Sunday, 2 October 2016

Remembering Gunnar

By: Cormac Ó Gráda, Dublin

Karl Gunnar Persson
19 March 1943 – 14 September 2016
In last his email to me Gunnar Persson was full of the joys of life, looking forward to his trip to Buriano (where he died suddenly a few days later) and explaining how his sons had discovered a way of getting cheap tickets to the QPR-Fulham game all three planned to attend together in late September.
He also appended the anecdote below, which is told in typical Gunnar style.  I corrected a few typos, that is all.
Missing Gunnar, a proverb in Irish comes to mind: Ní bheidh do leithéid arís ann (You were special, one of a kind).

Barter trade between economic historians and a playwright: 

the Brecht- Kuczynski - Postan triangular trade in the early 1950s


As a research student in the early 1970s at the Department of Economic History, Lund University, I had the opportunity to meet Jürgen Kuczynski, the then director of Abteilung Wirtschaftsgeschichte  at the (East) German Academy of Sciences, when he was visiting Lund, invited by Lennart Jörberg. Kuczynski directed a large team of historians producing about 55 volumes of social and economic history, most of them in the 40 volumes series Geschichte der Lage der Arbeiter unter dem Kapitalismus, and other series from the late 1940s and onwards.  During the Cold War many academics in the West were often slightly and sometimes strongly dismissive of the quality of this research project. I really cannot tell if it was seriously tainted by submission to political orthodoxy or whether Western scholars automatically depreciated it. Perhaps it is time to have a fresh look at these books now, when that war is over.
Jürgen Kuczynski
Jürgen Kuczynski was a German communist and Jew, educated in Germany and the US, who fled Hitler in 1936 to England and returned to Germany with the allied forces and worked for them in 1944/45, then a short time as a civil servant in the Soviet zone of Germany. He was a parliamentarian in DDR until the mid 1950s, but published his first books on German working class conditions a couple of years after the war. After his retirement he became a tolerated dissident.
He was a larger than life personality and a good story teller. I remember more stories than the one I am going to tell now. However, I cannot guarantee that all the details in what follows are true. Perhaps it is just a play imagined but never written by Bertold Brecht.  This is what I remember Jürgen Kuczynski told me at that dinner in Lund many years ago. The story refers to a problem with barter trade which occurs when there is lack of convertible currency, pair-wise non-coincidence of wants and restrictions to trade. And amazingly pulp fiction (crime novels), enters as a means of exchange.

The plot and leading actors:
Bertold Brecht
Bertold Brecht, playwright and director of Berliner Ensemble with a keen desire for pulp fiction, say, Mickey Spillane, unavailable in east Berlin bookshops. However, as a cultural protégée in the new DDR regime Brecht had access to luxuries denied to ordinary east Germans, such as cigars. Being the creator of among other plays Mutter Courage and the Three Penny Opera (with Kurt Weil) did not make him a monetary theorist, but he certainly understood the mechanism of barter exchange and how to handle a situation when there was no access to convertible currency.
M. M. Postan economic historian at Cambridge who would like to see what the first volumes of the Lage der Arbeiter looked like and if they could be useful for the volumes of the Cambridge Economic History of Europe he was editing.
Jürgen Kuczynski, who had published the first couple of volumes in the long series of books on working class conditions and lacked access to foreign luxuries, such as cigars, that he was used to.
 The unfolding of the plot: triangular barter trade
1. Kuczynski offered a number of copies of his most recent book to Postan and asked him to pay back in a means of exchange as good as gold: pulp fiction.
2. Postan replied with a selection of pulp fiction, say Mickey Spillane, sent to Kuczynski.
3. Kuczynski exchanged the pulp fiction with Bertold Brecht, who paid Kuczynski in kind with cigars.
Happy End: Pareto optimal trade? Possibly.

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