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The Baran–Sweezy Letters Project

Nicholas Baran is the son of Paul A. Baran. He is an attorney and former computer technology journalist and writer. His article “Privatization of Telecommunications” appeared in the July–August 1996 issue of Monthly Review. He would like to thank John Bellamy Foster for his assistance with this article.

The correspondence of Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy in the 1950s and early ‘60s is one of the great, unknown legacies of Marxian political economy in the United States. Over the past year and a half, I have been transcribing all of these letters with the goal of having the collection published by Monthly Review press, both as a hardcopy book of selected letters, as well as an unabridged e-book. In commemoration of my father, Paul A. Baran, on the fiftieth anniversary of his death on March 26, 1964, we decided to refer publicly for the first time to the Baran–Sweezy Letters Project and to publish a few important and representative letters.

In discussing the letters between my father and his best friend and colleague, Paul Sweezy, the best place to start is with the first two paragraphs of Sweezy’s “Paul A. Baran: A Personal Memoir,” part of the special March 1965 issue of Monthly Review, Paul Alexander Baran (1910­–1964): A Collective Portrait:

I first met Paul Baran shortly after he came to this country in the fall of 1939. I was teaching at Harvard, and he looked me up in Cambridge, bringing with him a letter of introduction from our mutual friend Oskar Lange who was then a professor of economics at the University of Chicago.

Paul had a very powerful personality, and one could be attracted to him immediately on meeting him, just as one could take an immediate dislike to him. He and I were drawn together at once and our intellectual and personal friendship became ever closer and more meaningful to both of us during the next 25 years. As it happens, however, we never for long lived in the same locality, so that much of our discourse was perforce by written word. While he was alive I always found this deplorable. But now that he is gone I can appreciate its positive side. Up until about 1950, we corresponded sporadically and did not save our letters. But soon after he went to Stanford in 1949, we began to correspond regularly and soon discovered that it was necessary to save letters for reference and continuity. As a result I have a precious file of hundreds of his letters. He was a good letter writer and liked to “think on the typewriter.” We exchanged views on current happenings here and abroad, tried out ideas on each other and developed them through criticism and discussion. Some of his best and most stimulating thought is in these letters, and I hope in good time to publish a volume containing a substantial selection which I am confident will be a most valuable addition to his all too few written works.1

Sweezy never got around to publishing that volume, but fortunately he did save the file of letters, which amounts to some one-thousand single-spaced, typewritten pages. The Baran–Sweezy letters indeed chronicle the remarkable personal and intellectual friendship between the two men. And they also chronicle a crucial period in the history of socialist economic thought and Cold War politics: the Marshall plan and the division of Germany, Eastern Europe, the Korean War, the Eisenhower–Stevenson election, the McCarthy era and its academic witch hunt, the Soviet invasion of Hungary, the Cuban Revolution and the prospect of other revolutions in Latin America, the Sino–Soviet split, and the rise of China in the socialist world. The letters chronicle Baran and Sweezy’s perspectives as these events were occurring, without the benefit of hindsight. One of the key tenets of Marxism is to apply historical perspective to the analysis of social and economic conditions, and these letters provide a remarkable historical perspective on the events of the time. They illuminate the issues that faced supporters of socialism living in the capitalist world, particularly in the U.S. academy, but also in the country in general.

The other—and perhaps most important—thread in the letters is, to paraphrase Sweezy, the trying out of ideas on each other, and the development of those ideas through discussion and criticism. These letters quite literally represent the foundation of their book, Monopoly Capital; passages from it were taken verbatim from the letters. In them, Baran worked out his version of the economic surplus theory, which laid the groundwork for his earlier book, The Political Economy of Growth.

Converting these letters to a digital format has been a painstaking process. As Sweezy said, my father liked to think on the typewriter. As a kid, I got the impression that his “tripe-writer,” as I called it back then, was literally an extension of his person. I spent many hours at his house, listening to his typewriter’s rat-a-tat-tat. He was a two-finger typist, and basically did not believe in the use of paragraphs, but was incredibly fast considering his method. His letters were for the most part single-spaced streams of consciousness, often typed on both sides of the page, and often with a worn ribbon. The upshot of this is that most of his letters could not be accurately scanned into digital format, and so had to be retyped. Here is what Leo Huberman, co-editor of Monthly Review, had to say in a March 1950 letter to my father about one of his early submissions to the magazine: “Yours is an interesting provocative piece, which if written on 1 side of the paper, double-spaced, would be even better. However, we’re gluttons for punishment and we’ll decipher it. Particularly because it contains some excellent Baranisms.”

