Antiracist History, Crisis Theory, and University Workers’ Struggles

Interview With Rick Kuhn

February 1, 2021

The struggle against oppression is an intrinsic feature of Marx and Engels’ politics, along with the conviction that the capitalist tiger can’t be skinned claw by claw. The second volume of Henryk Grossman’s Works, edited and introduced by Rick Kuhn, was published recently in the Historical Materialism book series. Grossman is best known for his recovery and development of Marx’s theory of capitalist breakdown. But this latest book contains political writings by him that focus on Jewish workers’ organization and mobilization in eastern Europe before the First World War, as well as the revolutionary politics of the early Communist International. Spectre’Charles Post recently talked with Rick about Grossman’s relevance today, as well as some major, ongoing struggles by university workers in Australia.

Rick has been a union militant and a member of the largest Marxist organization in Australia, Socialist Alternative (and its predecessors) since 1977. He’s been a campaign and solidarity activist and organizer for even longer than that. His biography Henryk Grossman and the Recovery of Marxism (University of Illinois Press, 2006) won the Deutscher Prize in 2007. He also wrote Labor’s Conflict: Big Business, Workers and the Politics of Class (Cambridge University Press, 2011) with Tom Bramble about the Australian Labor Party, and he edited the collection Class and Class Conflict in Australia (Addison Wesley Longman, 1996).

Late last year, in the middle of jobs carnage at the Australian National University, management there refused to renew Dr. Kuhn’s (unpaid) status as an honorary associate professor. In solidarity with Rick, the editors of Spectre urge our readers to sign and share the petition calling for his reinstatement.

What led to you to work on Grossman?

I became a Marxist and experienced the end of the long, post-World War II boom as a young adult while participating in struggles for a more radical and relevant economics curriculum at Sydney Uni in the mid 1970s. Crisis theory has interested me since then. The origins of my Grossmania lie in a great 1978 essay “An Introduction to the History of Crisis Theories” by Anwar Shaikh. The political current to which I belonged and still belong, like Grossman, identified the tendency for the rate of profit to fall as the most important element in Marx’s theory of economic crises. There was little information available about Grossman or his work at that time. Australia and much of the world went into another recession in 1991.

Mainly prompted by the fall of the Berlin Wall, I studied German seriously, having heard the language spoken with my grandparents when I was a child and suffered a very poor education in it for 3 years in junior high school. That study equipped me to embark on the biography of Grossman.

Finding out about Grossman’s dramatic experiences, revolutionary politics, and growing knowledge of his economic ideas maintained commitment to the project. So did a feeling of affinity, not only because we shared a commitment to working class self-emancipation but also because we both became atheistic Jews, and because of my mother’s family’s background in Galicia during the period when Grossman lived there. I only discovered my own connection with Galicia by using skills developed for the Grossman project. That discovery also came as news and even a shock to my Mum. For me, and hopefully readers of the biography, Grossman’s life is a window onto the important radical movements and struggles during the first half of the twentieth century.

Over a decade ago, after the biography was published, Sebastian Budgen suggested that the next logical step was to work on a collection of his works. It seemed like a good idea at the time. And that venture has helped me deal with having multiple myeloma (a kind of blood cancer). Family, friends, and comrades have been extremely indulgent and supportive of my Grossmania. Socialist Alternative’s perspectives have influenced its specific inflection.

Why should we pay any attention to the writings of Grossman on politics? He was primarily an economist, wasn’t he? And his account of capitalist crises has long been characterized as a mechanical theory of capitalism’s breakdown.

Yes, Grossman is best known as an economist. In fact, he was the most important Marxist economist of the twentieth century. But he was also politically engaged and active from an early age and wrote works with important political content. The theory of breakdown is what Grossman is famous for. Of course Rosa Luxemburg also insisted that capitalism’s tendency to breakdown is a core feature of Marxist theory. But her explanation of the tendency was underconsumptionist, focused on the ultimate lack of markets for capitalist commodities.

Marx located capitalism’s fundamental economic contradiction in the heart of its process of production. The very mechanism that has led to the repeated and dramatic increases in the productivity of human labour under capitalism, through greater application of improved technologies, machinery and equipment than deployment of more workers (that is, an increasing organic composition of capital), gives rise to the tendency for the rate of profit to fall and hence crises. This is at the root of capitalism’s tendency to break down.

