14a.Buying a second hand book
It was at the Morning Star 1969 Christmas Bazaar that I first came across a book that was to prove rather fateful for me, and this in two respects. At that time the Bazaar was noted for its book sale, and there was always something of interest for those wishing to pick up unusual, obscure or out of print books. Unfortunately I arrived at the sale rather later than I had intended and most of the books had been snapped up. None the less I rummaged amongst those remaining, on the off-chance that I might find something interesting, and I did.
It was not perhaps quite what I would have hoped for, but it did catch my eye. It was a German language volume by Nikolai Bukharin, entitled Der Imperialismus und Die Akkumulation Des Kapitals, published in Berlin in 1926. At the time in question (1969) I knew only a little about Bukharin, but it was sufficient to be interested in the small book. However, I did not read German. What I did know told me that there had been an English language edition of a book by Bukharin called Imperialism and World Economy. The book I held in my hand appeared to be a different work to the one I was familiar with. So, despite my lack of German I scanned through it, since it was possible to grasp some of the chapter headings and parts of the text that were in algebra.
It should be recalled that even in 1969 there was not the flood of Marxist and neo-Marxist books — new or reprints — which deluged the market in the 1970s. So far as I knew nothing of Bukharin’s writings was in print at that date. Despite being one of the leading figures of the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 Bukharin merely flitted through the pages of history books and biographies, but remained a rather shadowy presence reviled by Stalinists and anti-Stalinists alike. In this respect Bukharin was an intriguing character. So, even though I had no German, the slim volume was purchased for three shillings and sixpence (17.5p in decimal coinage). I thought I would ask a German speaking friend about the book.
The friend was Sigurd Zienan, who I had met via the Institute of Workers Control. He was German by birth having had fled that country when the Nazis came to power and he was familiar with Marxist writings of many kinds. When I showed him the book he confirmed that it was indeed a different work to the one in English translation that I was familiar with. But he told me much more. After perusing the book he told me that it was written by Bukharin as a reply to Rosa Luxemburg’s magnum opus The Accumulation of Capital.
This, in itself, gave an interest to Bukharin’s book since I was already well acquainted with Luxemburg’s work. Moreover, Sigurd informed me, Luxemburg had written a reply to the critics of her original work whilst in prison during the first world war, which was only published after her death, seeing the light of day in 1922. Therefore Bukharin’s book referred to both of Luxemburg’s texts, having been written in 1925. Sigurd was also certain that neither Luxemburg’s Anti-Critique nor the Bukharin book which I had purchased had been translated into English.
I do not know who came up with the idea first, Sigurd or me, but I came away from my meeting with him with the idea of getting both texts translated and published. What I am sure of is, that had I not talked the matter over with Sigurd, the idea of such a project would not have materialised at that particular time, if at all.
A number of problems presented themselves to me about such a project. Could I interest a publisher in such a venture? Who would translate the texts? Who would edit them? The texts would need an introduction by someone who understood the questions under debate. I at least knew enough about Marxist political economy and Rosa Luxemburg to think that I could do a competent job in that respect. But Bukharin? I felt very less sure on that score.
I began combing through libraries, the British Museum, Marx House, the LSE etc. for works by Bukharin and any with extensive references to him, at that time there was no biography of him. Eventually I felt confident enough to write something about Bukharin that would impart some truth about him. The next problem was to track down a copy of Luxemburg’s Anti-Critique, and I ran it to ground at the LSE.
Meanwhile I had been trying to find a translator. I needed someone who not only had sufficient command of both languages but was also sympathetic to the ideas in the texts. In this respect I was fortunate enough to meet Rudolf Wichmann, who filled the criteria I had set.
Thus armed, and with some considerable cheek, I approached Penguin Books. I have to admit that I was rather surprised when in May 1970 Rudolf and I signed a contract with Allen Lane (then the hardback division of Penguin) and we were actually paid a modest advance. Here again I had been fortunate, since the person who had been our initial contact at Penguin was Neil Middleton, who as an editor of Red Mole (the weekly paper of the International Marxist Group) had more than a passing interest in such ventures. Indeed Neil made a considerable contribution to the publishing of left wing literature during that period, but always having to justify his judgements in commercial terms to his bosses at Penguin.
So, in the summer of 1970 Rudolf was translating, whilst I was preparing notes for biographical sketches and an introduction to the volume.
