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An Interview with Harry Magdoff

The twentieth anniversary issue of Monthly Review in May 1969 carried the announcement that Harry Magdoff—the independent economist-had officially joined Paul Sweezy as co-editor, replacing Leo Huberman, who had died in 1968.

Born in 1913 in the Bronx, son of a house painter, Magdoff attended the City College of New York where he became a member of the Social Problems Club and editor of Frontiers, the club’s monthly periodical. In 1932, he traveled to Chicago to attend the founding conventions of the National Students League and the Youth League Against War and Fascism. On that trip, he married fellow New York student Beatrice Greizer (familiarly known as Beadie, to whom he has been married ever since). He was editor of the NSL’s national publication Student Review in 1932-1933. After being expelled from City College for his activism, he attended New York University, receiving a B.S. in economics in 1936. He accepted a position in Philadelphia with the Works Progress Administration’s national research project, for which he conducted studies of the labor force, unemployment, industrial capacity, and productivity. In 1940, he moved to Washington, D.C., to take charge of the civilian requirements division of the National Defense Advisory Commission. After U.S. entry into the Second World War in 1941, he served with the War Production Board. Near the end of the war, he was the chief economist in charge of the Current Business Analysis Division at the Department of Commerce, where he oversaw the Survey of Current Business. He spent his final years in government as special assistant to Secretary of Commerce Henry Wallace. In 1948, he was summoned before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Unemployed, he returned to New York, where he took various jobs, sometimes anonymously, in financial analysis and insurance before joining the staff of Russell & Russell, a publisher of scholarly out-of-print books, between 1959 and 1965. Magdoff returned to the fore as a public Marxist intellectual with “Problems of United States Capitalism,” an essay in The Socialist Register 1965, edited by Ralph Miliband and John Saville (London: Merlin Press). Widely recognized for his economic analysis of imperialism, Magdoff is the author of The Age of Imperialism (1969) and Imperialism: From the Colonial Age to the Present (1977), and co-author with Paul Sweezy of the Dynamics of U.S. Capitalism (1970), The End of Prosperity (1977), The Deepening Crisis of U.S. Capitalism (1980), Stagnation and the Financial Explosion (1987), and The Irreversible Crisis (1988), all from Monthly Review Press.

The following interview was conducted by Christopher Phelps in New York City on September 20, 1998.

Youthful Radicalism

Q: I thought I’d begin, Harry, by being a little unfair to you and reading from an old piece of yours.

Magdoff: That’s a terrible thing to do!

Q: See if you can guess when this was written: “Very often, particularly in the classroom, imperialism is defined as the policy of a government aimed at conquering or controlling foreign territories…In its attempt to be all-inclusive, to take in all attempts at conquest, this definition excludes the key to the understanding of each. It covers everything but explains nothing. There is a difference between the colonial annexation by highly developed monopoly capitalism searching for markets and raw materials, and the colonial projects of slaveholding Rome.”

Magdoff: That’s from The Age of Imperialism, isn’t it?

Q: It’s from the Student Review in 1932.

Magdoff: No!

Q: Absolutely. Sounds like Monthly Review, doesn’t it?

Magdoff: I just can’t believe it. I thought it was from the book.

Q: So the germs of your thought were present way back then. How did you become a radical? I take it your parents were not, particularly…

Magdoff: No, they weren’t, but I lived in an environment where m was not strange. When the Russian Revolution took place—the first revolution, the Kerensky revolution—the family had relatives on the Lower East Side whom we were visiting, half-sisters of my father. We went by elevated train. The train was a madhouse. There were people with bottles of whiskey, drinking and singing. It was all, “Down with the Tsar!” Normally, how would an American boy, age five or so, have any consciousness about the tsar and the fact that this was something to celebrate?

Secondly, the First World War. My uncle was called, and to my mother it was like her son, almost. After the draftees got their papers, they were supposed to come together for reporting. It was in a schoolyard, and I was with him. I saw women crying—sweet-hearts, mothers. In one case I heard of a mother who couldn’t come, because she couldn’t take it.

So the idea of war and revolution was all part of my experience in the immigrant community.

Q: Then, at City College, you became more of a conscious and organized radical?

Magdoff: No, I was already radical. I had read a lot of Marx by the time I got to City College: the Critique of Political Economy, the Manifesto, and a great deal more.