Grossman was the first person to systematically develop Marx’s discussion of both the tendency for the rate of profit to fall and its countertendencies, in his The Law of Accumulation and Breakdown of the Capitalist System, Being also a Theory of Crisis. The first full translation of that book, which Jairus Banaji and I translated, is the third volume of Grossman’s Works and should be published soon. I’m impatiently waiting for the page proofs.

When it was first published in 1929, The Law of Accumulation attracted more attention than any other work by a member of the Institute for Social Research, which gave rise to the Frankfurt School, until the late 1940s. Most of that attention was hostile. Social democrats, Communists, and some council communists dismissed it as a theory of capitalism’s automatic breakdown, without the need for class struggle.

Paul Sweezy conveyed this complete distortion to an English reading audience in his judgement that Grossman was guilty of “mechanistic thinking.” Anyone who bothered to read not only that book carefully, but also essays published by Grossman both before and after it appeared, would find that he expressed his view that revolutionary action was necessary to overturn capitalism, with reference to Lenin, quite explicitly.

For example, check out his essay Fifty Years of Struggle over Marxism, a penetrating history of Marxist ideas from Marx’s death until the early 1930s. It concludes with a summary of Grossman’s recovery of Marx’s breakdown theory. The translation, by Einde O’Callaghan and me, is in the first volume of Grossman’s Works but has also been issued as a short, very cheap ebook that I strongly recommend.

So his main contribution to Marxist economics was in the area of crisis theory, the tendency for the organic composition of capital rise and the rate of profit to fall?

Yes, but not only that. In The Law of Accumulation and other publications, which are collected in the first volume of his Works, he made other important contributions too. He identified the logic of the structure of the 3 volumes of Marx’s Capital as a journey from the abstract, the core of the analysis, identified by temporarily setting aside less important aspects of capitalism, to the concrete, as those aspects were successively incorporated into the discussion. So there was no contradiction between the first and third volumes of Capital as various critics argued.

On this issue and other questions, Grossman demolished Marx’s critics and developed Marx’s analyses which were accurate when Marx wrote, when Grossman wrote, and remain accurate today, contrary to those bourgeois ideologues as well as self-identified Marxists who have distorted or attempted to refute them.

Some genuinely Marxist critics of the economic ideas of Marx himself or Grossman, notably Rosa Luxemburg but also John Bellamy Foster, have made important contributions to other areas of Marxist theory. Rosa Luxemburg provided us with brilliant accounts, for example, of reformism as an essentially capitalist ideology and the dynamics of working class struggle. But she mistakenly held that Marx’s presentation of the reproduction schemes in volume 2 of Capital was flawed.

Grossman dispatched that criticism, which underpinned her unsatisfactory theory of breakdown and imperialism. In economics, Foster is an epigone of Sweezy’s underconsumptionism but his (and Paul Burkett’s) recovery of Marx’s ecological thinking is tremendously valuable. His The Return of Nature deservedly won the Deutscher Prize last year.

In explaining the tendency to break down, Grossman also highlighted that a satisfactory analysis of capitalism has to take into account both the value and use value aspects of production and accumulation. This was one of the foundations of his devastating refutation of marginalist theory which underpins the bourgeois ideology called “economics” taught at universities, sometimes alongside its underconsumptionist half-brother, Keynesianism, which is supposedly and misleadingly regarded as the basis of government policies (as opposed to naked capitalist self-interest).

In 3 major studies and a shorter article, Grossman traced the historical origins of some of Marx’s key concepts in the work of earlier French, Swiss, and English writers, as well as the way in which Marx transformed these ideas. They’re in Works volume 1. In the area of economic history, Grossman wrote an essay refuting Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism and undertook a major project on the origins of capitalism in Galicia. They will be published in Works volume 4. Then there are his contributions to the history of the modern scientific worldview that are in The Social and Economic Roots of the Scientific Revolution, edited by Gideon Freudenthal and Peter McLaughlin (Springer, 2009).

But he also had interesting things to say about the fight against oppression?

That’s right. The second volume of his Works primarily contains Grossman’s political writings. The hardback is horrendously expensive, but Haymarket has published it in paperback. Since Marx and Engels, Marxists have been fighting racism and the oppression of women, as well as exploitation, although you wouldn’t know it from some discussions among socialists.

