Review by Humphrey McQueen
Henryk Grossman and the Recovery of Marxism by Rick Kuhn Illinois University Press, 2007, 352 pp, $60
hpk, $25 pbk.
“When will capitalism collapse?” haunted public life until the 1950s. Interest in the work of the Polish Marxist Henryk Grossman (1881-1950) shrank as the terms of economic debate drifted from depression to recession, from collapse to correction. Grossman established his reputation with The Law of Accumulation and the Collapse of the Capitalist System (also a Theory of Crisis) published in 1929, and in Japanese by 1932. An English translation arrived in 1992.
The audience for Grossman’s analysis was the working-class from Moscow to Chicago. Activists and academics without access to the 644-page book were made aware of its analysis through the world Communist movement. Reader in Political Science at the ANU, Rick Kuhn, notes that these accounts often misrepresented Grossman’s politics by alleging that his proofs for inevitability of crises denied the need for overthrowing the state.
That dispute was pivotal because, in 1929, the Comintern recognised that capitalism had entered a new era of crises. Months before the epiphenomenon of a stock-market crash, Grossman’s tome endorsed the economic underpinning of this new policy. The Comintern’s rider was that the collapse was about to regenerate revolution, during which the Social Democratic leaders would reveal themselves again as socialist in name but fascist in practice.
Leaving the political aspects aside, the explication of crisis provided opportunities for honest disagreement among writers proceeding from Marx’s Capital. The key sections appear in Volume Three under the rubric of “The law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall”, followed by chapters on the counter-tendencies. In broad, Marx argued that crises recurred because of the over-production by the illogic of capital accumulation. Each capital had to expand to survive against the twin pressures from competition and the demands of wage-slaves for a larger share of the surplus value they supplied. Grossman followed Marx in treating under-consumption as an effect, not the cause. Yet, Marx had pointed out that a crisis of excess capacity need not erupt at the point of its generation but, perhaps, in the domain of distribution, or elsewhere in the circuits of expansion for money capital.
Grossman deployed his mastery of statistics to track recent rates of profit which he integrated with the disjunctures between the production of machinery and that of consumer items. Although the
reproduction schema that Marx set out in Volume Two became crucial to debates over planning, Grossman did not intervene.
Kuhn locates Grossman’s masterwork within two streams of its author’s life. The first began with his agitational efforts among 5,000 Jewish workers around his native Krakow and lingered through his life-long attachment to Soviet Communism, as confirmed by his acceptance of a Chair at Leipzig in 1948.
The second is Grossman’s achievements as an economic historian, for instance, his reinterpretation of Eighteenth-century trade within the Austro-Hungarian Empire, skills put to use by the Austrian war ministry. Grossman spent 20 years with the Institute for Social Research, first in Frankfurt and then in New York, wrestling with the Director’s cheque-book and the spirits of Descartes and Sismondi.
The private man is enlivened by extracts from the papers of the Australian-born novelist Christina Stead who became a friend during his 1940s exile. What did Grossman think of her Marxian novel set in a merchant bank during the 1930s financial crisis, House of All Nations (1938)?
Kuhn provides a full bibliography of Grossman’s writings, thorough documentation and a friendly index. Kuhn’s straightforward prose reveals how substantial a contribution he has made to intellectual history. Whether anyone can recover Marxism depends on whether Grossman was right to say that capitalist crises are ineluctable.
Australian Economic History Review, 2008