The Deutscher Lecture: Henryk Grossman and the responsibility of socialists


Rick Kuhn won the prestigious Isaac and Tamara Deutscher Memorial Prize in 2007 for his book Henryk Grossman and the recovery of Marxism.i The Deutscher Prize is awarded annually in honour of historian Isaac Deutscher (most famous for his magisterial biography of Leon Trotsky) and his wife Tamara Deutscher for a new book published in English “which exemplifies the best and most innovative new writing in or about the Marxist tradition”. The text below draws on Rick Kuhn’s Isaac and Tamara Deutscher Memorial Lecture, “Economic crisis, Henryk Grossman, and the responsibility of socialists” delivered at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London, in November 2008.ii

Henryk Grossman is best known for his explanation of economic and financial crises. These are particularly relevant today.iii But Grossman is worth considering for another reason. His economic theory was formulated and can only be understood as an element in a broader, classically Marxist analysis of capitalist society and the way it can be superseded. Despite a fable fabricated by social democrats and Stalinists in the 1930s and still uncritically repeated,iv Grossman was no believer in the automatic breakdown of capitalism. In contrast to views that are currently dominant on the left, Grossman thought that the construction of organisations that could help the working class to take political power lay at the heart of the responsibility of socialists. His views therefore contrast with currently fashionable notions of the responsibilities of intellectuals.

In an implicit but hardly disguised reference to Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, Grossman stated that his treatment of capitalism’s tendency to break down was intended to complement analyses of the politics of revolution.v His account was designed to help revolutionaries identify the objective circumstances in which intense class struggles and revolution were likely to emerge. When discussing the politics of insurrection, he explicitly referred to Lenin as an Grossman’s Leninist conception of revolutionary politics (the need to smash the capitalist state) and organisation (the role of a revolutionary party) are clear in both his writings and his political practice, except to those wedded to social democracy, Stalinism or their academic legacies.

Henryk Grossman’s practical political activities, despite their inconsistencies, expressed his conception of the responsibility of socialists more eloquently than his writings. In pursuit of the goal of working class self-emancipation, Grossman’s actions resisted the dominant currents of Polish and Jewish nationalism, social democracy and, for a brief period, Stalinism. At the centre of his approach to politics was a commitment to building a revolutionary party.

The view that those critical of the established order should be involved in organisations devoted to bringing that order down is currently unpopular. The expectation that intellectuals, scientists and academics should be dispassionate, “objective” and apolitical is as widespread as the positivist conception of science. Even amongst those who publicly take sides, it is scandalously common for radicals in words to be rather politically inactive in their deeds. Moreover, most of those who engage in struggles against exploitation or oppression do not do so through involvement in organisations “dedicated not to building freedom but to moving the working class to build it”,vii which attempt to tie struggles for reforms to the project of revolutionary change. Beyond the pragmatic assertion that “the time is not ripe” for any practical activity, there are arguments that people, intellectuals in particular, should avoid making commitments to revolutionary organisations. It is worth considering the most influential of these and the contrasting position advocated by Marxists, before examining the case made by Grossman’s practice.

Liberal, reformist and radical conceptions of responsibility

Julien Benda would have regarded Grossman as a co-accused in the “betrayal of the intellectuals”. In 1927 Benda formulated a metaphysically rationalist conception of intellectuals and denounced their “betrayal” by participating in mass political passions. Instead they should devote themselves to the truth, “every life which pursues only spiritual advantage or sincerely asserts itself in the universal, situates itself outside the real” “and hence in a certain manner say: ‘My kingdom is not of this world’”. Benda was, however, a defender of Dreyfus and an anti-fascist, who believed that intellectuals should proclaim the truth even when this did not find favour with the authorities.viii

In his Representations of the intellectual, Edward Said appropriated the core of Benda’s argument: intellectuals are an elite of special “individuals with a vocation for the art of representing” positions “to, as well as for, the public”, who should be devoted to proclaiming the truth and consequently “always [stand] between loneliness and alignment”.

[T]here is a special duty to address the constituted and authorized powers of one’s own society, which are accountable to its citizenry, particularly when those powers are exercised in a manifestly disproportionate and immoral war, or in a deliberate program of discrimination, repression, and collective cruelty.

More consistently than Benda, Said stressed “the importance to the intellectual of passionate engagement, risk, exposure, commitment to principles, vulnerability in debating and being involved in worldly causes”; and “that the intellectuals belong on the same side with the weak and unrepresented”.ix Said’s own professional and political work impressively matched his conception of the role of an intellectual. He exposed the pervasiveness of imperialist modes of thought, particularly in high culture, and supported the struggles of his fellow Palestinians including when these were being undermined by the leadership of the Palestine Liberation Organisation.