In his early 20s just after the start of the twentieth century, Grossman was a leader of Jewish workers, in Galicia, the Austrian occupied province of partitioned Poland, in their struggles against exploitation and antisemitism. Having helped organize them into socialist unions and associations, he was the founding theoretician and secretary of the Jewish Social Democratic Party of Galicia. At the outset this Party had 2000 members and intervened in Jewish workers’ and wider industrial and political struggles, on the basis of revolutionary Marxist politics.

Grossman’s first writings, collected at the start of the second volume of his Works, provide the justifications for the JSDP’s existence and outline its activities and perspectives. He argued that Jewish workers themselves were the crucial “subjective” factor in the struggles to achieve equal rights for Jews, in accord with the Marxist principle that “the emancipation of the working class must be the act of the working class itself.” The Bund, the General Union of Jewish Workers of Poland, Lithuania, and Russia was the prime, contemporary, political inspiration for Grossman and his Party. Until 1906, the Bund was the largest Marxist organization in the Russian Empire.

So he was essentially a Bundist? How is that relevant today?

He was a Bundist but against some of his inclinations. He was initially a member of the Polish Social Democratic Party of Galicia (PPSD), the main socialist organization in the province. It was also a Polish nationalist party, aligned with the Polish Socialist Party (PPS) on Russian territory, rather than with Rosa Luxemburg’s Social Democracy of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania. Grossman helped smuggle material for Luxemburg’s party into the Russian Empire.

For a while he was also the editor of a journal hostile to the PPS but open to other socialist currents. The PPSD neglected Jewish workers. The immediate trigger for the formation of the JPSD was the PPSD’s decision to abolish the Jewish workers’ unions and associations. Grossman and his comrades were faced with the choice of giving up on the Jewish working class or splitting from the PPSD. The new Party immediately sought affiliation to the general Austrian Social Democratic Party, which was a federation. Its application was turned down.

Grossman abandoned Bundism under the impact of the Bolshevik revolution, if not before. When he moved to Warsaw, in 1919, he joined the Communist Workers Party of Poland, an illegal organization. As a consequence, he was arrested on several occasions, and he was an organizer of at least 1 of the Party’s above ground fronts. He wrote an introduction, on the earliest reception of Marxism in Poland, to his translation of Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Program and related documents. The introduction drew attention to the continued opportunist current in German social democracy and was issued by a publishing house which was a Communist front.

So Grossman embraced the revolutionary Marxist perspective of organizing all those committed to the working class’s overthrow of capitalism in a single party because the struggle against all oppressions is in the interests of the working class as a whole and is therefore a responsibility of a revolutionary organization if it is to be effective. The idea, peddled by proponents of identity politics, that the oppressed must always organize separately is an obstacle to successful resistance to capitalism. That idea reinforces oppression because it implicitly or explicitly asserts that oppressed people are politically homogenous.

The strategies and tactics for the campaigns around the issues that affect oppressed groups are often highly contested within those groups. Revolutionary organizations have to take up and intervene into the struggles of the oppressed, to both enhance their chances of success and so that they contribute to the fight against the capitalist system as a whole.

Where did Grossman express his revised views about political organization?

I’m glad you asked, because it was in a peculiar place.

Grossman’s old friend and boss at the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt, where he went in qualified exile from Poland, was Carl Grünberg. When a stroke incapacitated Grünberg, Grossman took over his job of updating old and writing new entries on socialists and socialist movements for the fourth edition of Ludwig Elster’s Dictionary of Economics. It was really an encyclopedia, in 3 thick volumes issued between 1931 and 1933. Heavy too, as I experienced in schlepping them around. Some of the entries were just a couple of paragraphs, others were very long. Grossman, for example, wrote over 21,000 words for the entry that was also published separately as Fifty Years of Struggle over Marxism. Apart from that one, all his other entries are translated in the second volume of his Works.

The most substantial of his biographical entries was on Lenin. It outlined and endorsed Lenin’s role in the Bolshevik Party, Russian Communist Party, and Communist International. It contains much to learn and apply today, concerning questions of organization, orientation, and practical politics. His longer entries on Bolshevism and the Communist International express the same perspective. And that perspective is apparent in his very substantial contributions to the Dictionary on anarchism, Christian socialism, social democratic and Communist parties, and the Second International, as well as various socialists prominent in the history of the movement.

