Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Out of the cold

I've just reviewed a couple of books for the left-wing Aussie literary journal Overland. I don't think I'm stealing anyone's thunder by putting the review here - sadly, this blog's mostly Kiwi readers are unlikely to have heard of, much less read, Overland, even though it is one of Australia's longest-surviving literary rags.

When they look abroad for a fix of culture, Kiwis seem to bypass the big flat land to their west and head for the US or good old Blighty. There are far more Brit and American writers on the shelves of our bookshops than Aussies, and surprisingly few Aussie films make it to general release here. If we think of Aussie culture at all, we tend to think of caricatures like Crocodile Dundee, Jimmy Barnes, and Les Murray. The young Auckland poet Michael Steven is an exception to this dismal rule, and he is currently writing an in-depth study of Autralian poetry for brief; my understanding is that the study will have at the centre of its focus the enigmatic and tragic figure of Michael Dransfield. In the meantime, you can check out Overland here.

Jeff Sparrow, Communism: A Love Story, Melbourne University Press, 2007
Rick Kuhn, Henryk Grossman and the Recovery of Marxism, University of Illinois Press, 2007

After the Soviet Union was abolished by a coup d’etat in 1991, a peculiar sort of triumphalism flourished amongst Western intellectuals. In a thousand editorials and seminar rooms the long-overdue end of history was proclaimed and the final defeat of Marxism celebrated. A decade and a half after the end of history, the universal triumph of capitalism looks somewhat less assured. Disastrous imperial adventures in the Middle East, the emergence of popular opposition to globalisation in much of the Third World, and the spectre of environmental catastrophe have all helped to depress apologists for the status quo.

Perhaps more surprisingly, a reconsideration of Marxism has begun amongst intellectuals in the West. For instance, a number of talented historians and sociologists have begun to reject Cold War caricatures of communist ideology and practice. Scholars like Nina Fishman, Andy Croft, and Kerry Taylor have shown that, even after Stalin’s capture of the Soviet state and Comintern, rank and file communists were rather more than robots run by remote control from the Kremlin. Last year Hugh Purcell’s biography of Tom Wintringham introduced us to a British communist whose colourful personal life, deep and unapologetic love of ‘bourgeois’ arts and philosophy, and fiercely idiosyncratic interpretations of Marx and Lenin ran completely counter to the orthodoxies emanating from the Kremlin in the 1930s.

Jeff Sparrow’s biography of the Australian communist Guido Baracchi ought to be read alongside Purcell’s portrait of Wintringham. Like Wintringham, Baracchi had a love for Marxist ideas that was only matched by the love he felt for a bewildering succession of women. Both passions were dangerous, to party leaderships that became more and more politically cynical and morally censorious as Stalin tightened his grip on the international communist movement.

The son of a wealthy astronomer, Baracchi went to school with other children of the Australian bourgeoisie, before becoming one of the first radicals at the University of Melbourne. He was jailed for his part in the anti-conscription campaign that saved thousands of Aussie lives during World War One, was a foot soldier in the street battles of Weimar Germany, survived in Moscow during the ‘hungry year’ of 1933, was driven out of the Communist Party twice, spent World War Two in Australia’s fledgling Trotskyist movement, and eventually found a political home on the far left of the Labour Party. By the time he died campaigning for Gough Whitlam in 1975, Baracchi had become a hero to a generation of young left-wing activists – radical students, hippies, neo-Trotskyists, Euro communists – who saw in him a steadfast commitment to a radical politics independent of the Cold War orthodoxies of both Washington and Moscow. Baracchi’s personal life was never as noble, and he left behind him a trail of broken hearts and embittered offspring.

Jeff Sparrow has turned thousands of hours of research in archives and obscure secondary publications into a crisp, three hundred page narrative that I found myself compelled to read in a single sitting. It is clear, though, that Sparrow wants to do more than entertain his readers. In his Introduction he talks about writing ‘a book about communism in Australia: what it was, what it became, and what it meant to those who lived it’.

Sparrow certainly succeeds in rescuing Guido Baracchi from the enormous condescension of posterity. There may be difficulties, though, in converting the wonderful story Communism: A Love Story tells into a set of generalisations about rank and file members of the Communist Party of Australia. Baracchi’s social origins and the personal freedom his family’s wealth gave him, his intense, almost dandyish intellectualism, his extensive travels, his experience of a pre-Stalinist Bolshevism, and the many social milieux in which he moved surely combine to make him an exceptional figure in the history of Australian communism. There is no doubt that rank and file Communist Party members were cruelly caricatured during the Cold War; it is not clear, though, whether a portrait which relied on Baracchi’s peculiar life for its colour would not also be a caricature.