In addition to the typed letters, there are a considerable number of handwritten ones, which were primarily penned when Sweezy or Baran were travelling. Both men travelled extensively, often writing letters to each other on hotel stationery. Their handwriting reflected their very different personalities. Sweezy wrote neatly and legibly, reflecting a more deliberate and methodical style. Baran’s handwriting reflected his impatience, anxiously moving to the next thought, no time to worry about delineating the different vowels, which often ended up looking like a series of small sine waves. (I spent quite a bit of time with a magnifying glass trying to decipher key words in a Baran handwritten sentence, and not always successfully.)

Just as their handwriting reflected the two Pauls’ different personalities, so did the letters themselves. It is worth briefly considering their backgrounds. Baran was educated in the classic European tradition. He spoke and read Russian, Polish, German, and English fluently. He could deliver a lecture in any of those four languages without a hiccup. He also spoke French very well, and had a good grasp of Latin. He was exceptionally well read in philosophy, history, literature, and, of course, in classical economics.

Baran grew up in Russia and Germany, and lived in Europe until his late twenties, when he emigrated to the United States. Like many European intellectuals who came around the time of the Second World War, Baran had a hard time adjusting to the “American way of life,” and particularly to that way of life as exemplified in the suburban backwater of Palo Alto, California. Baran felt at home in a café in Paris, but was a fish out of water at the Stanford faculty swim club. While some European immigrants embraced American culture and sought to assimilate themselves into it, my father kept his distance, and in fact was quite disdainful and contemptuous of it. He absolutely despised the game of baseball. He had similar feelings about chewing gum, potato chips, Coca-Cola, and the abomination of American television, all of which were forbidden in his household. Because he and my mother divorced when I was quite young, she was able to allow me some exposure to these things at her home, while on the weekends at my father’s house, I was exposed to Scrabble, chess, and a regular dose of Paul Robeson records, one of his few concessions to American culture (and a good one, indeed).

Sweezy, on the other hand, was an American through and through. He got a “classic” American education at Exeter and Harvard, and also did postgraduate studies at the London School of Economics and in Vienna, eventually getting a PhD in economics at Harvard. He grew up in a venerable old New England family and was a serious baseball fan, often listening to the Boston Braves and then the Boston Red Sox on the radio. He was also a formidable scholar, with a strong background in philosophy and history, as well as being on the path to a tenured professorship in economics at Harvard, where he had a teaching position as an assistant professor, until his Marxist views got in the way. (Sweezy was never, as is sometimes supposed, denied tenure at Harvard; he resigned his teaching position with two and a half years still left in his contract after it was clear that his prospects for tenure were dim in the growing Cold War climate of the time.) One only has to read Sweezy’s The Theory of Capitalist Development, which was published when he was thirty-two-years old, to appreciate the breadth and depth of his intellect and education.

But unlike Baran, Sweezy understood American culture. He was a great admirer of Thorstein Veblen, the merits of whom Sweezy and Baran debated extensively in their letters (Baran did not share Sweezy’s enthusiasm for Veblen, at least until later when they were working on Monopoly Capital, when Baran came to recognize Veblen’s contribution to understanding business enterprise). Sweezy had a more nuanced view of the American way of life. Although he and Baran were both very critical of their colleagues in the economics profession, Sweezy was more willing to give the benefit of the doubt to those who had not yet fully embraced Marxism, but at least were on a sympathetic path. Baran was more quick to dismiss those who did not see the light as intellectually dishonest or incompetent. Sweezy generally tried to mollify Baran’s anger, encouraging him to look at things a little more dialectically. It is in fact ironic that for all his understanding of dialectics and historical materialism, Baran had difficulty applying those analytical tools when it came to U.S. society, which was also reflected in his role as a father of a child growing up in the United States, whom he in vain tried to shield from the culture around him.

Sweezy was Baran’s sounding board for his complaints about life at Stanford, about his colleagues “feeding their rhododendrons” and going off on junkets paid by the RAND Corporation in exchange for their toeing the bourgeois line, about students more interested in their suntans than in their studies. And while he may have been a bit harsh in his assessment of colleagues and students, Baran’s complaints about Stanford were not unjustified. Indeed, as Baran became more outspoken in his support for the Cuban Revolution, he was abandoned by his colleagues as well as by the university administration, which froze his salary and tried to make life for him at Stanford as unpleasant as possible, hoping that he would give up the fight and quietly resign. Ironically, as Baran neared the end of his life, large numbers of Stanford students were rallying to his cause, attending his lectures, and demanding that the University stop its harassment of him.

The Baran–Sweezy letters were an ongoing quest for common ground coming from very different cultural and educational backgrounds. And remarkably, as their friendship and understanding of each other grew, they almost always succeeded in finding common ground. Although my father was so strident and passionate about his views, and therefore expressed them frequently in very harsh terms, he would listen to Sweezy. Baran would try to moderate his tone based on Sweezy’s criticisms. And Sweezy clearly benefitted as well from Baran’s relentless demand for theoretical clarity, leaving no stone unturned. They were truly a remarkable study in the ability to disagree respectfully and to then arrive at a mutually acceptable position, a skill that seems all but lost in today’s acrimonious intellectual atmosphere. But this skill really was based on the tremendous respect Baran and Sweezy had for each other.