Sounds like you’re a bit of a Grossman fanboy…

I am. But not an uncritical one, as anyone who reads my introduction to the Works volumes will see.

My survey and evaluation of criticisms of The Law of Accumulation, just out in Marxist Left Review, identifies some which are valid, although they do not invalidate his theoretical framework or main conclusions.

And, whatever the circumstances that explain his Bundist politics, they had their limitations. The notion that the achievement of the Bundist demand for “national cultural autonomy” could itself contain and neutralize national divisions inside the working class is an illusion.

Of particular significance, he was not immune from Stalinism. Grossman’s assessments of developments in Russia in the late 1920s, notably the first 5 Year Plan, were wrong. Like many members and sympathizers of Communist parties around the world, he did not recognize that by the end of that decade the revolution had been definitively defeated. But the passivity of the KPD in the face of the Nazis’ accession to power, with the support of the bulk of the German bourgeoisie, did shake him up.

For a while, he had a more critical assessment of the role of the Communist International under Russian leadership. But apparently influenced by Russian support for the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War, he again became sympathetic to the official Communist movement from the mid 1930s.

That’s clear in his correspondence. But even though The Law of Accumulation attracted the ire of Stalin’s lieutenant in economic matters, Jenö/Eugen Varga, and were criticized in Communist publications, Grossman never repudiated its arguments. And he continued to make them, even as he made further important contributions to Marxist economic theory. That’s why none of his works were ever republished in East Germany, even though he took up a professorial chair and joined the Socialist Unity (that is, Communist) Party there in 1949, the year before he died.

So there were some slip-ups in his book on capitalist crises and breakdown; there were shortcomings in some of Grossman’s early treatment of the Jewish question; and his assessments of the Soviet Union’s foreign policies after the early 1920s and the 5 Year Plans were profoundly false.

On the other hand, if you want insights into the situation of Jewish workers in early twentieth century eastern Europe, into capitalism’s economic trajectory that arise from Marx’s theoretical breakthroughs and what those innovations were, into the inadequacies of bourgeois economics, into the role of a revolutionary party, or into the relationship between production and early modern scientific thought, then he’s your guy.

You’ve recently been putting some of the ideas you write about into practice?

That’s right. Despite and because of the COVID crisis, there was the biggest ever mobilisation by university unionists in Australia last year. I have been more involved in actual class struggles than for ages. The crisis has seen managements across Australia attacking the pay and conditions of university workers. Unfortunately, the initial response of the leadership of the National Tertiary Education Union, which represents most of the academic and non-academic workforce, was complicity with the attacks. So we have had to campaign against the vice chancellors (university presidents), the federal government, and policies of our union’s leaders.

But didn’t you retire years ago?

I did, at the end of 2013, after working at the Australian National University for 27 years. At that point, having been active in the union and its predecessor since my first academic job, I was made a life member. The Australian National University also made me an honorary associate professor. Despite differences with the NTEU’s leadership, my life membership has continued. ANU bosses, on the other hand, decided not to renew my honorary status last November without any official reason explanation. After a petition protesting this started, they did concede me access to the university library for a few more years.

Can you tell me a bit more about the struggles in the universities?

First some background. The COVID crisis hit Australian universities particularly hard because they have been very reliant on very high fees from international students. Over 1/5 of all university enrollments were international students in 2019. They have been treated as cash cows by university managements. Meanwhile, both Conservative and Labor federal governments have been underfunding universities for many years.

The pandemic led to a collapse in revenue from international students. The Conservative government, which provided support for employment in all other industries, refused to do so for universities. Then last October, it cut universities’ per student funding, so that public money will be less than half of their income for the first time.

University bosses responded to the onset of the crisis by sacking casual workers, some of whom had been working without even fixed term contracts let alone as continuing employees for years. The first response of the NTEU leadership was not to organize resistance, but to offer the vice chancellors reductions in members’ pay (of up to 15 percent!) and in conditions of employment, in return for flimsy undertakings about minimising job cuts. Negotiations over a national deal along these lines went on behind members’ backs.

How did unionists respond?

There was outrage. That was promoted and provided with ammunition – in the form of evidence, arguments, advice about how to resist, and effective practical interventions in the most unionized universities in the country – by NTEU Fightback. That is a rank and file organizing center in the union, initiated by Socialist Alternative. I’ve been active in NTEU Fightback from the start. There’s a very good article that goes into more detail.

