Wednesday, August 27, 2008

discarded lives: going through the trash

“When old people died without wills or heirs, as happened rather often, the landlord would set the belongings of the deceased out on the sidewalk, since that was cheaper than hiring a removal van. We would go through the boxes and help ourselves, and come upon photographs and books and curiosities, evidence of lives and passions spent in the political and social turmoil of 1910 and 1920, of the Mexican Border War and Emma Goldman’s Mother Earth and Vaudeville and labor-union struggles and the shipping trade; we might be briefly diverted, but we were much more interested in the boxes on the next stoop that contained someone’s considerably more recent record collection.” [Afterward, page 369. Low Life: Lures & Snares of Old New York, Luc Santé, Farrar Straus Giroux, New York (2003)]

reading this in santé’s book reminded me of the many times i happened upon physical milestones of peoples’ lives being “brought to the curb” in the east village during the late 80s and early 90s. santé was correct in that my friends were usually interested in record albums. when we found collections at the curb containing numerous 12-inch dance singles from the 1970s, a collective shudder would be experienced as we were undoubtedly looking at the effects of a brother lost to aids.

on one occasion, i found a wonderfully fat volume by a william f. mcdonald in the curbed belongings of an individual on st. mark’s place in the late 1980s. titled “federal relief administration and the arts: the origins and administrative history of the arts projects of the works progress administration” and published by the ohio state university press, this epic book published in 1969 chronicled the idealism—beset by conflict from the benighted—of economic progress inherent in new deal programs. the assumptions of the programs described in mcdonald’s book were that artists, no less than manual workers, are entitled to employment in their crafts at public expense and that the arts—no less than business, agriculture, and labor—are and should be the immediate concern of the ideal commonwealth.

on another occasion, in the summer of 1989, i was with british guy named edward from richmond-surrey and a comrade from act up. as santé describes, book, photos, and other memorabilia were strewn about the garbage cans for a building on second avenue—already picked over by passersby. my fellow actup’er tore apart the pile looking for art books, his passion. i, on the other hand, was intrigued by the piles of books bearing the “international publishers” and “new world paperbacks” imprints—the imprints of the communist party usa. among the books were biographies of cpusa v.i.p.’s such as peter cacchione, eugene dennis, and elizabeth gurley flynn.

this was a saturday evening and i hadn’t brought a backpack. since i’d planned to be out all night, it was with care that i passed up all the available photos, leftist publications, and books in order to pick one thing to take with me from this convergence. what i decided to bring with me was a large “coffee table” book published in 1965 by the dietz verlag berlin—in the former german democratic republic (east germany). “120 jahre deutsche arbeiter bewegung in bilden und dokumenten” (120 years of the german workers’ movement in photographs and documents) by the museum für deutsche geschichte (museum for german history) was humorously incomplete collection of photographs and milestones of the german left.

“humorous” is the operative word in this fascinating book that has some striking co-optations and omissions owing to the slavish devotion of east germany to the soviet line. considering the title of the book, august bebel (1840-1913) and wilhelm liebknecht (1826-1900) the founders of the sozialdemokratische partei deutschlands (or the spd, from which the german communist party—or kpd—emerged) are, of course included. bebel is well known for his quote that “anti-semitism is the socialism of fools.” not surprisingly, the leftist icons and martyrs karl liebknecht (1871-1919) and rosa luxemburg (1870-1919) are also included in this photo-packed tome. the two spartacist leaguers (a breakaway of the spd that became the kpd), founders of the kpd, and founders and publishers of the kpd newspaper “die rote fahne ("the red flag") were kidnapped, tortured, and murdered by right-wing thugs on january 15, 1919.

clara zetkin (1857-1933) would have to be included. after all, it was her image that appeared on the east german 10 mark note. this noted feminist (as opposed to rosa luxemburg who abhorred dealing with “women’s issues”) served as a kpd member of the reichstag from 1920 to 1933 and interviewed lenin on "the women's question." in 1920 zetkin served on the kpd’s central committee, on the executive committee of the communist international (comintern), as the president of the german left-wing aid group rote hilfe, and in august 1932—due to her seniority—as the chairwoman of the reichstag.

what would a history authorized by the former east germany be without ernst thälmann (1886-1944), the slavish stalinist who led the kpd during much of the weimar republic? described by zetkin as "uninformed and not educated in theory," and caught in "uncritical self-deception and self-infatuation [which] borders on megalomania," thälmann and the kpd fought the spd as their main political enemy—acting according to the comintern policy that declared their fellow leftists as “social fascists.” thälmann, who was shot in buchenwald on hitler’s orders after being held in solitary confinement for 11 years, was the perpetual candidate of the kpd for the german presidency against paul von hindenburg and hitler. thus, the ridiculous and cynical efforts of the antifaschistische aktion/rote einheitsfront are so extolled in this book. i hope for their sakes that the editors of the book were able to keep a straight face in their offices deep in the bowels of the stasi.

it is no surprise that criminal german communist politicians—and former leaders of east germany—such as walter ulbricht (1893-1973) and erich honecker (1912-1994) would be highlighted. during the last gasps of the weimar republic, ulbricht urged his fellow communists to murder police officers and—reprehensively—he met with berlin’s nazi gauleiter joseph goebbels to plan a general strike. (strikers were so appalled by nazis and communists marching together that the strike was called off after five days.) ulbricht helped decimate the legions of german communists exiled in the soviet union through his treachery and denunciations, which led to their deaths in the purges. stalin’s hatch-man lavrenty beria commented that ulbricht was “the greatest idiot he’d ever seen.” then there’s honecker, who—as state secretary for security matters—was in charge of building the berlin wall and responsible for scores meeting their deaths as they tried to escape the police state.