It is important to emphasize that these letters comprised a private correspondence between two friends and colleagues who trusted and respected each other. While they sometimes joked about their letters being published posthumously, some of the thoughts and emotions they expressed were never intended for public consumption and should therefore be read with that perspective in mind. While in today’s world, the concept of privacy is almost an anachronism, it did indeed mean something fifty years ago. But fifty years seems long enough to justify publishing these letters largely uncensored, to present as full a picture as possible of these two brilliant economists.

What follows are a few samples and excerpts from the voluminous collection of letters. They can only provide a glimpse of the remarkable intellectual and personal exchange that transpired over the fifteen-year period in which these letters were written.

But more than that of course they constitute a valuable intellectual legacy. In The Political Economy of Growth, published by Monthly Review Press in 1957, Baran had introduced the concept of economic surplus (rooted in Marx’s concept of surplus value) as a critical tool in the analysis of economic development. Baran and Sweezy’s Monopoly Capital, which they began working on even before The Political Economy of Growth was completed, was meant to rest on a broadening of the economic surplus concept to account more fully for the waste built into the very structure of a monopoly capitalist economy. These are issues that are of even greater importance today in our era of deepening economic stagnation and environmental crisis, as it becomes necessary to critique what we produce and consume and why, i.e., the use-value structure of the modern economy.

Along the way Baran and Sweezy took on many other questions, peppering the letters with a wealth of insights. In the letters published here they criticized the economic growth conceptions of their good friend, the British Keynesian economist Nicholas Kaldor, who had gone, in their view, the way of abstract model building, rather than addressing the complex and critical historical issues. They commented on the narrowing political climate in the United States represented by the attack on C. Wright Mills for being too left wing for the academy. They raised the question, via the work of Eric Fromm, of what Baran, in his article “On the Nature of Marxism,” was to call “the confrontation of reality with reason.”2 They discussed the work that Sweezy was conducting into the evolution of technology. And Baran introduces his powerful conception (revealed here for the first time) of “the heterogeneity of the historical dimensions.” It is thus the opportunity to see the birth of a general critique in the very process of its development and with the full wealth of ideas, many never before made available, that makes the whole Baran and Sweezy correspondence so valuable to the left today.

The four substantive letters between “the two Pauls,” as they were sometimes called, published in whole or in part here, are of course the ones that are most important from an intellectual standpoint. But I want to start with a different, more personal Baran–Sweezy letter, not between Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy, but written by Sweezy to me when I was nineteen years old in 1971, seven years after my father’s death. The letter says much about Sweezy himself and also about his relationship with both me and my father. At the time, I had dropped out of Stanford and was living in a small town in Austria, working at a travel agency and courting an Austrian girl I had met the summer after high school. I had become quite disillusioned with politics and had written a very strident letter to Sweezy about my disillusionment. Here was his response:

LETTER ONE: PAUL M. SWEEZY TO NICHOLAS BARAN

Larchmont, NY
June 13, 1971

Dear Nicky,

I won’t hide the fact that your letter made me very sad: you sound so much like a disillusioned old man who is not yet 20 years old! I don’t want to preach to you—I know well enough that it would do no good. I don’t even want to argue against your interpretation of the world—God knows there is plenty of evidence to back it up. What is so sad, to me, is that by opting out, by seeking what you call a “simple life with simple people,” by refusing commitment and renouncing struggle, you condemn yourself to live a diminished life, not to know or experience the things that raise humanity above the level of mere animal existence.

There is no peace in the world, you say. How right you are! What, then, is our responsibility—to look around for some little corner which is somehow protected from the storms which batter everyone else? Or to accept that there is no peace and, as best we can, struggle for a world in which not only a few people but billions of people can live in peace? But the revolutionary movement which proclaims such aims is repugnant to you. It is full of opportunists and ego-trippers, dishonest people and especially leaders who want to use it to get a bit of recognition and prestige. Quite so. And there would be much more you could say in criticism. But let me assure you that it is not the same movement that existed ten years ago, not to mention twenty years ago when for all practical purposes there was no movement at all. It has changed, and there is every reason to believe that it will go on changing. Perhaps in the long run you would get more satisfaction from changing it into something you could respect and creatively participate in. (The fact that you so thoroughly dislike it as it is today proves that you have an idea somewhere in your head of a movement you would like and approve of.)