Although, for Said, political passions were acceptable, even desirable, a residue of Benda’s emphasis on intellectual disinterestedness remained in his warning against political “gods that always fail” and “joining up, not simply in alignment but in service and, though one hates to use the word, collaboration”. Said presented a false choice. On the one hand, he told us about McCarthyism, apostates who flipped over from Stalinism or Trotskyism to the right, and the need to avoid “subservience to authority”. On the other hand, he portrayed true intellectuals with their convictions derived from their work and “a sense of association with others”, but “not acting at the behest of a system or method”, and essentially alone. While cautioning against system and method, Said snuck their ghostly moral shades through the wall, by invoking “a consistent and universalistic ethic”.x His is a conventional, individualistic, liberal morality. It excludes the possibility that, to be effective in the struggle for human freedom, our critical abilities may best be exercised collectively.xi

Said’s book began as the 1993 Reith Lectures for the BBC. He was an astute choice for this honour: a controversial figure in literary studies and on the Palestinian question who could attract an audience, yet his argument did not go far beyond the bounds of liberal protest at oppression. It struck a chord in a period when the extent of mass struggles was limited and the anti-capitalist left, particularly the organised anti-capitalist left, was shrinking. It appealed to those who identified with the suffering of the oppressed but did not challenge the individualism of bourgeois common sense or the self-regard of intellectuals, confident about their own special social role. And it was summed up in a catchy slogan. “Speak truth to power”xii is vastly more respectable than an injunction to promote mass action to change the world, however neatly or succinctly expressed.

The phrase was first published in a US Quaker pamphlet.xiii Its roots are in the Quaker tradition of bearing witness on matters of social conscience and, further back, in narrowly theological propositions in New Testament passages about Jesus’s divine status and the related formulation that “the truth shall make you free”.xiv It can embody an approach to change, through dialogue with those in authority, that is no threat to the established order. Teresa Kerry used it at the 2004 Democratic Party Convention in a speech supporting her husband’s campaign for the US presidency.xv But invoking Said’s call to “speak truth to power” is a lot cooler and seems more radical than acknowledging the slogan’s Quaker roots.xvi It also achieves little: as Lukács pointed out, the capitalist class’s position in society makes it incapable of recognising some fundamental truths.xvii

Noam Chomsky succinctly specified the nature of power and the relationship of intellectuals as a social layer with specific material interests to it: “They are, in Gramsci’s phrase, ‘experts in legitimation.’ They must ensure that beliefs are properly inculcated, beliefs that serve the interests of those with objective power, based ultimately on control of capital in the state capitalist societies.”xviii Chomsky has demolished the moralistic, liberal approach to politics and the notion that intellectuals need their own special code of behaviour.

my Quaker friends and colleagues in disrupting illegitimate authority adopt the slogan: “Speak truth to power”. I strongly disagree. The audience is entirely wrong, and the effort hardly more than a form of self-indulgence. It is a waste of time and a pointless pursuit to speak truth to Henry Kissinger, or the CEO of General Motors, or others who exercise power in coercive institutions – truths that they already know well enough, for the most part.

To speak truth to power is not a particularly honourable vocation.xix

If you want to change the way things are then “the intellectual responsibility of the writer, or any decent person, is to tell the truth”. More specifically, “The responsibility of the writer as a moral agent is to try to bring the truth about matters of human significance to an audience that can do something about them.”xx This link between telling the truth and political action was also a central argument in Chomsky’s famous essay “The responsibility of intellectuals”.xxi

Yet Chomsky has become more coy about “the truth” recently. “We don’t know the truth. At least I don’t”, he has asserted.xxii This claim is disingenuous, or at least self-contradictory. Clearly in making generally excellent arguments in books, articles and interviews about a range of issues, especially US foreign policy, Chomsky thinks he knows better than mainstream politicians and the mass media. And he is right. He usually does know much better, if not the final, absolute “truth”. It is a bloody good thing that he argues his case, from a forthrightly anti-capitalist perspective. The following formulation is more specific about his conception of truth. It accurately describes the collective nature of science and the importance of critical thinking:

I’m always uneasy about the concept of “speaking truth”, as if we somehow know the truth and only have to enlighten others who have not risen to our elevated level. The search for truth is a cooperative, unending endeavour. We can, and should, engage in it to the extent we can and encourage others to do so as well, seeking to free ourselves from constraints imposed by coercive institutions, dogma, irrationality, excessive conformity and lack of initiative and imagination, and numerous other obstacles.xxiii

But, in the context of his wider anarchist outlook, this argument fudges issues too, just as Said’s call for open-mindedness did.

Chomsky has been reluctant to distinguish the effectiveness of different forms of political activity, invoking the importance of tactics appropriate to concrete situations: “there has not in history ever been any answer other than, ‘Get to work on it’.”xxiv This neglects the question of strategy and contrasts with the strategic emphasis that Marxists place on the unique potential power of the working class to replace capitalism with socialism. There are, moreover, some activities that Chomsky explicitly rejects, notably involvement in revolutionary groups whose inspiration is the Marxist and Bolshevik tradition, no matter how democratic, committed to promoting socialism from below or counterposed to Stalinism they are.xxv He reproduces Benda’s and Said’s liberal hostility to Marxist organisations.

Both Said and, much more convincingly, Chomsky, have drawn on Antonio Gramsci’s discussion of how traditional intellectuals and organic intellectuals of the capitalist class serve ruling class interests.xxvi Neither has explored Gramsci’s observations about organic intellectuals of the working class.

