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Sweezy in Perspective

This is the foreword to a collection of Paul Sweezy”s essays translated into Bengla, Paul M. Sweezy, Bishshaayan Natoon Keechhu Noy; Nirbaacheeto Prabandha (Globalization is Nothing New; Selected Essays), edited by Farooque Chowdhury (Dhaka, Bangladesh: Shrabon Prokoshani, 2008).

Paul M. Sweezy was, in the words of his contemporary John Kenneth Galbraith, “the most distinguished of present-day American Marxists.”1 A Harvard-trained economist, his writings spanned some seven decades from the early 1930s to the closing years of the twentieth century. For more than half a century he was coeditor of Monthly Review, subtitled An Independent Socialist Magazine, which he founded along with Leo Huberman in 1949. Although first and foremost an economist, Sweezy was also a social scientist in a much broader sense. His impact on political science, sociology, history, and other disciplines was profound. He took the entire globe as his field of analysis, helping to enlarge our understanding of imperialism and of the necessity of revolution, particularly in the third world.

One way in which to place Sweezy’s enormous contribution in perspective is to relate it to that of Joseph Schumpeter, who played a formative role in his development as a thinker. Schumpeter has often been compared to Karl Marx and John Maynard Keynes in terms of his breadth of vision and impact within economics. In 1932, Schumpeter left the University of Bonn in Germany to take a position at Harvard University in the United States. In fall 1933, in his second year of teaching at Harvard, he met Sweezy, who had obtained his BA in economics at Harvard in 1932, and was then returning from a year at the London School of Economics to pursue a PhD at Harvard. Despite the wide divergence in their political views (Schumpeter was a conservative strongly opposed to the New Deal) the two immediately became fast friends. For two years in the mid-1930s Sweezy was the teaching assistant in Schumpeter’s first-year graduate course in economic theory.

Sweezy had become radicalized (not all at once but gradually, as he used to say) in the early 1930s as a result of his stay in London, when he was introduced to Marxism for the first time—and due to his attempts to grapple with the significance of the Great Depression. Probably because of this interest in Marxism, he focused from the first on the question of monopoly and oligopoly, and played a leading role in the development of imperfect competition theory, constructing the famous

kinked-demand curve of oligopolistic pricing. He was also profoundly affected by the publication of Keynes’s General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money in 1936. Along with a number of Harvard and Tufts economists he wrote An Economic Program for American Democracy in 1938 in response to the deep recession of 1937, which occurred before the United States had fully recovered from the Great Depression, raising the question of economic stagnation.

Sweezy’s work, however, took a remarkable turn in 1942 with the publication of The Theory of Capitalist Development: Principles of Marxian Political Economy (the title was meant to reflect back on Schumpeter’s The Theory of Economic Development), based on the lectures for his Harvard course on the economics of socialism. This set him well outside the mainstream of the profession, while establishing his reputation as one of the foremost Marxist economists of the twentieth century. As Schumpeter observed in his History of Economic Analysis, Sweezy was an “accomplished theorist,” who had authored “the best introduction to Marxist literature I know.” Elsewhere he called The Theory of Capitalist Development “a masterly exposition of the Marxian system of thought.” Schumpeter saw Sweezy, along with Joan Robinson, as “the outstanding examples” of those “economists of high standing” that were attracted to Marxism in this period.2

Schumpeter and Sweezy frequently debated capitalism and socialism. A famous debate on “The Future of Capitalism” between the two friends in the winter of 1946–47 in Harvard’s Littauer Auditorium (with Wassily Leontief in the chair as moderator) was later to be memorialized by Paul Samuelson (winner of the first Nobel Prize in economics) as a time “when giants walked the earth and Harvard Yard.”3 Schumpeter himself had adopted Marx as an intellectual model of sorts in developing his famous theory of entrepreneurial capitalism. Like Marx, although with a decidedly conservative bent, he sought over the course of his career to develop a theory of the origins, development, and decline of capitalism. As Sweezy observed in his editor’s introduction to Schumpeter’s Imperialism and Social Classes, this resulted in the creation of a broad “‘Schumpeterian system’—comparable in its scope to Marxian social science, though not to Marxism as a whole.” Schumpeter sought throughout his work to provide what he, as Sweezy notes, “might have called a ‘reasoned history’ (histoire raisonnée)” of capitalist development—a trait that he had singled out in Capitalism, Socialism, Democracy as distinguishing Marx’s economic approach.4

Taking his lead from Schumpeter, but within a framework derived from Marx, Sweezy was to provide such a reasoned history of capitalist development from the 1930s on—a project that he continued with amazing consistency up through the late 1990s. In tracking the historical development of the system, he focused over the decades on what he saw as the three dominant historical trends altering the course of capital accumulation, briefly summarized in his final article, “More (or Less) on Globalization,” in September 1997 as: monopolization, stagnation, and financialization. Sweezy and his Monthly Review (MR) colleagues led the way in the examination of all three of these core phenomena, which have successively transformed the economic reality in which we live—in such works as Monopoly Capital (coauthored with Paul Baran) and Stagnation and the Financial Explosion (coauthored with Harry Magdoff). In tracing the dominant trends of capitalism, Sweezy rejected the now commonplace emphasis on globalization as the driving force behind the changes at the end of the twentieth century. Rather globalization, in his terms, represented a much longer historical process, going back to the system’s origins. The most important economic transformations in an increasingly globalized capitalism were to be explained not by globalization itself, but by more fundamental changes in accumulation in the center of the system, and by the interface between center and periphery (i.e., the changing context of imperialism).5

