Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Book Review - Comrades come rally! by John Sendy

Comrades come rally : recollections of an Australian Communist by John Sendy

Melbourne : Nelson, 1978                                                     ISBN 0170052141

A fascinating and frustrating book. John Sendy was a life-long Communist, joining the Party during the War, and rising through the ranks to be President, before he retired in 1974, disillusioned. As the title suggests, this book is a personal look at a life spent working for the Party, and is about the happenings within the Party - there is not much theoretical material in this book (which is ironic given that Sendy suggests a lack of theoretical muscle in the membership led to many of the problems the Party suffered). In fact Sendy admits he was never much of a theorist, being a person who thought that the aims of Communism seemed right to him, and something worth striving for.

Sendy grew up in Adelaide and environs, and was seen early on as a potential leader in the Party, so was sent to China for three years of training. This experience was very formative in Sendy's thinking, as he drank in the Chinese way of Communism, which led him to begin to question the way Communism was practiced in the USSR. Later on he began to question the Chinese ideology as well, and moved toward the thinking of the Italian and French Communists, who were working through representative democratic forums to effect change, something that to Sendy seemed to make more sense in the Australian situation.  He deplored the inability of the CPA to see that they should support the efforts of the Australian Labor Party, along the lines of Italian support for Centre-Left parties. He notes that the Italian Communists ended up in a Left government in Italy by following such a policy.

This thinking brought him into conflict with some of the other leaders of the Party, who more slavishly followed the Moscow or Peking line. Sendy doesn't explicitly say so, but implies that the lack of intellectual strength within the Party led to this sort of outcome.

The history of the Communist Party of Australia after the war, and especially from the 1960s on, is one of grievances, fights, and splits, mostly over who was more "pure". Like many fundamentalist organisations, members ended up devouring each other. Sendy deplored this situation, continually advocating a more inclusive Party, that allowed it's members to disagree and argue to come up with policy. This was not how much of the other leadership wanted to run the Party - being more authoritarian in approach - with an "if you're not with us you're against us" attitude.

Sendy's fears of the outcome of this kind of thinking came true - the party kept shrinking and became more irrelevant to the Australian polity as time went on. From a high of over 20,000 members in the 1940s, by the time Sendy retired in the mid seventies the party numbered less than 2,000 members. Sendy recounts with sadness the split that led to the formation of the Socialist Party of Australia, something he thought was avoidable, and that unnecessarily diffused the Socialist effort in Australia.

Comrades come rally chronicles the decline, and the internecine backbiting that caused it. It also chronicles many of the characters of the party, and stories of their achievements, both good and bad. Sometimes what's written here comes across as very naive, but Sendy tried at all times to move the Party in a direction so that it could make a difference in politics in Australia. That he failed is not an indictment of his efforts.

An interesting document of the times, this book is neither completely personal reminiscence, nor is it history, nor is it an ideological statement. Falling between these stools, it is not quite as satisfying as it could be, but is interesting nonetheless.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

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