The popular notion about students in the twenties was that they drank the hard stuff to excess and wore raccoon coats. By accident, I landed in the high school English class from which the editors of the following year’s school newspaper were to be chosen. Among our assignments was to write an editorial. I wrote one contrasting student riots over social issues in Hungary-maybe Romania, I can’t recall- with the indifference of U.S. college students to poverty and politics. The teacher and I got along well. He had read Veblen and asked me to talk about Veblen to the class. But at the end of the term, when the editorial staff of the next term was announced, the class expressed surprise that I wasn’t listed for any position. The teacher apologized: “Can you imagine the editorials Harry would write?”

I think the determining element in my radicalization was the demonstration of the unemployed in Union Square in March 1930. The fact that I went there shows an inclination, an interest. The experience, however, was overwhelming. The square was mobbed, crowded with gaunt-faced people, dressed as you might expect people in poverty to dress. They listened quietly to the speeches, applauding and shouting from time to time. Then a speaker roused the crowd to a high pitch and urged that all march down to City Hall. As the crowd began to move, mounted police appeared. With billy clubs, they beat anyone within reach ruthlessly on heads, arms, and shoulders. Blood splattered. I ran like hell.

Q: What were the circumstances of your expulsion from City College?

Magdoff: Well, in the early thirties, the change among students was startling and sudden, not a revolution but a transformation, a rapid growth of student political activity. That was where my politics grew. As I remember, those of us in the Social Problems Club at City College decided to put out a magazine called Frontiers, and I became editor. My first article was about the dangers of fascism, when the Nazis got their first big vote in the election. We sold it for a nickel. It got to be very popular on campus, and we sold large numbers. We just barely covered our costs. Not like Monthly Review! You know, we’d take it one place and they’d do something for us, and we’d carry the type someplace a little cheaper—that sort of thing. It was also the Depression years. People cut prices. I don’t remember the details, all I know is that we didn’t have the deficits that I’ve known later in my life!

Q: Ah, the carefree days of youth.

Magdoff: That’s right. What happened was, you were supposed to get approval to have a publication, we didn’t, and they suspended the club. We checked, and we found that the Democratic Party club had a paper, and they never got the formal approval of it. We complained, but that did nothing. So a group of us got together, I think at my house, and we wrote a leaflet telling what had happened and protesting it. I headed the leaflet, “Stop Whistling in the Dark.”

I used the idiomatic expression incorrectly, but it was appropriate for getting people’s attention! We distributed it at the subway and at the school. That was a violation, and we were then suspended.

We could only gather again, after a period, with a faculty advisor. None of the teachers we approached wanted to be faculty advisor, partly because it was a nuisance, but more likely because they did not want to displease the bureaucratic college administration. Finally, somebody in our gang said, “Why don’t we ask Morris Cohen?” Morris Raphael Cohen, the philosopher, was God to most of us. Some of our group went to him and he said yes, on one condition: that the meetings be held in his presence at his room during his lunch period. This room had many glass bookcases filled with medieval documents, it seemed to me. His desk was on a small platform. He sat and ate his sandwiches while we had our meetings. His sandwich came in a brown bag with grease spots, just like my mother’s, the same kind of sandwich: an omelette or something like that in a roll. He would slowly chew on a Mallomars cookie. I can still visualize it. We stood, we talked, we discussed affairs of the world—and he’d never open his mouth. He sat as if he was listening to what we were saying. He never read but seemed to pay strict attention to momentous debate, which he probably disagreed with. It was an impressive experience, and of course consistent with his firm belief in the freedom of speech.

Now, I don’t remember all the events that led to our expulsion. At some point the administration did something we th6ught so unjust and arbitrary that we wanted to rouse public attention and, of course, public support. We rented a big hall and conducted a trial of the City College president, Robinson, and other college officials. We named our own judges—I was one of them—and our prosecuting attorney, and invited the school to have equal time for reply. They didn’t come, of course. We had a wonderful, packed meeting. Got lots of publicity. Shortly thereafter, a number of the activists were asked to come to a meeting of the board of trustees, who asked a lot of questions about the trial and then expelled us.

Q: I see. And then you went to NYU?

Magdoff: I wasn’t going to go any place, but my mother was very unhappy. She had never been to school, taught herself to read, was highly intelligent, and had an inordinate respect for education. Over the years, she had squirreled away some housekeeping money, enough to pay for a semester at NYU.

New Deal Days

Q: In the late 1930s and early 1940s, you held a number of positions in various agencies in Philadelphia and Washington, eventually rising to serve as assistant to the secretary of commerce. Did you feel at all ambivalent, as a Marxist, about working for the government?

