On the work of Friedrich Pollock

Jake Bellone, a comrade currently living in Canadian exile, has scanned the early Frankfurt School economist Friedrich Pollock’s 1956 work
 Automation: A Study of Its Social and Economic Consequences. I’ve digitized and uploaded it here for anyone who’s interested. You can download it by clicking on the link in the title above.

As far as I know, this book has been virtually forgotten in terms of the history of economic literature. It’s not the most thrilling read, but it’s a workmanlike survey of a number of studies and publications on the subject of automation. Counter to the prevailing optimism of the period, riding the long postwar boom, Pollock foresaw increasing technological unemployment ahead in the field of industry as automation became further generalized. Here he distinguished full-scale automation from the earlier phenomenon of mechanization, a process well known to political economists since Ricardo.

Pollock’s book has perhaps had a subterranean influence that has generally gone unnoticed. Ernest Mandel, the Belgian Trotskyist economist, cites it repeatedly in his celebrated book on Late Capitalism. An online acquaintance of mine, Elliot Eisenberg, who is close friends with Moishe Postone and studied with the brilliant Soviet Marxist economist Karl H. Niebyl back in 1961, went so far as to claim that “one cannot understand Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization without Pollock’s Automation.” This would seem to accord with Postone’s own estimation of Pollock’s significance:

Pollock’s work in the 1930s provided the implicit political-economic presuppositions of the pessimistic turn in Horkheimer’s theory and the changes in his conception of social critique. More generally, on the basis of an examination of Pollock’s investigations, I shall discuss the intrinsic relation of the political-economic dimension of Critical Theory to its social, political, and epistemological dimensions.

Here Postone mostly has in mind Pollock’s seminal 1941 essay on “State Capitalism: Its Possibilities and Limitations,” as well as his consideration of the question “Is National Socialism a New Order?” later that same year. But I see no reason not to extend this observation to the Institute’s work during the 1950s.

Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno dedicated their jointly-written Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944) to Pollock. Now that I think of it, this work was translated and made available just a year after it was first published in German, in 1956, when Horkheimer and Adorno were still virtually unknown in the Anglophone world. (Outside of the few works they wrote in English, that is). Like Horkheimer and Adorno, Pollock is rather coy when it comes to openly expressing his Marxism. He never mentions Marx by name, but talks about “relative surplus population,” fixed vs. circulating capital, and other concepts clearly derived from the critique of classical political economy. Similarly, early members of the Frankfurt School used “critical theory” as a kind of codeword for Marxist theory, both in order to disguise their communist sympathies and to emphasize a critical dimension that had been lost in the dogmatization of DiaMat in Moscow during the 1930s.

What follows is Rolf Wiggerhaus’ brief biographical sketch of Pollock, taken from his monumental study of The Frankfurt School. My only comment is that Wiggerhaus misleadingly suggests that Pollock and Horkheimer came to agree with SDP’s position on organized “state capitalism,” as if Hilferding had anything original to say on the matter. The Bolsheviks would have readily agreed with Hilferding’s remarks — at least prior to 1928, when Stalin combined Preobrazhenskii’s position on collectivization from the Left with Bukharin’s theory of “socialism in one country” from the Right.

Friedrich Pollock

Friedrich Pollock

Rolf Wiggerhaus
The Frankfurt School
Munich, 1986 (1995)

The frank, limitless enthusiasm which the thirty-two-year-old Friedrich Pollock had for Karl Marx was somewhat artless, although it did have its own appeal. Marx, when he was thirty, had `worked out his philosophical, sociological and political views so clearly that, right to the end of his life, there was never anything he had to retract’, according to Pollock. Marx had “struggled untiringly right up to his death for the proletariat, regardless of obstacles.” This homage to Marx was published in 1926 in a discussion of a pamphlet on Proletarian Socialism [Der proletarische Sozialismus] by Werner Sombart, a former supporter of Marxism and correspondent of Engels. During the 1920s, Sombart had begun to support a “German” form of socialism, and had become an anti-Semite with intellectual links to Oswald Spengler, Johann Plenge, and Othmar Spann. Pollock objected to Sombart’s reference to the phenomenological “intuiting of general essences [Wesensschau],” demanding empirical research instead. He rejected Sombart’s claim that Marx and Engels subscribed to “plebeianism” as a “basic value,” asserting that scientific socialism had the character of a natural science. And he rejected the accusation that materialist dialectics was part of an exclusively proletarian metaphysics of history, mainly by appealing to references in Engels’s Anti-Dühring showing that Marx and Engels had been convinced that dialectics had universal validity.

