t the case 30 years ago.
You don’t think it was? Just imagine the Labor Party winning the 2004
elections and its key ministers addressing the United States government
as follows as follows: I say to the Bush administration stop your
attack on Iraqi people, "leave them alone, take your armed forces
home". (Jim Cairns. Substitute, of course, Nixon for Bush and Vietname
And “The world is witnessing an attempt by the greatest military power
ever known to impose national torture upon a poor and tiny Asian
country … warmongering is based on profiteering and if the people of
the world can rise up and take effective action against profiteering
which has so far characterised the American action in Iraq the war may
come to an end.” (Clyde Cameron)
Jim Cairns and Clyde Cameron were two of the most senior minister in
the Whitlam cabinet. These words are taken from the same Direct Action article. To my mind
they suggested that initially at least the Labor government did more
than just ended "support for US policies in Vietnam". If
John Percy wants to convince us about his view of the ALP (and I repeat
that he may be right, or wrong, on this) he is going about it the wrong
way. Any argument that ignores what the DSP tendency recognised and
noted as progressive 30 years ago is fundamentally flawed. At any rate,
to say, as Percy does on page 276,
that “Labor refused to dissociate itself from US policies completely”,
is not really accurate.
A check of the appendix below will show that of all the errors that I
discovered only one concerns the internal politics of Percy’s political
current or even its relations with the outside world. He is meticulous
and careful when it comes to those details. But the outside world is a
different case. It just does not seem so important to get it right.
On page 214 Percy discusses
the events surrounding the Springbok tour of 1971. He mentions the
demonstrations, pitch invasion attempts to saw the goal posts and the
sabotage of the water pipeline. But nowhere does he mention the role of
the organised trade union movement. The ACTU and its state affiliates
imposed bans on the refuelling and servicing on planes carrying the
South Africans. As a result the Springboks were shuttled around in
small planes because neither TAA nor Ansett Airlines were willing to
ferry them. While the union movement wasn’t particularly involved in
the demonstrations, its public opposition increased tremendously the
level of support for the cause among ordinary Australians.
Again, mainstream politics and organisations are simply not part of
Percy’s picture. Where does he get the idea that the White Australia
Policy was rescinded in 1967? I am not aware of any aspect of the
demise of the White Australia Policy that took place in 1967. The ALP
policy was changed at its 1971 Federal Conference. It was implemented
by the Whitlam Government in 1973. The nearest thing to 1967 is the
Holt Government's partial changes, introduced in 1966.
My contention is that Percy's omissions and errors are not deliberate.
His focus is so much on his tendency and the arising conflict with
others that everything else becomes blurred. It may have been his
intention, with an audience of members and supporters of the DSP and
Resistance in mind, but to my mind it is a weakness. The analogy I
immediately thought of is of a meal. It is an apt analogy, which no
doubt would have been appreciated by the late Jim Percy. Jim, who
preceded his brother as national secretary of the SWP/DSP was a
wonderful cook who truly appreciated his food. His love of quality
cuisine has had a lifelong impact upon me – one which I will always
cherish. So Jim would understand why I see John Percy serving us a very
tasty roast lamb for a meal. The trouble is that there is no first
course or anything for afters. Even worse, everything served with the
lamb is of truly inferior quality. That doesn’t make for a memorable
occasion or a memorable book.
Appendix: Additional specific points, errors etc
Page 62 “Kep Enderby
Later ALP MP for Canberra and attorney general in the Whitlam
Government.” This information is correct but only in part. Enderby was,
for most of his career, the member for the ACT and spent longer in
other portfolios than Attorney-General. The major reference in DA concerns his role in the closure
of the Leyland plant in Zetland (While minister for Secondary
Industry.) I was reporter than attended his infamous press where
Enderby indicated that he never contemplated nationalising the company.
Page 77 “Premier Askin is
quoted as saying ‘Ride over the bastards’.” He actually said “Run Over
the bastards.” If you check Google you’d find that the only references
to the incorrect quote come from Percy himself in Green Left Weekly. Percy seems to
have ignored my letter to GLW
on the subject.
