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A Son’s Reflections

Fred Magdoff is professor of plant and soil science at the University of Vermont in Burlington and a director of the Monthly Review Foundation. He is coauthor with Harry Magdoff of “Approaching Socialism,” in the July–August 2005 issue of Monthly Review.
This article was a speech delivered at the memorial for Harry on May 7, 2006, at the Society for Ethical Culture in New York City.

Harry died in the early hours of January 1, 2006, at our house in Burlington, Vermont, where he had lived for three and a half years. As he died, I laid on the big double bed facing him and held his arms, with my wife, his caregiver, and his good friends Gladys and Percy Brazil there too. Talking with them after he died I reflected on how it had been an honor to have Harry live with Amy and me since my mother Beadie had died and to help him get the most out of his final years. It was also fun and intellectually stimulating, although sometimes a challenge because of my health problems and our work schedules.

It is really impossible to discuss Harry without including his wife Beadie—Harry’s partner and a remarkable woman in her own right. Harry and Beadie lived together for more than sixty-nine years and were a couple for at least four years before getting married at age eighteen. Their union nurtured many years of political activity and meaningful work and involved an amazing network of friends and comrades.

The Early Years

Growing up with Harry and Beadie, I had an early consciousness that our family was different from most. Harry was very knowledgeable about, and interested in, a wide range of subjects from history to economics to literature to mathematics and physics—everything it seemed! At one point I wondered why we had Beadie’s old encyclopedia in the house when Harry could answer just about any question we had. Of course, Harry wanted my brother Mike and me to learn on our own—through reading and discussion and not by just asking him questions. He was an extremely patient father.

An especially strong family bond developed among the four of us, although rarely expressed in words. I think a number of things worked to create this bond. First, Harry and Beadie were devoted and loving parents and willing to let Mike and me be our own persons. They always encouraged us to go down paths that we chose (with some reservations and limitations, of course). Our grandparents, Sheiva and Carl Weinstein and Laika and Max Magdoff, were also extremely loving. Beadie was the disciplinarian, as those of you who knew her might imagine. I was quite a rascal as a child and during the summers at the cottage in Mohegan I would hide from Beadie behind my grandmother Sheiva after I had been up to some type of mischief. The one time when Harry actually hit me was when I was sick with fever and a doctor came to the house to give me a shot of antibiotics. When he arrived I bolted out of bed and ran outside, with Harry in hot pursuit. Miracle of miracles, after a good run around the yard he actually caught me. I don’t know if we were more surprised by him catching me or that he gave me a slap on the behind out of frustration. I never resented that slap, and we joked about it in recent years.

The second thing that helped create an especially strong family bond was the McCarthy period. Harry was called before the Senate Internal Security Committee, the House Un-American Activities Committee, and a number of grand juries in New York City. Although some “friends” wanted no contact with us, most were extremely supportive. But that whole time, as Harry took a principled stand against cooperating with the inquisition, there was the feeling that we were something unique and special. It was a very difficult period for my parents both financially and emotionally. Harry worked at a variety of jobs, trying to help make ends meet and Beadie went back to teaching in an especially difficult assignment, working with high-needs kids. However, I think that Mike and I both felt it a family badge of courage to be proud of. I remember those times very fondly because my parents had an incredibly devoted and wide circle of friends—Edith and Jibby Needleman, Rona and Harold Posner, Bill and Joan DeWind, Olga and Phil Field, Norman and Evelyn Redlich, Kappy and Dorothy Kaplan, Annette Rubinstein, Annie and Artie Stein, Bob and Liz Rusch, and so many others. And Harry’s and Beadie’s extended families were also supportive during those difficult times.

Another memory related to the inquisition period happened some years later, after Mike died and I was in college. When I was in my second year at Oberlin College (1960–61) I lived in a room with a fireplace in a house off campus. Harry was subpoenaed to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee, then in its last years of operation. He was instructed to bring the records of the Fund For Social Analysis—an organization founded in the 1950s by Harry, Annette Rubinstein, Irving Kaplan, and others that raised money and gave grants to Marxist and socialist graduate students and professors, mainly to help them publish their writings. Harry drove out to Ohio with the files and explained to me that he just couldn’t turn over the fund’s correspondence and other materials to the committee. The contents, just the applicants’ names and the subjects they were working on, had the capacity to ruin the lives of young and active scholars. So we discussed what to do and decided the best thing was to burn all the materials in my fireplace. We burned the documents together, being careful to break up all the ash and carbon residue afterwards. There is nothing like breaking the law with your father—for a good cause—to create a special bond.

