Henryk Grossman on the struggle for Marxism, 1883-1932

Posted: November 25, 2014 by Admin in Capitalist ideology, Class Matters, Limits of capitalism, Marxism

51mv9h8wIPL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-v3-big,TopRight,0,-55_SX278_SY278_PIkin4,BottomRight,1,22_AA300_SH20_OU01_Henryk Grossman, Fifty Years of Struggle over Marxism 1883-1932, translated by Rick Kuhn and Einde O’Callagan, with an introduction by Rick Kuhn; Ebook AU$6.34 from http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00OE6KF7O and paperback AU$10 from redflag.subs@gmail.com

reviewed by Tom O’Lincoln

There is a story about Marx’s legacy that we have passed on through generations. After the old man’s death Frederick Engels fixed up the loose ends. Then along came two evil men. Eduard Bernstein who invented reformism but at least was honest about it, and his evil twin, Kautsky. A heroic Rosa Luxemburg warned of dangers, but only Lenin was perspicacious enough to challenge and defeat the “Renegade Kautsky” in the battleground of ideas.

This fable isn’t wrong, but it skips over the lesser players. How much do most of us know about Rudolf Hilferding,  who gave Lenin so much of his background on imperialism? We have heard of Michael Tugan-Baranovsky, but have only a vague notion who he was. Let alone those obscure Americans like Hillquit and Baudin.

Now there’s a  short book that puts them and others in context, written by someone living close to the events and yet also close to our time.

The author is Henryk Grossman, himself until recently a figure obscured in time but deserving much more attention.

I had the opportunity to translate some of his correspondence. This was part of Rick Kuhn’s research project which has brought the Polish-Jewish-German writer to wider public attention for the first time in many years. The letters were written to the American-based German Marxist Paul Mattick.

Written at the time of growing Nazi menace, they showed a brilliant theoretician tackling, in turn, the strategical stupidity of the German Communist Party and the mechanics of capitalist crisis, while coping with his successive forced emigration from Germany to France to Britain to the USA.

His best strategic arguments show insights reminiscent of Leon Trotsky, while his analysis of capitalist crisis demonstrated a grasp of Marx’s Capital superior even to Rosa Luxemburg

There are many such stories; and the best way to learn about most of them is through Rick’s prize-winning biography Henryk Grossman and the Recovery of Marxism. But as a briefer overview this short book is a valuable alternative.

It has one unavoidable structural problem. Grossman wrote it as a section of a dictionary of economics. That resulted in the final section – about himself – being written in the third person. (Rick has also inserted a short, indispensible introduction.) Readers may have to stay alert to avoid confusion on that front.

The most important debate Grossman describes surrounds capitalist crisis (“breakdown”) and the related topic of the transition to socialism. Readers will come away from this book with a sense of intellectual tragedy. One tragic figure here is undoubtedly the brilliant and dedicated Kaustky, who seems at first glance to have adopted a reformist approach, and abandoned the work of his youth, out of wishful thinking about a peaceful transition to socialism. His arguments put forward at the Erfurt Congress, with Lenin among others listening carefully, seemed to portray the transition as the product of “blind social forces” with the dictatorship of the proletariat not even mentioned.

But all such evolutions have a material basis. Grossman argued that social currents in the working class underlay ideological postures. Whereas revolutionary Marxism had its roots in the upheavals of 1848, reformism grew up in the relatively peaceful period 1872-1894. Reformism was congenial to union and party bureaucrats, who feared revolutionary adventures might endanger their essentially conservative organisations. At the outbreak of World War I one of Grossman’s polemical targets, Austrian social democrat Victor Adler, explained his party’s vote for war credits as follows: “our whole organization and press are at risk. We run the danger of destroying thirty years’ work…we must protect our institutions…”

Grossman clearly identified with the resurgence of revolutionary Marxism which reached its high point in Bolshevism, yet in the aftermath he later found an accommodation with Stalinism. It’s a fate he shared with that other brilliant left intellectual, Georgy Lukacs. But to a far greater extent than Lukacs, Grossman has  been forgotten, and with him all the positives. To borrow a phrase from Edward Thompson, Rick Kuhn is rescuing Grossman from the condescension of posterity.  The book is good value for money. And that has created an opportunity for the left reading public.

  1. Phil says:

    Rick’s book on Grossman and Grossman’s key work on crisis theory are essential reading for anyone wanting to know how and why capitalism is crisis-ridden.

    This new book sounds excellent. This review has been getting a very solid number of hits, so I hope those reading the review are also buying the book.

    Although I don’t know either of them, I do have a bit of intermittent contact with both Einde and Rick, so it’s great to see them do these translations and get this book out.