You don’t know whom to trust or whom to believe, and the implication is pretty clear that you doubt that there is anyone worthy of your confidence. How do you know? Your experience at 19 cannot be so extensive as to give you that assurance from personal knowledge. Have you read and studied so much that you are satisfied you know about and understand all the movements and all the leaders in the world who claim to be as disgusted as you with the status quo but who are involved in efforts to change it? For example, what do you know about the Chinese Revolution, and especially its latest phase the cultural revolution? What do you know about Mao-Tse-Tung? Are you certain that the excitement which many—including Harry [Magdoff] and me—feel as we study developments in China is merely a form of self-deception? That our dawning conviction that China proves, as the USSR did not and indeed probably never had a chance to do, another kind of society radically different from capitalism and other class-exploitative societies to be possible—that this dawning conviction is irrelevant and silly?

I said I wouldn’t preach, and I’m afraid that’s just what I’m in danger of doing. In closing let me ask you to read again and think about carefully [your father’s essay] “The Commitment of the Intellectual.”3 What would Bibi’s [my name for my father—N.B.] life have been like if he had not believed in and lived up to that most eloquent and truly noble credo. If he had opted out when fascism overwhelmed Europe and gone, let us say, to New Zealand to find a little peace and quiet? You can probably imagine the answers as well as I can. Actually, he has had a great impact on the revolutionary movements of the world, especially in Latin America and increasingly in all the other countries of the Third World. He believed in something, he struggled for it, and he lived—not a happy life—that is more than we even have a right to ask when billions live in misery and starvation—but a meaningful life. At any rate you should be proud of him, one of the all-too-few great men in this poor (spiritually, not materially) country in the middle years of the 20th century.

And my other plea to you is on a different level: don’t let yourself become a vegetable. Use your head. Read and think and study. Probe deeply into history and politics and philosophy. You are too young to decide what your whole life will be. Keep open the options. If and when, for whatever reason, you ever decide you want to pursue a different course, be prepared to do so. By this, I don’t mean go back to college: that might make sense under certain circumstances, but it is not the only possibility. Most of us in the radical movement—and believe me, that doesn’t necessarily mean conforming to one of your pseudo-revolutionary stereotypes—have had to educate ourselves to a very large extent. Far from being a burden, it is one of the rewarding experiences of growing up (or getting old).

If I preached after all, it is only because I love you and cannot bear to think of you as an old man at 19. If only I were that age again and know what I do now. Wow! Would I change the world!

You don’t mention in your letter your Freundin [Austrian girlfriend]. Does all go well in that department? I too once had an Austrian girlfriend, a Wienerin, of whom it was said, “das ist eine alte Geschichte dass die Elsa die schoenste Frau in Wien ist.” [It’s an old story that Elsa is the most beautiful girl in Vienna]. Maybe not quite, but she was the most exciting thing I had met up to then (age twenty-two), and I will always remember her with gratitude. Give your lady a Kuess from me, and do write again and forgive me for being what must seem to you so un-understanding.

As always,

/s Paul

LETTER TWO: PAUL M. SWEEZY TO PAUL A. BARAN

Handwritten
Wilton, NH
November 25, 1956

Dear Paul,

Just a note after finishing reading Kaldor’s lecture at Peking which he thinks of as the outline of a whole theory of economic development. What really astonishes me is the “propensity” of these guys to play around with a few formulas—which are at bottom mere tautologies—and then to draw all sorts of grandiose conclusions from them, conclusions which merely reflect their ideological preferences anyway. Savings = investment and total demand = total supply. Capitalists’ spending is not tied to current income, workers’ spending is. Total production can’t increase faster than technical progress and population growth permit. Capitalists’ investment depends on the rate at which they expect the market (= total production) to expand. Throw in a few implicit assumptions about the initial distribution of income between wages and surplus, and believe it or not, you have a theory of economic development. What’s more, they want to reduce Marx to their own level. He had some formulas too, and they will show you how his can be transformed into special cases of their own “more general” formulas. So, lo and behold, Marx is a special case of Kaldor and everything is reduced to a level of pure banality.

Let us take a firm resolution to write a whole book without a single formula. Formulas are the opium of the economists, and they acted that way on Marx too. Vide the chapter on the falling rate of profit which tries as hard as any of the modern stuff to squeeze knowledge out of tautologies.

The real problems, it seems to me, are:

(1) To get a good working idea of what is surplus, and for this the first essential is to understand that it is related only indirectly to ordinary distribution of income data. Lots of wages are paid out of surplus, i.e. whole categories of workers absorb surplus—likewise whole “industries” like advertising and finance. The trouble is that this creates really very tricky problems and paradoxes. One has to go back to classical-Marxian ideas of productive and unproductive labor and adapt them to modern conditions and (if possible) statistics. This is a crucial branch of theory which does not exist for the Keynesian and other neo-classics.

(2) Analysis of the production sector. (The generation of surplus). The institutional capitalist—laws of operation, relation to class structure and behavior, etc. Price policy, wage policy, technological compulsions etc., etc.

