I am sad but proud to be saying these few words at the funeral of comrade John Percy. It is difficult however. How do you sum up the life of a man who dedicated his whole adult life – 50 years – to the socialist movement and to the central task of building a revolutionary cadre party. 50 years without a detour or break. Not only is this such an amazing example of dedication to the conviction of the necessity and rightness of this cause, but John contributed so much to actual, real and great achievements. His achievements were those of his party. Many comrades in their tributes have noted how John was never a pushy or limelight seeking leader.
One of his most endearing but powerful attributes was they he was able to fuse being himself, able to present his own ideas, with being a member of a team; a leadership team but also the big team that was the party as a whole. He was himself and he was a member. He led by example in upholding a key norms expected of all members – selling the newspaper. And he did this, I can say without doubt, in a way more consistent and exemplary than any other member who ever spent a decent amount of time in the party.
There was no loss of individuality in being a member of a disciplined team-based organisation, as so many of the stupid bourgeois black propagandists keep trying to tell people.
I got to know John better from 1991, ten years after I joined the party, when I moved from Canberra to Sydney. His brother Jim was terminally ill and John had moved to Sydney to strengthen the leadership team. The weekly meetings of the party’s Political Committee he chaired over those years, and which I attended, were the best meetings I have ever attended. This reflected the commitment and talents of all the comrades contributing at that time, but John’s dogged determination to make sure everything was properly discussed and his team-spirit which made the discussions truly collective were a crucial ingredient to the successes of the DSP during the 1990s, the period during which it grew to its largest size and its paper, Green Left Weekly, reached its widest circulation.
My priority assignment during the 1990s was solidarity with the movements in Indonesia, the Philippines and East Timor. I discussed and wrote reports on this work to John often. They are stored somewhere no doubt in his extensive archives. He took a deep interest in what was happening in Asia. He himself took responsibility for building relations with the Communist Party of India (Liberation) in India and Lalit in the Mauritius. He travelled to India and was proud of the relationship he built and his experiences there, which resulted in key Indian leaders attending the DSP’s international conferences held in Australia.
In our Political Committee meetings, there was always one item that John made sure got the proper attention. He paid great attention to when and where any important Left event was taking place around the world. He wanted the DSP to be represented and to be able to learn from what was going on. He would make vigorous investigations to identify any and every DSP member planning an overseas holiday or having to travel overseas, and would work to convince them to change their plans to incorporate attendance at these events. I suspect there were scores of comrades who during that decade were approached and agreed to his proposal and had political experiences they will never forget.
You didn’t need to be star or sit on this or that body to be asked.
This was a DSP tradition, which John embodied and upheld, which was that every human being that joined the party did so latent with massive potential as a cadre. Everybody had to have ongoing assignments, which not only made the DSP an organisation that could do so many things, but it reflected a knowledge of the potential of all individuals.
I don’t know that I have ever got to know a person whose behaviour, in this case as a party-builder, a team builder, made that assumption of potential so totally his starting point.
He was a very humble man even as he was dogged and unapologetically stubborn in defending what he thought was right.
I suspect John would have thought that one of the things he was especially proud of was the way that LINKS magazine was able to start to embody the party’s new perspective on internationalism and international relations. The party had broken out of identifying only with members of an international group it had belonged to, the Fourth International. It now looked outside that narrow network to find parties that had similar fundamental revolutionary politics, even if from a different tradition and having different positions on some issues. Again LINKS was a collective effort, but John’s doggedness in pursuing contributions and driving it along was essential. While he was still there, it was one of the few magazines in the world – maybe the only one – where revolutionary parties from different traditions could exchange ideas.
I know he was very proud and loved to see it appear each issue.
The most intense collaboration I had with John was in the struggle inside the party in the two years or so up until both of us, and 50 others, including the late comrade Doug Lorimer, were expelled in 2008. Comrade Ben Reid in his tribute to John on facebook used the words “dogged and even unapologetically stubborn” to describe John’s defence of the revolutionary cadre party. We had adopted a tactic that had been pursued for too long and too often defended with flawed arguments so that it had began to be seen as a strategy by more and more people in the party. This tactic – the broad left party tactic – threatened the existence of the kind of party John knew was needed by the movement at this time: an openly revolutionary cadre party oriented to radicalising youth.
Let history record that it was John before any of us that saw and noted this threat. He was the central leader of the significant minority that emerged in the fight to drop the mistaken tactic. It was a hard and difficult fight against an incumbent majority. There were so many tactics and incidents to manage. But all throughout this, there was one thing that John in particular insisted upon. This was that what we all said and wrote would be as educational as possible, as useful as possible, including into the future, to all those interested in building a party. A book volume or volumes comprising all of what comrades wrote at that time would be rich reading for people interested in the art and science of party-building. And let history note also, again while very much a collective effort, that achievement would not have been possible without John.
We were too late. We lost that struggle inside the party. The Revolutionary Socialist Party was formed with John as National Secretary. We were a small group dispersed throughout the country with virtually zero material resources with the political terrain dominated by the much larger and well-resourced party of the majority, including the paper Green Left Weekly – which we had all contributed in building, and especially John. We were also up against Socialist Alternative which had started to grow more rapidly. Eventually some comrades left, thinking it was not possible to build our kind of party at this time. Our group got smaller. John remained steadfast, we started to regroup. In was in this period that RSP comrades started to have more contact with comrades in Socialist Alternative. Recognising that despite other differences we had the same basic understanding of what was to be done as regards party-building, the RSP and Socialist Alternative fused. As regards this process, Jorge Jorquera wrote very truly in his tribute to John:
“John’s life provides an example for revolutionaries not only for his unrelenting commitment to the cause but also because it shows that individuals are limited by circumstances but always have some choices when it comes to what we do to help change the world. In his later years John’s choices were hard, but he made the ones that ensure his early work in founding and building the Socialist Workers Party (Democratic Socialist Party) will not go to waste.
John’s legacy lives in Socialist Alternative – the organisation he humbly but enthusiastically threw his lot in with in his last years.”
John was a proud member until his death. And a serious member. And, despite serious health problems, a very active member.
I must end with a few more personal comments.
I consider John not just a comrade, but a best friend. When Faiza and I lived in his granny flat at the back of his house, a daily chat over wine was a highlight. We talked politics and sometimes personal things; future plans. It was happy making. Even in his difficult last days, he was thinking of how he could help me through my present small trials. I will also be grateful for his friendship, his generosity and concern for Faza and I.
And to Eva – a special red salute to you. A dedicated comrade in the DSP and in our other struggles.
And also a long and warm hug from afar in Melbourne in your grief. And for Emma also. Everybody could always see Eva’s love and dedication for John, especially during the last difficult ten years, made even more difficult by John’s serious bad luck in health. And we could all see how John returned that love. Faiza and I send our love to you.
Many of the tributes to John end with the words:
“John Percy – presente’.”
Yes, John will always be present in my heart.
Yes, John will be always present among all those fighting for a humane, just and socialist world.
Let our grief and rememberence be most of all expressed in deeds:
Towards the revolution!
Build the party!
As Allen Myers wrote in RED FLAG:
“John never wavered. Neither should we.”