Australia: Communism: A Love Story, by Jeff Sparrow, Melbourne University Press (2007)

Piero Barrachi was a pioneering Australian Communist, who threw himself into the struggle for a revolutionary party in Australia after the Russian revolution. Initially he did not understand the Stalinist degeneration but eventually he saw through it and joined the Trotskyists. Simon Williams reviews a book about his life.

This is a book which deserves a wide audience. Jeff Sparrow has chosen to write a short history of Marxism in Australia, in the form of a biography of one of its more colourful characters, Guido Barrachi: bohemian, womanizer and lifelong communist militant.  Born in 1887 into a solidly bourgeois background, the son of famous astronomer Piero Barrachi, Guido attended the elite Melbourne Grammar School, before moving onto the equally elite Melbourne University. Unlike many young men from a similar background, who flirt with radical politics in their youth only to settle into a surly conservatism in their middle years, Barrachi's politics moved in an increasingly radical direction. Initially attracted by the utopian socialism of H.G. Wells, he was introduced to the syndicalist politics of the Industrial Workers of the World by his lover, the poet Lesbia Harford.

One of the most interesting and problematic aspects of Barrachi's life is his relationship with various women. Barrachi can rightly be criticised for the cavalier way in which he treated many of these women, often under the guise of a commitment to ‘free love', and his failure to accept his parental responsibilities for the various children he fathered sits badly with his overt commitment to female emancipation. Nevertheless, it is clear that several of these women were significant political influences upon his development. Despite a terminal heart disease, Harford had abandoned a conventional bourgeois lifestyle to work in a garment factory. From Harford, Barrachi gains a political insight that will remain with him throughout his political life: it is not through worthies such as H.G. Wells, G.B. Shaw and the Webbs, for whom the working class and its struggles are an embarrassing distraction, but through ordinary people that socialism will be achieved.

Sent by his mentors to the Fabian inspired London School of Economics in the hope that this would soften his radical leanings, Barrachi moves in the opposite direction. Unlike most of the European left, who were embracing national chauvinism, Barrachi correctly recognises the coming war for the imperialist bloodbath that it was to be. At the outset of the war, Lenin remarked that one could fill a bus with the true internationalists in Europe.  Barrachi would have proudly taken a seat on that bus. Returning to Australia he immerses himself in the anti-conscription campaign, crossing swords with the future Eminence Grise of Australian reaction, Robert Menzies. In an ominous foretaste of things to come he is roughed up by right-wing hooligans and is only saved by his immense personal charm.

The defining moment of the book and of his life is the outbreak of the Russian Revolution. Like many on the left, Barrachi was unsure what to make of the revolution but saw it as an enormously important social experiment. The Communist Party of Australia, formed in response to the Revolution was, like its British counterpart, an uneasy hodge-podge of ultra-leftists and syndicalists. While it quickly drew under its banner the best elements of the workers movement it embodied from the outset a series of contradictions.

The defining question for any Marxist organisation is that of the mass organisations of the working class, in the Australian context the trade unions and the ALP (Australian Labour Party). Despite the illusions of some on the left, who lurch from ultra-left adventurism to opportunism as quickly as other people change shirts on an Australian summer day, there has never been a golden era in which the ALP was a radical socialist movement. It has always been a reformist, pro-capitalist party. Nevertheless, overt policy positions are never the decisive question for Marxists. The ALP was and remains the political expression of the Trade Union movement. It is the party to which the working class will return again and again in the process of drawing revolutionary conclusions. The history of Marxism in Australia has seen numerous examples of organisations setting themselves up as the true socialist alternative to Labor. Time and again they stood on the sidelines, the pure red banners flapping in the wind as the working class marched past them in the opposite direction. The Socialist Alliance's current death throes are only the latest instalment in this sorry history.

The problem facing the Communist Party of Australia from the outset was to how to reach the broad masses of the working class. While this is a problem for any Marxist organisation, Australia presents particular difficulties.  On the one hand, there are the formidable geographical issues: a sparse population distributed in a few urban centres, in which most of the infrastructure is concentrated. On the other, there is the distinctive political situation.

The European history of Australia begins with penal settlement. With the discovery of its vast mineral resources in the late nineteenth-century the British ruling class came to realise that Australia could be exploited as more than simply a dumping ground for undesirables. In exporting convicts, the British exported the best and worst of the British working class. Among the first transportees were the Trades Unionists, such as the Tolpuddle martyrs and they were later joined by Irish rebels.