While he notes that intellectuals are privileged and generally have special skills,xxvii Chomsky, unlike Said and Benda, does not draw a sharp dividing line between intellectuals and mortals. Comparing specialists’ interpretations with the facts of contemporary affairs, according to Chomsky the basis for understanding social issues, is

of some importance, but the task is not very difficult, and the problems that arise do not seem to me to pose much of an intellectual challenge. With a little industry and application, anyone who is willing to extricate himself from the system of shared ideology and propaganda will readily see through the modes of distortion developed by substantial segments of the intelligentsia. Everybody is capable of doing that.xxviii

This is fine in its assessment of people’s abilities but ignores the context in which they exercise them. The conception here of how critical ideas arise is voluntarist, dependent on individuals’ willingness to critically assess dominant ideas. Yet Chomsky has provided convincing accounts of the operation of “the propaganda system” in maintaining a conservative consensus, which marginalises dissident thinking in liberal capitalist societies.xxix His own efforts to provide a “course in intellectual self-defence”xxx are very valuable, but compared with the power of this system and the coercive forces that stand behind it, the scale of his individual contribution is necessarily small. For, more profoundly than the propaganda system, our daily experience of the market and work – the fetishism of commodities – generally reinforces ruling ideas.

There is a way to systematically magnify the ideology-dissolving effect of class struggles, which are a necessary consequence of capitalist society, into more sustained and widespread criticisms of the established order, as a basis for political action. It draws on the insight that knowledge is a collective product and Gramsci’s discussion of intellectuals. But his anarchism means that it is a path that Chomsky rejects. Marxists’ efforts to build both the class struggle and revolutionary organisations Chomsky dismisses with quotations from Mikhail Bakunin and thinly documented attacks on the Bolsheviks rather than references to Marx’s writings or specific activities. It was, however, Bakunin whose political practice was conspiratorial and elitist as a matter of principle and who justified this in his writings.xxxi

Marxism and revolutionary responsibilities

Marx and Engels identified the working class as the sole social actor which could replace capitalism with a democratic society whose logic was not profit but production to satisfy human need. On this basis, they were themselves involved in building organisations which sought to ensure that the working class developed and used its capacity to change the world.

In the Communist League, their activities amongst workers in Köln and further afield during the German revolution of 1848-1849, in the International Working Men’s Association from 1864 to 1872 and in their later relations with the emerging socialist workers’ parties, they promoted the growth of a layer of organised workers with an awareness of working class interests and the capacity to advance social struggles by intervening into them. That was the point of the educational activity of the Communist League. An organising perspective informed publications like the Manifesto and The new Rhineland newspaper and underlay the production of in-depth analyses, like Class struggles in France, The eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte and The civil war in France, and even theoretical texts like Capital. All were designed to be tools that organised workers could use to make their struggles more effective.

In this spirit, the 1891 Erfurt program of the German Social Democratic Party specified that “It is the task of the Social Democratic Party to shape the struggle of the working class into a conscious and unified one and to point out the inherent necessity of its goals”. Engels had suggested including, at this point, a reference to “workers saturated in the consciousness of their class position”. xxxii

On the other hand Marx and Engels “pointed to intellectual strata whose social function it was to foster suitable fantasies” in the interests of capital, as Hal Draper put it.xxxiii When people from these strata joined workers’ parties, which from being thoroughly exceptional became more common late in the nineteenth century, Engels argued that they should

understand that their “academic education” – which in any case needs a basic, critical self-review – gives them no officer’s commission with a claim to a corresponding post in the party; that in our party everyone must serve in the ranks; that posts of responsibility in the party will be won not simply by literary talent and theoretical knowledge, even if both of these are present beyond a doubt, but that in addition what is required is a thorough familiarity with the conditions of the party struggle and seasoning in its forms, tested personal reliability and sound character, and, finally, willing enlistment in the ranks of the fighters; – in short, that they, the “academically educated people”, have far more to learn from the workers, all in all, than the latter have to learn from them.xxxiv

In other words, leaders of the party needed to be able to write, to be theoretically sophisticated and to have experience as tested partisans of the working class. The background of some leaders might be the intelligentsia but Engels clearly expected all of them to be products of the party and its involvement in class struggles.

Karl Kautsky made a similar point in his 1903 article “Franz Mehring”:

What the proletariat needs is scientifically grounded self-knowledge. The science that the proletariat needs cannot be that which is officially recognised and taught. Its theoreticians have to develop themselves and they are thus all autodidacts, whether they stem from the circles of university graduates or the proletariat. The object of study is the proletariat’s own praxis, its role in the production process, its role in the class struggle. Only from this praxis can theory, can the self-consciousness of the proletariat arise.

The world-saving unity of science and labour is therefore not to be understood as university graduates passing on to the people knowledge which they have received in bourgeois lecture halls. It is rather each of our co-fighters who is capable and has the opportunity, whether university graduates or proletarians, participating in proletarian praxis – as combatants or at the very least by researching it – in order to draw from it new scientific knowledge that will then reciprocally influence proletarian praxis by making it more fruitful.xxxv

Lenin agreed with this – indeed he quoted from the article in One step forward, two steps back – and also with Kautsky’s stress on the importance of a Marxist party rallying all those oppressed under capitalism.xxxvi Where Kautsky was primarily concerned with the petty bourgeoisie and peasantry, Lenin had already generalised the point in What is to be done?