Magdoff: No. You have to understand, in the thirties, getting a job was a great achievement. The lines were long for taking civil service jobs—as post office workers, statistical clerks, et cetera. If a Marxist got a job with a government agency, he was a lucky stiff. He was the one who paid for the coffee. When I got a job with the National Research Project, it meant a decent wage and, mirabile dictu, a challenging problem to solve. You sat in an office supplied with research materials and were paid every week to sit and think about why there was so much unemployment. Who needed heaven?

Not all the jobs in the government were the same, of course. It was a capitalist, imperialist government. Being part of a police force that broke up picket lines or stood by the roadside watching a Negro being lynched, or being a marine who helped keep “order” in Nicaragua— these, too, were government jobs. But there were jobs in government during the New Deal where one could be actively engaged in getting a better distribution of welfare, aid in getting electricity to rural areas, help restore the soil, and fight for decent social security and unemployment insurance. All this, besides the many who were fortunate to get clerical jobs to feed their families.

Q: Tell me about the kinds of things you worked on in the New Deal years.

Magdoff: Well, my first job was to design and construct measures of labor productivity. This was in 1936, when the government had been spending large sums on public works, outright relief, and WPA jobs. Washington expected that in addition to the direct good this spending would do to help people, it would serve to prime the pump, to get the economic system back into shape. But the priming wasn’t doing much good. Unemployment remained high. Could the culprit be technology, that fewer people were needed to keep production high? Hence the need to study technological changes and productivity. Over the years, economists had constructed different formulas that might be used to measure productivity change in the leading manufacturing industries. Too often they were more interested in the mathematics than the subject. I adopted a different approach, focusing on the purpose of the measurement, so that mathematics became a subordinate tool. The purpose at the time was to measure employment opportunities under different conditions of volume and com- position of production. From this, it followed that different products were to be compared according to the amount of labor time taken to produce them. This was a novelty, a marked departure from the usual approach of comparing products according to the value added. How else would conventional economists think in a market system where money is the measure of everything? Yet here we wanted to study the question from the point of view of labor, which meant that different products would be measured by the man-hours of labor required, and not by profits, advertising, cost of machinery, et cetera.

Needless to say, the labor theory of value is another matter. What interested me on this occasion was that contrary to the standard practice of the economics profession, labor time can be a logical and useful measure. When I wrote this up in an article for the Journal of the American Stati5tical Association in 1939, I concluded by pointing out that if the purpose of studying productivity was not unemployment but to ascertain how much a given labor force could produce to meet the needs of the people, then the design of the productivity index

I would be very different. I was so pleased with myself to have introduced a socialist idea in a stodgy, technical journal! I doubt that more than five or six readers recognized what I was getting at.

I never got the chance to test productivity measures in a socialist-directed society, but I did get involved in central planning regarding machinery for metalworking plants, a critical bottleneck in military production shortly after the United States entered the Second World War. To the extent that there was a half-assed attempt at planning, it was concerned with supposed equity between different branches of the military. But this bureaucratic approach prevented the airplane factories from getting rolling, because even though they had plenty of Type A machine tools they lacked Type B. On the other hand, there were tank factories with a reverse imbalance. As a result of some work I had done on metalworking machinery factories, I was called in to try to find a way to coordinate the supplies and production. To get the program underway, I felt that consensus rather than force of law was the way to go. Interestingly enough, the manufacturers, the clerical workers, who had to supply information fast, and the War Production Board officials created few obstacles once they under- stood our aims. The only serious friction came from representatives of the military services. I remember to this day the fairly high-ranking naval officer who couldn’t understand the need for coordinated planning and bitterly complained, “But doesn’t water seek its own level?” This is not too different from the cries we hear half a century later from so-called market socialists, with their varying degrees of faith in the efficiency and equity of a market allocation of resources.

When Cold Winds Blew

Q: Given all that you’ve said, the postwar period, especially 1948 onward, must have been devastating.

Magdoff: It was very hard for us. We had nothing-no re- serves-and two children. Beadie got a job teaching, part-time at first, then full-time. They badly needed teachers of the retarded. I had work, but always a little of this, a little of that. Nothing certain, nothing sure. Finally, I got a job for $75 a week and came home with a box of candy. It was a big deal.

The job was the craziest kind of thing: sales promotion manager for a television company that produced programs. I asked the boss, “How come?” He knew about my being hounded politically. He said, “I could get you cheap.” Then, when I went on Wall Street, I told the boss that there had been a lead story on the New York Times front page about me at one point, and he might be visited by the FBI. He said, “I don’t care, as long as you can make money for me.”

I hated Wall Street. I just hated it.

Q: Why doesn’t that surprise me?

