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‘Let the Dialectic Continue!’

William K. Tabb (william.tabb [at] gmail.com) taught economics at Queens College for many years, and economics, political science, and sociology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. His books include Economic Governance in the Age of Globalization (Columbia University Press, 2004), Unequal Partners: A Primer on Globalization (The New Press, 2002), and The Amoral Elephant: Globalization and the Struggle for Social Justice in the Twenty-First Century (Monthly Review Press, 2001).
These remarks were prepared for a session celebrating Harry Magdoff’s life at the Left Forum, March 11–12, 2006, in New York City.

Harry Magdoff died on New Year’s Day 2006 at the age of ninety-two. He will be remembered in the hearts of those who knew him, those who were profoundly influenced when they heard him speak, and those who have read Monthly Review and his great books on imperialism, which helped mature the thinking of the generation of leftists who came of age during the Vietnam War. It is the warmth of his person, the clarity and incisiveness of his thinking, and his profound vision of the absolute necessity of socialism that characterize his historic contributions and set him apart as one of a handful of great Marxist thinkers of the last century. The breadth of Harry’s knowledge—his grasp of world history, Marxist literature, and broader literatures—was extraordinary. He was as content, for example, to discuss the nature of calculus with a college student as Shakespeare with a Shakespeare scholar, all with that wonderful enthusiasm and energy he always brought to conversations.

Preparing remarks for this occasion afforded me the pleasure of reading through Harry’s correspondence, which includes not only letters he sent to me but copies of some he sent to others, mostly MR readers who had asked him for clarification or took issue with what he had written in the magazine. His letters were always single spaced and tended to run two and a half to three pages. These letters were always meant to clarify important points. It was the issue that was important. It was not relevant particularly who the initial writer was so long as there was a sincere interest in understanding. In these letters, Harry was both a wonderful teacher and a serious debater, when that was called for, and always a penetrating analyst. In one letter, after thanking the writer for initiating the correspondence there are a string of “you assume…” and “you claim…” and then all in Harry’s reasonable, friendly tone a generous formulation of a conversation between two people who want to understand an important issue. Another letter begins “Not for the sake of politeness but in the fullest meaning of the words, you should know I deeply appreciate…” and then would come “what I can’t understand is this sentence…” and he would get to the heart of the difference between himself and his correspondent, invariably confronting matters of disagreement unflinchingly. In neither type of letter is there ever rancor; a connectedness is invariably present and a sense of common broader commitment and comradeship. The content is always precise, cutting to the heart of complex issues which have been discussed by Marxists for centuries. But these letters are always fresh, immediate somehow and original, offering creative additions to the tradition in which he and many of us do our work.

Harry would sometimes stew over these letters for days and even weeks, as he did over much of what he wrote. It didn’t matter if the writer was an undergraduate, a shop militant, or a community activist. He took these questions with the utmost seriousness, giving them the importance they deserved coming as they did from fellow participants in the struggle for justice and a better world. His exposition inevitably included progressive steps in the analysis. There were also the seeming asides which begin, “While I am at it, permit me to ramble a bit….” He would then take one of those leaps which connected elements in a way one had not thought to do, that tendered often brilliant insights which had the plausibility of connections once obscure, made clear. In taking the discussion to a higher level other participants would be brought in—Michael Kalecki, Rosa Luxemburg, and others. The issue might be finance in world markets or overaccumulation and imperialism. There would be clarifications such as “in searching for roots we have to focus on the economy as a whole and the cyclical processes within finance itself,” and then always to the disappointment of the reader, “Had enough?” and some closing remark about “Please forgive these nit-picking comments,” as if this could possibly be the way anyone could interpret what he had written. Whether a letter or a conversation, contact with Harry always left one thankful and with the feeling of having been in the presence of a most unique and remarkable human being.

The hardest task Harry had was writing letters rejecting articles submitted to Monthly Review. He would put these off and be very apologetic, trying to find gentler words but finally always making clear what the ideal MR essay entailed. Its central feature was accessibility to ordinary leftists. He bemoaned the jargon-filled writing and jargon-bound thinking of so many academics who sent things in. When attacked in print Harry did not like to respond, but when he did it was usually to restate his point and make clear the critic had unfortunately misunderstood him. He would close with “I wouldn’t have written this letter except…” as if it were a small matter, and then conclude with a strong statement, clear, yet seemingly offhand, clarifying some crucial matter of politics or political economy theory.

