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There are men who struggle for a day and they are good.
There are men who struggle for a year and they are better.
There are men who struggle many years, and they are better still.
But there are those who struggle all their lives:
These are the indispensable ones.
– Bertolt Brecht, “In Praise of the Fighters” (song)
Arriving on a book tour for his newly published “A Socialist Defector: From Harvard to Karl-Marx-Allee” on April 23rd, Victor Grossman is a testament to Bertolt Brecht’s oft-quoted lyrics. At the age of 91, he has never ceded an inch to capitalism and imperialism. Indeed, the sense of outrage over the way in which East Germany was “liberated” pervades throughout this most necessary personal history is a reminder that “youthful rebellion” can be overrated. For that matter, his 68 articles for CounterPunch over the years are a testament to his undying revolutionary spirit as well as to CounterPunch’s age as well as political diversity. Unlike other periodicals on the left oozing youthful rebelliousness, the editors have a keen sense of the importance of contributions from our leftwing tribal elders from Ralph Nader to those who have passed on, like Uri Avnery. With a profound radicalization on the horizon in the USA, there is no substitute for relying on the insights of people who have gained hard-earned experience from earlier historical periods. As someone who was organizing anti-racist protests at Harvard University in 1947 as a Communist Party member, Grossman’s experience is essential for young people involved with Black Lives Matter today. The struggle against capitalism, racism, and imperialism is an epochal one and connecting the strands between fighters from different generations cannot be overestimated.
“A Socialist Defector” is a multitiered work. On one level, it is Victor Grossman’s personal story of defecting to East Germany in 1952 in order to avoid McCarthy era repression. Drafted into the army in 1950, he did not disclose his membership in the CP in a questionnaire based on the Attorney General’s “subversive” list. When he was fingered as a subversive while serving in West Germany, he made the life-altering decision to swim across the Danube River and get political asylum in East Germany. With much of the book covering his life and times in the Communist nation nearly as demonized as North Korea, you gain useful insights into the reality of a country that has been so poorly served by mass media and the film industry. As someone who has boycotted press screenings of films like “The Lives of Others”, I particularly enjoyed Grossman’s dismantling of the evil Stasi genre. Unlike most of my colleagues in the film review business, either paid or unpaid, I much preferred “Goodbye, Lenin”, a film dismissed as “Ostalgie”. The film depicts a loving son’s efforts to keep his dying mother, a staunch East German communist, from discovering that the country has been “liberated” by West German corporations. In my review, I noted:
He searches desperately for consumer goods from the past that apparently not only appeal to his mother, but to other elderly East Berliners, who feel swamped by Western products that are alien to their culture. Although the word “globalization” is not mentioned in the film, an astute member of the audience might think of the French farmer Jose Bove who vandalized a McDonald’s for its encroachments of native cuisine and values.
As Alex ventures out into the brave new world of capitalism, he begins to question the changes. For example, when he brings his mother’s East German currency to a bank to be converted into Deutschmarks, he is told that the deadline was two days earlier and that they are worthless. When he raises his voice in protest, bank guards throw him out.
While “Goodbye Lenin” is very much worth watching on Youtube, it is no substitute for reading “A Socialist Defector” that arguably is the most comprehensive leftist rejoinder to the “capitalist miracle” narrative in which a superior West Germany vindicated capitalism by swallowing the East in one greedy gulp. Broken down into 84 short chapters, the one on East Germany’s post-war economic reality is an eye-opening correction to the historical record.
Grossman starts off by simply pointing out the geographical discrepancy. West Germany was about as large as California while the East was as large as Ohio. The West also benefited from resource endowments, with the Ruhr Valley being rich in coal as well as being the home of the steel industry. East Germany, on the other hand, had few natural resources except for potassium salt mines, some copper, and lignite coal. Lignite was far inferior to the Ruhr Valley’s coal and could never sustain the kind of electrical power, fuel and chemical industries typical of the West. Despite its economic frailty, the East was burdened by 95 percent of the reparations costs after France, England and the Benelux countries absolved West Germany of most payments. Despite the East being ruled by Communists, the state saw factories, machinery, railroad tracks, and other productive facilities trucked off to Poland and the USSR.
Like Venezuela today, East Germany was hampered by sanctions from the West from the beginning. Its textile and steel industry relied on raw material from the West but they were doled out in accordance with an overall strategy to make the country “cry uncle” as was the case with Reagan’s war on Nicaragua. On top of all this, the West was getting major investments in restoring its industrial infrastructure through the Marshall Plan.
Finally, just like Nicaragua, many of the more privileged engineering and management personnel fled to the West immediately, taking plans, patents, and documents with them as well as their expertise on factory operations. Most American radicals are very familiar with how such a reactionary brain drain made the construction of socialism in Cuba and Nicaragua more difficult. As a board member of TecNica, a solidarity organization that sent skilled professionals to volunteer in Nicaragua, I immediately understood how middle-class defection can cost a developing country. For all practical purposes, East Germany in the 1950s had much more in common with Latin American society than the wealthy West European nations.
