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John Percy's lonely morsel

A critical review of
A History of the DSP and Resistance

By Sol Salbe

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 quite trivial.

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 for themselves.

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 Vietnam.”

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 Nixon’s escalation.”

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 negative).

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 for Iraq.)

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.

Anti-Apartheid

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 national archives.

Page 78 “Jim Cairns who was elected Whtlam’s Deputy at the ’67 conference.” No he wasn’t, Lance Barnard was.

Page 79  “at the ACTU Federal conference.” The ALP has federal conferences. The ACTU has national congresses.

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 Arbitration Court.

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 residential college.

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 choice.

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.)
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SinceJune 16, 2005