Magdoff: Finally, I had to solve an insurance problem for some- body, and I was able to solve it. The insurance people were impressed, so they asked me to come to work for them as an insurance broker. Well, that at least was a more honorable job to me. People needed insurance. I didn’t care for it, but at least I was doing something useful.

Magdoff 61

We managed, and we also had an interesting life. We met new and interesting people—Leo Huberman, Paul Sweezy, Paul Baran, Stanley Moore, Hube, Wilson, Carl Marzani, Annette Rubinstein—with whom we became the best of friends. There were also, meanwhile, grand juries and lawyers, and a lot of tension involved. Newspaper stories. The kids were involved. Beadie was called down to the Board of Education. We didn’t have what some of the radicals had: the backing of an organization. Going to the committees and the juries alone is a very tough thing, and people who had a party affiliation of some sort had a support group. We had friends, and also the family, who didn’t necessarily agree but were supportive.

Our fortunes changed with Russell & Russell. The company was facing severe financial constraints, and the owner came to me for advice, and I said, “You need money.” I put a little money in which came from my work on Wall Street. That’s what made me independent. As soon as I could, I quit. Atheneum bought us up. So in about eight years, we went from poverty to a modest level of independence. And I wouldn’t have done it if it hadn’t have been for the goddamned committees.

Q: Were you reading Monthly Review from the beginning?

Magdoff: Oh, from the very first issue. I found it on a newsstand on 42nd Street near the library. I couldn’t afford a subscription, but every month I would go to 42nd Street. The proprietor had very thick glasses, and on his stand was everything from allover the world, and everything political. You’d meet CPers, Trotskyists, anarchists, Zionists, and plenty of nice eccentrics. There were always people around that you could talk with. That’s where I’d get my Monthly Review. I fell in love with it for three reasons: it talked about socialism, a taboo topic at the time; it declared itself independent, beyond the control of any party; and the language was clear and simple. These things gave it a quality that was altogether different.

Imperialism and Underdevelopment

Q: One of the distinguishing characteristics of the magazine, and your work in particular, has been the economic analysis of imperial- ism. How would you say that the position of you and others in the MR group-Baran, Andre Gunder Frank, Samir Amin, and so forth_1on imperialism and underdevelopment differed if at all substantially from the socialist analysis of imperialism earlier in the century?

Magdoff: It would be hard for me to answer that. The distinguishing thing, it seems to me, in terms of imperialism was that our position was without a sort of arrogance of the left. Among Marxists, party people, and so on—and I don’t just mean CP but Trotskyists and so on—there was always a feeling that “we know best,” you see. The position of MR was a closer identity psychologically, a way of thinking, with the third world. I don’t know whether it was a question of anybody influencing anybody else, but we came together a lot because we thought the same way. It’s not that we were better, but that it was high up on our thinking and our agenda, to this day.

Q: How do you think the particular propositions of the MR school stand up? In particular, I’m wondering about the argument that development in the third world was systematically stymied.

Magdoff: Industrial development? You are justified in raising that point, but I don’t think that was what was most important about the MR position. If anything, the most important part was that development in the periphery was, as Gunder Frank put it, the development of underdevelopment.

Our thesis was that it was in the interest of the first world, of the capitalist centers, to have the colonies or semi-colonial areas as

preserves to make profit. If profit could be made by putting a factory there, you did it that way. If profit was to be made by controlling agriculture, you did it that way. You then got in the third world a comprador group who benefitted from their connection to the first world, and who kept development from taking place, especially in agriculture. You did not have an independent bourgeois class that was ready to make a revolution or do whatever was necessary to become the ascendant class in society. The ruling class was usually a combination of different elite groups. The landlords played a very important role, as did the comprador capitalists. So the class composition of these countries worked against development.

In my articles later issued as The Age of Imperialism, I showed how aid and debt creation created persistent balance of payments problems and debt peonage. These, together with currency devaluation, which The Age of Imperialism also explained, are strategic factors in the current economic crisis in Asia. I am not claiming the mantle of prophecy for MR, rather, proper recognition of MR’s record of understanding the lasting bonds of the third world, even the most successful countries; the quarter century of stagnation in the advanced capitalist world; and the international financial explosion.

Engaging with the Third World

Q: People use the phrase “third worldism” to describe the politics of MR One thing that is sometimes said on the left about the magazine is that it neglected class struggles within the imperialist centers—within the United States, for example—in the misplaced belief that struggles in the periphery were going to eventually solve the revolutionary problem. Actually, in rereading the magazine, I don’t think that criticism of the magazine stands up, with a few exceptions. There has always been attention to labor and internal struggles within the advanced capitalist countries.

