Bob Gould, 2008

Bob Gould’s holiday reading
Rick Kuhn’s biography of Henryk Grossman

Source: Ozleft, January 26, 2008
Proofreading, editing, mark-up: Steve Painter

As an energetic bookseller, the holiday period is one of my better ones for business, but I get a bit of time on public holidays to do a bit of reading rather than the routine marking that I do at the till.

I feel a bit alienated from current preoccupations. It seems to me that literary culture is temporarily running largely into the sand and few of the current crop of writers interest me very much. Paradoxically, however, several books published this year are of interest to socialists and I spent a bit of time reading, or re-reading, some of these over the holiday period.

An outstanding book that I acquired just before Christmas and have now read twice, the second time at a slower pace, is Henryk Grossman and the Recovery of Marxism, by Rick Kuhn, published by Illinois University Press (there must be something in the water at IUP, which also published this year the very important and magisterial biography of James P Cannon by Bryan Palmer).

Kuhn’s book, like Palmer’s, is a gem and of absorbing interest to me. It falls easily into two parts, the first a description of Grossman’s political and personal formation in Galicia before World War I. Grossman was the intellectual leader of a faction in the Polish socialist movement in Galicia, with a Bundist-influenced orientation.

The faction’s view was that the other Polish Marxist groups in Galicia didn’t pay sufficient attention to the organisation of the Jewish working class, which was a big part of the population. This group of mainly middle-class students turned to the Jewish working class and built a sizable organisation. No sterile waiting-for-the-day propagandism for Grossman and his associates, and in this approach they anticipated and paralleled Lenin.

There’s an extraordinary and moving picture on page 42 of Kuhn’s book, of the Grossman group at their first congress, on June 9-10, 1905 in Lemberg. There are nearly 50 people in the photo, sitting and standing in their Sunday suits (as all pictures of socialist and labour movement gatherings at that time show), with a few women in the middle of the group, and the party banner in Yiddish at the front.

They’re all very young. They are very clearly a part of the emerging working class movement in Galicia and of the rich Jewish culture of the eastern European shtetl. One immediately wonders what happened to that courageous 50, in inter-war Poland, in the holocaust during World War II, and under Stalinism.

The second part of the book traces the rest of Grossman’s life. He became a historian and an important Marxist economist. Like, one imagines, many of the people in the photo, he rallied to the cause of the Comintern and the Polish Communist Party, while still managing to carve out a bit of a career as an academic.

As a fellow academic, Kuhn meticulously documents aspects of Grossman’s career. Kuhn’s insights into the dynamics of academic life are very useful. After a number of arrests in Poland, Grossman pursued his academic career in Germany, where he became a major participant in the Frankfurt Institute for Economic Research, although his relationship with that body eventually became rather stormy.

Despite continuing allegiance to the Communist Party, Grossman profoundly disagreed with the Stalinist policy on Germany, and the Third Period line. He showed a discreet interest in Trotsky’s critique of the Third Period and in the politics of the Left Opposition, but eventually knuckled under to Stalinism.

In the sphere of economics, however, he remained a resolutely independent-minded figure. For many years he disputed Eugene Varga’s parrot-like Stalinist crisis-mongering. Grossman was critical of Rose Luxembourg’s implicit crisis-mongering in her proposition that once there were no more overseas markets to conquer the whole capitalist system would collapse.

He adhered more to Lenin’s view that there was no crisis that the capitalist system couldn’t surive in the absence of an adequate revolutionary leadership seizing the moment to overthrow it, and he consistently argued this view in the sphere of economics. One of the reasons I read the book a second time was to try understand Grossman’s economic views, and I’m still not sure that I completely do so.

After emigrating, along with the Frankfurt Institute, to the US, Grossman eventually fell out with the institute because of its shift to the right. Eventually, in the postwar period, during the developing anti-communist witch-hunt in the US, Grossman moved to East Germany, where he became a respected academic before dying in 1950.

Grossman has an interesting Australian connection. In emigration in Europe and the US he became a close friend of Christina Stead, the Australian communist novelist, and her life companion William Blake (real name Bill Blech). Grossman is a character in one of Stead’s novels.

He and Blech had a lot in common, as Blech was also a Marxist economist and his introduction to Marxist economic theory, Elements of Marxian Economics and its Criticism, published in the US, is a very useful book.

Grossman figures in the rather nice collection of correspondence between Stead and Blech published by Melbourne University Press a few years ago. Coincidentally with reading the Grossman book, in October last year at a book fair I stumbled upon the first copy I’ve ever seen of a book by Tariq Ali, Fear of Mirrors, published by Arcadia Books, London, in 1998.

It was an ex-library copy and according to the card it had never been borrowed. It’s a book that somehow eluded me in the past. It’s a moving novel, basically about the life of Ignace Reiss, the courageous Soviet spy in Western Europe who broke with Stalin in 1938.

Reiss, like Grossman, started life in Galicia, and many of his associates in the Soviet underground were the kind of young Jewish rebels who rallied to the cause of the USSR in the inter-war period. Many of them, like Reiss, were murdered by the Stalinists, and some even defected to the West for reasons of personal survival.

Tariq Ali’s novel, like Rick Kuhn’s useful and moving biography of Grossman, is an interesting and politically valuable tribute to a revolutionary figure of that generation of 1917-37 who were witness to the greatest upsurges and the worst defeats in the history of the workers movement.