[T]he Social-Democrat’s ideal should not be the trade union secretary, but the tribune of the people, who is able to react to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression, no matter where it appears, no matter what stratum or class of the people it affects; who is able to generalise all these manifestations and produce a single picture of police violence and capitalist exploitation; who is able to take advantage of every event, however small, in order to set forth before all his socialist convictions and his democratic demands, in order to clarify for all and everyone the world-historic significance of the struggle for the emancipation of the proletariat.xxxvii

A model party member is therefore experienced, equipped with Marxist theory and capable of applying it concretely. Not only those who hold responsible positions but all members are political leaders.

In the controversy which split the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party at its 1903 congress, Lenin, influenced by Marx, Engels and Kautsky, regarded the role of intellectuals in the party as problematic. The Bolsheviks were concerned that, as members, intellectuals would have to overcome the individualism which is an occupational disease for them; like other members they would have to be actively involved in a party organisation and therefore be subject to its discipline.xxxviii Much earlier, he had affirmed that “the task is that of promoting the organisation of the proletariat, and…therefore, the role of the ‘intelligentsia’ is to make special leaders from among the intelligentsia unnecessary.”xxxix

Gramsci’s observations about the roles of intellectuals, like those on the construction of the hegemony of the working class, did not only draw on well-established Marxist insights. He also applied them in the spirit of revolutionary Marxist politics. Reformist appropriators of Gramsci as well as Said and Chomsky have not been willing to acknowledge this.xl Gramsci referred to organic intellectuals of the working class as well as those of the capitalist class. Organic intellectuals of the capitalist class are generated in the capitalist production process. It is clearly the proletariat’s organic intellectuals that he is referring to in the following:

The political party for some social groups is nothing other than their specific way of elaborating their own category of organic intellectuals directly in the political and philosophical field and not just in the field of productive technique. These intellectuals are formed in this way and cannot indeed be formed in any other way, given the general character and the conditions of formation, life and development of the social group.xli

To a greater or lesser extent, all members of a workers’ party are intellectuals because one of its basic functions is to turn them “into qualified political intellectuals, leaders and organisers”. Furthermore, a party can assimilate traditional intellectuals who join “with the organic intellectuals of the group [i.e. class] itself”.xlii Lenin put it this way: in the party “all distinctions as between workers and intellectuals…must be effaced.”xliii

One of the key purposes of a revolutionary workers’ party (and even of a socialist propaganda group or circle when no party exists) is to generate critical ideas and members who are capable of leading struggles – that is, organic intellectuals.xliv Such a party can be a uniquely effective means for creating leaders like this because it integrates political education, organisation and intervention into struggles so that each informs the others. It can be an organisational accumulator that draws in new members, sustains existing activists between campaigns and movements, synthesises and theorises their experience to generate fresh analyses and tactics, and thus helps to raise the level of struggles within and against capitalism.

What Henryk did

From the late 1890s, when he was at high school, until his death in 1950, at the age of 69, Henryk Grossman was politically active. He believed that it was the responsibility of socialists to create and sustain a revolutionary Marxist organisation, whenever possible. In his twenties, he was involved in building a socialist group from the ground up.

By 1900, social democratic organisation amongst Jewish workers in Galicia, the Austrian-occupied province of partitioned Poland, had fallen apart. Associations of Yiddish-speaking workers, affiliated to the Galician Social Democratic Party (GPSD), had existed in a number of cities in the mid 1890s. But towards the end of the century they had collapsed in most places and continued only as a rump in the province’s capital Lemberg/Lwow/L’viv. A recession, a political crackdown by the authorities and the indifference of the GPSD leadership were the main reasons.

Early in the twentieth century Grossman, a student from a bourgeois family, started to build a Marxist association of Jewish workers in Kraków, the cultural capital of Poland and the seat of the administration of western Galicia. To begin with, according to the notes of his friend the Australian novelist Christina Stead, he hung out in cafés where political workers gathered. Many of them had Zionist sympathies. Labour Zionism was expanding rapidly at this point and was the main competitor to social democracy for the support of Yiddish-speaking workers.

Twelve people founded Postęp (Progress in Polish) as a general association of Jewish workers on 20 December 1902. Grossman was its secretary. The association had early success amongst Jewish bakers. Postęp’s members led industrial struggles and formed branches of the central Austrian social democratic trade unions for newly-organised groups of workers. They arranged lectures on unionism, politics, literature, and science, and conducted literacy classes. The Kraków association was in touch with similar organisations, in Lemberg and other towns, that were likewise at once trade union, political and cultural bodies. They grew rapidly as the economy boomed in 1904 and then under the influence of the 1905 revolution across the border in the Russian empire. By 1905 Grossman had “recruited at least half of the membership of the Jewish proletarian organisation” in Kraków, made up of several hundred workers and a few students.

The Jewish associations and union branches were initially affiliated to the Social Democratic Party. Particularly after it off-loaded responsibility for organising Ukrainian workers in 1899 and became the Polish Social Democratic Party of Galicia (PPSD), the Party was increasingly nationalist and suspicious of its own Yiddish-speaking affiliates. To overcome this obstacle to building Marxist influence in the Jewish working class, Jewish social democratic groups across Galicia left the PPSD to form the Jewish Social Democratic Party of Galicia (JSDP) on May Day 1905. Grossman was its founding secretary.