All of this was characteristic of Pollock. He was born in Freiburg in 1894, and it had originally been intended that he should take over his father’s business, as in Horkheimer’s case. With his indifference towards Judaism and certain conventions — qualities instilled by his upbringing and reinforced by his simple, phlegmatic manner — Pollock made a lasting impression on the sixteen-year-old Horkheimer, and they began a peculiar, but lifelong, friendship. Pollock was less horrified by social injustices than Horkheimer was, but he was also less apprehensive than Horkheimer about committing himself openly to Marxism and communism: when the Munich Soviet Republic was crushed in May 1919, he gave his passport to a Russian who was hoping to escape abroad; the refugee was caught, and Pollock got into trouble with the police. Although Pollock, like the others, studied philosophy, it was only a minor subject alongside his principal interest, economics, in which he took his doctorate in 1923 with a thesis on Marx’s monetary theory. In an article “On Marx’s Monetary Theory” published in 1928 in [Carl] Grünberg’s Archiv, he complained about the “unhappy division between the economic and philosophical elements in Marx’s system.”  But he had a lifelong, philistine contempt for philosophical theory, and held to a pre-Leninist form of Marxist orthodoxy.

At the invitation of David Riazanov, Pollock travelled to the Soviet Union in 1927 to take part in the celebrations on the tenth anniversary of the October Revolution. One of the results of the visit was his book on Experiments in the Planned Economy in the Soviet Union, 1917-1927, with which he took his Habilitation in 1928. The book was published as the second volume in the Institute’s publications series, the Schriften des Instituts für Sozialforschung, and was written in a style similar to that of Carl Grünberg, the “master of historical realism in the investigation of social existence,” as Max Adler described him in 1932 in the Festschrift published on Grünberg’s seventieth birthday. In the preface to his book, Pollock acknowledged his debt to his “friend, teacher, and father-figure, Professor Carl Grünberg.” The reader was informed in the first sentence of the preface that “a theoretical analysis of the material will follow in a later work,” but this was never published. Pollock described the particularly unfavorable conditions which the Russian revolutionaries had faced at the outset, their tremendous, continuing difficulties, the often glaring mistakes they had made, and their constant changes of direction and frequent reorganizations. In the penultimate and longest chapter of the book, `The State Planning Commission [Gosplan] and its Work,” he used all of this to show how plans had been formulated in an absurdly inadequate way from the start, and had only gradually become more realistic. The book’s style was soberly informative, but it nevertheless clearly indicated the sympathy, patience, fascination, and even admiration which Pollock had for the “heroes and martyrs of the planned economy” and their tireless efforts to construct “a complete whole” out of various different plans, one which would, “at its fullest stage of development, consciously and totally incorporate the entire economic process” and gradually guarantee “the conscious structuring of the entire economic process and all of its parts.”

Pollock believed that his description of the Russian experiment had disproved the assertion that a socialist planned economy was an impossibility. He put forward this proof in a rather odd way, however. In contrast to [Henryk] Grossmann, Pollock saw capitalism’s weakness not in the tendency of the rate of profit to fall, but in the disproportions between the various different sectors of the economy. In his introduction, he remarked:

All socialist theories agree that the socialist economy, in contrast to the “anarchic” capitalist one, must be a planned and directed one, although this should not be thought of as its only characteristic. If the latter were true, economic systems as various as the economy under the Pharaohs, mercantilism, the German war economy, and even a form of capitalism completely dominated by cartels, would all have to be regarded as socialist.

Pollock therefore offered the definition: “When reference is made below to a ‘socialist’ planned economy, it is intended to refer not merely to the economic, but also to the political conditions of socialism (a classless society, and hence the social ownership of the means of production).” But he chose to “leave politics aside entirely” in the book, and his account was in fact basically oriented around the contrast “free market vs. plan.” The implied logic of his position was:

  1. the selection of the topic of the socialist planned economy;
  2. the demonstration, from the example of the Soviet Russian economy, that planning and directing the economy was possible; and
  3. the conclusion that a statement had thereby been made about the possibility of a socialist planned economy.

