Dubious history: John Percy’s reminiscence on the DSP

by

Ed Lewis

John Percy’s purported History of the Democratic Party and Resistance is dubious history. It’s a participant’s account, sloppily written in places, crammed with triumphalist moralising on behalf of Percy, his brother Jim, and the DSP current, and often careless with facts.

If was history it would be bad history, but in reality it’s Percy’s reminiscence, liberally larded with hindight, with little regard for historical method, especially factual precision.

An example of Percy’s looseness with facts is his treatment of the expulsion of the left from Victorian Young Labor in 1974 (pp 279-80). Percy writes: “In Victoria the left came close to winning control of the Young Labor Association, and the ALP leadership reacted by a wholesale purge in February 1974. Most of the 34 expelled were SWL or SYA members, but they also included half a dozen ALP members who got too close to us, who got caught up in the witch-hunt. After a vigorous campaign, the ALP tops were forced to reinstate us, but the experience somewhat dimmed our vision of changing things through the ALP.”

In fact, it was the Young Labor right, not the ALP leadership, that expelled the 34 leftists. The right included a number of up-and-coming Labor careerists who later became prominent, including Robert Ray (now Senator), Dean Wells (MP in Queensland, for some time attorney general and now environment minister), Peter Gavin (member for Coburg in the Victorian parliament for 13 years), Greg Sword (until recently a prominent official of the National Union of Workers), Andre Haermeyer (minister in the Victorian Labor government of Steve Bracks). Others such as Mark Plummer, Ross Betts, John Zeleznikov, Mike Harlan and Geoff Farey appear not to have pursued careers in the ALP and union movement, or if they did I’m not aware of it.

At the time of the expulsions, none of the Young Labor right-wingers were prominent in the Labor Party and were not part of the ALP state leadership. Their careers were yet to be made, although some of them probably had some links to the top levels of the Centre Unity faction (which was really the right). It’s pretty clear that the YLA right-wingers cooked up the expulsions on their own, and some of them probably set their careers back by a few years because of the embarassment they caused to Centre Unity by their clumsiness, and because they almost destroyed Young Labor in their attempts to defeat the left. It took many years for Young Labor to recover from that incident.

The Victorian Labor Party leadership was strongly influenced by the Socialist Left at the time. The SL may not have had a majority on the state executive, but it was probably the largest faction on that body, and it usually had a majority in alliance with the small traditional Labor right faction of the ALP leadership that was associated with Senator John Button. That group opposed the expulsions and supported readmission of the leftists to Young Labor, and the Socialist Left was important in securing the readmission of the leftists.

Relying on memory, even the Centre Unity leadership, or at least a prominent leader, reacted to the expulsions by saying that there appeared to have been a denial of natural justice. At least one prominent Centre Unity leader was heard to refer contemptuously to the YLA right-wingers as “the young aparatchiks”.

The 34 were expelled only from Young Labor, and not the ALP, and there was never any question of them being expelled from the Labor Party. They retained their ALP membership and were able to campaign in the ALP for readmission. Many Labor Party branches supported the readmission of the YLA left.

Thus John Percy is simply wrong to say that “the ALP leadership reacted by a wholesale purge”, unless he has some new evidence of a conspiracy between the YLA right and the Centre Unity leaders, who at the very least would then stand accused of betraying their young acolytes rather badly. If Percy has such evidence, he doesn’t cite it, and it’s reasonable to conclude that his latter-day zeal to condemn the Labor Party has run away with him. This is not history, and not even accurate reminiscence, but propagandist mythology.

As for the 1974 incident having “dimmed our vision of changing things through the ALP”, if that’s the case, how does Percy explain the continued work in the ALP for another decade of people who had views close to those of the DSP/SWP, including the publication of an internal ALP magazine, Labor Militant, in the early 1980s? At the very least, if what Percy says is true, the continuation of work in the ALP for another decade would seem to indicate less-than-dynamic leadership by the central DSP/SWP leaders, if not incompetence.

Another example of factual sloppiness is Percy’s invention of a “Resistance Centre” at 136 or 140 Queensberry St, Carlton, in the early 1970s (p 181). At that time, the youth organisation was known as the Socialist Youth Alliance, not Resistance, and the term Resistance Centre was not applied to DSP-Resistance offices until at least the mid-1980s. This is a small point, but in a supposed history, particularly of the micro-history genre that Percy seems to be attempting, factual inaccuracy about the central focus of the story is extremely sloppy, to say the least.

See also John Percy’s strange memoir of the DSP, John Percy’s lonely morsel, Response to Sol Salbe

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