Harry was never happier than when surrounded by young people. At the summer conferences of the Union for Radical Political Economics he would hold sessions for the children whose parents were off in workshops and begin, “What do you think your parents are off talking about?” He was always excited by their questions and their answers to the issues they themselves had raised under his guidance. Their intellectual curiosity found an outlet in his own. Sitting at the fringe of one of these sessions was to experience a lesson in dialectical thinking far more advanced than anything going on elsewhere in the camp. Harry had somewhat this same quality in the lectures he gave to college audiences. There was always serious analysis of the sort most students had never experienced. There were the clear tables and charts—data which made points, illuminating historical developments and the nature of capitalism as a mode of production in a particular conjuncture. His MR articles, of course, did this as well.

For some years Harry, his wife Beadie, my wife, and I had a theater series subscription and would take a taxi to our favorite restaurant and then go to the theater. This involved cab rides during which Harry frequently looked at the hack license, saw from the name where the cabbie might be from, and engaged him in conversation about the man’s home country. After being asked where he came from, the driver would always be surprised that Harry knew where it was and something about it. The conversation eventually got around to “Who is this guy?” I found a note Harry wrote me, in which he tells one such story in his own words of a ride where we had been discussing things.

After you left the cab on Monday the cab driver turning his head around almost 180 degrees while driving: You write history?

Harry: A little this, a little that, mainly about imperialism.

Cabdriver: (Again turning head) That is very interesting, what do you write?

Harry: I suppose you come from the third world. People there understand imperialism.

Cabdriver: Yes, I’m from Pakistan. My father was a communist, but he turned religious. He was unhappy about the way intellectuals were treated in Eastern Europe. The theology he teaches in the university is not accepted by the establishment.

Harry: He brings up social issues?

Cabdriver: That’s right. (He takes out a pencil and paper.) What are these books you wrote about imperialism?

Sorry to say I didn’t take his address so I could send him the books.

Harry went on to discuss the expression on the driver’s face and his happiness over getting to talk about imperialism with someone. I could also imagine Harry’s inner smile and his profound enjoyment in the conversation.

For many left intellectuals and activists a visit to the MR office had much of the same element and is remembered and treasured. One such reminiscence by Vinod Vyasulu appeared in the Economic and Political Weekly (June 29, 1996, if you want to get the flavor). These weekly sessions were open to anyone and on any given Wednesday there might be South African revolutionaries, American trade union activists visiting from Detroit, a future head of state, students of all sorts, professors, and writers. The mix produced incredible conversations, usually with Harry asking probing questions which brought out a great deal from all present and left them, after a time that went by too quickly, feeling that they had been part of something very important and intensely satisfying. For many years Beadie presided over dinner parties at the Magdoff home which had something of the quality of international salons in which world famous Marxists would gather for conversations that refreshed and inspired.

I suppose I should say something of Harry’s contribution to our understanding of imperialism and financial capitalism, where the impact of his work was profound and incredibly widespread. His work inspired a generation. But you know that. I want to however stress three points in his thinking which are perhaps less well understood. The first has to do with his constant references to New Deal programs, which he endorsed and thought should be pushed politically in our own time even as he was sharply critical of most reformist measures. A second concerns his strong dislike for simplistic ideas of market socialism. The third relates to the intellectual work of Lenin.

Harry often reminisced about the New Deal. This was more than nostalgia. He saw prefigurative elements of real socialism in a number of these programs. He also had watched the Roosevelt administration pushed to the left by mass movements, by working people in motion who grasped the nature of class oppression and what was to be done. In much the same way that Marx wrote in support of the Paris Commune, not to endorse a particular measure of the communards but in support of a working class taking history into their own hands.