Magdoff: There’s always been. The accusation of “third worldism” comes, I think, from two sources. One is that much more attention was paid to third world situations and third world struggles by MR than by any other publication on the left. In other words, you found out more. There was more space devoted to it. The other is that to us this is where the struggles were taking place. It wasn’t the fact that we knew what the next step in history was going to be, or that we expected, as some believed, that the periphery would surround the centers of capitalism. It’s just that this was important, and this is where the struggle actually was.

We did have articles on labor whenever there was something that we felt was worth publishing. But within the left there were those who felt that this was third worldism, and they accused us of saying that everything was in the third world. We felt that we were reporting what was happening, what we thought was important. The fact is that there Wa.5 a Cuba, there were things happening in China that were very different, and, of course, there was the Indo-Chinese war, and so on. I think this is also a distinguishing feature of Monthly Review—it had to be. Our aim was to deal with reality. We didn’t speculate about the future. We had our hopes, but we weren’t about to forecast the future. Our task was, and remains, the analysis of the real world.

Q: How do you now think about the range of armed struggles in the third world for which the magazine had enthusiasm? Some now say that the left rather uncritically invested hope in a whole series of such movements, hope that turned out to be unwarranted. Things certainly haven’t panned out in quite the way that the magazine wished.

Magdoff: I don’t think that it is up to the left to judge whether it is warranted or unwarranted when people are in struggle where there is tremendous poverty, misery, and little hope, and in the process either make mistakes, or don’t make the best decisions, or are misled by opportunists. It is a natural phenomenon, to be expected. History does not come easy.

What we are talking about is a process of liberation which involves not merely a mechanical formula. It involves a way of life, a way of thinking, and there s a great deal of suffering in the process, problems, that cannot be solved. It’s very complex, and you’re going to get these kinds of problems. It’s our job to study and to see and to understand what the forces were. But to judge? It’s wrong. Marx at one point says that there will be many revolutions and wars and defeats before the working class learns how to be a ruling class. And that’s it. History takes a hell of a lot more work, comes with many more setbacks, than we expect.

Q: What’s also meant by “ third worldism”—and this I think you’ll agree is true—is that there was a Maoist component to the editors’ thinking.

Magdoff: Oh, there was a Maoist component. There’s no question about it. There were things that Mao said that we felt were major contributions to Marxist theory and to understanding of the problems of the third world, to this day.

Q: Yet at the same time you opened the pages of the magazine to people who weren’t Maoist at all. For example, Trotskyists or people who came out of Trotskyist backgrounds: Isaac Deutscher, Ernest Mandel, Adolfo Gilly, Hal Draper, Grace and James Boggs, and, more recently, Michael Löwy and Alan Waldo. Nowhere else on the Maoist left would you find that, and rarely on the Trotskyist left.

Magdoff: No. I got a letter from a member of the Maoist party in Norway. “My friends,” he said, and I’m sure he includes himself in that, “agree that there’s a lot of good stuff in Monthly Review. But it’s also a bit reformist.” We don’t go with Mao all the way. [Laughs.]

I think the point that you’re making is a very important one, and it needs to be recognized. One of the things that attracted me to Monthly Review from the beginning was its non-sectarian character. I think sectarianism was inbred in the history of socialism in the United States and elsewhere, and it was very harmful. Now, that doesn’t mean that you just accept every idea and everything goes. But you don’t have a strict line and say, “You don’t cross my line, or you’re wrong.” That’s what appealed to me very strongly in Monthly Review.

Isaac Deutscher to us was a very important intellectual, a great man. I didn’t agree with him on a number of things, but he was someone you had to listen to and respect. Mandel, also. One of the nicest things Mandel ever said to me was when I was complaining, “Let’s not kid ourselves. Our circulation is very small.” “Harry,” he says, “Die Neue Zeit had only thirteen thousand readers!” Well, of course, Germany was much smaller than the United States! But the fact that he would put it in those terms impressed me very much.

Reflections on Maoism

Q: What do you draw upon in Mao still?

Magdoff: To me, the important thing is a different view of development and socialism, one that puts a very strong emphasis on consciousness as a factor in overcoming the competitive spirit, which is not something that will happen overnight. It might even take centuries, but you have to work towards it. You have to think and be conscious of it.

Also the fact that there’s always the tendency toward the formation of strata and classes, if not in Marx’s sense of classes, at least group interests different from the masses’ interests. You have to fight against that, have constant revolution, be conscious of it and struggle, not accept it as the firm established state, the one perfect way of doing things.

Then the strong emphasis on the peasantry, and the role of industry associated with the peasantry: “walking on two legs” as a principle.

