Jim Percy (1948-92)

[This unsigned obituary article first appeared in Green Left Weekly, #76, October 21, 1992. While it was a collective effort, I was assigned to produce the first draft. I especially want to include it here in tribute to the enormous role Jim played in the development of our movement and in the political education of several generations of comrades, myself included.]

Jim Percy, national president of the Democratic Socialist Party, died quietly as a result of cancer, at his home in Sydney on October 12. He was 43 years old and had devoted 27 years of his life to revolutionary socialist politics.

Like so many of his generation, Jim came into radical politics through the struggle against the imperialist war in Vietnam. In 1965, as a 17-year-old secondary student in Sydney he joined the Vietnam Action Campaign and went on to play a major role in building the mass movement against Washington's aggression. In 1970-71 he was one of the coordinators of the Vietnam Moratorium Campaign.

Jim came early to the fundamental political convictions which guided him for the rest of his life. He passionately believed that only a socialist revolution could save humanity from the horrors of capitalism and lay the basis for a brighter future. The key means to this end was the construction of a mass-based, revolutionary workers party.

Trotskyism, with its rejection of the Stalinist perversion of socialism, seemed to sum up these perspectives and Jim wholeheartedly embraced it.

In 1967 Jim was one of the founders of Resistance, then a broad radical youth organisation based primarily in Sydney and very active in the growing antiwar movement. In 1969-70, a political struggle within Resistance led to the development of the current that is today represented by the Democratic Socialist Party and Resistance.

Internationalism

Internationalism was at the heart of Jim's politics. He understood that, without intimate contact with the world revolutionary process, it would be impossible to develop a serious socialist party in this country. He attached great importance to work in solidarity with progressive struggles overseas.

Jim also saw collaboration with revolutionaries in other countries as a major aspect of the party's internationalism. Through the 1970s and early '80s, the primary framework for this was the Trotskyist Fourth International. The small DSP devoted considerable resources to supporting the international movement to which it belonged.

Jim participated in the 1974, 1979 and 1985 World Congresses of the Fourth International and served on its leading bodies for many years. In 1978-79 Jim was based at the Fourth International centre in Paris, travelling extensively in Europe, Asia and North America.

During the political disputes in the Fourth International in the 1970s he played a leading role in international debates, but he also was instrumental in healing divisions between supporters of the Fourth International in Australia — in advance of similar initiatives elsewhere.

In the early 1980s, Jim led the DSP in a major rethinking of its political ideas and approach. The party turned away from Trotskyism and in 1985 ended its affiliation to the Fourth International. While maintaining cordial relations with the Fourth International, the DSP sought to establish collaboration with a far broader range of progressive forces internationally. Jim played a major role in this process and over the years the party has developed an impressive range of contacts with groups and individuals around the world.

New developments

During the 1980s Jim led the way in turning the party's attention to building a left political alternative to the Labor Party and attempting to overcome the divisions on the left. The DSP participated in a range of united front activities and tested to the full the possibilities of unity with various other forces on the left.

In September 1970 the first issue of the socialist newspaper Direct Action was published. It was the party's main public face for 20 years. Jim edited the paper in its early years. At the end of 1990 Direct Action ceased publication, and the DSP and Resistance committed themselves to a broad new publishing project, Green Left Weekly.

Jim was one of the prime movers in this ambitious initiative, which aimed to synthesise environmental and socialist politics. The first issue of Green Left Weekly appeared in February 1991. Since then, with the active support of members of the DSP and Resistance, the newspaper has been growing in readership, sponsorship and respect within the broad left and progressive movement in this country and also internationally.

As the Gorbachev reform process began in the Soviet Union in 1985, Jim followed these developments very closely. He had high hopes that democratic socialist forms would emerge in the USSR and eastern Europe. He played a crucial role in establishing the party's collaboration with anti-Stalinist revolutionary forces in Moscow and in a number of Eastern European countries.

In his last years, Jim felt deeply the defeat embodied in the destruction of the remaining gains of the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, but he drew hope from the fact that the bankruptcy of Stalinism had finally been exposed. He was looking forward to a new resurgence of revolutionary socialist forces around the world and regretted that his worsening illness would cut short his chances of experiencing this.

As part of preparing the party and the Australian left for the changes taking place internationally, Jim helped initiate two successful Socialist Scholars Conferences in Australia, in 1990 and 1991.