The death of my dear brother Michael in 1959, just before his twentieth birthday, was the most momentous event in the life of our family—the only real tragedy we suffered. This is the type of event that can destroy a couple’s relationship, but Harry and Beadie were determined to do whatever it took to stay together and live useful and productive lives. They would take a stiff drink every night and talk for hours. On June 11, 2002, two days after Beadie died, while I was driving Harry up to Vermont to live with us he told of his love for her. He told me about the night before Michael had died. (I had been on my way back from the West Coast and arrived just hours after he died.) Harry described how Beadie stayed up the whole night, laying in the bed with Michael and talking with him about everything under the sun. The years following Michael’s death were exceptionally difficult for all of us and it wasn’t until decades later that we were able to talk about him without crying.

When I was in junior high and high school Harry led a discussion group of children of my age, perhaps ten kids. This was held in the living room of our small apartment in Queens, New York, and we read and discussed all sorts of books and essays in many different areas including history, anthropology, and utopianism (such as Looking Backward, by Edward Bellamy), as well as current events of importance such as the murder of Emmet Till. Harry was a master at leading a discussion with children, respecting our thoughts and suggestions and gently leading us to a fuller comprehension of the topic for the week.

During the time I was in high school an especially important friendship developed between Harry and Paul Baran, professor of economics at Stanford University and author of Monthly Review articles and books. From time to time Paul would stay at our apartment in Queens and the two of them would be up most of the night discussing economics, politics, and current events. Paul’s premature death in 1964 was a major blow to Harry, as to many others.

An event that seemed like a tragedy at the time turned out to have a silver lining. In the mid 1960s, a fire that started in the church next door spread to my parents’ building and did a lot of damage to their apartment. It destroyed all of Harry’s files and records going back to his work for the Commerce Department in the 1940s. The fire also destroyed almost his entire library. You can imagine how depressed he must have been. However, friends helped him recreate the library and the destruction of the files allowed Harry to go off in directions—the study of imperialism, for example—that he might not have otherwise. (When Harry moved to Vermont in 2002 most of his extensive library was sent to Nepal. A group of MR staff and friends packed up 115 cartons of books and funds were raised for shipping them via India to Katmandu.)

Although I knew that Harry was someone special in so many ways, it wasn’t until the late 1960s when people started to refer to me as his son that I realized the extent of his influence. I became aware of Harry’s and Beadie’s immense capacities for friendship and their wide circle of friends. They made friends easily—with people of all ages and from all backgrounds. They (Beadie especially) talked to strangers they met on buses and at events and to taxi drivers all the time. Harry especially liked talking to children, and many of those children, now grown, have told me how important those discussions were to them and how fondly they remember talks with him. This capacity for friendship did not in any way lessen their affection for their immediate and extended family. They loved Harry’s brother Sam and his wife Laura. They loved my wife Amy as if she were their daughter. They cared for and played a very important part in helping me raise my son David and remained uniquely close and loving grandparents. And Harry loved David’s wife, Pam Velez, like a granddaughter. I don’t believe that there have been better and more caring parents and grandparents or in-laws.

Harry and Monthly Review

When Paul Sweezy asked Harry to join him as coeditor after Leo Huberman’s death, I was already out of graduate school and living abroad. So I had little connection with the events in that era, but I do know that Harry was beginning to, in a sense, be reborn. In 1969 he joined Paul in the MR venture—ten years after my brother Michael died, when the congressional committees and grand juries of the inquisition were over, and at a time that he had some modest degree of financial independence. In 1959 Harry had bought into a small publishing company—Russell and Russell—that reprinted out-of-print classics. The company did well, in no small part to Harry’s work and insights, and when the company was sold, his share, though not huge by today’s standards, together with their modest style of living and Beadie’s small teacher’s pension and their Social Security benefits, allowed him the freedom to follow his passion for scholarship to better understand the world.

Harry had already started doing the type of work he wanted, with a focus on analyzing imperialism. Along with his amazing intellect and personality, he brought a pretty unusual background—he had worked as an economist in high government positions, got to know presidents of corporations and generals, saw firsthand the problems of planning and machine tool production during the Second World War, worked on Wall Street, worked for unions, sold life insurance with Beadie, and actually ran a business and had to meet a payroll. All-in-all, this varied background was critical to Harry’s development and insights into the workings of really existing capitalism.