One afternoon I met a friend, Barbara Williams, coming out of our local tube station and as we walked along I mentioned what I was working on. I explained the difficulty in finding material about Bukharin’s life, since no biography had been written at that time. She mentioned, almost casually, that she knew an ‘old lady’ who had known Bukharin and would I like to meet her? At first I didn’t quite believe her, thinking that she might be mistaken. But no, she knew exactly who Bukharin was and Rosa had talked to her about him. Rosa, it turned out, was the ‘old lady’. Then I thought that perhaps Barbara was pulling my leg. But again no, she knew Rosa, who had been a friend of Bukharin’s in the 1920s. What was more she would arrange a meeting for me, provided Rosa was agreeable. She was, and the meeting was fixed.
Thus, it was by a chain of chance events, finding the Bukharin book, talking to Sigurd about it, meeting Barbara that day, that I came to meet one of the most interesting, fascinating women it has ever been my good fortune to know — Rosa Levine-Meyer.
It was a hot summer afternoon when I was taken to Rosa’s flat near Chalk Farm tube station. We were greeted at the door by Rosa herself, since she lived alone. She was short, dressed in a black and white print dress, her hair flecked with white was dark and abundant. As Barbara had described her, she was an ‘old lady’. But her face was alert and her eyes, dark brown, almost black, with flecks of yellow in the dark pupils, pierced one as she scanned your face. Her handshake was light but firm.
We went through to the lounge where afternoon tea, with cream cakes, was laid. Sitting there we sipped tea, ate cake and talked. I soon realised that I was being astutely apprised by Rosa, who did not suffer fools gladly or other wise. Although she was then 80 years old her mind was as nimble as my own, perhaps even more so.
Barbara had explained to Rosa my interest in Bukharin, so we talked about him. She explained how she had first met Bukharin when he was a penniless refugee in Vienna in the year 1914. The next time was at the Soviet Embassy in Berlin in 1918. From that second meeting they became firm friends and Rosa was a regular visitor to Bukharin each time she was in Moscow.
I was fascinated by Rosa; she was imperious and demanding of her friends, but she could still cast a spell over one by the force of her personality and intellect. It was from this first meeting that our friendship developed. We both had interests that were common in many respects and thus bridged the 40 year age gap between us. Gradually as we became better acquainted Marion also got to know Rosa, so it became a family friendship.
But who was this 80 year old woman who exerted such a fascination upon me? As I came to know her, the story of her life unfolded, but never completely; there were always gaps that were left unfilled. Rosa was born in the Russian town of Grodek in 1890. She was the daughter of a Rabbi but despite this her formal education ended when she was eleven.
Nevertheless, she later prepared herself for external examinations for the Russian equivalent of ‘O’ levels. Her father died when she was fifteen and for a time she lived in Vilna (Vilnius) with a married sister. In 1910 she went to Heidlberg, Germany, to learn the language, hoping to make a living teaching German or to be a governess when she returned to Russia. But she never did return to live there again. It was in Germany that she met Eugen Levine who was to become her first husband. Levine was also Russian, by birth that is, but had taken German nationality. Unlike Rosa he was not a voluntary emigré but was a political exile. Like many other students of wealthy families Levine had participated in the events of 1905 in Russia and had had to flee the subsequent reaction. For Rosa it was love at first sight. But Eugen didn’t commit himself until 1915.
It was Levine who won Rosa to socialist ideas, not without resistance on her part, since she was never one to meekly submit. But once having committed herself she never wavered for the rest of her life, as was borne out in the years I knew her.
Levine is rarely remembered today, except in the footnotes of history books. Yet he played a significant role in German events from 1917 to 1919. He became the leader of the short-lived Soviet Republic which was proclaimed in Munich in 1919. For that he was executed. So Rosa was left a widow with a small son to support.
In the autumn of 1920 she met Ernst Meyer, who was one of the leading figures of the German Communist Party during the 1920s. Later they were married. So it was as Ernst Meyer’s wife and the widow of Levine that Rosa was made a welcome guest in the Soviet Union. Levine had, of course, become a revolutionary martyr, being elevated to the pantheon of hero’s and heroines along with Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht.
It was during this period that Rosa was to meet many of the leading persona of the Russian revolution and International Communism. Along with Ernst’s career in the KPD, Rosa developed her own as a journalist. Both she and Ernst became intimates of Bukharin, particularly as Ernst was on the ‘right-wing’ of the KPD and was closely in tune with Bukharin’s ideas on most issues.
Through her association, first with Levine and then with Meyer, Rosa was able to meet many of the leading characters of the German SPD, Soviet government, Soviet Communist Party and of the Comintern. She met Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht, Karl Radek, Clara Zetkin, Zinoviev, Lenin, Trotsky and many more.
