For more than a decade now the major corporate media and the U.S. government have been celebrating the growing “democratization” of Latin America. Rather than reflecting a genuine concern with democracy, however, this was meant to symbolize the defeat of various revolutionary movements, particularly in Central America in the 1980s and early ’90s. To the extent that formal, limited democracy actually made gains in the region this was viewed by the ruling powers in the United States as a means of institutionalizing and legitimizing structures of extreme inequality in line with the ends of the American empire
If I belong anywhere today, it is with you. But to my great regret, I cannot be physically present. No doubt other speakers will deal with Paul as a major theoretician, a worldwide influential thinker and struggler for the sake of humanity. And there is much to say about Paul the human being. Not to monopolize the stage, I have selected two areas to dwell on: Paul as a friend and Paul as a coworker
The following brief intellectual biography of Paul Sweezy was drafted in September 2003 shortly before I saw Paul for the last time. It conveys many of the basic facts of his life. But as with all biographies of leading intellectuals it fails to capture the brilliance of his work, which must be experienced directly through his own writings. Nor is the warmth of Paul’s character adequately conveyed here. A short personal note is therefore needed. What was so surprising about Paul was his seemingly endless generosity and humanity. Paul gave freely of himself to all of those seeking his political and intellectual guidance. But a few, such as myself, were particularly blessed in that they experienced this on a deeper, more intense level. For decades Paul was concerned that Monthly Review not perish as had so many socialist institutions and publications in the past. He recognized early on that the continuance of the magazine and the tradition that it represented required the deliberate cultivation of new generations of socialist intellectuals. I was fortunate to be singled out while still quite young as one of those. For decades Paul wrote me letter after letter—no letter that I wrote to him ever went unanswered—sharing his knowledge, intellectual brilliance, and personal warmth. It was an immense, indescribable gift
Described by the Wall Street Journal as “the ‘dean’ of radical economics,” Paul Sweezy has more than any other single person kept Marxist economics alive in North America.* One work would be sufficient to have achieved this—The Theory of Capitalist Development (first published in 1942). During the period of the 1950s and 1960s, this was the book to which one turned to learn about Marxist economics
The question “Why Stagnation?” has a rather special significance for me. I started my graduate work in economics exactly fifty years ago this year. The cyclical downturn which began in 1929 was nearing the bottom. Unemployment in that year, according to government figures, was 23.6 percent of the labor force, and it reached its high point in 1933 at 24.9 percent. It remained in the double-digit range throughout the decade. Still, a recovery began in 1933, and it turned out to be the longest on record up to that time. Even at the top in 1937, however, the unemployment rate was still 14.3 percent, and it jumped up by the end of the year. That also happens to be the year I got my Ph.D. Can you imagine a set of circumstances better calculated to impress upon a young economist the idea that the fundamental economic problem was not cyclical ups and downs but secular stagnation?
Among Marxian economists “monopoly capitalism” is the term widely used to denote the stage of capitalism which dates from approximately the last quarter of the nineteenth century and reaches full maturity in the period after the Second World War. Marx’s Capital, like classical political economy from Adam Smith to John Stuart Mill, was based on the assumption that all commodities are produced by industries consisting of many firms, or capitals in Marx’s terminology, each accounting for a negligible fraction of total output and all responding to the price and profit signals generated by impersonal market forces. Unlike the classical economists, however, Marx recognized that such an economy was inherently unstable and impermanent. The way to succeed in a competitive market is to cut costs and expand production, a process which requires incessant accumulation of capital in ever new technological and organizational forms. In Marx’s words: “The battle of competition is fought by cheapening of commodities. The cheapness of commodities depends, ceteris paribus, on the productiveness of labor, and this again on the scale of production. Therefore the larger capitals beat the smaller.” Further, the credit system which “begins as a modest helper of accumulation” soon “becomes a new and formidable weapon in the competition in the competitive struggle, and finally it transforms itself into an immense social mechanism for the centralization of capitals” (Marx, 1894, ch. 27)
It is obvious that humankind has arrived at a crucial turning point in its long history. Nuclear war could terminate the whole human enterprise. But even if this catastrophic ending can be avoided, it is by no means certain that the essential conditions for the survival and development of civilized society as we know it today will continue to exist