To say this is not to deny that there are many passages in Communism: A Love Story which should interest historians of twentieth century Australia. Baracchi’s life often offers a sort of portal through which fascinating details of half-forgotten milieux and events can be glimpsed. Sparrow’s descriptions of the small and heroic Trotskyist movement that appeared in Australia in the nineteenth thirties is particularly interesting, because the honesty and thoughtfulness of the Trotskyists illuminate the cynicism and stupidity of some of the more populous political tendencies of the time. Describing Baracchi’s first appearance on a Trotskyist platform in the Sydney Domain shortly after the beginning of the Second World War, Sparrow skilfully exposes the pressures faced by a dissident communist opposed to Hitler, Stalin, and the government in Canberra:

They made their way onto the Domain, a landscape suddenly transformed by their exclusion from the party. The familiar faces they met were distorted with hostility, warning a pair of Trotsky-fascists away from a workers’ forum...JB Miles’ Scottish burr floated across the crowd as they walked by:
‘Baracchi…pseudo-Marxist…agent of Menzies!’

When they reached the Communist League stump they found Gil Roper in full flight before a crowd of several hundred…He spoke about the war, about the killings that had been and the killings that were to come, and the falsity of the justifications made for them…There was no need to stick a bayonet into the belly of German worker in the name of Bob Menzies!

Not all the audience were supportive – there was a sprinkling of khaki uniforms amongst them – but Guido could see the occasional nod of the head and the quickened interest that showed an idea had taken root…Roper spoke the truth, and events themselves would confirm what he said.

‘Trotsky-fascist…dilettante!’

He remembered a passage from Finnegans Wake and felt both Stalin and his local supporters slide back into perspective. ‘I thought’, Joyce wrote, ‘you were all glittering with the noblest of carriage. You’re only a bumpkin. I thought you the great in all things, in guilt and in glory. You’re but a puny.’…

The terrible sense of loss lifted. When his turn came to speak, he stepped, almost joyously, onto the platform.

Rick Kuhn’s Henryk Grossman and the Recovery of Marxism is another book which benefits from the historiographical thaw that has followed the end of the Cold War. The dismal reputation that Henryk Grossman still enjoys reminds me of a story by Jorge Luis Borges called ‘The Form of the Sword’. The central character of Borges’ tale recalls, in the third person, the follies of his Marxist youth:

He had studied, with fervour and vanity, every page of some communist manual or other; dialectical materialism served him as a means to end any and all discussion. The reasons that one man may have to hate another, or love him, are infinite: Moon reduced universal history to a sordid economic conflict. He asserted that the revolution is predestined to triumph.

Sixty-five years after Borges wrote ‘The Form of the Sword’, many people still believe that Marxism is a doctrine intended to reduce the infinite complexity of the world to a few formulations borrowed from the dreary science of economics. Even Marxists who reject the general validity of such a stereotype accept that it holds true for some of their precursors. It is fair to say that Grossman has had a bum deal even from left-wing histories of Marxist thought. Generally these histories give him a walk-on role, as the dry as dust, dogmatic elder at the famous Frankfurt School in the 1920s and ‘30s. Grossman, who spent much of those years poring over volumes of economic data and writing works like his magnum opus, The Law of Accumulation and the Breakdown of the Capitalist System, is presented as an obstacle that restless young Frankfurters like Herbert Marcuse and Theodore Adorno had to manoeuvre around, in their pursuit of a Marxism that was attuned to the cultural life of the twentieth century, rather than the economic doctrines of the nineteenth century. At best, the plodding Pole provides a sort of dull background against which the brilliance of Marcuse and Adorno can be appreciated.

Aussie academic Rick Kuhn’s carefully researched and smoothly written book aims to deprive historians of Marxism of a favourite Aunt Sally. In Kuhn’s hands, the stodgy economist becomes a dashing revolutionary who enjoyed wine and women as much as tables of statistics. The first part of Kuhn’s book steers us expertly through Grossman’s childhood in fin de siecle Galicia, describes the role the young revolutionary played in the Jewish Social Democratic Party that thrived in pre-war Poland, and demonstrate that the young academic played an agitational as well as theoretical role in the revolutionary tumult that swept through Europe in the twentieth century’s late teens and early twenties. Kuhn documents Grossman’s persecution at the hands of Poland’s postwar government, and chronicles the long years of intensive research and bureaucratic infighting that followed his exile to the Frankfurt School, which was itself relocated to America after the rise of demise of the Weimar Republic. After the defeat of Nazism, Grossman took up an academic position in East Germany, where he died in 1950.

