Vale John McCarthy, 1948 — 2008

November 8, 2008

John McCarthy, a veteran socialist and Queensland doctor, died at home on November 1 after a long struggle with cancer.

John was born, raised and educated in Queensland. At a very young age he radicalised, initially around the social inequalities in Australian society — particularly the problem of racism and the situation of Aboriginal people in Queensland. He saw Indigenous people picked up from where they lived and worked and carried off on trucks to be confined to Aboriginal missions, such as Cherbourg.

John became a socialist at 15, and rapidly moved to the left of the Labor Party, seeing no solution there. There seemed to be no solution in the Communist Party of Australia, as it was then, either.

He became a Marxist after reading Victor Serge's Memoirs of a Revolutionary and Leon Trotsky's History of the Russian Revolution. He was also greatly influenced by Isaac Deutscher's books on Trotsky and Stalin. By the time John was 19 he planned to go to Cuba, a confirmed Leninist and Trotskyist.

McCarthy travelled to Cuba and then to Europe at the end of the 1960s. He was very impressed with what he saw in Cuba — a revolution in practice. Despite the many problems, the Cuban people were taking back their heritage and attempting to make the best of life in difficult circumstances. This was achieved despite horrendous opposition and threats from the US, and from the capitalist world generally.

In Europe, John became associated with the Fourth International (FI) and joined the International Marxist Group (IMG) in Britain. There, he began to experience the factional divisions in the left, which undermined its ability to lead an alternative.

After John returned to Brisbane in the 1970s, he helped found the Communist League (CL), one of two groups aligned with the FI, in an attempt to establish a revolutionary party. He felt that such a party needed to be composed of activists from unions, work groups, professionals and social movements.

McCarthy played a big role in leading the fusion of the CL and the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), two groups aligned with the FI during the late 1970s. He felt that the fusion of the two groups was a positive development, as the divisions, he felt, had been generated by overseas factional interests rather than home-grown political developments.

After a period of intense activity during the late 1960s and 1970s, and work in the combined SWP organisation, McCarthy stepped back to pursue his medical career. He explained it later as being "burned out".

But even while John pursued his medical career, his identification as a socialist never faltered. For instance, he joined Socialist Alliance when it formed in 2001, and continued to explore the openings for socialists here and internationally.

While he saw the failure of revolutionary leadership as a key problem for the left movement, he never became pessimistic. He welcomed and supported gains made and new leaderships when they emerged.

In particular, he saw Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez as an intelligent, gifted individual who faced the problems of class society and provided a role model for young and old.

He felt the danger for Chavez was international isolation, and hence strongly believed in the importance of international solidarity.

John's vision of the future, articulated in the final months of his life, was optimistic.

As John told the Brisbane-based activist Jim McIllroy, "The fight is the fight for simple justice, to begin with.

"To do that today, you've got to be organised and create a revolutionary movement that's rooted in the majority of the population. You don't see Chavez going around saying he's revolutionary, or socialist, or Leninist, all the time. As long as that basic principle of exploitation is recognised, and that it's reversed, you don't have to proclaim yourselves as revolutionary at all times.

"Trotsky's statement is still true. The future we face as the human race is 'socialism or barbarism'. There's no alternative, and we're faced with new manifestations of barbarism, not the same as 50, 60, 70 years ago but still there. And probably more dangerous now.

"The danger for the left is sectarianism. Sects talk just to each other, and not to the population. As my grandmother used to say, 'If you can't talk to the common man, there's no point'."

John remained committed to the fight for human liberation all his life. He is survived by his partner Kerry, their three children, Matthew, Leo and Cecilia, and Bridget and Bernadette, two daughters from a previous relationship.

[Pat Brewer was previously a member of the Communist League along with John McCarthy. She is now a leader of the Democratic Socialist Perspective.]

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