[Marxism] Theodor Bergmann autobiography

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Feb 29 15:55:52 MST 2016

Theodor Bergmann, a German revolutionary who supported Rosa Luxemburg 
and Paul Levi, wrote a 45 page autobiography on his 100th anniversary if 
the Google translate was accurate. It is amazing that he is still alive 
and going strong.


I heard him speak at the Brecht Forum in March 2000 as I reported to the 
Marxism list back then.

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 

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 terrain.

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.

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