One of the first signs of resistance to the NTEU leader’s proposed deal was at Sydney University, the best organised and the most industrially militant campus in the country. A motion to oppose such a deal was carried at a union meeting by 117 to 2. It was moved by Alma Torlakovic, a member of NTEU Fightback and Socialist Alternative.

We argue that a concessionary approach is disastrous. It not only results in worse wages and conditions; it also undermines members’ self-confidence and weakens the union’s capacity to fight. The alternative is to devote resources to resisting employers’ attacks. Much of the time that may mean using “proper channels” but in ways that mobilize members in collective action, to build solidarity and the union – like organizing protests alongside formal appeals or consultations with management. That’s the path to recruitment and more militant and effective mass action, that is strikes, in the future.

What’s the explanation for the behavior of your union’s officials?

Very briefly: union officials are bargaining agents. They are not exploited by bosses. Their job is to do deals over the terms under which their members’ ability to work is sold. They are under pressure from their members below, who want to defend and improve wages and conditions, and from employers and governments above, who want to maximise profits and the economic growth it generates. Their prime interest is in maintaining their role as intermediaries. So union officials are essential for unions, but they don’t have the same interests as workers. I wrote a newspaper article that develops this argument in relation to our union.

Recognizing the weakness of the NTEU, its leaders decided that it would be easier for them to stay relevant by offering concessions than leading a serious fight. A comrade put it this way: they are desperate to get their shiny black shoes (though, in some cases, it may be their natural leather Birkenstocks) under the bargaining table, even if that means being involved in implementing wage cuts and the erosion of conditions.

There are a few differences between what university workers and metal workers do on the job. But NTEU Fightback’s perspective is summed up by the stance of the Clyde Workers Committee, which led the struggles of metal workers in Scotland during World War I:

We will support the officials just so long as they rightly represent the workers, but we will act independently immediately [if] they misrepresent them.

How did the campaign develop?

We started a petition against the deal to spread the arguments against it and encourage local organizing. We built an email list of over 1500 university workers, to which we send out bulletins. During the height of the campaigns against the deal and the vice chancellors’ attacks, NTEU Fightback was issuing almost daily emails and Facebook posts. We set up a website, which now includes extensive resources about the situation in the universities and the union, the history of rank and file struggles, and the practicalities of organizing. We provided support for our members and others who were fighting the attacks at their unis. And we also convened public meetings about the current and past rank and file struggles in Australia and abroad. The transformation of the Chicago Teachers Union has been a reference point for us.

Resistance built, and there were record-breaking union mass meetings at many universities. All this happened in the unfamiliar world of Zoom.

Eventually, faced with this unprecedented rank and file revolt, the NTEU’s officials gave up on their proposed national deal. But they still pushed local sellouts along similar lines. NTEU Fightback has backed resistance to accepting these deals. Where they were adopted, none of them prevented widespread job cuts. Rather, they ensured that job cuts were accompanied by cuts in the pay and conditions set out in enterprise agreements (union contracts).

So what’s next?

University managements are using the crisis and union officials’ display of weakness, to impose their previous wishlist of increased workloads, increased casualization of work, course and job cuts, restructures, outsourcing, and reducing the research time of academics who are both teachers and researchers. So the struggle goes on, sometimes alongside the officials, sometimes despite them.

Many contracts expire this year. We are pushing in workplaces and the union’s structures for the NTEU to adopt demands, especially around job security, workloads, and pay, that can inspire members and, crucially, to organize around these towards sustained industrial action. Today, mere threats or Duke of York tactics (marching the troops to the top of the hill and back down again) – that is, token work stoppages – won’t cut it. Determined, disruptive strikes with mass support are currently the only way to effectively defend and improve workers’ lives. That’s what he have to build towards.

Grossman’s contributions to Marxism are highly relevant here. Because, while building towards that kind of action, as socialists we also point out to militants that the underlying problem is the crisis-prone system of capitalism and that the working class won’t succeed in overturning it in the absence of a revolutionary party which supports all struggles against oppression and exploitation.

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Charles Post is a member of the Spectre editorial board, teaches sociology at the City University of New York, and is a member of the Tempest collective.

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