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Abba Lerner’s Roadtrip to Meet Trotsky, 1938

 

 

In August 1938 at age 34 Abba Lerner took his legendary road-trip from Colorado Springs to Mexico City and then back to Chicago where he wrote a slightly more than three page travel letter that includes a description of his two “lengthy interviews” with Leon Trotsky.

The typescript I found in Lerner’s papers at the Library of Congress was formatted as presumably a round-robin letter with a temporary return address. I limit myself to the economic content–the impressions and adventures on the road must wait. 

It turns out that a woman graduate student from Chicago who was a co-driver on the road-trip was later to receive an acknowledgment in a footnote to a famous paper written by my dissertation adviser, Evsey Domar. (I score that three degrees of separation between Leon Trotsky and the curator of Economics in the Rear-View Mirror!)

A tip of the hat to Olav Bjerkholt for his helpful comment to this posting:  at the 4th Annual Research Conference on Economics and Statistics of the Cowles Commission at Colorado Springs, July 20, 1938 there is a wonderful group picture where Abba Lerner (wearing his legendary sandals) is to be seen less than two weeks before heading out on his road-trip to Mexico City.

In August 1944 the sociologist Daniel Bell and Abba Lerner exchanged two letters in which Lerner, while considering himself a marxist, defends the elements of human psychology introduced by Keynes into his macroeconomic model. Interestingly, Daniel Bell saw where the “confidence fairy” fits into the Keynesian model.

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Excerpts from Lerner’s letter

c/o Oskar Lange
Department of Economics
University of Chicago
Chicago, Illinois

August 31, 1938

I left Colorado Springs with Alice on August 2nd or 3rd for Mexico…

…We spent ten days in and around Mexico City. Had two lengthy interviews with Trotsky in which we discussed Dialectics, the Syllogism, the French Turn and the possible significance of work on the economics of socialism and the use of the price mechanism. Trotsky is very good-looking, appeared to be in very good health, and is a most charming and tolerant person in discussion. He uses the word Dialectical of any argument as I would use the word sensible, or adequate or legitimate. He is not guilty of any of the false or superstitious uses of the concept on which I tested him. He appears to be ignorant of modern symbolic logic and regard [sic] my interpretation of the syllogism as a sophistication which the Aristotelian concept could not bear. He was extremely witty. My insistence on the universal validity of the Syllogism reminded him of the first sentence of the Gospel of St. John, “In the beginning was Logos”, and my explanation that the law of contradiction was merely an agreement among sensible people not to use the same symbol for contradictory propositions reminded him of the fiction of the historical social contract. He immediately recognized my interest in price mechanisms in a socialist society as a symptom of my undialectical thinking, but was sufficiently impressed with some arguments I put forward on this and other subjects to grant that they were quite dialectical. Finally he declared that although skeptical he would read some of my articles on socialist policy since there might be something to them. He seemed to be particularly moved when I said that the chief value of a price system is to provide some principles in place of the elaboration of arbitrary precedents and thereby to lessen the importance of the bureaucracy and the danger of their development into a beaurocratic [sic] caste. I am not very hopeful of converting him on this subject but I shall continue to try – using Lange’s book. I enjoyed the discussions immensely. Alice [Lerner’s first wife, Alice Sendak (divorced May 1958)] says I was in good form and Mary [Mary Wise (Smelker), a research student from Northwestern University met by Abba Lerner at the Cowles Commission meetings at Colorado Springs to help with the driving since Alice did not know how to drive] considered my argument to be less witty than Trotsky’s but more cogent. However she agreed with me on the matters in the first place – except for the matter of the French Turn of which, as she says, she is a living example won from the S. P. in Chicago.

We also had a series of discussions with some minor Trotskyists, devotees, secretaries and guards of the Old Man, Joe Hanson, Sarah and some others. These were were [sic] much more dogmatic and difficult to argue with than the Old Man himself.

…Another interesting man we met was Fritz Bach, an economist and sort of new dealer adviser to the Government. We had been trying to get in touch with him for a long time and finally we woke him up early in the morning after a most adventurous search into the suburbs where the pavements were all pulled up and we had to go through great mud holes, some of the mud getting onto my shirt collar. Bach then had lunch with us and with Josue Saenz and economist (research student) who is studying in London. Lunch lasted from 1 till 5 with Bach speaking most of the time about Mexican Economics and occasionally about Mexican Politics. His most wonderful story is about Manuilsky who came up to Mexico a number of years ago to instruct the C. P. on how and when to make the revolution. When he had been in the country three weeks he saw a servant maid in Rivera’s house and asked how she came to look so dark. When told she was Indian he expressed surprise that there were still any Indians in Mexico.

…Here [Chicago] I settle down to write this letter, glad to stop travelling for a bit and itching to get some work done, interrupted every few minutes by Lange who brings some new member of the department to be introduced to me, impressing on me the conviction that I am going to have a grand time here.

Source:  Library of Congress, Papers of Abba P. Lerner, Box 25, Folder 3 (1937-39).

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WHO’S WHO

Mary Wise Smelker born 18 March 1914 in Chicago, died 23 February 2000 in Colorado.

In his famous paper Evsey Domar “Capital Expansion, Rate of Growth, and Employment” Econometrica, Vol. 14, No. 2 (April, 1946) mentions her. In the first footnote to the paper he thanks the fellow members of the “Little Seminar” that included among others Paul Baran, James S. Duesenberry, Lloyd A. Metzler, Richard A. Musgrave, Melvin W. Reder and Tiber de Scitovszky as well as Mary Wise Smelker.

Smelker, Mary Wise, government; b. Chicago, 1914; B.S., Northwestern, 1937, M.S., 1939; stud., Chicago, 1939-40. FIELDS 2d, 4b. PUB. The Impact of Federal Direct Taxes on the Distribution of After Tax Increase, National Tax Jour., Editor, Bur. of National Affairs, 1955-59; analyst, Bur. of the Budget, 1962-63; sr. economist, Bur. of Labor Stats., 1963-67, Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System since 1967. ADDRESS Bus. Conditions Section, Research Div., Bd. of Govrs. of the Federal Reserve System, Watergate Bldg., Rm. 1010, 20th and Constitution Ave., Washington, DC 20551.

Source: Handbook of the American Economic Association, Biographical Listings of Members, American Economic Review, Vol. 59, No. 6. (Jan., 1970)p. 407.

 

Fritz Bach
For Spanish readers, the book by Maneul López de la Parra, El pensamiento económico de Fritz Bach, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Facultad de Economía, 2005.

 

Josué Sáenz
According to Sarah L. Babb in her Managing Mexico: Economists from Nationalism to Neoliberalism (Princeton University Press, 2001, p. 83), Josué Sáenz received his B.A. from Swarthmore College in the 1930s and became the director of the Department of Credit of the Finance Ministry in 1946.

 

Dimitri Manuilsky (1883-1959
Head of Comintern from 1929 to 1934. He was later the head of the Ukrainian delegation to the United Nations Conference on International Organization in San Francisco (1945) and served as the foreign minister of Ukraine (1944-1952).

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Image Source: Group photograph, dated 1938, from the Library of the London School of Economics with Abba Lerner seated right.

Irwin Collier

Posted by: Irwin Collier

2 thoughts on “Abba Lerner’s Roadtrip to Meet Trotsky, 1938

  1. Cowles Foundation has on its website a group picture (with complete name list) comprising Abba Lerner, taken very shortly before he left for Mexico

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