As the new Party’s theorist, Grossman generalised his own and the JSDP’s experience in a pamphlet on Bundism in Galicia.

party consciousness is the multi-faceted expression of the proletariat’s class interests and the most far-reaching interpretation of conclusions drawn from the objective trends of real social development. Workers’ parties do not always fulfil this requirement (as evidenced by the PPSD). Both the character and the content of collective party thought remain directly dependent on the particular party’s adjustment to the very working class whose expression it should be.

The closest possible adaptation of the party organisation to the historical forms of the Jewish proletariat’s condition…could only be achieved through the mutual organic growth of the party organisation and the workers’ movement itself, just as the latter has grown out of capitalist society.xlv

His assessment, like Lenin’s theory of the party, drew on the orthodoxy of Second International Marxism, systematically expressed by Kautsky.xlvi

There is one specific story about Grossman’s agitational activities in Galicia that must be included in a Deutscher Lecture.

Chrzanów, about 45 km from Kraków, was dominated by the town’s Jewish bosses. Half of the population of around 6,000 was Jewish, many of them Khassids, members of fanatical Jewish sects. One of the main industries was printing. Many workers laboured for fifteen hours a day, six days a week. Their bosses controlled local political life, through the municipal council, and religious life, through the kehile (the local religious administration). Paragons of the community like these did not appreciate outsiders whose social democratic agitation disrupted the established order. In early June 1906 they expelled two JSDP members from the town. Soon Henryk Grossman came to give heart to the local comrades. Amongst the traditionally clothed inhabitants, he was easy to identify: a well-dressed, middle class, young gentleman. Incited by Khassidic zealots, a large mob roughed him up and trashed the rooms of the recently-established JSDP affiliate.

Afterwards, the JSDP produced a leaflet that countered the arguments of the Chrzanów worthies that Jewish socialists wanted to organise pogroms, as in Russia. In fact “who took the Jew’s side in Russia and who defended them, if not the socialists?” The local bosses were the ones who had instigated a pogrom, against the socialists. Grossman also took legal action over the assault. He won, demonstrating that the parochial despots were not all-powerful and turning the affair into a publicity coup for the JSDP. Christina Stead’s short story “The Azhdnov tailors” is based on this incident.xlvii

Isaac Deutscher was born in Chrzanów to a family which ran a printing firm in 1907. His father was a Khassid.

Although he moved to Vienna at the end of 1908, Grossman’s close association with the JSDP continued until at least 1910. For the period immediately before and during World War I, no evidence has come to light of political involvement, although his publications during the period give hints of his continuing Marxist views. The German-Austrian Social Democratic Party had opposed the existence of the JSDP from the start. So joining it was not an attractive proposition.

In 1919 or 1920, when Grossman joined the Communist Workers Party of Poland (KPRP), if not before, he adopted a package of Leninist politics, which included elements of his earlier political outlook, notably his belief that socialists should be involved in building revolutionary organisations. Grossman was, between 1922 and 1925, the secretary and then the chairperson of the People’s University (PU) in Warsaw. This educational institution was one of the Party’s most important fronts, as the KPRP was a semi-clandestine organisation. The PU organised about forty lectures a month, each attended by fifty to three hundred people, and programs of talks for trade unions. It supported a publishing program and managed several buildings, including a cinema. Through PU activities, Communists involved in different areas – unionists, students and activists in campaigns – could come together legally.

In 1925, after a series of arrests and periods in prison, the Polish authorities forced Grossman into a qualified exile. He took up a post at the Marxist Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt am Main and was now doubly insulated from conservatising pressures. On the one hand, his well-paid post at the Institute meant that he was not financially dependent on either a more conventional, bourgeois institution or a political organisation with a line. While he lived in Germany he remained a supporter of the Communist International and Lenin’s theory of the party. He was politically engaged, a close fellow-traveller of the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) and an admirer of the Soviet Union. In 1932, he returned from a study tour of the USSR starry-eyed. Yet, in order to avoid provoking the German and Polish authorities, he did not join the KPD. So he was not, on the other hand, subject to the Party’s discipline as it imposed the new Stalinist orthodoxies. Grossman continued to defend Marx’s analysis of the anatomy of capitalism against the distortions that became the Stalinist line in economics.

Grossman’s work in economic theory, from 1919 to his death, embodied commitment to working class self-emancipation, recognition that socialists need to organise politically for that goal and insights opened up by the success of the Bolshevik revolution. The subordination of Communist Parties to the interests of the rising Russian bureaucracy created a contradiction between the fundamentals of Marxist politics and his loyalty to the Comintern and the Soviet Union. Consequently, professional and amateur mouthpieces of Stalinism distorted and denounced Grossman’s best-known work. For a period, he resolved the contradiction by re-establishing a consistency between his own political perspectives and the classical Marxism that was the basis for his theoretical insights.xlviii

The disaster of the Nazis’ victory in 1933 and Grossman’s accurate assessment that the tactics of the KPD, the Comintern and the Russian leadership had failed to build an effective opposition to the Nazis’ rise to power led him to explore dissident Communist analyses of what had gone wrong. He recommended Trotsky’s “The German catastrophe” to Paul Mattick. This was not, however, a decisively “Trotskyist moment” as Grossman was apparently closer to the Socialist Workers Party of Germany (SAP). For a period in 1934 and 1935, there were meetings, which discussed revolutionary politics and included the SAP leaders Paul Frölich and Jakob Walcher at Grossman’s place in Paris.