the bogus 1946 “union” of the spd and the kpd—accomplished by stalinist terror in the soviet sector—is covered with great “fanfare.” socialists (spd) in the eastern precincts were browbeaten and threatened by the soviet secret police to fold their party [with the communists (kpd)] into the socialistischen einheitspartei deutschlands (or the sed, which was to become the political rubric in the communist dictatorship of east germany). thus, otto grotewahl (1894-1964) finds his place in this history. grotewahl, the spd leader in the eastern zone, was blackmailed by soviet authorities into leading his fellow spd’ers into the arms of the communists led by wilhelm pieck (1876-1960), the first and only president of the “german democratic republic.” (to his credit, grotewahl publicly condemned the abuses of east germany’s “legal system” and its vicious executioner “justice minister” hilde benjamin—the sister-in-law of the great german intellectual walter benjamin.)

only because marxist historian franz mehring mehring (1846-1919) had been dead for decades could he be included in this book—largely on his laurels of being a spartacist with those who would later go on to form the german communist party. how could käthe kollwitz (1867-1945) not be included? her painting, printmaking, and sculptures—ground in naturalism, allayed in expressionism—bespoke the searing humanity in germany’s collective unconscious. castigating the forces of poverty, hunger, and war, her truly progressive and humanitarian work was exploited by the nazis as well as the stalinists. persona non grata in nazi germany, heinrich mann (1871-1950) works attacked authoritarian and militaristic strains in german society. while his ashes were taken to east germany (he died in santa monica, california), he and his writing would have been anathema in the “people’s democracy” of east germany. the prescient, though naïve, leftist novelist and playwright lion feuchtwanger (1884-1958) also died in california. designated by the nazis as “enemy of the state number one,” it is no surprise that he is included in this “history of the german workers’ movement.” his work, such as “moskau 1937,” could range toward appallingly myopic stalinist apologia.

how interesting that the nonviolent and heroic anti-nazi weiße rose group is included and exploited! how they would have abhorred the “german democratic republic” and all it stood for! had sophie scholl, hans scholl, alex schmorell, willi graf, and christoph probst survived the nazi era, they might well have found themselves being tried in the courtroom of hilde benjamin—the roland freisler of east germany. also amusing is how the headlines of the socialist daily “vorwärts” (published daily in berlin by the spd from 1891 to 1933) are included. this august leftist newspaper—which would publish articles by trotsky, but never by lenin—would have found itself banned in east germany.

it is to his credit that the brilliant leftist theoretician karl kautsky (1854-1938) could never be included in this moscow-leaning “history.” kautsky, the editor of the fourth volume of marx’s “das capital, ”was castigated by lenin as a renegade. in his 1934 work, “marxism and bolshevism: democracy and dictatorship,” kautsky rightly saw that the “workers’ paradise” of the soviet union—that willy-nilly enslaved its people—wasn’t any better than the czarist dictatorship that preceded it. a true pillar of the german workers’ movement, eduard bernstein (1850-1932) could never be included in this airbrushed “history” either. of all the 19th century’s socialist theoreticians, it is the work of bernstein (albeit with various blips and glitches) that has managed to remain relevant to this very day. he refuted marx’s predictions and pointed out that capitalist infrastructural centralization, while significant, was not wholesale. bernstein’s analysis especially pointed out flaws in marx’s “labor theory of value.” bernstein held that socialism would be achieved through capitalism, not through capitalism's destruction, believing that as rights were gradually won by workers, their cause for grievance would be diminished.

appallingly, though not surprisingly, the kpd’s communications czar willi münzenberg (1889-1940) never makes it onto the pages of this book. expelled by the communist party on trumped up charges, the brilliant münzenberg was betrayed by his downright mediocre and thuggish comrade ulbricht (who coveted münzenberg’s position). known for his saying, "all news is lies and all propaganda is disguised as news," münzenberg was found murdered by a soviet assassination squad in france (where he had been making anti-nazi broadcasts). ernst reuter—the brave socialist lord mayor (oberbürgermeister) of berlin who stood down the soviets during their criminal 1948-1949 blockade of berlin—should receive accolades for never being mentioned in this “history of the german worker.” although a favorite of lenin, reuter had been expelled by the kpd in 1922. accolades should also be received by louise dorothea schroeder (1887-1957) who served as mayor of west berlin after the war—and the only woman ever to have served as mayor in berlin to this very day. an spd politician who suffered nazi surveillance during the third reich, schroeder was the first female member of the reichstag and a leader of the arbeiterwohlfahrt (workers welfare agency). john hertzfield’s (1891-1968) work is shown in the book, yet not credited in the text . hertzfield’s brilliant photomontages on the pages of the kpd newspaper “die rote fahne” and its weekly magazine “aiz” (arbeiter-illustriert-zeitung) satirized the german right, german industrialists, and the nazis.

the book still gives me the hardyharhars! like airbrushed kremlin photographs omitting out-of-favor politburo members, this book exemplifies the self-serving—if erratic—nature of soviet policy, whether at home or in its vassal “people’s democracies.” i’m grateful to that deceased cpusa’er for the book and this total “find”—in a situation so well described by santé in the opening quote.

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