Book review: Guido Barracchi: Tenacious but flawed

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Jeff Sparrow’s biography of Australian communist Guido Barracchi, Communism: A Love Story is an allegory for twentieth century radicals and anti-authoritarians. Australia has produced a number of prominent rabble-rousers over the past hundred years, including author Frank Hardy, writer Katherine Susannah Pritchard and feminist Germaine Greer. So Sparrow’s choice of subject is an interesting one. Barracchi is little known outside of the Australian Trotskyist movement but his story is an interesting one, told engagingly by Sparrow.

Sparrow charts Guido’s lifelong struggle for socialism and, later, against the destructive influence of Stalinism on the labour movement. Guido achieves this while staying true to his vision of a humanity liberated from the crushing existence meted out under capitalism.

Guido was born to a prominent Melbourne family. His father, Pietro, was the well-known state astronomer in boom time Victoria. Guido attended university as a “gentlemen of independent means” and lived and studied accordingly. He was soon drawn towards a radical critique of society. Sparrow recounts a number of campus struggles where Guido came up against future conservative Prime Minister Bob Menzies and reactionary World War II hero, Edward Dunlop. Guido also threw himself into the campaign against the government referendum on conscription — a campaign that was won not once, but twice. He was jailed during this campaign.

In the early 1920s, Guido helped found the Communist Party of Australia (CPA). He worked tirelessly to build the party — an organisation he was later expelled from twice. Guido travelled several times to Europe. This was partly to escape the isolation and conformity of Australia, and more than once, to escape tangled relationships. In 1922, Guido experienced the heady whirlwind of revolutionary struggle in Weimar Berlin. The German Communist Party had significant resources, influence and a large membership. After this experience, Guido struggled to reintegrate into political activity in Australia. The fledgling CPA was tiny, and racked with disputes. Fleeing Australia once more, Guido and his then partner, Betty, returned to Europe. This time the destination was the Soviet Union.

The Soviet Union, a country that had made a revolution, was an inspiration for those repelled by the horrors of capitalism. Whole countries were devastated by war. A seemingly unresolvable economic crisis loomed and would leave hunger, unemployment and insecurity in its wake. In contrast, the USSR by the late 1920s appeared to have broken the inexplicable cycle of boom and bust. The soviets had also instituted socially progressive legislation that greatly improved the quality of life for many, most notably women.

It was 1933 when Guido and Betty arrived in the USSR — a year of hunger resulting from Stalin’s attempt to brutally modernise the country. The discontent was initially barely detectable to newly arrived foreigners. Guido and Betty threw themselves into work and extolled the progress being made towards the creation of a new society. Guido initially averted his eyes to the most obvious failings of the Stalinist system — beggars on the streets, the benefits and nepotism that attached itself to party bureaucrats, the whispered stories of arrests and disappearances made in the middle of the night by secret police.

Despite endeavouring to see only the birth of a new society from the decaying ruins of a destructive past, doubts began to surface in Guido’s mind about the progress towards socialism in the USSR and the infallibility of Comrade Stalin.

Arriving back in Australia in 1935, Guido found that the CPA was increasingly an uncritical conduit for Stalin’s policies. Previous positions were junked without explanation. At one point, Betty reported glowingly on the availability of abortion in the USSR. Shortly after, a favourable report appeared in the CPA press that Stalin had introduced anti-abortion legislation. Such volte-face did little to dispel concerns that Guido and others had about the direction that the USSR was apparently taking. There was dark talk reaching Australia of longtime communists in the USSR now becoming agents of counter-revolution, of fascism and handmaidens of imperialism. Stalin’s demand for unquestioning obedience and absolute loyalty was about to devour a generation of communists that had made the revolution of 1917.

Locally, the CPA was developing a reputation as serious and committed campaigners on any number of issues — the rights of the unemployed, Aboriginal struggles and as anti-fascist crusaders. The party’s numbers swelled as they recruited not only workers, but also intellectuals, writers, actors, lawyers and the like. With war looming, the CPA, under instructions from Moscow, began to form pacts with respectable folks, seeking to have famous individuals speak on public platforms. This reflected Stalin’s view that alliances between governments were the best way to provide security for the USSR. When conservative Prime Minister Menzies established a register for males between 18 and 65, as a precursor to conscription, the CPA ensured that its members registered. Meanwhile, Guido watched Trotskyists defiantly burn their registration cards. He found himself increasingly supporting the actions and ideas of the tiny group of Trotskyists reviled by the CPA as counter-revolutionary.

The CPA, like Stalin, could not tolerate differing opinions. Political activity on such a basis was becoming untenable for Guido, until finally he broke with the CPA to join the politically isolated Trotskyist Communist League (CL). Guido was vilified and smeared by former comrades as a traitor, and life became increasingly difficult.

The CL became convinced that the only way it could realistically hope to make sustained and systematic contact with the working class was to enter the Australian Labor Party (ALP) as a faction. The aim of this tactic was to attract the best militants in the ALP to Trotskyist ideas. They experienced limited success. Post-war Australia was economically strong and politically stable. The horrors of Stalinism were visible for all to see, and the appeal of a new post-capitalist world retreated as consumer society offered relative comfort to the most privileged Australian workers. The labour movement was also split by the politically conservative Democratic Labor Party, which was organised on a religious basis. As a result, a conservative government held power for an unbroken 21 years. The activists of the CL ended up further marginalised than when they entered the ALP. As Sparrow explains, “the flame of Marxism continued to flicker but, entombed within the ALP, it could never catch fire.” The CL, which entered the ALP as a tactic, forgot to leave the ALP, and its numbers evaporated like dew in the morning sun.

But Guido kept at it! In 1975, at age 88, he campaigned for every last vote as part of the unsuccessful effort to defeat Malcolm Fraser.

To Sparrow’s credit, Guido is not simplistically portrayed in bold relief as an enduring communist hero, but as a complex and flawed man, with stunted emotional development and a father who fled his responsibilities. Guido’s political story is interspersed with the making and breaking of relationships, sometimes on a whim, and his unpreparedness to accept responsibility for the emotional tangles he wove. We see Guido flee the country rather than deal with difficult matters of the heart at home. This trait does little to endear him. Contrast this with Guido’s early recognition of the need to support women’s suffrage and his rejection of mainstream thinking on the role of women in society and relationships. Guido was a man of multifarious ideas and actions. Sparrow does well to capture his depth, and our understanding of Guido is the richer for it.

Guido’s life marks all the high, and low, points of the Australian Left in the twentieth century – the anticonscription battles, the formation of a communist party in a time of revolutionary upheaval when the world was awash with hope, the struggles against fascism and racism, the birth of the women’s liberation movement, the rise of movements against Australian imperialist involvement in the region, and many others besides.

Beyond all else, Guido was committed to a radically different kind of world, and despite the personal and political challenges that confronted him, he remained true to his vision, and dedicated his life to convincing others of not only that possibility but also that necessity.

Bryan Sketchley, a longtime Trotskyist, is a member of
the Community and Public Sector Union and a new father.

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