There was a sharp contrast between Grossman’s attitude to politics and that of Max Horkheimer, who had become the Institute’s director during the early 1930s. Grossman appreciated Horkheimer’s work on philosophy. But they were published in German in the Institute’s rather inaccessible journal, even after it had gone into exile, first in Geneva, then New York. Grossman suggested in 1937 that the essays be published as a book, for a wider audience. As in the natural so in the social sciences: “Really, from an activist standpoint, you should be interested in confronting broad layers of young people. One should never forget that the victory of Cartesianism was not simply achieved through the power of pure thought but was supported in the university by the fists and clubs of Dutch students, who answered the brutal force of scholasticism with the similar force of their fists!xlix

Apparently influenced by Russian support for Republican Spain during the civil war, Grossman around 1937 sadly again became a fellow-traveller of the Soviet Union and an uncritical supporter of Stalin’s foreign policy. He continued to engage in political activities that he mistakenly believed expressed the perspective that informed his research. In 1938, he moved to New York and, during and after the War, was involved in groups associated with the KPD.

On May Day 1949, a few months after arriving in eastern Germany to take up a professorial chair in political economy at the University of Leipzig, he signed up for the Society for German-Soviet Friendship. On June 9 he became a member of the Socialist Unity Party (SED) which ruled Communist East Germany, under the supervision of Stalin’s regime in Russia.l Nevertheless Grossman still adhered not only to the Marxist perspective that it is a responsibility of socialists to be politically active but also to his own contributions to Marxist theory, even when these contradicted Stalinist orthodoxies.

Already ill for months, he died on 24 November 1950. So he was not affected by the SED campaign from 1949 that finally subordinated all institutions, notably the unions and universities, to the Stalinist state. The regime targeted, in particular, Party members who had been in Western exile during the Nazi dictatorship.

With the benefit of hindsight but also from the perspective of some of his Marxist contemporaries, we can recognise weaknesses and contradictions in Grossman’s choices and actions. In practice, the Stalinist organisations in which he placed his faith undermined rather than advanced workers’ interests. There is, nevertheless, much to identify with in his Marxism and his political career.

In 1946 Henryk Grossman explained his revolutionary sentiment to Christina Stead: “I feel as if I saw a dangerous badly made deadly machine running down the street, when it gets to that corner it is going to explode and kill everyone and I must stop it: once you feel this it gives you great strength, you have no idea there is no limit to the strength it gives you.”li We can draw strength from Grossman’s systematic account of the contradictions at the heart of capitalist production and some important features of his political and organisational commitments in our own efforts to realise the project of working class self-emancipation.


i Rick Kuhn, Henryk Grossman and the recovery of Marxism, University of Illinois Press, Chicago, 2007.

ii Rick Kuhn, “Economic crisis, Henryk Grossman and the responsibility of socialists”, Historical materialism 17 (2), 2009, pp.3-34.

iii For a detailed account of Grossman’s life and work see Kuhn, Henryk Grossman and the recovery of Marxism.

iv John Bellamy Foster and Robert W. McChesney, “Listen Keynesians, It’s the System!”, Monthly Review 61 (11), April 2010, pp.53-54.

v Henryk Grossmann, The law of accumulation, Pluto Press, London, 1992, p.33.

vi Henryk Grossmann, “Eine neue Theorie über Imperialismus und die soziale Revolution”, Archiv für die Geschichte des Sozialismus und der Arbeiterbewegung, 13, 1928, pp.161-62.

vii Alasdair MacIntyre, “Freedom and revolution”, in Alasdair MacIntyre’s engagement with Marxism: selected writings 1953-1974, Brill, Leiden, 2008 [1960], p.132.

viii Julien Benda, The betrayal of the intellectuals, Beacon, Boston, 1959 [1927], pp.25, 30.

ix Edward Said, Representations of the intellectual: the 1993 Reith lectures, Pantheon, New York, 1994, pp.10-13, 22, 98, 109.

x Said, Representations of the intellectual, pp.110-113, 119-121. For a systematic critique of Said’s approach see Aijaz Ahmad, “Orientalism and after: ambivalence and metropolitan location in the work of Edward Said” in Aijaz Ahmad, In theory: classes, nations, literatures, Verso, London, 1994, pp.159-220, especially pp.169-170.

xi For discussions of Marxist approaches to ethics see MacIntyre, “Freedom and revolution”, pp.45-68, 123-134; Paul Blackledge, “Karl Kautsky and Marxist historiography” Science & society 70 (3), 2008, pp.337-359.

xii Said, Representations of the intellectual, pp.xvi, 6, 8, 88, 97, 102.

xiii American Friends Service Committee, Speak truth to power: a Quaker search for an alternative to violence, Philadelphia, 1955.

xiv Bible, King James version, John 8.18 and 8.32.

xv “Excerpts from speeches on a broad variety of issues at the convention in Boston”, New York Times, 28 July 2004, p.8.