(3) Analysis of the unproductive sector (absorption of surplus). The different categories of “absorbers”: luxury consumers, unproductive “industries,” government, etc., including complex transfer relations [e.g., public benefits].

(4) The interactions of the productive and unproductive sectors—full of unexplored problems. In an underdeveloped capitalist economy, e.g. it might do to assume that wages and profits in the unproductive sector are determined in the (much larger) productive sector. But obviously that won’t do in an economy like that of the U.S. today in which the unproductive sector may well be larger than the productive.

(5) The crucial contradiction, i.e., that “working well” for a system of this type means, indeed necessitates, a growing departure from the possible attainments of the system’s resources (in human, natural and technological terms) in the line of welfare, abolition of exploitation, freeing civilization from the poison of wealth fetishization, etc. What we have is a progressive degradation of civilization instead of its progressive improvement.

Oh hell, these are only some of the problems, but anyway, they are serious. If only one could get the time and environment to work seriously on them. But I see no prospect. Time is chopped up, the intellectual environment is hostile, the world reflects all too accurately the trends of the capitalist system (which unfortunately all too easily infect the socialist societies which are still susceptible because, basically, they are so goddamn poor and will be for a long time to come), and one’s personal life is almost inevitably all mixed up.

As you probably inferred at the outset, Nicky [Kaldor] is around Cambridge now, which is how I happened to see his Peking lecture. He is clever enough but incorrigibly superficial. He sits around pontificating about what’s been happening to U.S. capitalism, and the sad truth is that it boils down to the ideological picture which such organs of Big Business and Fortune would like to put across. By contrast, C. Wright Mills is an intellectual giant—and a breath of fresh air. But if C.W.M. is the best we can point to as a theorist of U.S. capitalism, what a commentary on present-day social “science”!

Oh, well, enough of that for today. I’m working on the MRS [Model, Roland & Stone] project [on technology] and hope to be able to sketch out in a few days a comprehensive (though of course very un-detailed) view of the “industrial revolution” we want to analyze.4 As I see it now, to identify it with “automation” or any other such catch phrase is quite misleading. What is really at the bottom of it is a quantitative increase in the application of really scientific methods and principles to industry which has produced a qualitatively new result—one of those jumps of which Engels was so fond. The prototype was probably the chemical industry and the production of synthetics, with Germany (and I.G. Farben) as the true parent. Then the war gave an enormous stimulus. Electronics, which pre-war had been virtually coterminous with radio, began moving into many fields, and it is from this that automation gets its start. But the application of scientific methods has gone way beyond that and has at last become an institutionalized feature of the economy. Chemicals, of course, continues to be a leader, but metallurgy—which had up to now always been a purely empirical art—is now in the act. What they call “solid-state physics” is beginning to give a theoretical basis for metallurgy and thus to introduce the era of “synthetics” here as it was earlier introduced in the chemical industries. Nuclear physics is also playing a crucial role, though relatively it has probably been over-dramatized somewhat in recent years. Still, the future importance of fission, and even more of fusion, power is certainly revolutionary in its own right.

One can organize all this in several ways. E.g. one can distinguish new materials, new methods, and new products. (It is important, I think, not to talk of new “industries” because this tends to make one look for new firms—historically, the two always went together—and this is just what we will not find in an era of huge diversified combines.) I would like to give examples of each, show how they originated, and how the categories overlap. Also indicate some of the main probable lines of development in the next decade or two.

I haven’t thought much about relating all this to the overall economy, but I imagine that could be more or less put into conventional terms.

Now that my ink has given out, I guess I’d better sign off.

Love, /s Paul

P.S. The Hungarian situation gets to look worse and worse from all points of view, it seems to me, what a really dreadful business it is.

LETTER THREE: PAUL A. BARAN TO PAUL M. SWEEZY

Los Altos, CA
November 28, 1956

Dear Paul,

Before departing to the campus at 1 o’clock, I finished the first reading of the galley proofs [of The Political Economy of Growth] and stepped out to the mailbox to find your letter of November 25th. The hurricane of thoughts and more or less dim emotions provoked by both, the book and your letter, was blowing through my head during the entire day filled with a seminar in which a moronic student held forth on a moronic subject, with office hours in which a dozen or so of representatives of our jeunesse dorée [i.e., Stanford students] came to inquire about the courses which they should or should not take next quarter, and with a department meeting in which my colleagues debated ad nauseam how much mathematics should be considered a minimum requirement for a Ph.D. In the corridor, on my way home—or rather to see Nicky [Baran], my more or less steady dinner companion—I ran into the Chairman of our Sociology Dept., The Honorable Professor LaPiere—a personally very friendly individual who brags about—among other things—never reading a newspaper, and learned from him that his Dept. has a $12,000 p.a. [per annum] professorship in Sociology (just freshly endowed by Ford) and is unable to find anyone to take it. I said “why don’t you try C.W. Mills, he has a mediocre job in Columbia College (not Graduate School), is an interesting fellow and might be tempted.” LaPiere looked at me with some astonishment, shrugged his shoulders and said: “But Mills is not a sociologist, he is a Marxist.