Penal settlement brought with it radical politics. At the same time it brought the sweepings from the gutters of London and other major cities, carrying in their wake the poison of racism and religious sectarianism. Given Australia's geographical position, it cannot afford to detach itself from the struggles on the Asian mainland. Yet, from its earliest days the Australian labour movement campaigned vigorously against Chinese immigration and the ALP was the main supporter of the White Australia policy until well into the 1970s.  Add to these contradictions the peculiar position of the Australian ruling class "the Bunyip Aristocracy", bringing with them that distinctive combination of hypocrisy and cynicism so familiar from the British bourgeoisie and away from the watchful eye of their ‘betters' in London, the Australian capitalists have never hesitated to use the most ruthless measures against dissent: censorship, police harassment and often outright brutality. All this ensures that the class struggle very quickly becomes polarised here.

The Communist Party from its inception was riven by the kind of internecine disputes which caused an exasperated Lenin to write Left-Wing Communism. Sectarians have never understood that the conservative position of the labour bureaucracy in Australia as elsewhere is based upon material factors rather than simply the cynicism of the Trade Union leadership. Chronic labour shortages in certain key industries meant that the Australian labour movement could wrest concessions from the bosses which were the envy of the working class elsewhere.  This has given the workers a degree of confidence at the same time it has fostered a ‘guild' mentality among skilled workers. Factional disputes between unions have sometimes been as ferocious as those between worker and boss and the unions have often acted to exclude women and ethnic minorities from the workforce.

During the revolutionary upswing which followed the Russian Revolution the correct policy to adopt would have been a fraternal orientation toward rank and file trade union and ALP members combined with a ruthless, principled critique of the bureaucracy. Instead the Communists either opted for a purist disdain for the ALP and its electioneering or else immersed themselves in trade union work without attempting to broaden struggles in a political direction. One ironic moment in Sparrow's book illustrates the difficult position Communists found themselves in when the comrades are torn between sympathy for a transport strike and frustration that the lack of transportation prevent their attending weekly branch meetings.

Growing disheartened by the factional struggles in the CPA, Barrachi applied for permission to travel to Germany and arrives at the heart of a pre-revolutionary situation. Despite the defeat of the Spartakusbund, by 1923 the KPD had emerged as a mass force with deep roots in the working class. Barrachi launched himself into the work of the party.  Unlike the squabbling Australian party the KPD gave every appearance of being a party on the move. Unbeknown to Barrachi the decline of the Comintern as a revolutionary force had already begun and the process of turning national Communist parties from the militant vanguard of the working class into, in Trotsky's famous words, "border guards of the Soviet Union", was already way. The dithering and indecisive role of Zinoviev and the Comintern leadership led to the defeat of the German Revolution and ultimately paved the way for the rise of Hitler and the Stalinist degeneration of the Communist movement.

Barrachi returns to Australia having learned much from his experiences in Germany and proceeds to throw himself into party work with renewed vigour. Unfortunately the Stalinist virus had already begun to penetrate the Australian Communist movement with several contenders for Stalin's role vying for power. Barrachi becomes disheartened with this and resigns his memberships of the party, an act that will cost him dearly in later years. He throws himself into a bohemian lifestyle of drinking and womanising.

Even on the outside of the Party Barrachi still retains hope in the Soviet Union and becomes active in a Party Front Organisation "The Friends of the Soviet Union". Party members recognise his enormous prestige within the movement and encourage his activities. It is under this guise that he applies and is accepted to travel to the Soviet Union. Upon arrival in the Soviet Union he is caught up by the enthusiasm generated by the Stalinist Five Year Plans. Despite the tremendous cost wrought by the mass industrialisation, which led to death by starvation of hundreds of thousands of peasants, the Plan demonstrated, albeit in a distorted fashion, the enormous potential of the planned economy. It is a deep historical irony that Stalin's plan was a caricature of that put forward by Trotsky for which he was castigated in the factional struggle. Barrachi and his comrades recognise the tremendous enthusiasm that the planned economy aroused in the advanced working class in the cities. At the same time, hints emerge, mostly through Barrachi's less naïve fellow voyagers, about the desolation in the villages and the monstrous privileges of the growing bureaucratic caste.

Fortunately his independent means enabled him to travel to and from the Soviet Union. Had he been there under the direct sponsorship of the Australian party he would more than likely have fallen victim to Stalin's purges during which many of his Australian and British comrades in the Soviet Union disappeared. Returning to Australia inspired by his time in the Soviet Union, Barrachi once again throws himself into party work.

Perhaps the most interesting sections of the book are those which detail Barrachi's growing disillusionment with Stalinism. Barrachi initially sees the disputes within the Australian party as a simple factional struggle and while he sides initially with the Stalinists he urges a fraternal debate. He is even prepared to stomach the beginnings of the show trials, using an ingenious understanding of dialectical method to show that Radek and Zinoviev could turn from revolutionaries into reactionaries! His personal experience was showing him that many of his former comrades had proceeded from Communism to the Labor right and even to fascism.

