Theodor Bergmann

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Thu May 11 17:49:00 MDT 2000

I have the highest regard for Theodor Bergmann, the 84 year old editor of
the Hamburg-based magazine "Sozialismus," who spoke last night at the
Brecht Forum on "The German Anti-Nazi Left". Three years ago the magazine
entered into a fraternal relationship with Monthly Review, which is edited
by Paul Sweezy and Harry Magdoff, themselves well-known and respected
old-timers. Not that I have anything against young radicals, but men and
women in their 80s who are still going strong deserve our special respect.

"Sozialismus" was also the first serious journal to print something I
wrote, namely my puckish report on the last Rethinking Marxism conference,
titled "Wissen-shaftskriege" (Science Wars). It told the story of how
female Marxist graduate students from India nearly drove a terminally
long-winded Etienne Balibar from the stage and how during the aftermath of
the protest conference organizers tried to root out a Sokalite conspiracy
that presumably was responsible. (There was no such conspiracy.)

Bergmann was a member of the youth group of the Left Communists in the
1920s, a party that Cochranite Erwin Baur's mother belonged to as well. In
an interview I conducted with him recently, Erwin explained that it was
natural for him to end up in the American Trotskyist movement in the 1930s
because as he was growing up talk around the dinner table focused on the
evils of the capitalist system and the inadequacy of the mass Communist
Parties. Erwin, a life-long UAW militant and currently a member of
Solidarity, is the same age as Theodor and another example of how to stand
up to the system over the long haul.

The German Left Communists were a split from the party led by August
Thalheimer and Heinrich Brandler. They, along with Paul Levi, were the
ideological heirs of Rosa Luxemburg and usually showed better judgement
than the Comintern during the 1920s. For example, Paul Levi proposed a
united front between Communists and Socialists long before Hitler was a
major factor in German politics. When the Comintern instructed the German
Communists to instead follow a sectarian line, Levi took his opposition
public. For this he was expelled, the first in a series of talented
revolutionaries driven from the party. Their sin was in believing that
German Marxism alone was responsible for the fate of the German working
class in the final analysis.

In the article "Rosa Luxemburg's Political Heir: An Appreciation of Paul
Levi" that appeared in the Nov.-Dec. 1999 New Left Review, author David
Fernbach cites a January 1921 letter from Levi to the German party on the
seriousness of the problems in dealing with the Comintern:

"[I]f the Communist International functions in Western Europe in terms of
admission and expulsion like a recoiling cannon.., then we will experience
the heaviest setback.. . [Our Russian] comrades did not clearly realize
that splits in a mass party with a different intellectual structure than,
for example, that of the illegal party.. cannot be carried out on the basis
of resolutions, but only on the basis of political experience."

January 1921? This was before the Comintern supposedly went downhill?
Clearly the best thing for the German working class would have been if the
Comintern had left it alone or at least treated it in the respectful manner
that Fidel Castro treats other socialists today rather than trying to
browbeat them into blind loyalty.

The other major ideological influence on the Left Communists was Bukharin,
who is the subject of one of Theodor Bergmann's many books.

There are two dominant interpretations of Bukharin today, one--based on
Stephen Cohen's biography--is that of a liberalizing bureaucrat who
anticipated Gorbachev. The other, part of Trotskyist orthodoxy, is that of
Bukharin as friend of rich peasants. To reduce Bukharin to this formula
would be the same as characterizing Trotsky only as the Russian
revolutionary who "underestimated the peasantry."

John Bellamy Foster's brilliant new "Marx's Ecology" reveals another side
of Bukharin: an ecosocialist who continued in the vein established by Marx
in his examination of the problem of soil fertility. He singles out this
paragraph from Bukharin's "Historical Materialism," which describes the
'metabolic' process that unites nature and society, a theme that is present
in Volume Three of Capital. This metabolic force, according to Bukharin:

"is the fundamental relation between environment and system, between
'external conditions' and human society... The metabolism between man and
nature consists, as we have seen, in the transfer of material energy from
external nature to society.... Thus, the interrelation between society and
nature is a process of social reproduction. In this process, society
applies its human labor energy and obtains a certain quantity of energy
from nature ('nature’s material,' in the words of Marx). The balance
between expenditures and receipts is here obviously the decisive element
for the growth of society. If what is obtained exceeds the loss by labor,
important consequences obviously follow for society, which vary with the
amount of this excess."

Bukharin's interest in such problems must surely have influenced Bergmann's
decision to develop a career as an agricultural economist. For many years
he was attached to the Institute of Agricultural Policy and Market
Research, University of Hohenheim. He began his academic career rather late
in life and did not publish his first monograph until he was fifty.
Although most of his work focuses on the problems of productivity on the
farm, it is clear that--like Bukharin--he always understood the ecological
implications based on the evidence of this passage from his "Mechanization
and Agricultural Development" (1984):

"The new farm technology has manifold ecological effects. Deeper and faster
soil cultivation, intensified rotation accelerate mobilisation and drain of
nutrients, parch the soil, strengthen the deterioration and drying up of
the soil and increase - in case of strong rainfalls - the danger of
erosion. Heavy machines may compact the soil. Irrigation can cause erosion,
crusting and salination. Some experts fear over-fertilisation, excessive
utilisation of mineral fertilisers and pesticides, which might later harm
the quality of underground water."

Before he became an academic, Bergmann spent years in exile doing whatever
work was available to allow him to write on behalf of socialism. In years
spent in places as far afield as Palestine and Czechoslovakia, he was a
farmer, miner and Hebrew teacher.

His dedication to building a revivified left is impressive. A recent
project has been the publication of a book devoted to "heretical
Communists" such as the kind that took inspiration from Rosa Luxemburg in
Germany. As I was leaving the Brecht Forum, he mentioned to me that he had
plans to work on a follow-up book which would examine Paul Levi, José
Carlos Mariátegui and others. I smiled at him and said that Levi and
Mariátegui both had problems with the Comintern. And, when you really get
down to it, both shared a commitment to the idea that Marxist parties can
only be built out of an engagement with the class struggle in the native

Most of Theodor Bergmann's books are only available in the German language,
including a study of Rosa Luxemburg. I urge comrades to seek out his work,
whether in German or in English. And for those of you living in Germany,
Sozialismus is especially recommended.

Louis Proyect
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