Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 7 No. 2
Bob Wilsker (1919–1998)
BOB Wilsker died on 24 November, and it was the sad duty of the representatives of this magazine to attend our old friend’s funeral just before Christmas. The respect in which he was held by all who knew him can be gauged by the attendance of over a hundred other people. His modesty, kindness and humane values did not fit easily into the caricature so beloved by the media when speaking of professional revolutionaries. He witnessed and survived the worst years of the European working class, whose virtues and courage were reflected in his personality.
Bob was born in Vienna on 13 January 1919, in the very turmoil of the central European revolution, the son of a Jewish refugee from Russia who had retained his sympathy with the Socialist movement when he moved into his adopted country. He thus grew up in a very political atmosphere. He even remembered how the workers burned down the Viennese Palace of Justice when Heimwehr thugs who had ambushed and murdered their comrades had been acquitted, which happened when he was only eight years old. Street battles involving deaths on both sides went on for two days when Seipel’s clerical regime authorised the use of mounted police against the demonstrators. Bob’s father was the printer and binder of the Communist Party’s illegal edition of Lenin’s State and Revolution, brought out at the height of the mid-1930s repression in Austria, and he often supplied the Trotskyists with the paper needed for their own publications. Bob himself began his political career as a Socialist Zionist, a member of Hashomer Hatzair, but then moved over with his group to the Trotskyist movement. By this time there were only about 50 of them in Austria, and their activities were totally clandestine. His memories of Dollfuss’ suppression of the Austrian workers in February 1934, of which he later wrote an article in Fourth International over the pseudonym of P. Berger (Volume 5, no. 7, July 1944, pp. 211–3) were particularly vivid. The government had been carrying on repeated searches for months to seize the arms caches of the Schutzbund. There was some resistance to this in Linz, and the fighting spread to Vienna. The government turned the heavy guns on the Karl Marx Hof and a few other places where they were barricaded in. Bob was at work when the electrical workers replied with a defensive strike, immobilising the trams and some of the factories. The lights suddenly went out, and a rolling growl came from the heights around Vienna where the artillery was firing on the blocks of flats where the workers lived.
If this were not enough, Hitler himself rode triumphantly into the city four years later. A wave of anti-Semitism came with him, and Bob had buckets of water emptied all over him. By the time of the smashing of the houses and synagogues in the Kristallnacht he had served his apprenticeship, and his father told him: ‘It is time for you to go.’ This was several years before the ‘Final Solution’ of the Jewish question, and the Nazis were glad enough to allow Jews to leave. Bob’s sister had already placed an advertisement for ‘a young toolmaker’ in the journal Machinery, and since by this time all Europe was rearming, he obtained a job and a work permit. He crossed Germany and Belgium, and made it safely here, where he went to work in a toolroom behind the Army & Navy Stores in Portchester Road, and joined the AEU.
Rita Dewar had met Austrian Trotskyists in Prague before she came to England, and although her new husband’s group was the least favoured of the three existing British organisations by the International Secretariat, theirs was the only address Bob had been given. So his first contact over here was with Harry Wicks and Hugo Dewar, but being a skilled engineering worker he rapidly moved over to the Workers International League, which had an effective fraction operating within the arms industry and the AEU during the war. He was also a member of the German Trotskyist group in London, their only Austrian member, as the rest of the German speakers were either from Czechoslovakia or Germany itself. By the end of the war they were producing Solidarität, and several of them lived in Nora Saxe’s house in Gayton Crescent in Hampstead (Revolutionary History, Volume 7, no. 1, 1998, p. 79). They were not only watched by Scotland Yard, but spied on by the Stalinists as well.
Bob’s impeccable anti-Nazi credentials had not prevented him from being arrested and interned on the Isle of Man after war broke out. Fortunately, he was not there for too long, and he remembers his stay as being one of the most intellectually stimulating times in his life (cf. War and the International, pp. 82–5). After his release he got a job in Smiths Industries in Cricklewood, which allowed him a certain amount of leeway for his political activities. Along with English comrades such as Sid Bidwell, he took copies of Solidarität to fraternise with the German prisoners in Wormwood Scrubs. By this time the army authorities made no attempt to stop them, sensing that whatever influence they wielded there was obviously going to be firmly anti-Nazi (cf. Revolutionary History, Volume 7, no. 1, p. 145). Bob wrote for the paper under the pseudonym of ‘Binder’, amongst others.