When Paul died, Harry wrote about when Paul asked him to join MR. Paul said that he would write all the Reviews of the Month and Harry could just do his own work and help out here and there on editing. Years later when Harry asked Paul if he remembered that he said that, he answered, “You didn’t believe me, did you?” Harry and Paul got along so well because of their non-confrontational personalities and the great respect they had for each other politically and intellectually. Harry and Paul also agreed upon so much, especially their general outlook and understanding of the capitalist system and problems of revolutionary transformations. But while they didn’t agree on every last issue, they never argued. Many collectives or partnerships fail when egos get in the way. Harry and Paul were able to avoid that by talking things over and reaching agreements whenever possible, or at least making a decision that would not hurt one or the other. And they also had a similar vision for MR—they saw the primary role of the magazine as teaching and wanted it to use straightforward language and be as free of jargon as possible. It was to analyze the world and to provide an understanding of it, free of polemics, and without getting entangled in arguments with various sectarian viewpoints.

One of the more impressive things to me about Harry and Paul is not only that so much of what they wrote has stood the test of time, but that these writings are still essential starting points for understanding today’s world. For example, how can one get a better understanding of the world today than Harry’s books on imperialism? An event that indicated his lasting relevance and influence was the May 2003 Imperialism Today conference held in honor of Harry’s ninetieth birthday. And if you want to fully understand mature capitalism’s tendency toward stagnation with the resulting explosion of debt and financial speculation—and the fragility that it introduces—where better to start than with Harry’s and Paul’s writings on the subject? The next piece that Harry and I were hoping to write together was an update of the whole debt and financial explosion story that he worked on mainly in the 1980s. I have nearly finished the manuscript—but I stand on the shoulders of these impressive thinkers and use their earlier work and approach as a guide.

Harry and Paul long worried about the issue of a transition at MR to a younger leadership. For a variety of reasons this did not happen as early as would have been desirable. In the last years of his life, Paul was unable to function as editor, and the burden fell to Harry. Lucky for Harry and for MR, John Bellamy Foster suggested that he and Bob McChesney take over as coeditors with Harry. After Bob resigned as editor, Harry and I had numerous conversations about how greatly he appreciated John’s work and the maintenance of the quality of Monthly Review. It is a tribute to Harry, as well as, of course, to Leo Huberman and Paul Sweezy (and the very dedicated staff, volunteers, contributors, and supporters) that an independent socialist magazine such as Monthly Review has thrived for well over fifty years during such difficult times—helping people to better understand capitalism, imperialism, the class struggle, and revolution. And this tradition continues with the hard work and leadership of John Bellamy Foster.

While Harry was clearly good for MR, MR was also good for Harry and Beadie. There couldn’t have been a more stimulating and exciting position for a Marxist economist to be in (aside from a real revolutionary situation). MR’s reputation abroad has probably always been greater than within the United States. Harry and Beadie were blessed by the friends and comrades that they met with, influenced, and learned from, in Africa, Latin America, Europe, China, and India. Believing that you are making a contribution to creating a better world—and in the company of the wonderful circle of loyal and devoted MR friends here and abroad—what a wonderful life!

The Last Years

It turns out that I misjudged Harry about one thing, as did others. We laughed together at his lack of skill in technical areas (like in using tools to make repairs) and at his lack of athletic ability. However, while not an athlete, he was a lot stronger physically than people fully understood. Harry was so worn out after Beadie died in June 2002— physically and emotionally—that I feared that he might die soon. But when he got settled in Vermont he rallied. From time to time he would get depressed—he missed Beadie as well as all his friends in New York. But he was mostly in pretty good shape while he lived with us. And he was rejuvenated by visits from David and Pam and from the friends who were able to visit him in Vermont. He also enjoyed his friendship with Joan Ladouceur, who helped care for him during his time in Vermont and helped to fill every day with good conversation and a few good laughs. One of his great pleasures was reading about the changes occurring in Venezuela and corresponding with Michael Lebowitz, based in Caracas. “If I were eighty, I’d be in Venezuela now,” he said on more than one occasion. At one point when he was feeling particularly good, he said “the only way you’re going to get rid of me is with an axe.”

Harry quickly settled into a routine in Vermont. He would rise late in the morning, have breakfast, and then go to his desk, where he would remain for most of the day. As he worked he would frequently listen to classical music on the radio or from his collection of CDs. As his eyesight deteriorated and it became more difficult for him to read newspapers and magazines, the large screen computer became a lifeline for him. On the computer he read articles that I sent him that morning from the New York Times, the Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal. He also regularly looked at the online versions of China Daily, the Egyptian paper Al-Ahram, and the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, as well as the BBC Web site, and various sources from Latin America and India. He received material from the China Study Group, the Marxist Digest, and many other sources. He would download reports that he wanted to read and would ask me to find him other specific pieces of information.