Leading the party

The building of the Democratic Socialist Party was Jim's life work. The present stage of development of the DSP is the result of the devotion, self-sacrifice and struggle of thousands of people over more than two decades. In this great collective effort, Jim was the acknowledged and outstanding leader. For 20 years, from its founding in 1972 until January this year, Jim was the national secretary of the DSP.

He had a remarkably sure touch in assessing political situations and working out what to do next — the key question in practical politics — and in weighing up people, their strengths and weaknesses. The survival, development and renewal of the party over such a long period in a very testing political environment are above all a tribute to Jim's gifts as a political leader.

Over the years Jim grew in maturity as a leader. By the time of his death, he had become an accomplished revolutionary politician. He combined an unshakeable commitment to the socialist cause with a consummate realism and considerable tactical flexibility.

For all his formidable talents, or perhaps because of them, Jim was always a team player. He never tired of stressing that leadership must be a collective effort, as opposed to leadership by ego-driven stars or self-appointed cliques. Furthermore, leadership in a revolutionary party cannot be an exclusive and self-perpetuating club: it must be inclusive, continually testing people and drawing in new elements.

Every member of the party should aim to be a leader, able to reach out and inspire others in the struggle for a better world. Jim had a rare talent for finding roles for comrades which both met the needs of the organisation and also gave the individuals concerned a chance to test themselves and to learn and grow.

Jim’s ideas in this field were not new — they came above all from Lenin and Trotsky — but he developed and applied them with great skill over a long period.

Right from the start, the political education of its membership has been a major priority for the DSP. This concentration on developing the understanding and abilities of all members has been essential to the party's survival. In 1980 Jim proposed that the party undertake an ambitious initiative in this regard and establish a permanent Marxist school.

The project was a great success and for over a decade the school was a major feature of the DSP's internal life. Several hundred comrades, some from overseas, passed through this unique residential academy in suburban Sydney and went through its full-time four-month courses or shorter one-month intensive sessions. Jim usually led those course units which dealt with the Marxist theory of the party.

One aspect of the development of the party with which Jim was permanently concerned was women's liberation. The DSP has been successful in interrelating the struggle for socialism and the struggle for women's liberation, without subordinating either one to the other. This is reflected in both the composition of the party and its leadership as well as in Resistance.

The DSP has always been a young party. Jim considered that perhaps the major part of rebuilding and renewing the socialist movement was to win new layers of young people. He never lost the ability to reach out to the next generation and inspire them to take up the revolutionary challenge and commitment.

One of the hallmarks of Jim's leadership was an abiding concern with comrades' well-being. Campaigning for socialism in a rich country like Australia has its rigours, and he was at pains to ensure that the party did all it could to fortify its members in the struggle. Jim strongly argued to comrades that although the road might be arduous it was essential to try to find enjoyment and happiness along the way.

Exemplary life

Trotsky once wrote that "Revolutionaries may either be educated or ignorant people, either intelligent or dull, but there can be no revolutionaries without the will that breaks obstacles, without devotion, without the spirit of sacrifice." Jim was neither ignorant nor dull, but he was certainly possessed of formidable willpower and drive, not to speak of a tremendous commitment to the cause. These qualities are essential for leadership in the socialist movement, and Jim had them in abundance.

Jim was possessed of great personal charm. His confidence and enthusiasm were infectious. Time and again he demonstrated that precious ability to impart this to those around him, to lift them out of themselves and inspire them to give of their very best.

Jim was very human and certainly not without his faults. But he was aware of many of his shortcomings and worked to overcome them, not without effect.

After some months of undiagnosed illness, early this year Jim was told that he had cancer. The prognosis turned out to be a grim one. Nevertheless, Jim approached the treatment of his condition with characteristic will and intelligence. He developed a real interest in non-traditional medicine and questions of diet and health and was keen to spread this knowledge in the party.

Jim was greatly moved and heartened by the many expressions of support and sympathy he received, not only from his comrades in the DSP and Resistance, but also from a wide range of people in the broader radical movement, in Australia and overseas. Their concern was a measure of the respect in which he was held and the great number of people he had helped, influenced and worked with over more than a quarter of a century of political involvement.

Jim faced his last fight bravely, and there were indeed some real grounds for hope, but in the end the cancer proved to be too firmly entrenched.

Jim's death leaves those who knew and worked with him with a profound sense of loss. It seems not possible that someone who was so intensely alive is no longer with us. But he leaves behind the precious legacy of his ideas and an exemplary life of struggle. Jim lives on in the party he guided and did so much to build and in the struggle for the socialist future of humanity.