For Lenin she had a reverence, for his brilliant leadership and personal modesty. For Bukharin warm admiration of his humane qualities. But for Trotsky an unyielding critical attitude, both as a person and politically. We were to have many disagreements on her assessment of Trotsky, but I didn’t always come off best. She did however stimulate my own critical attitude towards Trotsky even though I came to somewhat different conclusions than Rosa.
Meyer died of TB in 1930, so once more Rosa was a widow and the Nazi threat was becoming more ominous. Rosa also had had TB and both she and Ernst were in the Soviet Union for treatment in 1928 when Bukharin made his break with Stalin, on the question of the breakneck speed of industrialisation and forced collectivisation. As she told me, and later wrote, their room in Moscow became the meeting place for Bukharin and other right-wing opposition Bolsheviks. Although Rosa was not able to tell me more that I already knew about Bukharin’s policies, she was able to convey to me a picture of him as a person. This was to be inestimable value when it came to writing my own biographical notes on Bukharin.
My own work had proceeded apace during late 1970 and early 1971. Rudolf had dutifully delivered his translations with very little delay, and I was able to deliver the final typescript to Allen Lane on time, an event which rather surprised them! The book, called Imperialism and the Accumulation of Capital, was published in the autumn of 1972. It was widely reviewed, and mostly well received; the only two sour notes coming from people who had political axes to grind. The Morning Star reviewer dismissed the book as an ‘antiquarian revival’! So much for die-hard Stalinist sour grapes; it was ironical considering that it was that newspaper’s annual bazaar that had provided the initial impulse for the project. On the other hand the review in the TLS suggested that I had ‘made a real contribution in his analysis of Bukharin’s personality’. If I had made such a contribution it was due to Rosa, who had brought to life the person behind the pages of the history books.
Rosa too had been working on her own writing. The first fruits of which was her biography of Levine, which was published in 1973. In so far we were able Marion and I helped Rosa in whatever she was doing. But it was not easy. It was a great pity that Rosa left it so late in life to re-start her writing, particularly her memoirs. She had, of course, many documents, letters, etc. but they were not organised very well. And it should be recalled that she was now over 80, which meant that she was not able to work for long on any one day. I would often spend an afternoon with her, only to find we had ended with a few paragraphs of completed work.
As I have mentioned, Rosa was imperious and very demanding; so much so that she taxed ones friendship. At times she could be very exasperating, especially when one found that she was asking other people to do the things that she had asked Marion or myself to do for her, it did not make for orderly working. Yet she could be charming, sweet and utterly captivating when she went too far and was contrite. It was impossible to refuse her what she asked if it was within ones grasp.
In the late 1960s Rosa had been ‘discovered’ by the radical left and a number of people who worked in the news media. So she widened her circle of friends and acquaintances, but I often had the feeling she was lonely. She was not always on good terms with her family, which consisted of her son, grandson their spouses and great-grandchildren. It was hardly surprising in the circumstances, since no one else in the family seemed to be interested in Rosa’s communist ideals or past. They had established lives that were far removed from revolution and communism. Her son had arrived with her in Britain in the 1930s as a young teenager, when Rosa had fled from Germany when Hitler came to power. Her grandson was born here.
It was as though from the 1930s until the last decade of her life Rosa had suppressed that part of her own life that had been most pulse-quickening. It was as if the turbulent events leading to Levine’s execution and then the struggles of Meyer in the KPD had been buried. Then with the rise of radicalism in the late 1960s these memories, experiences, and heartbreaks had once more become relevant. People, like me, knocked on the door and asked her advice, opinions, demanded her memories. She responded with alacrity, but for her family I had the feeling that all this dragging up the past was rather embarrassing. Hence the clashes. After all, if one had an established career in the — until then — prosaic world of post-war Britain it might not seem something to be proud of to have had a father who was executed for ‘treason’ in Germany or a step-father who had been a leading light in the pre-Hitler KPD. The attention of the news media would hardly have been welcome. But Rosa revelled in it, she enjoyed her new-found — or rather re-found — role of celebrity.
However, since Rosa was not always easy to work with, some of her new friendships were short-lived. She did not brook contradiction. As with most of us, the older we get the more fixed we become in our memories and versions of the truth. I soon found out that there was one topic which was best avoided with her, Trotsky. She thought he had thrown away much support in the 1920s and 30s by his arrogance and inability to accept criticism. And, she was firmly convinced, Trotsky was not above twisting the truth when it suited him. No matter how we discussed, no matter what documentary evidence I produced to the contrary of what she asserted, she stuck to her version. So, rather than spoil our relationship, I avoided the topic. But others did not always take such an easy way out when there was a conflict of views, hence the partings.