Although difficult for him because of failing eyesight, he read many manuscripts submitted to MR and regularly participated in editorial committee conference calls. It was only in early 2005, as we started to work on his last article, “Approaching Socialism,” (Monthly Review, July–August 2005) that he decided to forgo other activities to concentrate on the developing manuscript and, therefore, stopped reading and discussing the manuscripts.

Harry received great support and stimulation from a worldwide correspondence and took his letter writing very seriously. He saw letters as a way both to get his thoughts together and organized about a particular subject as well as a way to teach others. He worked slowly and agonized over the wording of the letters, and they represent a major effort of his work during his last years. He would have a drink (usually vodka) at around 6 p.m. while still working at his desk. Then after dinner the two of us, joined occasionally by Amy, would watch a movie. After the movie he would stay up for a few hours, perhaps working a bit more, checking e-mail, looking for something on the Web, or reading some articles, and then go to sleep around midnight after reading a part of a mystery novel. For a short period of time we convinced him to take Sundays off to read novels or listen to music. However, he soon drifted back to his daily pattern of work.

Harry only left the house to go to medical appointments. Just going to an appointment tired him out greatly and sometimes affected him the following day as well. However, in August 2004 he insisted on going to the memorial meeting for Bill Hinton, which was held in Putney, a three-hour drive. Going down and back and attending the meeting took a lot out of him, but it was something he just had to do.

By late November 2005, it was clear that Harry was declining. But while his heart just couldn’t keep pumping efficiently, his memory stayed intact and he continued the best he could—checking his e-mail and having a lively conversation with visiting friends just days before he died.

Harry and Paul Sweezy once had a discussion about death. Both said they were not afraid of dying and Paul said that he just couldn’t face the fact that he wouldn’t be able to read the New York Times each day. Harry said that the thing that bothered him about dying was that he so much wanted to see “how it all turns out.” I think that’s what kept him going in his last years—his insatiable curiosity and drive to continue to understand capitalism, the problems that were constantly occurring here and abroad, and how to create a socialist society.

When Harry was recovering from heart failure in 1999 he told me that I was his best friend (he amended that a few seconds later to best male friend). As he lay dying on New Years Eve I told Harry that he was my best friend too. We connected in a unique way. We shared many interests and a similar sense of humor, and I enjoyed helping him get materials he wanted to read or data he wanted to look at. I especially liked working up data on the U.S. economy and then sharing it with him. Working together with him on the article “Approaching Socialism” was exciting and quite a learning experience. We loved each other deeply. As far as I recall, we never used words to say that, somehow saying it was unnecessary because it would have only been stating the obvious—something like saying “isn’t it nice to breathe”—but it was so clear from both of our actions and sentiments.

I know that many people lost a good friend and comrade when Harry died. However, there are literally billions of people—the poor, the homeless, the discriminated against, the wretched of the earth—who do not know that they also lost a friend, someone who’s highest concern was to try to make their lives more secure, more fulfilled, and happier.

The key lesson I learned from Harry is that the struggle for social justice and the creation of a new society is a long one. It has gone on for centuries and may well go on for centuries more. The personal struggle—as a decent person in an indecent society, as a “missionary for socialism,” and as a participant in the struggle for a more humane and ecologically sound world—is a lifelong struggle. The forces favoring the status quo are formidable and capable of great deceit and brutality. But in the face of so much injustice and cruelty Harry believed, and we must also believe, that a better society is possible. But it won’t come about by tinkering with capitalism. And it won’t come about by dreaming about it—it will only be brought into existence by a prolonged struggle by the mass of the people and their taking power and using it for the betterment of all. Today, the fight continues everywhere—in the poor countries of capitalism’s periphery, some of which seem to be awakening from a slumber, and in the rich nations of the center. And, as we have learned from the revolutions of the twentieth century, the fight continues even after a revolution occurs.

I concluded the eulogy for Harry in May 2006 with the following:

In honor of the reawakening that’s occurring in Latin America, let me end with:

La lucha continua! Viva la revolucion! viva Che! Viva Fidel! Viva Hugo Chávez! Viva Evo Morales (who recently nationalized the energy sector in Bolivia)! Long live the people!

And, of course, viva Harry Magdoff!

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