The debates amongst the German Trotskyists over here towards the end of the war were very lively, and Laufer and the IKD tended to look down upon the British comrades of the WIL and the Revolutionary Communist Party as being theoretically somewhat underdeveloped. The main point at issue was over the Three Theses, the argument that the experience of Fascism, Nazism and Stalinism had such a retrograde effect on Europe that the only feasible policy by the end of the war was agitation for a return to the freedoms of bourgeois democracy (cf. Revolutionary History, Volume 1, no. 3, Autumn 1988, pp. 23–4; David North, The Heritage We Defend, Detroit 1988, pp. 101–7; French translation of the full text in Rodolphe Prager [ed.], Les Congrès de la quatrième internationale, Volume 2, Paris, 1981, pp. 102–7). Bob belonged to the London group allied with the WIL/RCP who opposed this view, although it had much more support amongst the scattering of German exiles elsewhere who supported the AK of the IKD. He remembers Laufer himself as being the only German Trotskyist in the London who fully supported it, and this only after some months, since he had first been in Coventry on his arrival.
Having settled in England after the war, Bob finally came round to something like this point of view many years later, and his political activity up to his death mainly revolved around the Labour Party, the Fabian Society and CND in the Oxford area. Apart from his wider horizons, this central European revolutionary, a fugitive from the worst storms of our century, could easily have been taken for an archetypal English gentleman. But his sympathy, his friendship and his regard remained with us.
Solidarität was written and produced by our group of Austrian and German Trotskyists ... The group was formed on the initiative of Pierre Frank with a long polemic I drafted against the Three Theses, as a platform published in July 1944, signed by ‘a group of European comrades’ as our first publication. It first appeared in the Fourth International (Volume 5, no. 11, November 1944, pp. 331–5), and later in an abridged version in Quatrième Internationale (new series, no. 25–26, December 1945–January 1946, pp. 26–31). The article also dealt with the so-called Military Policy of the British and American parties, etc. The RCP allowed us to give their address as publishers for legal reasons. They had, however, no editorial control. Solidarität was mainly distributed by members of the RCP in the various POW camps ... I was the only one of our group to keep in contact with Laufer – we were personal friends since Belgium, but after the Three Theses affair I was no longer welcome at their meetings. We were also members of the RCP, participating in their activities, whilst the members of their group completely isolated themselves ...
I should like to add a few remarks concerning the vignette on Nora, mainly for your information. In the information on Nora I supplied you with I wrote that Nora joined the Trotskyist movement in 1934. I was mistaken, it was 1932.
The fourth paragraph speaks of the ferocious repression in ‘Eastern Europe’. The period in question is the 1930s, so the repression was in central Europe (Germany, etc.).
I wrote back to you, among other things, that ‘about 1948, or shortly after ... I came to consider the Marxist theory mistaken and – insofar as scientific – as refuted by events quite some time ago, this very much along the line of K. Popper, with whose writing I acquainted myself a few years later ...’
You, however, wrote in the final version regarding myself ... ‘He later came to the view that the ideas of Marxism had become scientifically refuted by the writing of Karl Popper ... ‘ I had, of course, said nothing like this. It is also factually wrong. In 1948 I had not even heard of Popper, or his ideas. The two works of Popper I read first were The Poverty of Historicism and The Open Society and its Enemies, editions of 1961 and 1966 respectively. I could not have read them before these dates, and other works of his I read even later.
To say that a theory like Marxism, that is, a theory about the development of society and the course of History is refuted by ‘scientific writings’ does not even make sense to me. This can only happen in non-empirical sciences, like mathematics or logic. Marxism is about society, History, and their laws of development. Actual events have proved the theory wrong. Engels used to say that ‘the proof of the pudding is in the eating’ – an empirical test – quite in accordance with the science of the time he regarded a tested and confirmed theory as certain knowledge. Although Popper does not regard a ‘confirmed’ theory – corroborated, as he would say – as certain knowledge, but only ‘hypothetical’, for him, too, it is the empirical test that is decisive. Events proved Marxism’s predictions wrong.
There is, however, another aspect. The Marxist theory is also historicist, that is, it claims to predict the future of history. Historicism is, of course, a general term referring to all theories purporting to predict the future. This Popper claims to have refuted, or shown for strictly logical reasons to be impossible. The argument rests on the consideration that human history is strongly influenced by the growth of human knowledge, which of course cannot be known today, that is, before it has happened. Therefore, there cannot be any theoretical history or a historical social science that could correspond to theoretical physics. Of course, not all social predictions are refuted, all sorts of social predictions are possible – economic theories, for instance – but only the possibility to predict the historical developments that are influenced by the growth of our knowledge is ruled out.
Marxists of today, to save their beliefs, ignore Marx’s life’s work and search in forgotten or unpublished early writings of Marx. They remind me of augurs or suchlike, delving in the entrails of animals, or of fortune tellers examining tea leaves.
Marx has made many valuable contributions to our understanding of society and History. He deserves better than to be treated as an oracle whose obscure pronouncements need to be interpreted.
Updated by ETOL: 3.10.2011