There is also his critique of the notion that the development of the productive forces is the most important thing-that element of Soviet development, whether it came from theory, self-interest, or both. Of course, you’ve got to develop the productive forces. You go to China, and you see someone sitting on a roadside chiseling on a piece of stone with a hand chisel, and you think how many hours and days he’s got to do it, when it could be done so easily. The productive forces are important to lighten the work and to get more product out of it for the people. But if you emphasize them to the exclusion of productive relations, then you go away from socialism. Privileges start to develop.

These, to me, are very important elements of Maoism. Now, you can find things in Mao, start looking again, analyze his every word, and so on-but these ideas are strictly important.

Q: I take it, then, that you disagree with the criticisms of the Cultural Revolution prevalent today?

Magdoff: The attempt in China to move the high school students and college students to the country sounds arbitrary. And it’s true, it is. There’s no other way of doing these things. The point is the city people looked down on the farm people, didn’t under- stand what hard work was like and what their life was like. On the other hand, farm people needed that education. In many cases, there’s no question that students were misused. There were all sorts of problems. But there were other areas: they instituted a speaker system and they learned about work.

Anything that you do on a mass scale is going to have complications and contradictions. When terrible things happened, it was the result of doing things before there was preparation and program. You have to have the institutions for it. It doesn’t come by itself.

Now, I’m not defending everything that happened. I’m not saying that disasters did not occur for one reason or another. But the approach, the thinking, the ideas are fundamental socialist ideals that apply to the third world and should be applied to the first world, too, which has not been uppermost in the thinking of the Communist Parties. In that sense, Mao’s words are not a Bible, but the ideas are fundamentally important. His criticism of the Soviet book on economics was very important.

Now, you say “politics are in command,” and then you get people who are members of the Communist Party but are no good, and so you get their politics in command. It’s not a question of the Communist Party, but of the particular individuals that are involved, the particular clique that happens to develop. That’s all part of it, part of the complexities of a developing society. But the idea of putting politics in command, that it’s not productive forces but productive relations, is democracy-not in the classic sense, but democracy. One of the big things in the Cultural Revolution was that people began to talk. They got to speak up against their leaders. It was a new thing altogether. It failed, for all sorts of reasons. But the idea that you can speak up is very important.

Q: I see that anti-authoritarianism of the Cultural Revolution as being very contradictory, because at the same time there was a tremendous cult of personality around Mao and a great amount of arbitrary authority in his hands.

Magdoff: There’s no question that it held them up. I’m not justifying it, because I really don’t know what happened. Some of the Maoists have explanations of that: that it was not Mao’s doing, and so on. I don’t know whether that’s so or not. In the turmoil, a revolution was produced. In the revolution, a lot of evil came out, and various forces that had been repressed came into conflict with one another, came out into the open. And it didn’t work. There wasn’t a preparation for it. But at the same time, there was a challenge, a challenge to the intellectuals. There were intellectuals who were tortured, and some of them were badly treated. Some of it was very stupid, very terrible. It’s a big country with a lot of people in it, so many things happened at the same time. But something fundamental happened, and I think that the attitude of peasants and intellectuals differed toward the Cultural Revolution.

So it’s not a question of taking a position for or against. I wouldn’t even think in those terms. I think it needs examination, study, to be seen from different angles. And the positive things in it, I think, are very strong. Democratic ideas were introduced, even though authoritarianism was in control. The idea that you can challenge the leaders and question what they say, even though democracy was suppressed, opened things up for a period.

Black Liberation and Socialist Feminism

Q: I want to ask you about two features of the sixties radicalization, black liberation and women’s liberation. It’s interesting to me that in both cases, the issue is important to the magazine, yet it’s sometimes hard to chart precisely the magazine’s position. For instance, starting with Oliver Cox, then James Boggs, and more recently writers like Cornel West and Manning Marable, the magazine has always had relationships with Marxist black intellectuals.

Magdoff: Not enough, in my opinion.

Q: That seems true, too. Still, relationships, which I think both parties have found valuable. How would you summarize the nature of the magazine’s thinking on the question of black liberation? One of the big divides in black thought has been between nationalism and integrationism—at least that was how it was framed in the fifties and sixties. Yet the magazine’s position seems to transcend that. There’s support for revolutionary nationalism in some respects, but an openness to black and white working hand-in-hand together.

Magdoff: That’s a good point that you make.

Q: Let me read from a Review of the Month, “The Old Left and the New,” published in the same issue that announced you as editor, May 1969: “What a distance we’ve come in a few short years! In place of the reformist old left which dreamt of uniting whites and blacks under a single leadership and achieving its aims through pressure politics, we now have a new left which understands and accepts (1) the necessity of revolution and (2) that at least for the foreseeable future whites and blacks must organize separately while struggling together.”

