Unsentimental and resolute

Open for future revolutions. On the death of Thomas Kuczynski

Thomas Kuczynski portrait

By Georg Fülberth and translated by Gregor Benton [i]

Thomas Kuczynski died in Berlin on 19 August 2023. That he bore a great name was neither his burden nor his pleasure. As an academic, he was influenced not only by his father but also by his mother, Marguerite née Steinfeld. From his father he had an inclination for statistics, from his mother the patience and passion of a meticulous philologist. His admired aunt Ursula Kuczynski went under a number of different names as a Red Army scout; as a writer she was known as Ruth Werner. He himself was who he was: Thomas Kuczynski, who followed his own paths, from which he learned that every great achievement has deep roots.

He was born on 12 November 1944, in Britain, where his parents lived for a while in exile. He maintained connections to the island until the end of his life, for some of his relatives continued to live there.

Thomas Kuczynski studied statistics at the Berlin School of Economics. He received his doctorate in 1972 under Hans Mottek on “The End of the Great Depression in Germany 1932/33.” This was followed in 1978 by a Habilitation titled “On the Application of Mathematical Methods in Economic Historiography. Methodological Considerations and Practical Experiments.” His father had founded the Institute for Economic History at the Academy of Sciences of the German Democratic Republic (GDR). When the institute was wound up in 1990/91, Thomas Kuczynski was its last director. He realised that dissolution was inevitable even before the so-called evaluation had begun, and made the fact public, triggering international protests. Directors of other institutes engaged in silent defiance, diplomacy, and subservience, and achieved as little as he did, although his resolute stance won him respect. In the end, he saved no fewer jobs than they, and perhaps even more. Most of his employees ended up in jobs elsewhere, some precarious, some relatively stable, but he himself remained jobless. From then on, he eked out a living as an academic freelancer, starting with his edition of The Communist  Manifesto.From First Edition to Reading Edition, in the Schriften aus dem Karl-Marx-Haus Trier, 1995; the business books of Moses Mendelssohn; and Marx’sWages, Price, and Profit, together with expert contributions to the Marx-Engels Complete Works (MEGA).

Without the stupidities

When compensation for former forced labourers was being negotiated at the turn of the millennium, he took responsibility for calculating the amount of wages withheld from them. The result was a sum so large that it made even the survivors’ lawyers pale. Only “crumbs from the table” (the title of his expert report, published in 2004) ended up being paid. He commented: I did this work for nothing (he meant his expert’s fee) and in vain.

He spent twenty years working on the New Text Edition (NTA) of the first volume of Capital – a reconstruction of an edition for which Marx created the basis but never actually submitted for publication. It eventually appeared in 2017 and is his main philological contribution. It is a work of abiding value. An English edition is in preparation with theHistorical Materialism Book Series.

He was not only an economist and Marx-philologist but an unconventional populariser of Marx’s work. With the group “Rimini Protokoll” and their programme “Karl Marx: Das Kapital. Vol. 1” he toured several countries, starting in 2006.

After NTA, he took on a new, equally massive task: to reconstruct and further develop the labour theory of value. The price of commodities must also include their reproduction costs (for disposal and/or recycling). He did not complete this work. He reacted with sympathy to the 2016 book Nature versus Capital. Marx’s Ecology in his Unfinished Critique of Capitalism by the Japanese philosopher Kohei Saito, compiled in part from notebooks in the estate. He was critical of Saito’s universal degrowth proposals, however, on the grounds that they were OECD-heavy and could not be applied one-to-one to industrialising countries.

In the GDR, he was among those intellectuals loyal to the socialist state, but he refused to go along with its idiocies. In the same spirit, he revisited parts of the GDR’s history after its demise, in his studies on the economist Fritz Behrens.

In addition to all this, starting in 1990 he threw himself into what was left of the pan-German and Western left. From the Trotskyists to the Friedrich Alexander University: they all interested him. What he could not stand was braggadocio. Whenever he encountered it, he wrapped himself in silence, in the hope of unsettling the boasters.

When Winfried Wolf launched the quarterly publication Lunapark 21 – Zeitschrift zur Kritik der globalen Ökonomie in 2008, he was there from the beginning. For each issue, he wrote a historical article with topical relevance. He was also a frequent and popular contributor toJunge Welt.

Internationally well connected

With his wife Annette Vogt, a historian of mathematics, he lived in a small house in Pankow in Berlin. The two invited guests to Pankow on around 14 July for a kind of revolutionary festival. He told Die Zeit in an interview that he did not fear future revolutions. He was going easy on the questioners.

On 12 February 2022, he submitted an article to Lunapark 21 in which he listed the lies and provocations with which the US has in the past repeatedly accompanied its drives to war and he expressed the hope that Russia would remain level-headed in the Ukraine crisis. On 22 February 2022, he described the text as stillborn and had it removed from the magazine’s website. Two days later, it became obvious that his hopes were not unreasonable, their failure a disaster. He did not fall back on geopolitical considerations. Reticent in personal regards, absolutely unsentimental in the British way, unsentimental and unpathetic, he could never have said the war had broken his heart. But he was no longer his old self. Something in him had died.

Before and after 1990 he was always active in international academic cooperation. Friendships connected him with colleagues in the Russian State Archive of Socio-Political History (RGASPI) in Moscow. After 24 February, the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities and the Royal Netherlands Academy of Sciences put their cooperation with Russian bodies, including the RGASPI, on hold. Moscow is where most of the materials needed for the MEGA project are located. The disruption to this project troubled Thomas Kuczynski in the last weeks of his life, and he assured his colleagues in Moscow of his solidarity.

He identified with the words of Georg Christoph Lichtenberg: “For the loss of persons dear to us, there is no relief but time, and diversions chosen with care and thought, whereby our heart cannot reproach us.” The word “diversions,” which sounds slightly frivolous in the 21st century, probably meant at that time: work. When cancer struck Thomas Kuczynski – very suddenly, rapid and incurable – he hoped that the end would come quickly. Those dear to him, instead of worrying about him, should work.

[i]Originally published in Junge Welt : https://www.jungewelt.de/artikel/457648.marxistischer-wirtschaftshistor…