But how could he exclude the possibility that his account, which left what was specific to the socialist planned economy “aside entirely,” did not equally, or even better, demonstrate that a fascist or capitalist planned economy was possible? After all, his description of the Soviet Union as “socialist” rested essentially only on the Bolsheviks’ declarations of intent. He quoted statements such as that of Trotsky from the period of the first attempt to organize a planned, market-free economy in 1920-1921: “If we wish to take the planned economy seriously, if the labor force is to be deployed in accordance with the economic plan at each given stage of development, then the working class cannot be allowed to lead a nomadic life. Just like the army, it must be repositioned, redeployed, and reposted.” Pollock himself concluded: `It would never have been possible to undertake reckless economic experiments of this sort if food production had not been able to continue largely unaffected by them, and if the population had not been satisfied with a very limited supply of industrial products — conditions which do not apply in densely-populated industrial countries.” Pollock himself expressly stated that “Ever since Marx, socialist theoreticians have all agreed that one of the necessary preconditions for establishing a socialist economic order is a highly developed capitalist economy.” This all implied that what was happening in the Soviet Union had no implications whatever for the theoretical possibility of a socialist economic system or of a planned economy free of class domination.

With all his skepticism, Pollock did think that Russia seemed to be already nearer to socialism than the highly developed capitalist countries were. Horkheimer shared this view — although not publicly — and hoped that humanity would replace “the struggle between capitalist companies with a classless, planned economy.” In a note written in 1930, Horkheimer’s view was that

Anyone who can see the pointless injustice of the imperialist world, which can in no way be explained by any mere technical inability to improve conditions, must see events in Russia as a continuation of the agonizing attempt to overcome horrifying social injustices. At the very least, he will ask, with a pounding heart, whether this attempt is still continuing. If appearances were to suggest the contrary, he would still cling on to the pure hope, just as someone with cancer clings to the dubious news that a cure may have been found.

But what was the cure that the Soviet Union was supposed to have found? Was a state monopolized by a party of professional revolutionaries closer to socialism than a state in which workers’ parties were able to participate? In his book, Pollock also reported on the first draft of a five-year plan in 1927, and quoted a passage from it mentioning “the art of the social engineer, whose vocation is to restructure the whole basis of society.” He also noted that, of the twenty-four leading members of the central office of Gosplan in the USSR, thirteen were engineers. His only reaction to this fact was to say that the engineers would need to be legitimized by “specialists and theoreticians ‘closeted in their studies,’ whose work was usually rather looked down on.” But was a form of social engineering that was legitimized by specialists and theoreticians not just as questionable a road to socialism as the organizing of capitalism?

By a roundabout route, via an acceptance of the need to organize and steer the economy using Bolshevik methods — i.e. exploitation of the state’s monopoly of power by an active minority — methods that were natural to communists but abhorred by Social Democrats, Pollock and Horkheimer came in the end to share the Social Democrats’ views on how socialism was to be achieved. In 1927 Rudolf Hilferding, in his paper on “The Tasks of Social Democracy in the Republic,” presented at the Social Democratic Party conference in Kiel that year, wrote:

“Organized” capitalism in fact means fundamentally substituting the socialist principle of planned production for the capitalist principle of free competition. This planned, consciously directed economy is to a far greater extent subject to the possibility of conscious intervention by society, and that means intervention by the only conscious organization within society commanding the power of force, i.e. intervention by the state.

In an extended review article on books dealing with the prospects for capitalism and for the Russian experiment, published in 1930 in the last issue of Grünberg’s Archiv, Pollock complained that there was a lack of thorough analyses — even by Marxists — of the structural changes taking place within the capitalist system. This might have encouraged Pollock’s and Horkheimer’s tendency to continue to put their hopes in the Russian experiment. Their goodwill towards events in the Soviet Union must have focused their attention on economic and political opportunities lying in the grey area between the free-market economy and the socialist economy. But turning to the analysis of capitalism, it must have been obvious to them, even in the midst of its current crisis, how much room for maneuver it still had before the advent of socialism.

Horkheimer was the more talented and ambitious of the two, while Pollock was submissive, satisfied with his role as an administrator and economist. It was this which led to Horkheimer’s becoming director of the Institute instead of Pollock, although Pollock was Grünberg’s deputy, a close friend of [Felix] Weil’s, and had been a member of the Institute’s staff from the start. Pollock’s publications and administrative abilities, which were anything but inspiring, meant that there were no protests against this development, or at least none worth mentioning. By the beginning of the 1930s Pollock was thus firmly established in his role as administrative director and financial officer of the Institute, and as chairman of the Society for Social Research.

9 thoughts on “On the work of Friedrich Pollock

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  2. Thanks for providing access to Pollock’s automation piece. Have you looked at the 1926 work, to which Wiggershaus refers? I have been trying to get hold of it for some time.
    The full reference is
    Friedrich Pollock ‘Sombarts “Widerlegung” des Marxismus’ Leipzig, C.L. Hirschfeld, 1926. Beiheft 3 zum Archiv für die Geschichte des Sozialismus und der Arbeiterbewegung.

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