What, for some was a perverse trait in Rosa, I took to be a positive quality. She was after all into her 80s and she could have trimmed her sails to suit those knocking on her door; it would certainly have made life easier for her. But she chose to stick to her own views and suffer the consequences. Rosa was not prepared to become the political puppet of any clique, to be wheeled out on gala occasions to provide an air of historical respectability to the organisers. Various of the left-wing groups made overtures to Rosa in the early 1970s, hoping to make use of her. None were successful. She ploughed her own furrow and be-damned to the lot of them.
One person who I met at Rosa’s flat was Rudi Dutschke, he had been one of the bright flames of German Student youth in the 1960s. He had already reached international fame, or notoriety, when he was the subject of an assassination attempt, receiving two bullets in the head and one in the chest. By some miracle Rudi had survived and was teaching at a University in Denmark, when he came to visit Rosa on one of this trips to London. Rosa had asked me to join her when she knew that Rudi was coming. It was a very animated meeting, Rosa attempting to convince Rudi of the need to build a party, he still refusing to accept this. However, Rosa was very fond of Rudi, acknowledging the outstanding part he had played in 60s. Shortly after this meeting the news arrived that Rudi had died, the assassins deed had finally worked. Even when he was with Rosa I realised that Rudi was not a well person, the wounds he had received had left permanent damage, and finally killed him. It had taken ten years, one that had been full of pain for Rudi.
It was not an easy relationship that Marion and I had with Rosa. We had to fight to maintain our separate life. Nonetheless, we found our own kind of equilibrium. Rosa was delighted when our son, Nicholas, was born and she made one of her rare outings to our flat to see the baby shortly after his birth. She adored children, and for a short time was able to cradle our baby in her arms; sitting in the sunlit garden she was happy. Perhaps it was a substitute for the family she was at loggerheads with.
Marion, Nicholas and I moved out of London in March 1974, so it was not possible to maintain such close contact with Rosa. We telephoned, we wrote, and on occasion visited her in London. But each time we saw her she was visibly getting older.
In the end she had to give up her independence and move into a nursing home. This was something she resented, no longer feeling free as she had done in her own flat. I saw her last in 1979, again it was summer, shortly after I returned from a trip to Ethiopia. I visited her in her room at the nursing home. As bright eyed as ever, she sat in bed surrounded by her books and papers. On her lap sheets of paper lay, some typed, some covered in her spidery handwriting. It seemed that the diatribe against Trotsky was still being worked upon, never to be completed.
I stayed with her for more than two hours, but it became clear to me that she was no longer able to concentrate for long; she tended to repeat herself, go over the same ground several times. But she was perfectly rational, even though age was playing its tricks on her. She beamed with delight when I gave her a photograph of Nicholas and asked ‘is it for me?’ as though I had given her a rare gift, something precious. She in turn gave me a copy of her second book, Inside German Communism. inscribing it ‘To a wonderful and dear friend’.
When I left I had the feeling that this was our final farewell and I was close to tears as I embraced her. I didn’t see her again. When I looked at the book she had given me I found she was still determined to stick to her truth. The editor had written an introduction, Rosa had vigorously struck some phrases which offended her. She never gave up, never gave an inch. Having lived through the anti-Jewish pogroms of Tsarist Russia, the cataclysm of world war, revolution, widowed twice, years of obscurity, a final blaze of fame, only to be dropped by the radical chic, after all this she was not going to let the smallest thing slip by. Her body might have become frail, but her spirit never was.
I never knew exactly when she died. Marion and I were not informed either of her death or funeral. We only heard after these events via a mutual friend. Where she is buried I do not know. I did not try to find out, these things are irrelevant. Her memory is within us, no matter what happened to that frail body after she departed it.
So, the book sale, which I almost missed, was the start of two quite new departures for me. It propelled me into a study of Bukharin, which still continues, into writing about him, editing two books of his writings, writing one of my own and making a good friend in Sid Heitman, who also has an enduring interest in Bukharin.
Intimately connected with those endeavours was the nine years friendship with Rosa, an experience that was to have a profound affect upon my thinking and something that I greatly valued. Her loss is something I still feel and endure. Friendship is, of course, something very intangible, yet one feels it as a very palpable thing within oneself. The friend dies but not the affection one has for them, it stays with one down the years.