The one-gulp perusal of my book [The Political Economy of Growth]—I read it in two very long evenings plus one morning—has made upon me a very complex impact. Having reached now a certain minimal distance to the thing, I have the feeling that it is not a bad job. It has faults, and the most important of them is that it covers too much ground and by so doing deals too sketchily with a number of things. In particular this applies to the first part concerning Monopoly Capital.5 The basic points are o.k. the accents are properly placed and the crucial problems are at least brought into the open. If it had a chance to be read by a friendly audience, it could perform even a function of stimulating discussion, of steering people to the right kind of questions, of pushing Marxist thought on Mono.Cap. off its dead center and into a deepened consideration of what we both agree is the crux of the matter: the generation and absorption of the economic surplus (Incidentally, I like this formulation very much!). But in the hands of official economists. God only knows what the reaction will be, or perhaps it is only too clear what it will be!

There is, furthermore, one trouble with it that is glaring: its vocabulary and its emotive tone! But what in hell does one do about it? As far as the former is concerned, the possibilities of using an Aesopian Language are unfortunately very limited. Should one not speak of “bourgeois” economics, not mention “capitalism,” “imperialism,” “socialism?” And how does one avoid then sacrificing contents to sticking to an academically sanctioned language? As far as the latter is at issue, matters are more complicated. It is my individual, characterological shortcoming. I happen to be too emotive in everything, and therefore in writing, I don’t know how to be detached (and to do something at the same time!) and I do feel bitter about the superficiality, smugness, opportunism, cowardice or outright stupidity of the so-called profession. And what you call “the hostile intellectual surrounding” is contributing undoubtedly its large share to this pent-up aggression by continually kindling it, by giving it fresh fuel every day, by remarks such as the one above of LaPiere, by the feeling of being surrounded by people with whom one has not even a language in common. And this aggressiveness against all of this does two things at the same time: it chokes one’s productivity and channels whatever remains of it into what becomes an angry outcry.

I am making a few—not extensive and not expensive—changes in the proofs, and hope to be done with all of it within the next few days. I understand from the original time-table that the thing is not due back until December 18th; I will have it back no later than end of next week. I have to write a preface, and to go over the text once more. And thereafter habeant sua fata libelli [leave it in the hands of the reader].

I noticed that [Erich] Fromm formulates an idea which I have had—as you may remember—for a long time; the distinction between reason and intelligence, between intellectuals and intellect workers, the phenomenon of what I always thought of as the “High IQ imbecile”:

We must differentiate between intelligence and reason. By intelligence I mean the ability to manipulate concepts for the purpose of achieving some practical end. The chimpanzee—who puts the two sticks together in order to get at the banana because no one of the two is [not] long enough to do the job—uses intelligence. Intelligence, in this sense is taking things for granted as they are, making combinations which have the purpose of facilitating their manipulation. Reason, on the other hand, aims at understanding; it tries to find out what is behind the surface, to recognize the kernel, the essence of the reality which surrounds us” (The Sane Society, 169–70).

And this is precisely where the dog is buried, this is exactly what makes it well nigh impossible to talk to the Kaldors & Co.: they think only in terms of intelligence (of which they usually have a lot); they think never in terms of reason. They always take things for granted, always scratch merely the surface, always refuse to look for the essence. And the more sophisticated among them, the “philosophers” of sorts, rationalize this attitude by logical maneuvering and by “proving” that there is no “meaning” to the notion essence. Incidentally, this is where the real distinction lies between those who Marx considered to be great economists and the “vulgar” ones. For it is not decisive whether those who are devoted to reason necessarily agree with you; what matters is that they are concerned with looking for the essence of things, that they are not content to merely manipulate surface phenomena. One can have a meaningful discussion with them; they may see the essence in different processes than one happens to see them oneself—as long as they do not take everything for granted they are intellectuals and not sycophants! The trouble is that all those one has to deal with are precisely the latter: they take everything for granted, and there is nothing to talk to them about, except if—just to maintain some human intercourse—one descends to their own level and talks to them about their stuff. This, I think, applies to what you say about Kaldoriana and the formula game. In the formula game they can display all of the “intelligence” and the less they want to go into the essence of things the more they have to demonstrate their manipulative skills so as to be considered great men. And the greatest manipulator among them will be always held in greatest prestige—a Hicks, a Samuelson et tutti quanti [and all the rest]—for the more manipulative capacity; the less use of reason, which is precisely what is needed for the education of the young.