Despite the economic disadvantages and the unfortunate bureaucratic and security apparatchiks East Germany had to endure, there were considerable benefits that attended a society based on socialist principles, even if distorted.
With so much attention being paid to health care in the USA today, or the lack thereof, it is worth acknowledging how socialism provided major benefits to East Germans (I should add genuine socialism as opposed to the ersatz product being peddled today by some on the left.) How Grossman benefited from the system is a reminder of what is possible, even in a country that could never compete with the West in terms of luxury goods, travel, fancy restaurants, and the like. He writes:
When I was thirty-nine, I was found to have hepatitis-B and immediately tucked into a hospital bed, luckily in a two-patient room, and luckily with no cost to me. After nine long weeks, the bilirubin in my blood had dropped to an acceptable level and I was packed off to four weeks of convalescence cure (a Kur in German) at a beautiful lakeside sanatorium near Berlin, expropriated from the war-criminal Siemens family. A year later, to check on any lingering liver damage, I was sent on a second four-week Kur to Karlovy Vary (Karlsbad) in Czechoslovakia, again with checkups, daily massages, bubble baths, mud treatments, and the legendary afternoon pavilion concerts where patients stroll around sipping tepid but healthy mineral waters out of spouted cups. My wife was sent to three rheumatism cures, four weeks each, one in the beautiful Harz Mountains, one in the healthy mountains of southern Poland. In all our Kurs, food, lodging, medical treatment, and travel costs were fully covered; we paid not a pfennig and got 90 percent of our salaries the whole time (guaranteed for up to six weeks a year).
However, such provisions were not sufficient to withstand the onslaught of West Germany that was facilitated by Gorbachev’s perestroika and glasnost. At the very same time I witnessed Nicaragua being undermined by the Kremlin’s rapprochement with Reagan, a similar process was unfolding in the divided Germany. If it was all about imperialist pressure, not much more can be said. However, unlike those today on the left who can never see the internal contradictions that led to an uprising against Assad, Grossman is brutally honest about what happened in East Germany. His insights are very much worth considering not only for understanding the history of the country but the larger questions of how a feasible socialism can be constructed. In a chapter titled “Productivity East and West”, he takes on the big questions that have confronted the left, even today as Donald Trump warns that the election of Bernie Sanders would turn the USA into Venezuela.
Essentially, socialist East Germany lacked the two tools that capitalist production relied on: the carrot and the stick. The carrot—big profits and the bonuses and wage hikes they enabled—was absent. As for the stick, unemployment was never held over the head of East German workers nor could foremen and other management figures bully them into submission psychologically. Generally, both the factory and the retail worker never felt the same kind of lash that kept their counterparts in the West in line. This led to a certain haughtiness in the service-oriented fields where, for example, tips were never expected in East German restaurants. So unused to tipping in the USA, Grossman’s wife Renate asked him on a visit why people didn’t pocket the cash left for waiters and waitresses in American restaurants.
Grossman sums up the “counter-productivity” situation in his country’s factories:
The general result was a more relaxed atmosphere, less grim racing against time, often against the other worker, shift, or department such as I had seen in Buffalo. [Like many activists in the 1970s, including me for just one morning, Grossman “colonized” a factory in order to recruit workers to his party.] People went to the doctor on work time, to the dentist, even the hairdresser; some went shopping in little co-operative stores. I was visiting one factory when word got around that juicy fresh tomatoes from Bulgaria had just arrived; two workers took orders from the others and hastened down so as not to miss out on them. I also discovered humane work rules in a steel mill I visited; those working with hot iron and steel had ten-minute breaks after twenty minutes of work. Is this common elsewhere? It is possibly less productive.
This was also joked about, as with the little rhyme among white collar workers: “Freitag nach eins, Feder macht seins,” which means (unrhymed): “Friday after one everyone’s on his own.”
How could a lack of fervent ambition or greed on one hand, and fear on the other, be compensated? Perhaps never completely.
In my view, the question of incentives, productivity, efficiency, etc. will diminish over time as humanity becomes aware of the broader threats it faces as the environmental crisis deepens. Workers today who might consider voting for Trump in 2020 will have to carefully weigh that against the possibility that their homes might be destroyed by floods, forest fires or even by a nuclear bomb as capitalist competition becomes more and more weaponized. The takeaway from “A Socialist Defector” is the need to put humanity first. In page after page of powerful writing, Victor Grossman is a reminder of the universal appeal of socialism. I only hope that I am half as committed to the cause as him when I am a nonagenarian myself and still writing for CounterPunch.