Bourgeois commentators of the ‘God that Failed' variety would see his initial unwillingness to acknowledge Stalin's crimes as proof of his ideological blinkeredness. In reality, they reflect an important observation of the mentality of some of the best elements of the labour movement at that time. The Five Year Plan had won tremendous respect for the Soviet Union in the minds of the advanced workers. The Communist Party was everywhere seen as the vanguard of the working class struggle. Only a tiny handful of Marxists in the Trotskyist movement (and not even all of them) grasped the full scale of Stalinist degeneration.

However, as Barrachi sees good comrades hounded out of the party and brutally treated the scales begin to fall from his eyes. Even then he hesitates. One of the most poignant passages in the book is where Sparrow has Barrachi asking himself the following question: "If he ceased believing in Stalin did he have to become something he despised, standing beside people who opposed not only the Show Trials but also every wage rise Australian workers had ever asked for?" (Sparrow 2007, p. 238).

This question epitomises the dilemma facing every honest communist militant. Only the Trotskyists with their pitiful small forces were able to steer a coherent path between Stalinism and capitalism. Barrachi finally makes the break and joins the small Trotskyist organization, the Communist League. In the preparations for war only the Trotskyists offered a principled position against militarisation, as the Communist Party lurched between ultra-left lunacy and reformism. As Liberal Leader Menzies prepared once again to sacrifice the flower of the Australian working class on the battlefields of Europe and Asia with the racist slogan "You've always despised them [Asians] now it's time to fight them." Barrachi returns to his anti-conscription days and calls once again for class war against exploiters in all countries and for the nationalisation of the economy under workers' control in order to fight Fascism.

The weakest part of the book recounts the post-war years. Struggling against a revitalised Communist Party, living off the prestige of the victory over Hitler, the long post-war upswing and the growth of McCarthyism in Australia, the tiny band of Trotskyists struggle to maintain their forces. Barrachi is shown fighting the Vietnam War and he dies as he lived struggling to defend the Whitlam Government against the CIA-sponsored Constitutional coup led by Jim Kerr and Malcolm Frazer.

By any standards, Barrachi led an interesting life. But the book is so much more than a gossipy biography. One of the fundamental questions it raises is the role of the individual in the revolutionary process. Marxists are not vulgar materialists and recognise that at crucial phases the individual can play a key role, for better or worse. When the movement is going forward, individual foibles matter little. The personal indecisiveness of Kamenev, Zinoviev and Stalin made no difference to the outcome of the October Revolution in the context of the favourable balance of forces and Lenin and Trotsky's resolute leadership. But during a period of reaction, they played a much bigger - negative ‑ role. Hegel refers to the ‘Cunning of Reason' in which even apparently negative personal traits can be positive objectively speaking. For instance, only the stubborn determination of a comrade like Ted Grant could have kept the flame of genuine Marxism alive during the dark years of the post-war period. The same applies to Barrachi. In the revolutionary upswing his undoubted literary talents and sheer personal charisma meant that he was a pole of attraction to the best elements in the Australian workers' movement. In a period of reaction these could be distorted and used against him just as Trotsky's brilliance was twisted and used against him by the Stalinist dullards.

Much of this is beyond an individual's control. However, there is a salutary lesson to be learned for all Marxists from Barrachi's life. The bohemian lifestyle he fostered, his mistreatment of the women in his life and the scandalous way in which he treated his children would do little to endear him to ordinary working men and women struggling to bring up their children and give them a decent life. There is a world of difference between struggling for an equitable society, in which men and women live and love as equals and the bourgeois illusion of ‘free love', which as feminists in the sixties pointed out, more often than not was anything but free for the women involved. We are all familiar with those petty-bourgeois sectarians who turn up at meeting wearing scruffy clothes, smoking pot and swearing in an effort to endear themselves to ‘the workers'. In reality, as anyone from a working-class background knows, no self-respecting worker would dress or behave like that. All such dilettantes do is reinforce the worst prejudices of bourgeois society. In building a bridge to the workers we must be attentive of the small details as much as the major principles.

Let us not dwell on the negatives, however. For all his failings, Guido Barrachi was a dedicated fighter for socialism in the Australian labour movement and internationally. Those of us who come afterwards owe an immense debt of gratitude to these pioneers. It is worth recalling the gallows speech of Irish Revolutionary, Robert Emmett: "Let no man write my epitaph". He was referring to the struggle for Irish independence but we can raise a similar sentiment for the pioneers of Marxism here and abroad. Only when the working class has risen to power and destroyed oppression and exploitation will there be a fit time to write the epitaph of people like Guido Barrachi. Until such time we have Sparrow's book.