All of this fascinating and terribly important, perhaps that is where the nub of bourgeois ideology and culture is located. The thing that is absorbing me now is the question to what extent the same business appears in the East [i.e., the socialist bloc]. They want to shift all of their education etc. to technology and such. If (a tremendous “if,” to be sure) their society is én principe at least reasonable, if it is o.k. to take their basic structure for granted, everything is allright. I was for a long time of the opinion that such is the case. Is it? I still am strongly inclined to this view, for I still believe that its essence (nationalization, planning, etc.) is rational. The disturbing feature is really whether the human beast with its psycho structure is not part of the essence. In other words: I may have written or spoken to you earlier about the following idea: I call it pompously the “heterogeneity of the historical dimensions.” To wit: the political change (setting up a new regime via revolution) goes very fast. Industrialization much more slowly. Suitable reorganization of agriculture even more so. The transformation of the capitalist or even pre-capitalist man into a conscious, understanding, honest citizen of a socialist society may last not generations but centuries. It is actually this unevenness of the developmental processes that creates the entire mess. But isn’t this unevenness part of the essence of matters? Marx himself had clearly an inkling of all of this, his remarks about the socialist society emerging from the womb of the capitalist society and many others are clear indication of it. But didn’t he in his general overestimation of the tempo assume a much lesser heterogeneity of the dimensions? Didn’t he believe that what is at issue are years, while in fact it looks more like decades and ages? On this there is much to say, and much to think.

All that is in your letter in re: the study of mono cap. is wholly in agreement with my own notions. And what you say about the prospects or execution is unfortunately too true also on this end. The miserableness of personal existence in all of its elements has much to do with this dimness of outlook. I am sure that even this hick-up of a book that I produced would have never been possible were it not for the presence of Dorothy here [apparently a female companion of my father’s no one seems to know about and of whom I have no memory—N.B.]. With her around I was at least moderately able to work. With my little Nicky being my only, repeat only, human contact, I get completely stymied, have no energy for anything and stare at the desk instead of doing something. It is all phantastic but nevertheless true. And no prospect whatever to mend matters, certainly not in this rathole! At the same time a strong feeling that there is so much that could be said, needs to be said—if for no other reason than to “live oneself out,” to let one’s energies, one’s thoughts, one’s minimal abilities not strangle one.

[The rest of the letter, dealing with various mundane details, has been omitted.]

Love

/s Paul

LETTER FOUR (EXCERPT): PAUL M. SWEEZY TO PAUL A. BARAN

Larchmont, NY
December 16, 1961

Speaking of Poland reminds me that I had a long interview with [Polish economist Zygmunt] Zielinski on Friday, mostly on opus.6 He is an intelligent fellow and I think understood what I was telling him. Where he kept asking questions was on a point that I am sure will be the sticking point for many of our professional colleagues: how do you define socially necessary costs which are to be deducted from total production in order to arrive at the amount of surplus? Is it what costs would be under a regime of competition? But how do you know what they would be, if that is your solution? And if you say that socially necessary costs are those which would obtain in a rationally planned society, that doesn’t help much either because presumably the composition of output would be very different in a rationally planned economy. I’m afraid I wasn’t very successful in answering him.

Maybe the best way out is to think in terms of the technologically efficient production of the actual output with the given organization of the economy, making allowance [in the surplus concept] only for that part of production which is evidently and obviously motivated by sales considerations rather than by utility considerations. The trouble is that in a full-fledged monopoly regime, God only knows the mixture of motivations, and in any case one doesn’t like to define anything by such shifty and shaky subjective criteria. I wish one of us could come up with an elegant solution of this problem: it is certainly the toughest theoretical nut in the whole basket.

LETTER FIVE (EXCERPT): PAUL A. BARAN TO PAUL M. SWEEZY

Palo Alto, CA
December 19, 1961

Of the crux nature of the Zielinski problem I am (and, as you know, I have been) fully aware. A number of things need to be remembered. First, one should avoid mixing up definition or rather definability with measurement. I can speak meaningfully of suffering, joy, oppression, exploitation, domination, or even of my liking Mozart more than Irving Berlin without being able to answer the question, “how much?” and “how much more?” Secondly, the insistence on clear-cut definitions is in itself perhaps a trap barring further progress of knowledge. Because a really adequate definition presupposes your complete mastery of what is being defined. If we could fully and neatly define “cancer” or “mental disorder,” we would eo ipso know all about them. The physicists still cannot really define the smallest particle (apart from the formal statement that it must be the smallest) or for that matter electricity—which does not prevent both the physicians and the physicists from working with heuristic hypotheses (quasi-definitions) in order to arrive at more adequate ones.

Translated into the terms of the surplus, all one can say, I think, is the following: Society has at its disposal a certain volume of potential INPUT. The size of this INPUT is determined (a ) by the natural wealth of the country in question; (b) its available capital stock; (those two things in the short run because in the long run they are both subject to change), and (c) x hours of labor (the latter depending on customs, mores etc. with regard to working age, length of the working day, vacations and holidays allowed and what have you). One could add (d) if one wanted to: scientific knowledge, managerial and organizational talent and so forth.