xvi Hence the T-shirt, available in a myriad of size, colour and style permutations, with a portrait of Said on the front and “speak truth to power” on the back,, accessed 24 June 2008. Kitty Calavita, “Engaged research, ‘goose bumps’, and the role of the public intellectual, Law and Society Association presidential address”, Law and society review 36 (1), 2002, p.14.

xvii Georg Lukács, History and class consciousness, Merlin, London, 1971 [1923], pp.46-81.

xviii Noam Chomsky, Intellectuals and the state, 1978,, accessed 3 May 2008.

xix Noam Chomsky, “Writers and intellectual responsibility” in Power and prospects: reflections on human nature and the social order, South End, Boston, 1996, pp.60-61.

xx ibid, pp.55-60.

xxi Noam Chomsky, “The responsibility of intellectuals”, 1967,, accessed 4 May 2008, pp.257, 285.

xxii Noam Chomsky, Power and terror: post-9/11 talks and interviews, Seven Stories Press, New York, 2003, pp.107-108.

xxiii Noam Chomsky, “On responsibility, war guilt and intellectuals” interviewed by Gabriel Matthew Schivone, 2007,, accessed 16 May 2008.

xxiv Noam Chomsky, Class warfare: interviews with David Barsamian, Common Courage Press, Monroe, 1996, pp.114-115. For an excellent appreciation of Chomsky, on this and other questions, see Anthony Arnove, “In perspective: Noam Chomsky”, International socialism 74, 1997, pp.117-140.

xxv Noam Chomsky, “Some tasks for the left”, Radical priorities, Black Rose, Montréal, 1981 [1969], pp.222, 239; Problems of knowledge and freedom: the Russell Lectures, Barrie & Jenkins, London, 1972, p.61; “An American view of the ideological confrontation of our time” interview 1980, Language and politics, Black Rose, Montréal, 1988, pp.285-286; “The Soviet Union versus socialism”,, accessed 3 May 2008.

xxvi Said makes the rather odd remark that “…Gramsci’s pioneering suggestions in The prison notebooks which almost for the first time saw intellectuals, and not social classes, as pivotal to the workings of modern society”, Said, Representations of the intellectual, pp.6, 10; Chomsky, Intellectuals and the state.

xxvii For example, Chomsky, “The reasons for my concern”, response to Celia Jakubowicz, letter 13 June 1983,, accessed 3 May 2008.

xxviii Chomsky, Language and responsibility, pp.4-5; also see Chomsky, “The responsibility of intellectuals”, p.257.

xxix See especially Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing consent: the political economy of the mass media, Pantheon, New York, 1988; and Chomsky, “An American view of the ideological confrontation of our time”.

xxx Noam Chomsky, “Intellectuals and the responsibilities of public life” interview, 2001,, accessed 16 May 2008.

xxxi Noam Chomsky, “Objectivity and liberal scholarship,” American power and the new mandarins, Chatto & Windus, London, 1969, p.62; “The Soviet Union versus socialism”, 1986,, accessed 3 May 2008; “An American view of the ideological confrontation of our time” pp.168, 285-286, 596. Anthony Arnove, “In perspective: Noam Chomsky”, outlines the weaknesses in Chomsky’s position.

Bakunin’s views about the desirability of conspiracy, during the 1860s, and his support for a “revolutionary state” are apparent in “The Program of the International Brotherhood”, Bakunin on Anarchy, George Allen & Unwin, London, 1973, pp.148-153. The dictatorship of “invisible pilots” he favoured “must be prepared and organised in advance, for it will not come into being by itself, neither by discussions, nor by theoretical disputations, nor by mass propaganda meetings”, Mikhail Bakunin, letter to Albert Richard, August 1870, Bakunin on anarchy, pp.180-181. On Bakunin’s anti-semitism see Aileen Kelly, Michael Bakunin: a study in the psychology and politics of utopianism, Clarendon, Oxford, 1982, p.236. For discussions of the conflict between Marx and Bakunin and a critique of Bakunin see Hal Draper, Karl Marx’s theory of revolution volume 2: the politics of social classes, Monthly Review Press, New York, 1978, pp.564-569; and Draper, Karl Marx’s theory of revolution volume 4: critique of other socialisms, Monthly Review Press, New York, 1990, pp.130-175.

xxxii Social Democratic Party of Germany, The Erfurt Program, 1891,, accessed 16 May 2008; Friedrich Engels, “Zur Kritik des sozialdemokratischen Programmentwurfs 1891”,, accessed 1 July 2008.

xxxiii Hal Draper, Karl Marx’s theory of revolution volume 2, p.503. The discussion of Marx and Engels’ position here draws heavily on Draper. Also see Paul Blackledge, “Karl Kautsky and Marxist historiography” Science & society 70 (3), 2006, pp.21-41.

xxxiv Friedrich Engels’ reply to the editors Sächsische Arbeiter-Zeitung 1890, cited in Draper, Karl Marx’s theory of revolution (Volume 2), p.515.

xxxv Karl Kautsky, “Franz Mehring”, Neue Zeit 22 (4), 1903, pp.100-1. Part of this article is elegantly but not entirely accurately translated in “The intellectuals and the workers”,, accessed 1 July 2008.

