Communism: A Love Story
By Jeff Sparrow
Melbourne University Press 2007
336 pages, $26.95
Guido Baracchi's rich political life spanned nearly 70 years and encompassed some of the most important and exciting events of the 20th century, in Australia and internationally.
Baracchi was a founder of the Australian Communist Party (CPA) in 1920, and for many years was considered its leading theoretician. He worked for the communist movement in the Berlin of the Weimar Republic, and in Moscow in the 1930s. He was twice expelled from the Communist Party, and from 1940 to the 1960s was a member of the small Australian Trotskyist group led by Nick Origlass. He died on December 13, 1975, aged 88, after he had collapsed while campaigning for the re-election of Whitlam.
Baracchi also had a rich personal life. His many love affairs as well as the details of his political activities are recounted in Communism: A Love Story, a biography of him by Jeff Sparrow. But the title refers fundamentally to his lifelong commitment to the ideals of communism — "communism always remained Guido's great love: a vision of a different world that burned itself into his soul and stayed with him all his life. It was communism to which he gave his heart — and communism that wounded him the most."
Communism describes well the impact of the Russian Revolution and Lenin's Bolshevik party in transforming the existing socialist and radical milieu in Australia — "Communism generated a palpable excitement" in the "struggle between the old era dying and a new one struggling to be born".
Baracchi was a founding member of the CPA, but after a few years the party was stagnating, even going backwards, so he sailed for Europe, to be closer to the action in Berlin. He worked there on the Comintern's Inprecorr magazine, and lived through the botched revolutionary opportunity.
Returning from the revolutionary excitement of Berlin in 1923 and a party of a quarter of a million members and 38 daily newspapers to the CPA struggling to survive in 1924, with not much more than 100 paid-up members, was a let down. "The distance between what the party sought and the actual resources available to it created a temptation for shortcuts, magic keys that would open the door into real, practical politics." Baracchi, working in the party office, "watched with horror and fascination, as Jock Garden, the CPA's main leader, tried to bluff a mass organisation into existence". He resigned in 1925, but the party insisted on expelling him.
Baracchi rejoined the CPA in the '30s — it had grown significantly with the upsurge among unemployed during the Depression. He preceded his formal rejoining by working in Moscow in 1933-34.
In Moscow, Baracchi experienced first-hand the depths of Stalinist degeneration in the '30s, as the friends whom he'd worked with vanished into Stalin's prisons and camps.
Back in Australia his experience gives a good insight into the operations of the CP bureaucrats. As Baracchi increasingly doubted the line and the lies of the CP leaders in the late '30s, the book describes his hesitations and considerations and those of CPA comrades with similar misgivings and fears, anguished at the prospect of being outside the party, cut off from militant workers.
Baracchi had quit the party once already, and regretted it, so standing up, and facing automatic expulsion, the loss of friendships, comradeship, ostracisation, even violence, was especially hard. Jim Rawling, another leader whose eyes had been opened like Baracchi's, was expelled. Baracchi followed soon after. He joined the small, isolated Trotskyist group.
The Trotskyist group, being banned, chose to join the Australian Labor Party. The Trotskyist group had been reduced to this perspective more by default and the difficulties posed by the dominance of the so much larger Stalinist CPA than by principled arguments for moving forward.
There was little joy in this course. As the main arena of his political activity, it seemed a dreary experience for the rest of Baracchi's political life, lacking the inspiration and the theoretical debates that were his forte. The Trotskyist group remained tiny, and immersion in the ALP, starting as a tactic, became a principle, a long-term strategy, for the rest of the group's existence.
Baracchi never sold out, but for the last decades of his life he was surviving on thin gruel for someone who was inspired by the heady ideals of communism, the emancipation of the working class, and world revolution. He marched against the war in Vietnam in the '60s, and probably was inspired again by the thousands of young people who were radicalising at the time in Australia, and around the world.
In many ways, Baracchi's biography was a story waiting to be written — of a colourful, principled revolutionary who lived through many of the most important and exciting events of the 20th century. Hall Greenland filled a big gap with his biography of that other important figure of the Australian left, Nick Origlass, (Red Hot, Wellington Lane Press, Sydney, 1998).
This is an excellent book, recommended for all Green Left Weekly readers.
[John Percy is the national president of the Democratic Socialist Perspective, and was won to revolutionary Marxism during the youth radicalisation and campaign against the war in Vietnam in the 1960s.]