Harry Magdoff, coeditor of Monthly Review since 1969, socialist, and one of the world’s leading economic analysts of capitalism and imperialism, died in his home in Burlington, Vermont on January 1. He was ninety-two years old.
Magdoff’s most influential work, The Age of Imperialism: The Economics of U.S. Foreign Policy (1969) had an immense impact on the U.S. left at the time of the Vietnam War. Other major works included Imperialism: From the Colonial Age to the Present (1978) and five books of economic analysis collected from Monthly Review and coauthored with Paul Sweezy. In 2005, with his son Fred Magdoff, he published a major essay entitled “Approaching Socialism.”
Harry was born on August 21, 1913, in the Bronx, the son of working-class Russian Jewish immigrants. He first encountered Karl Marx at age fifteen when he picked up a copy of The Contribution to a Critique of Political Economy. As he later recalled, it “blew my mind” and “got me started reading about economics.” At the City College of New York he took engineering, math, and physics courses but was suspended for his left-wing political activities, which included membership in the Social Problems Club and editing its magazine, Frontiers. Harry was also active in the radical National Student League, editing (along with the celebrated poet, Muriel Rukeyser) its publication, The Student Review in 1932 and 1933. It was during this time that he married Beatrice Greizer (called Beadie by her friends). After graduating from New York University in 1936 with a BS in economics he went to work for various New Deal agencies, including the Works Progress Administration, where he developed productivity measures for manufacturing that are still used by the Department of Labor, and the National Defense and Advisory Board. When the United States entered the war he joined the War Production Board, where he was responsible for inspection and planning and control of factories producing machinery and equipment for metal-working factories. In 1944 he became chief economist in the Commerce Department’s Current Business Analysis Division. He subsequently served as special assistant to Secretary of Commerce (and former Vice President) Henry A. Wallace.
With the advent of McCarthyism (he was summoned before various congressional investigating committees) Magdoff was effectively blacklisted and was forced to leave government and public policy work. In the early 1950s he found employment on Wall Street as a financial analyst and stockbroker, occasionally advising labor unions on pension fund investments. In the late 1950s he joined the publishing firm of Russell and Russell, which specialized in out-of-print scholarly books, among them W. E. B. Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction in America, for which Harry arranged. With Harry’s editorial guidance the firm achieved considerable success and subsequently he became co-owner. Its sale to Atheneum in 1965 gave him financial independence and after a few years of teaching at the New School for Social Research and at Yale he joined Paul Sweezy as coeditor of Monthly Review, succeeding Leo Huberman who had died in 1968.
In his years at MR Harry was much sought after internationally as teacher, advisor, and mentor to both activists and scholars. MR readers throughout the world will remember him for his warmth, the brilliance and clarity of his analysis, and his full-hearted devotion to the “wretched of the earth.”
Predeceased by his wife Beadie, and his son, Michael, Harry Magdoff is survived by his son Fred, his daughter-in-law Amy Demarest, and a grandson David and his wife Pamela Velez.
An idealist in the darkest of times, he keeps hope alive without relinquishing his critical perspective. “You have to be a pessimist of the mind, but an optimist of the heart,” Magdoff says. “The job is to reach the people.”
—Susan Green, “The Sage of Imperialism,” Seven Days
(Burlington, Vermont), April 30–May 7, 2003