During the 1930s and early 1940s Harry worked in a number of New Deal positions. At the National Commission on Technological Unemployment he developed productivity measures for the Department of Labor publishing technical articles in the American Statistical Association Journal and Econometrica. At the National Defense Advisory Board he put together data on industrial capacity to adjust civilian and military production. At the War Production Board he was in charge of planning and control of machinery and equipment for metal working factories, the key sector for war production. When he took charge of the Current Business Analysis Division at the Commerce Department and oversaw publication of the Survey of Current Business he guided a detailed and intimate understanding of the way an economy is put together. In all of these and other technical and policy positions he came to understand how planning could work in very practical terms. When you combine the awareness he developed in these positions with his unflinching commitment to social justice you better understand his thinking on “market” socialism. As he wrote (again from a letter), “But markets can’t tell or do anything worthwhile about people who have no money, or about hunger and misery.” The issue of how choice is made, Harry wrote, is that “either those choices are made by and for those who have good jobs and/or profits or by and for all the people.” And in response to a reader’s fear of the gulag and rigid bureaucracy of the Soviet Union, Harry first explained the Soviet experience noting that “History is…made by people under limited conditions” but that “there is no inevitable type of central planning.” He argued, “Oddly enough it was the unplanned character of the way planning was introduced in the Soviet Union that led (in fact forced) the state to adopt even more administrative controls.” He explained how this led to a military command structure. There was however no reason to think that under more auspicious conditions the outcome would be unacceptable.

Lenin is widely dismissed in some circles these days and has been disparaged by many on the left for some time. I think Harry’s appreciation of Lenin was for his serious ability to see the moving present in history and his ability to read changes in a conjuncture, their meaning and possibilities. Unlike many Leninists Harry understood the great differences between what Lenin had to say and how he thought in 1905 in What is to Be Done? and the Lenin of 1917 writing on The State and Revolution. The appreciation goes to the heart of how Harry understood theory and practice. In a discussion of one of our disagreements on Lenin, Harry offered a prefatory story about “a fellow from Pinsk insisting that his visitor from Minsk before leaving for home accompany him to observe the rabbi holding court.” The punch line was funny of course but made a point which somehow was that “Lenin still stands as a guide but not very useful unless when it helps studies of the concrete in historical development.” This same point appears in a 1988 interview with the journal Rethinking Marxism in which Harry said, “Frankly, the concept of ‘rethinking Marxism’ is alien to me. It is a non-issue. I am aware that what I am saying is contrary to what your group and your magazine are about. The aim of Marxists should not be to rehash ‘how to read Capital’ but to concentrate on ‘how to read capitalism.’ Characteristic of the Monthly Review school is its old-fashioned Marxism,” Harry went on, “that tries to understand what is significantly new about today’s world. What needs to be modernized in Marxism will come about from such study and not by rethinking Marxism as such.” In this profoundly important regard Harry Magdoff differed from many guardians of Marxism-Leninist thought. Harry, like Marx and Lenin, is to be judged by how he used an understanding of the world which is profound and finally of irreplaceable importance.

Younger friends tried to keep Harry up on events at the World Social Forum. He wrote of the anti-neoliberal movements:

The latter are wonderful. And they may get some useful reforms. But these are surface matters. What distinguishes the post-WWII decades is the growth of poverty, the large numbers of people driven off the land to supply the hopeless slums of urban centers. The reforms will help some of the people some of the time. But the pauperization and the class structure of the periphery and the drain of the surplus by the big owners, the strains between the imperialism powers are what it is all about.

Harry was impatient with the exclusive focus on today’s globalization, privatization, and neoliberalism without proper appreciation of the long history and structural nature of imperialism. In a letter from June 2002, after noting that the role of neoliberalism in the third world was hardly new, having a long history as an ideology and a practice that perpetuates dependency, he goes on to comment, “What needs explaining is neoliberalism’s growing dominance in the industrialized countries alongside the long stretch of economic stagnation.” “My take on this,” he wrote, “is to view the new (or revived) neoliberalism as a sign of the failure of social democracy. Social democracy’s role has been to put a human face on capitalism: to avoid social disorder and smooth the road to capital accumulation….” His view was that things had moved along so that “From the capitalist class’s view social democracy became less and less relevant. This failure opened the door to those who now are tearing apart, piece by piece, the earlier social progress.” All his life Harry stayed up on events all over the world.

I would like to conclude with some recent material. First to note that Harry wanted MR to do more on the ideals of socialism with the human side—Oscar Wilde, G. B. Shaw, Debs, poems by Blake and Shelley, and a contribution by one of his special heroes, William Morris—prominently represented. For the proposed collection he suggested that anarchists such as Kropotkin and Emma Goldman be included, as well as socialists. In a letter of a year and a half ago Harry wrote, “I am starting to reread Spinoza’s Ethics as part of my thinking about socialism. So I’m a nut. Let the dialectic continue.” A year ago in response to a report on a planned conference Harry wrote, “It looks great…Ach, if I were only ten years younger (even seven years). But my spirit will be there.” And so it was, and is: wherever anti-imperialists gather, Harry Magdoff will always be present.