Magdoff: I think that passage, written by Paul, is important. That’s the difference between Monthly Review and party publications, and the way party publications operate: “There’s only one correct way, and we know it.” What’s reflected there is what happened in the struggle itself.

SNCC itself started out as black and white together. The black activists found, in terms of their own experience, that they had to have their own organization. Paul and I in our practical experience, in our activities, took the same position. The responsibility of whites is to support the black struggle, not to lead it. Moreover, to respect the wishes of African Americans on how they wish to organize. Who knows what forms the struggle will take in the future? But we do know from the past how swiftly whites tend to dominate, for all sorts of reasons, because of the long history of hierarchy, educational differences, organizational experience, and a deeply ingrained sense of being second-class citizens. I think what happened in the striving for self-direction came from experience in the struggle, not from a preconceived theoretical position.

I don’t remember whether it was covered in “The Old Left and the New,” but to me even cultural challenges were important in the sixties. It didn’t come from us, but they raised questions about bourgeois culture that were never raised by the left in the past, as such. I don’t mean that at some point in Greenwich Village around the First World War they weren’t raised, but they were raised by a certain kind of people, not people who were in the struggle. For all the criticisms of the new left, the new left had something to say which was very important.

Q: Now, what about socialist-feminism? I’m curious if you remember how you got that Margaret Benston article, “The Political Economy of Women’s liberation,” published in September 1969.

Magdoff: Oh, I got it. I was up in Canada, at Simon Fraser University. Margaret Benston was wonderful. She was a chemist and had a marvelous point of view. I said, “Write it up,” and she sent it. She was part of a circle in which Kathleen Gough was very important.

Q: Gough wrote frequently for the magazine in the seventies.

Magdoff: She was a fighter and a good anti-imperialist. She wrote a very good article on colonialism, imperialism, and anthropology which we published in MR. I asked her to come to one of our anniversaries, and she gave a wonderful speech.

Q: The Benston article had an extremely wide influence at the time.

Magdoff: It had a big influence, yes, though strangely we were very criticized by people who thought that we didn’t write enough about the women’s question. My argument was, “Get us the articles that would be useful for us.” We didn’t see ourselves as getting involved in the detailed criticisms between the various feminists, on levels we didn’t understand. We felt that a lot of it became infighting among intellectuals, with nothing of substance. But we were ready to, and did, publish pieces. Not enough, but we welcomed it.

Capitalism and Stagnation

Q: A hallmark of MR’s economic thought has been the theory that “stagnation is the normal and natural condition of monopoly capitalism,” as you and Paul wrote in “The Economic Crisis in Historical Perspective” in April 1975. The MR school seems distinguished from other theorists of stagnation, like Alvin Hansen, by its emphasis on monopoly as the causal factor. Why is monopoly the cause of stagnation? And how can the theory account for increasing competitive pressures since the 1960s from Asia and Europe?

Magdoff: While I share the view that stagnation is the normal and natural condition of monopoly capitalism, MR has no “party line” on this issue. Speaking for myself, for example, I do not believe that the specter of stagnation was absent in earlier stages of capitalism. It should go without saying that an inner dynamism is an outstanding feature of capitalism, and that its growth is spurred by new products and technological advances. In time, however, the stimulus provided by each innovation peters out. New incentives are needed. But there is no certainty that enough innovations will come along for new or expanded enterprises to provide jobs for the growing labor force and for workers displaced by speed-up or new technology. Without the stimulation of innovation, capital investment, profits, and the economy as a whole slow down—stagnation. It’s the threat of that eventuality that leads the ruling class to seek special development factors to support capital accumulation, new markets and new areas in which to invest, for example. An outstanding factor which counteracted stagnation tendencies from the earliest days of capitalism was the conquest and penetration of non-capitalist territories.

Why, then, the argument that stagnation is the normal and natural condition of the monopoly stage of capitalism? To follow the reasoning on this point, it is important to see that much more is involved than the behavior of individual corporations. Monopoly capital is closely associated with a number of historic changes during the latter part of the nineteenth century. It is an integral element of what might be described as a climacteric in the maturation of industrially advanced capitalism.

The 1870s and 1880s witnessed a universal lengthy stagnation. This was also the time when younger industrial powers reached the point where they could challenge Britain’s hegemony. Accession of colonies accelerated. Three times as much territory was acquired by the industrial powers from 1870 to the First World War as in the previous seventy-five years. The key attributes of the new imperialism be- came clear in the last part of the nineteenth century: strife among the powers for colonial acquisition, intensified competition in each other’s markets, and the emergence of financial markets challenging Britain’s dominance.

