2007, 294 p.
‘Communism’ and ‘Love Story’- now they are two words that you don’t very often hear in the same sentence. Jeff Sparrow’s book centres on Guido Baracchi, a wealthy Melbourne political activist and Communist, described by historian Stuart Macintyre as “the knight errant of Australian radicalism…a man of considerable wealth and emotional spontaneity, utterly without guile or worldly ambition, of luminous innocence and limitless self-centredness” (cited on p. 5).
It’s hard to believe now, with liberalism under threat in many places, with Putin becoming such an unnerving presence and after Kruschev’s denunciation of Stalin in 1956, that Communism in the first half of the 20th century could have elicited passion -and yes, love- amongst its followers. But as Sparrow explains:
Communism provided an alternative. It was, in many way, the alternative, the most important indicator that society could be remade. Between 1917 and 1989, its star shone bright and its star shone dim, but its continuing sparkle in the political firmament allowed millions to believe in a world beyond the free market. Even those who despised communism felt that while it existed, change- whether they wanted it or not- was a possibility.
Today that feeling is gone….With communism gone, few of us can articulate a different kind of society, another economic model or even a philosophical challenge to the buy-low, sell-high ethics of the market. (p. 3)
Guido Baracchi was born in Melbourne in 1887, the son of the Italian-born astronomer at the Melbourne Observatory who had responsibility for the Great Melbourne Telescope. He provided his son Guido an education that would seem to almost guarantee ‘respectability’. He went to kindergarten with later Governor-General Richard Casey, attended Melbourne Grammar School where later Prime Minister Stanley Melbourne Bruce was an older fellow-student, and studied at Melbourne University with later Prime Minister Robert Menzies. He was diametrically opposed to them politically. He threw himself into student politics at Melbourne University, – through the Melbourne University Historical Society no less- was arrested for an anti-conscription speech he gave on the Yarra Bank in 1918, started the Victorian Labor College and edited ‘Industrial Solidarity, the journal of the International Industrial Workers, the successor to the banned Industrial Workers of the World. He was a foundation member of the Communist Party of Australia in 1920, and edited their journal Proletarian.
But if there was romance and idealism, there was also disillusionment, especially in the 1920s. Travelling to Europe in 1922 after the failure of his marriage, Baracchi worked as a professional revolutionary in Weimar Berlin, and was part of the disastrously failed uprising of the KPD (Communist Party of Germany) in 1923. Returning to Australia, he found the Australian communists in disarray. The Melbourne branch had collapsed completely, many branches were dysfunctional, the Sydney branch was hollowed out. Those members still active were exhausted, others quarrelled over doctrine and Baracchi despaired of the leadership. In 1925, he suggested the dissolution of the CPA as a separate entity, urging the formation of a ginger group within the ALP instead. The leadership of the party expelled him, and he was to pay for this ‘disloyalty’ for years afterwards.
Although not part of the CPA, he travelled to Russia, where he stayed for a year, working as a translator in the Co-Operative Publishing Society for Foreign Workers. Returning to Australia with his communist credentials burnished, he was eventually readmitted into the CPA. But he wasn’t to be there for long, because he was expelled in 1940 for Trotskyite tendencies. He turned his attention to the ALP instead, hoping to promote socialism within the party and died in 1975 after a day handing out how-to-vote cards for the Labor Party.
I’m not particularly familiar or interested in the intricacies of Marxist theory or the schisms and alliances between different branches of Marxism. However, Sparrow did not dwell on this, although I’m sure that a reader more versed in such things would pick up on observations and comments that just passed me by.
But this book is more than a book about Communism politics in 20th century Australia. Sparrow combines the political and the personal, and certainly Guido had a tumultuous love life, marrying and partnering several times. There must have been something about him, though, because often his wives/partners got on well with their predecessors and successors. He shifted between Melbourne, Europe, and back to Melbourne in 1924 to claim his considerable inheritance in nearby (to me) and highly respectable Ivanhoe – the thing that prompted me to read this book in the first place. He travelled through Russia, and later shifted to Sydney where he lived at Castlecrag, the estate designed by Walter Burley Griffin and his wife Marion Mahony Griffin.
He was thoroughly imbricated in the progressive intellectual network of the time. He had an affair with Katharine Susannah Pritchard, he was a close friend of Esmonde Higgins, the nephew of H.B. Higgins and sister to Nettie Palmer. He had an affair with the poet Lesbia Harford; he lived with the playwright Betty Roland in Russia, and circulated with her amongst the artists at Montsalvat and Castlecrag. This is a story not just of one man, but of an intellectual milieu, over several decades.
This book brought me everything that I like most about biography: a clear and chronological narrative of events; rich context to make sense of them; depiction of a complex social network around the subject; an appraisal of emotional entanglements, and most importantly, a curiosity about the subject that acknowledges foibles, complexities and inexplicabilities. All this, written with sensitivity and insight- an excellent biography!
My rating: 9.5 / 10
Sourced from: La Trobe University Library