xxxvi Such a view was widely shared in the German party and international social democracy, “[T]he socialist movement does all in its power to support measures which are calculated to bring about, without injury to the working-class, an amelioration of conditions for the farmer and small business man.” Karl Kautsky, The class struggle (Erfurt Program), 1892, chapter 5,, accessed 2 July 2008.

xxxvii Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, What is to be done?, 1902, chapter 3,, accessed 2 July.

xxxviii Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, One step forward, two steps back, 1904, chapter 1,, accessed 2 July 2008.

xxxix Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, What the “friends of the people” are and how they fight the social-democrats, 1894,, accessed 16 September 2008.

xl See Chris Harman, Gramsci versus reformism, Socialist Workers Party, London, 1983; and Perry Anderson, “The antinomies of Antonio Gramsci”, New left review 100, 1976, pp.5-78.

xli The previous discussion outlines how “The capitalist entrepreneur creates alongside himself the industrial technician, the specialist in political economy, the organisers of a new culture, of a new legal system, etc.” i.e. clearly not through political parties; Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the prison notebooks, ElecBook, London, 1999, [based on Lawrence and Wishart edition, London, 1971], pp.135, 149-150.

xlii Gramsci, Selections from the prison notebooks, pp.150-151.

xliii Lenin, What is to be done?, chapter 4C. Alasdair MacIntyre, in “What is Marxist theory for” Alasdair MacIntyre’s engagement with Marxism, p.100, made the same point:

If Marx had approached the working-class movement from the outside as a middle-class sociologist, he would never have had working-class experience made available to him in the way in which it was. Mere speculative curiosity leads nowhere. The only intellectual who can hope to aid the working class by theoretical work is one who is willing to live in the working-class movement and learn from it, revising his conceptions all the time in the light of his and its experience.

xliv For the lineage of the general case for a revolutionary socialist party and a more systematic exposition, see Chris Harman, Party and class, 1968-69,, accessed 23 September 2007; and John Molyneux, Marxism and the party, Haymarket, Chicago, 2003 [1978]. Tony Cliff’s multi-volume Lenin Bookmarks, London, 1975-1979, explores Lenin’s contributions in their original context. Also see Georg Lukács, Lenin: a study in the unity of his thought, New Left Books, London, 1977. On propaganda groups see Mick Armstrong, From little things big things grow: strategies for building revolutionary socialist organisations, Socialist Alternative, Melbourne, 2007.

xlv Henryk Grossman, Bundizm in Galitsien, 1907, Publishing House of the Social democrat, Kraków, 1907 [cover has 1908, title page 1907, serialised in Sotsial-demokrat between September 13 and November 29, 1907], pp.42-43.

xlvi See Lars T. Lih, Lenin rediscovered: What is to be done? in context, Brill, Leiden, 2006. More generally, Alan Shandro, in “Karl Kautsky: on the relation of theory and practice”, Science & society 61 (4), 1997/1998, pp.474-501 and Paul Blackledge, in “Karl Kautsky and Marxist historiography” Science & society 70 (3), 2006, pp.337-359 have noted that the enduring value of Kautsky’s contributions to Marxism have been understated in many recent treatments. But Lenin long before pointed out that “We know from many of Kautsky’s works that he knew how to be a Marxist historian, and that such works of his will remain a permanent possession of the proletariat in spite of his subsequent apostasy”, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, “The proletarian revolution and the renegade Kautsky”, 1918,, accessed 6 October 2008.

xlvii Christina Stead, “The Azhdanov tailors”, in Christina Stead (ed.) The ocean of story, Penguin, Ringwood, 1986, pp.115-125.

xlviii Letter from Henryk Grossman to Paul Mattick, 6 March 1933, Mattick Collection, Internationaal Instituut voor Sociale Geschiedenis.

xlix Letter from Grossman to Horkheimer, 1 August 1937, Max Horkheimer, Gesammelte Schriften Band 16: Briefwechsel 1937-1940, Fischer, Frankfurt am Main, 1995, p.204; also see letter from Grossman to Horkheimer, 30 January 1935, Max Horkheimer, Gesammelte Schriften Band 15: Briefwechsel 1913-1936, Fischer, Frankfurt am Main, 1995, pp.311-12.

l File note, March 15, 1949, VdN-Akte von Henryk Großmann 13630, Bezirksrat Leipzig, 20237, Sächsische Staatsarchiv Leipzig; “Ergänzungsblatt zum Personalfragebogen”, 4 July 1950, Henryk Grossmann PA 40, Universitätsarchiv Leipzig (UAL), p.88; Persönlicher Fragebogen eines Wissenschaftlers, 3 August 1949, UAL, p.70.

li Letter from Stead to Blake, 12 September 1946, Christina Stead and William J. Blake, Dearest Munx: the letters of Christina Stead and William J. Blake, Miegunyah Press, Carlton, 2005, p.355, ellipsis in the original. Grossman’s concrete simile recalled Lukács’s more elevated account of the revolutionary role of the working class, that also emphasised the significance of capitalist crises in the revolutionary process, Georg Lukács, History and class consciousness, Merlin, London, 1971 [1923], p.70. Also see Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the philosophy of history,” in Stephen Bronner and Douglas Kellner, Critical theory and society, Routledge, New York, 1989 [duplicated 1942, written 1940], pp.260-61.