In addition to his historical analysis of capitalism’s underlying laws of motion, Sweezy sought to uncover the logic and evolution of what he called “post-revolutionary society,” depicting the origins, development, and decline of Soviet-type regimes. A concern with both the nature of capitalist development and the transition to socialism led him to engage in historical investigations into the birth of capitalism, launching the famous debate on the transition from feudalism to capitalism. His thoroughgoing critique of modern imperialism, which he saw as a manifestation of the global contradictions of the system, made him an influential thinker throughout the third world. In the 1970s and ’80s he wrote perceptively on ecological questions (in such pieces as “Cars and Cities,” “Capitalism and the Environment,” and “Socialism and Ecology”).

Sweezy’s reasoned history of capitalism was not—as he was the first to admit—a product of his efforts alone. As is often the case with pivotal intellectual figures who collaborate closely with others, Sweezy’s name came to stand in at times for the contributions of his nearest associates, some of whom advanced Marxian political economy in ways as profoundly as he did, and without which his own contributions would have been impossible. The founding of Monthly Review by Sweezy and Huberman in 1949 gave rise over the years (as Sweezy explained in his January 1994 article “Monthly Review in Historical Perspective”) to a kind of “informal collective” of Marxist thinkers, extending beyond those included on the masthead of the magazine: of which Baran, Magdoff (coeditor of MR from 1969 to 2005), and Harry Braverman were undoubtedly the most important. Monthly Review became a focal point for the development of imperialism, dependency, and world-system theories, as exemplified in the work of such thinkers as Oliver Cox, Baran, Magdoff, Sweezy, Andre Gunder Frank, Samir Amin, and Immanuel Wallerstein. From the beginning, MR’s explicit goal, Sweezy wrote, was “the ambitious one of using Marxist methods, historical and economic, to understand what was going on [in the present as history] and to take positions consistent with a commitment to socialist principles.”6

Looking back in 1994 on the entire period following the Chinese Revolution of 1949 (the year MR was founded), Sweezy observed that the second half of the twentieth century had been dominated by the world counterrevolution of capitalism, putting socialism on the defensive for most of this period, and culminating in the defeat by the 1990s of the major post-revolutionary societies and socialist movements throughout the globe. Nevertheless he warned against despair. “It would be foolish,” he commented,

to underestimate the seriousness of the defeat the opposition [to capitalism] has suffered, but it would be even more foolish to conclude that it is dead. The truth is that it is alive even if not well, and the fact that the conditions…that gave rise to its existence in the first place continue to operate, only more so, guarantees that it will stage a comeback as new generations of exploited and oppressed take the place of those who die or retire….We can only do our best to explain what has happened up to now and help the new upcoming generations to understand what changes are needed if the human species is to survive into a decent future. And, of course, hope for the best.7

Today, a mere decade and a half later, socialism is once again showing signs of renewal as a world-historical force, while the exploitative and crisis-laden nature of capitalism is more evident than ever. Imperialism and war abound, threatening annihilation to people throughout the world. The ecological damage of capitalism is now widely perceived as planetary in scope and can only get worse within the confines of the system. World inequality and hunger are on the rise.

Under these circumstances, the work of Paul Sweezy offers to new upcoming generations both a reasoned history of capitalism and a set of tools with which to carry out a reasoned revolt against the system in the struggle for a better world.


  1. John Kenneth Galbraith, The Age of Uncertainty (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1977), 78.
  2. Joseph Schumpeter, History of Economic Analysis (New York: Oxford University Press, 1954), 392, 884–85; Richard Swedberg, Joseph A. Schumpeter: His Life and Work (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1991), 140.
  3. Paul Samuelson, “Memories,” Newsweek, June 2, 1969, 84; Robert Loring Allen, Opening Doors: The Life and Work of Joseph Schumpeter (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1994), 171. See also John Bellamy Foster, “Remarks on Paul Sweezy on the Occasion of his Receipt of the Veblen-Commons Award,” Monthly Review 51, no. 4 (September 1999): 39–44.
  4. Paul M. Sweezy, “Editor’s Introduction,” in Joseph A. Schumpeter, Imperialism and Social Classes (New York: Augustus M. Kelley, Inc., 1951), xii–xiii; Joseph A. Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy (New York: Harper and Row, 1942), 44; Paul M. Sweezy, “Economic Reminiscences,” Monthly Review 47, no. 1 (May 1995): 9; John Bellamy Foster, “The Political Economy of Joseph Schumpeter: A Theory of Capitalist Development and Decline,” Studies in Political Economy 15 (Fall 1984): 3–42.
  5. Paul M. Sweezy, “More (or Less) on Globalization,” Monthly Review 49, no. 4 (September 1997): 1–4.
  6. Paul M. Sweezy, “Monthly Review in Historical Perspective,” Monthly Review 45, no. 8 (January 1994): 1, 3.
  7. Sweezy, “Monthly Review in Historical Perspective,” 7.