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Two Pauls

Howard J. Sherman is Professor Emeritus of Economics at U.C. Riverside, Visiting Scholar in Political Science at U.C.L.A., and a founding member of the Union for Radical Political Economics. He has published over twenty books and 150 articles, including The Roller Coaster Economy: Financial Crisis, Great Recession, and the Public Interest (M. E. Sharpe, 2010). This article was greatly improved through editing by Barbara Sinclair and Lisa Sherman.

In 1957, when I was young and thought I knew everything, I was just about to go to graduate school in economics. Then I read Paul Baran’s The Political Economy of Growth.1 I immediately sent him an eight-page, single-spaced review of his book. I said that I liked it very much, but had some questions about it. Paul wrote back asking me to become his research assistant and study at Stanford. Unfortunately he could pay so little that it covered only half the tuition. I could not afford it.

I went to University of California, Berkeley, because it was a cheap alternative. I did visit Paul about once every two weeks. He welcomed me because his colleagues had isolated him due to their fears of the witch hunt. The reason he had offered me so little was that Stanford would not give him more money for any purpose. Paul had tenure, but the alumni were angry that he was not fired for his outspoken opposition to U.S. imperialist aggression against Cuba.

We had wonderful discussions, I asked questions and Paul gave amazing lectures on every issue. It was paradise for a graduate student.

He said so much in a session that it took me a couple of weeks to digest it.

One day, when I was there, a knock came at the door. There were two men in grey suits with neat briefcases who asked Paul if they could come inside. He said no because he had a visitor. So they asked him to step outside. He stayed outside for about twenty minutes, then came back in laughing. When I asked him what he was laughing about after a conversation with two men who must have been from the FBI, he told me that they were indeed from the FBI and that they had accused him of espionage for the Polish government.

I gaped and asked, “Why Poland?” Paul said that he had asked them the exact same thing. They said that they knew he had spent seven hours talking with an agent of Polish intelligence on such and such a date. Paul said, “I don’t remember that; who was the person?” The FBI agents said “Oski Lini” or something like that. Paul asked them to spell it. It was Oskar Lange, one of the most famous economists in the world! That was the reason for the laughter.

Paul helped me with my dissertation topic. Based in part on the framework of analysis being developed for Baran and Sweezy’s Monopoly Capital, I wrote a dissertation called “Profits in the United States: Economic Concentration and the Business Cycle.”2 Once, when I showed a chapter to Paul, he said, “That is too much math and statistics; you should write so that people can understand it.” I have remembered his comment ever since. Almost all my books and articles have been as clear and simple as I could make them.

As a result of my attempt to follow Baran’s advice, one report to a university press said that my writing was too simple, but went on to say that it was “persuasive.” I think every radical economist should work hard at being as clear and simple as possible, while working on the hardest problems. The object of radicals should not be to impress colleagues with their brilliance. Rather, the purpose should be to communicate important views to as large a grassroots audience as possible.

I cannot remember where I first met Paul Sweezy. The first thing I remember was when he was introduced at a lecture he gave at Berkeley. The graduate student who introduced him simply said, “He is the discoverer of the Kinked Demand Curve.”3 This is an odd-sounding concept but it describes the particular price behavior shown by oligopoly firms. Sweezy looked very bemused for a moment because he had left that early article far behind. It was a silly way to introduce a great Marxist economist, but it made sense to the graduate students. Many economists at that time considered the concept to be very important in the study of monopoly power. It means that an oligopoly firm will follow its competitors in raising prices, but seldom follows them in lowering prices.

I met Paul Sweezy in person only five or six times, usually for dinner. He did not know it, but he did me a big favor once by getting remarried at Baran’s house. Sweezy’s brother, who was an economist at California Institute of Technology, attended the wedding. Baran mentioned that I needed a job, so I got an invitation to submit my resume to Cal Tech. I did get a job at that school as a result.

In Monthly Review, Sweezy once mentioned that he thought my book on Profits in the United States was the best available on that subject. As a young Assistant Professor, this made me very pleased and happy.

The most important thing, however, that Sweezy did for me was to write his book, The Theory of Capitalist Development: Principles of Marxian Political Economy.4 That book had an enormous influence on me, as it did on a whole generation of radicals. It particularly shaped my notion of how to approach the problem of capitalist recessions and depressions, which has been the largest part of my work.

I can only remember one private exchange we had by letter. I was calling the Soviet Union at that time a “socialist dictatorship.” I had been using a very narrow and unproductive definition of socialism as a purely economic system. Paul pointed out that democracy is the essence of socialism. There cannot be true democracy without socialism, nor can there be true socialism without democracy. I agreed and that has been my view ever since, strongly stated as often as I can do it.

Perhaps I should speak of the three Pauls, rather than only two. Paul Robeson was a very important model for me. He was extraordinary at many things, including acting, singing, sports, and political activism. I met him only once up close and personal. His wife, Eslanda Goode Robeson, was an anthropologist, who was doing a study on African-American churches in Chicago. I volunteered to drive her around, and so I was able to speak with her for a week or so.

One evening she asked me if I would be willing to pick her up and have dinner with her and Paul at their apartment. Would I! I was a young college student who worshipped Paul Robeson. I swore that I would remember every word said at the dinner, but I have forgotten all of it. I remember only that his hands were far larger than mine, though mine are not small. And I remember the warm feeling as he treated a young white man as a friendly equal.

Lastly, I named my son Paul in honor of all three Pauls.

Notes

  1. Paul A. Baran, The Political Economy of Growth (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1957).
  2. Later published as Howard J. Sherman, Profits in the United States (New York: Cornell University Press, 1968).
  3. Paul M. Sweezy, “Demand Under Conditions of Oligopoly,” The Journal of Political Economy 47, no. 4 (August 1939): 568-73.
  4. Paul M. Sweezy, The Theory of Capitalist Development: Principles of Marxian Political Economy (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1942).
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