Kuhn has succeeded in turning the caricature of Grossman into a nuanced and far from unflattering portrait. Ultimately, though, Grossman’s bad reputation rests on pillars which no amount of interesting information about pre-war Galicia or Polish revolutionary history will undermine. If Kuhn wants to rehabilitate Grossman, then he must rehabilitate The Law of Accumulation, and he must explain the older Grossman’s steadfast support for Stalin and, eventually, the Stalinist colony of East Germany.

The Law of Accumulation is often seen as a bizarre exercise in Talmudic positivism: a book which tries to ‘prove’ the inevitable end of capitalism with endless tables of statistics and quotes from the sacred texts of Marx. Many critics have seen in Grossman's arguments a denial of human agency, and a blind faith in the ‘iron laws’ of economics. Kuhn does his subject a favour when he points to the subtle, nuanced nature of the ‘laws’ Grossman saw operating in capitalism. He explains that Grossman’s famous discussions of capitalist collapse were carefully contextualised:

The Law of Accumulation developed and was structured by the account of Marx’s method that Grossman had outlined in earlier publications. After surveying previous Marxist discussions of the question of capitalist collapse, the book moved from abstract to progressively more concrete levels of analysis. The second chapter examined the law of collapse when a number of simplifying assumptions were made. The third dealt with countertendencies to the law, as these simplifying assumptions were lifted. The conclusion considered the connections among capitalism’s crisis tendency, the class struggle, and the concentration of capital. Kuhn’s book comes with the recommendation of Bertell Ollman on its back cover, and Ollman’s wonderfully clear expositions of Marx’s dialectical method appear to have influenced Kuhn’s explanations of Grossman’s method.

Kuhn is less convincing when he tries to account for the Stalinist politics of the mature Grossman. Isolation from events in the Soviet Union and Europe, support for the Soviet struggle against Nazism, and naivety about the new regime in East Germany do not really excuse the political degeneration of a man who had known the free-flowing and open-minded debates of the European revolutionary movement in the era before Stalinism. But Grossman’s political blunders should not prevent us from revisiting his writing, any more than Althusser’s occasional concessions to Stalinism should stop us reading For Marx. Like Jeff Sparrow, Rick Kuhn has made a valuable contribution to the understanding of a neglected corner of the history of Marxism.

6 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting... thanks for posting this.

They were discussing the relationship between NZ and Australian lit a while back at Leafsalon and someone pointed out that indifference went both ways - "they" are no more interested in us than we are in "them" apparently.

1:40 pm  
Anonymous Mike B said...

Yeah I think that's right... Actually I think NZers are much more aware of Australia than vice versa. NZ is only in the news here in the sports pages, in the business pages, and when Helen Clark is in some kind of aeronautical near-accident, or when Hone Harawira comments on Australian racism.

In contrast, when I was in NZ a couple of weeks ago, the top news story was the invasion of Aboriginal settlements. Also Fairfax NZ papers get Aussie news because it's cheap to copy it over.

11:54 am  
Anonymous Mike B said...

I now notice you were talking about lit... but anyway. TV-wise the commercial channels try to claim NZ shows as local content. Motorway Patrol, Coast Watch (or whatever it's called) and the show about airport security are very popular here.

11:57 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

We're airing YOUR show on airport security at the moment over here. :-)

Actually I think it depends on your definition of "culture" (Maps here is talking about High Culture with a twist of Nationalism I think) - culturally speaking Australia and NZ share a lot more than either country would like to admit, as is only too obvious when the Aussies and the Kiwis congregate in the Northern Hemisphere.

4:27 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

When the Left’s propagandists speak, the Left’s slaves and allies follow and repeat. This is the destiny and fate of all that cannot face themselves and be willing to face and be flexible against greater powers than they. Their belief is in purity, ideological or otherwise. They believe strength comes from purity, purity of action and purity of belief. But that is not where true strength lies. Fluid is always more flexible and powerful than solids. Yet you need not change your core identity and beliefs to adapt to your situation, not if you are strong enough to return to what you were once originally. The Left cannot change, they cannot improve or evolve, for they believe themselves unto perfection itself. And perfection needs no improvement, least of all from flawed human hands where Gore’s purity may bring on a Golden Age instantaneously.

2:57 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

ha ha you should be a street preacher.

12:39 pm  

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