Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s famous remark, cited by Karl Marx, among others, was surely a part of the sensibility that motivated Harry Magdoff’s life and work. Harry’s writing and scholarship were important achievements and distinguished contributions to the socialist project, but they were grounded in a profound understanding of life, history, and the human condition. The centrality of both theory and life were much in evidence on a clear brisk weekend in early May, when many of the MR extended family—readers, writers, staff, and, of course, the Magdoff family—gathered in New York, on Saturday for a roundtable on Harry’s contributions and the future of MR, and on Sunday for a meeting celebrating, as it turned out, the lives of both Harry and his beloved wife Beadie.
At the Saturday gathering at the Brecht Forum, Bill Tabb spoke of his long personal and intellectual association with the Magdoffs, stressing Harry’s opposition to left-wing dogmatism and his commitment to an unblinkered and unflinching examination of reality no matter what it revealed. John Mage described Harry’s delicate guidance of MR, not only avoiding leftist sectarianism, but insuring that the magazine’s clear voice was heard by both revolutionaries and bourgeois detractors worldwide. In this he was joined by John Bellamy Foster, who stressed Harry’s insistence on the interplay of history and theory in the analysis of the present. Bob McChesney followed, discussing Harry’s amazing capacity for openness: his willingness to consider change and to contemplate the new, even in his last years. Renee Pendergrass, in charge of marketing and publicity at MR Press, recalled Harry’s dramatic intervention in support of the staff at a critical moment. John Simon looked at Harry’s application of his socialist principles to his own activism in the McCarthy years and especially with the burgeoning civil rights and peace insurgencies in the 1960s. It was, he said, “socialism on the ground.” Bernardine Dohrn brought some specificity to the latter notion, referring to the epochal year 1968. In remarks she elaborated on Sunday, Dohrn noted both MR’s consistent support for the innovative radicalism of the New Left and the recognition by the students that they needed the kind of mentoring in Marxian theory that only Harry and Paul Sweezy could provide.
Speakers at the Sunday meeting offered an affectionate appreciation of Harry’s—and Beadie’s—capacity for empathy, intimacy, and love. Gladys and Percy Brazil spoke of Harry’s very last hours. Robert Engler remembered Harry’s teaching and scholarship when they were colleagues at the New School. Kira Brunner, a former assistant editor of MR, recalled Harry’s active mentoring and engagement with the young people who worked and volunteered at the magazine and the press. Harry’s longtime friend, Annette Rubinstein, spoke of their many years in the struggle. John Bellamy Foster described Harry’s principled and successful superintending of the generational transition of the MR project, something he took great pride in during the last months of his life.
On both occasions Harry’s son Fred spoke about Harry as teacher, parent, and comrade, and his extraordinary relationship with Paul Sweezy (Paul once said, “Why, I’ve been married to Harry for thirty years”). Fred also noted that his mother Beadie was the glue in the family and Harry’s comrade in an adventure that ran from the turbulent days of the New Deal and the Second World War through the dark, frightening days of McCarthyism to the great privilege that was their joint association with MR. Harry’s grandson and his wife also spoke. David remarked that at the end of his life Harry had no regrets about anything, a rare, but not unexpected observation: Harry and Beadie knew just how “wonderful, blessed, and complete their lives were.” Pam declared him a “real mensch!….I know he planted something special in each of our hearts.” Amy Demarest, Fred’s wife, ended the memorial by reading a poem by Yip Harburg that commemorated the lives of an earlier generation of MR staff and editors.
Daniel Boone Schirmer, a longtime contributor of articles to MR and author of Republic or Empire: American Resistance to The Philippine War (1972) and The Philippines Reader: A History of Colonialism, Neocolonialism, Dictatorship, and Resistance (1987) died on April 21, aged ninety-one. From the 1930s through the 1950s Schirmer worked against white supremacy and for fair housing and unemployment insurance. For his troubles he was indicted under the notorious Smith Act for “conspiring to teach and advocate the overthrow of the government by force and violence.” Schirmer, called “Boone” because his energy reminded many of his ancestor, Daniel Boone, spent four years underground, emerging when the charges were dismissed, to complete a doctorate at Boston University. From the 1960s on, he was a fierce campaigner against U.S. imperialism, especially in the Philippines, demanding human rights, the end of the Marcos dictatorship, and the elimination of U.S. military bases, nearly all of which were achieved during his lifetime.
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Correction: In John Bellamy Foster’s “A Warning to Africa” in the June issue Ivo H. Daalder was mistakenly referred to several times as Ivo H. Daadler.
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