Now we have two clear-cut facts: (a) part of this potential INPUT is not being utilized although in the case of material items it couldbe utilized: and in the case of humans would wish to be utilized; (b) the INPUT yields a certain kind (volume & composition) of OUTPUT. Ideally, both the INPUT and OUTPUT should be expressable in physical, direct, non-market terms. This cannot be done for obvious index number reasons (attempts to do it in labor unit terms work only under most simplifying assumptions vide Sraffa; otherwise some unit of measurement has to be employed and it comes down to price).

Now a further difficulty of which Ricardo, Marx ét tout le monde are aware: in order to compare INPUT and OUTPUT they have to be rendered comparable in a basic qualitative sense (for what sense is there in asking whether 5 hours of work is more or less than one salami?). Therefore labor input is simply set equal to sum total of wage goods eaten up by the laborers. With this adjustment made, a difference can be struck between society’s actual INPUT and its actual OUTPUT. This difference is the actually observable SURPLUS. The POTENTIAL SURPLUS is this actually observable surplus plus such output as could be produced if the unused potential INPUT were put into operation. (Again with the provision that there are social limits to the length of working year, economic limits to the usability of some inaccessible natural resources or obsolete machines etc.)

This potential surplus is, however, only potential surplus ceteris paribus, i.e. within the capitalist system. The moment we move away from the capitalist system the whole thing begins to shift because both Inputs and Outputs change. It is therefore very hard, if not impossible, to identify the magnitude of the potential surplus under capitalism using criteria from outside capitalism. But do I have to, except for developmental planning under socialism within the first few years? It cannot be repeated often enough that the economic surplus as we use it is not a positive but a critical concept, a tool of analysis with the help of which one should be able to see clearer the fetishistic obfuscations of capitalism rather than make NBER type calculations.

It is not uninteresting in that connection that the “uninstructed man in the street” understands this aspect of the matter very much easier than the hairsplitting because ideologically befogged economist. The economic surplus in socialist not in capitalist terms is the sum total of OUTPUT imputable to misused INPUT—and by “misused” I mean here exploited in the Marxian sense, wasted in our sense, unemployed in the Keynesian sense. This share of output is constantly growing under monopoly capitalism. Question: what do you mean by wasted? This they all know perfectly well (again, nobody in his senses in a u/d c [an underdeveloped country] will ask that question!) and if they ask it’s only to create a diversionary movement. More specifically it is all output that is not conducive to and not required for the health, happiness and development of man. Who is to decide what is so conducive and so required? Man himself when society permits him to think, to choose with his head and with his heart rather than be chosen for by other people’s neither heads nor hearts but pocketbooks.

To give a complete, statistically calculable and comprehensive definition would demand our knowing the structure, the tastes, the volitions of man in a socialist society. This was refused by Marx, this we still have to refuse today, although certain developments in the Soviet Union (particularly in the field of education) as well as certain aspects of the New Program permit now some concrete glimpses. Again: critically and negatively: no air-conditioned nightmares like Chase Manhattan Bdg’s, no motorized monsters to the tune of 60 million, no rape of the country by superhighways and billboards, no., no., no. It should be all neatly figured out and aggregated with the help of nonexisting and unknown prices?

Just like asking Einstein to give an exact calculation of an A-Bomb impact at a time when he was working on his relativity theory. They want to get from the Statistical Abstract the data for the socialist economy and society—which is nothing but a negation of the essentialnovelty of that society.

Notes

  1. Paul M. Sweezy, ”Paul Alexander Baran: A Personal Memoir,” Monthly Review 16, no. 11 (March 1965): 28.
  2. Paul Baran, “Crisis of Marxism? Part II, On the Nature of Marxism,” Monthly Review 10, no. 7 (November 1958): 261.
  3. Paul A. Baran, “The Commitment of the Intellectual,” Monthly Review 13, no. 1 (May 1961): 8-18.
  4. Model, Roland & Stone (MRS) was an investment banking firm, member of the New York Stock Exchange, and had contracted with Paul Baran, while he was a staff economist at the Federal Reserve Bank in 1948, to write articles for its client newsletter, coincidentally and ironically entitled “Monthly Review.” Baran had recruited Sweezy to help him with the articles and they split the fee. The project referred to here resulted in a fifty-page MRS booklet written entirely by Sweezy and published anonymously a MRS report in 1957 under the title The Scientific-Industrial Revolution.
  5. This refers to the subject of Monopoly Capital (often abbreviated “Mono Cap.” in their letters), and not to the title of their book, published some nine years later.
  6. Baran and Sweezy referred to their future book Monopoly Capital as the “opus.”
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