Page 77 “we didn’t have a
US president back in Australia for 25 years.” Johnson attended the
memorial Service for Holt in January 1968. The details are in the
Page 78 “Jim Cairns who
was elected Whtlam’s Deputy at the ’67 conference.” No he wasn’t, Lance
Page 79 “at the
ACTU Federal conference.” The ALP has federal conferences. The ACTU has
Page 79 "it argued that
the slogan should focus on ‘negotiate stop the bombing'." The CPA was
wrong politically, but at least it had the logical order of “stop the
bombing, negotiate”, instead of the other way around.
Page 105 “We thought why
not a memento? So 'Resistance Guerrilla Training Camp 1968' was one
design we produced after the camp.” Percy's account appears to be
accurate, but he has got the key detail back to front. The T-shirt was
a response to the Packer media, not the other way around. [This is the
recollection of myself as a proud owner of a T-shirt at the time and
also of Rod Webb and Nita Keig with whom I consulted.] This is the only
instance of an internal or left matter that Percy gets wrong.
Page 106 After quoting an
ASIO agent saying that males and females slept overnight in separate
tents at the Resistance camp “and nothing or a promiscuous nature took
place” Percy adds: "The agent obviously missed out." Percy knows the
agent is lying. Wouldn’t a better explanation be that the agent didn’t
miss out but wanted to hide away his/her “fringe benefits” from ASIO? I
find the way Percy takes agents' comment as being accurate somewhat
disconcerting. Some may have had their own agendas, particularly as far
as the CPA is concerned. Some ASIO reports ought to be taken with a
grain of salt, as the above demonstrates.
Page 107 Origlass and
Wyner were councillors on the Leichhardt Council, not Balmain Council
which was abolished 10 years before they were elected. The book gets
that detail correct elsewhere.
Page 123 Clarrie O’Shea
was jailed by John Kerr of the Commonwealth Industrial Court – not the
Page 134 Denis Freney’s
Liberation always gave its address as Harbord, not Manly. Having spoken
there I recall it was a long distance from the Manly Ferry.
Page 158 Socialist Review was launched at
the May 8 Moratorium rally, which was held on a Friday evening and not
on May 10, which was a Sunday
Page 184 Yes there was a
substantial Zionist presence at UNSW, but I fail to see the connection
to my sales. I wasn’t attempting to sell it to them.
Page 184 The campaign
against Opus Dei wasn’t against its expansion. The organisation did not
have presence on campus but was now being given control of the Catholic
Page 184 I have never
heard The Boy Who Lost His Jocks at
Flinders Street Station, so I cannot verify the facts personally
but both friends and the Internet give the band as Painters and
Dockers. My own recollection is that I always interspersed the words
“socialist newspaper” between the name and the price. However, without
listening to it I cannot verify it.
Page 188 “Lenin wrote,
the second last capitalist will sell the rope to hang the last.” Lenin
probably had it in a more logical order.
Page 198 The Marxist
Workers Organisation were to the best of my knowledge supporters of Liu
Shaoqi [Liu Shao-chi in the old rendition]. That’s certainly the way
Jim Percy described them to me. Even if they were not, they split from
the mainstream long before the purge of the Gang of Four, and even
before the term was used.
Page 216 Placing Patti
Iiyama on the same basis as Bala Tampoe is really a sleight of hand.
There were four international guests who addressed the main conference
rally at the Sydney Town Hall. Tampoe (whom we lobbied for) and Petr
Uhl were two of them. Iiyama got to address the equivalent of a
workshop. [My bound volume is missing DA
4. The conference report in DA
5 does not mention the other official international guests.]
Page 242 Missing context:
Percy talks about the Buffalo Hall and explains about the “Antediluvian
Order of Buffaloes.” It may have been relevant to mention that we came
across the Hall through our ALP work and this was a Labor left hall of
Page 256 Discussing
abortion Percy writes “WAAC… organising demonstrations in major cities
May-June 1973, countering the increased campaigning by the
right-to-lifers.” Apart from the US Supreme Court ruling of
January that year that reverberated around the world, a major reason
for that activity was the pro-abortion bill moved by two Labor MPs,
David McKenzie and Tony Lamb, on May 10, 1973. The bill was defeated
98-23, but the majority of the Cabinet voted in favour. It is this kind
of lacking context that is the book's biggest weakness.
Note on spelling of my own name.
As result of a mix-up when I first arrived in Australia, all my
education records were spelt Salby. This was carried over into
politics. About 15 years ago I standardised everything to the correct
spelling of Salbe.(Which is the name I have submitted articles to GLW under.)