Along with this sea change in capitalism, as both cause and effect, came a major leap in the concentration of capital. The giant corporations which emerged in those years acquired the ability to control major shares of their markets. To maintain that control and strive for a larger share while keeping profits high, they competed in ways different from the price-cutting of the previous stage, competitive capitalism. The structure and strategy of these huge concentrations of economic power changed in accordance with the requirements of the new ways of competing, a focus on protecting their assets from predators, and the growing importance of finance as a weapon of defense as well as offense. Thus, instead of investing in internal growth, which would contribute to overall economic growth, they may devote their resources to destroy or buy up weaker rival firms. Sometimes, of course, they take the lead in expanding capacity and creating jobs. But that is only one of a range of choices, many of which contribute to the onset or prolongation of stagnation. This can clearly be seen these days in the expanding contribution of financial operations to the profits of major industrial corporations, and in the allocation of corporate and banking resources to the mad rush of mergers and acquisitions on an international scale.

This is all a way of saying that equating monopoly with stagnation is too simple, in my opinion. One has to see the matter in historical as well as theoretical perspective—in a perspective that reaches to the roots of imperialism as well as to today’s globalization.


Q: As you know, Harry, the virtues of the market are no longer sung by the University of Chicago economics department alone. In the past few decades the market has come to pervade the thought and practice even of many thinkers and parties of the left. You have criticized market socialism as “a nice, humane, regulated capitalism”—a chimera. But I take it you believe the market cannot be avoided even under genuine socialism, though it should be subordinated to democratic planning, especially in allocation of basic resources and investment.

Magdoff: Yes, I think it is important to distinguish the market from a market system. The market, as an institution to distribute consumer goods in a complex society, will no doubt exist for a long time to come. A market system is, of course, something else. When guided by profit maximization, the market becomes the allocator of resources: raw materials, machinery, and construction goods. The market system serves to reproduce the arrived—at allocation of resources and sustains the prevailing distribution of income. But what is a socialist society for, if not to radically change the allocation of resources to meet the wishes and needs of the people?

Even the market function will not necessarily be the same in all societies. I was intrigued when walking through a Shanghai department store at the time of the Cultural Revolution to see separate displays of left-hand and right-hand gloves. The reason: why waste consumers’ money and textiles by making people buy a full pair if only one glove is lost or damaged? That, of course, flies in the face of bourgeois logic.

Q: In “A Note on ‘Market Socialism,’” in May 1995, you distinguish national planning from bureaucratic central control. How could national plans be determined democratically?

Magdoff: I don’t think there is a necessary and inevitable connection between central planning and bureaucratic control. A bureaucratic state will use planning in its own fashion. But a democratic socialist government can and must have democratic planning if it is to remain a democracy and move toward socialism. Allocation of major resources for social use does not require national control of every detail of production. A great deal of decision-making could be delegated to regions and localities, with the national central planners acting as coordinators; the people could be provided with information and analyses needed to participate in making planning choices.

But I don’t believe any of us can do much more than propose principles. I think it would be the height of arrogance for intellectuals to think they can design concretely a workable system for a people to adopt. To get concrete would be to prejudge history. So much depends on what country we are talking about. The United States or Mexico? Germany or Ghana? So much depends on the course of the struggle in transforming the society, the degree of socialist consciousness in the population.

Actually, the challenges of a transformation of consciousness, and socialist culture in general, get pitifully little attention in socialist circles. Instead the focus is on democracy, usually democracy as an abstract ideal, without regard to social relations, abolition of classes, or the road to equality~ There are tough questions about what socialist democracy might mean. Take, for example, what many of us believe should be an outstanding feature of replacing capitalism: giving top priority to empowering and meeting the basic needs of the most impoverished and oppressed sectors of the population. That would require major changes in the allocation of resources, the kind of changes which a market system, even one where the factories are managed by the workers, cannot hope to achieve.

If we are serious about working for a democratic socialism, we would do well to clarify what we mean by democracy. We know what is wrong with democracy when there are vast class differences in power and wealth. But differences among the people will likely exist for a long time after capitalism is transcended. Consider, for example, giving priority to the needs of the most oppressed. That could mean putting off remedies for a large sector of the population, and even cutting into the living standards of the more privileged. It might mean developing the resources of some regions of the country to the disadvantage of other regions. I don’t pretend to have the answers, but these are some of the questions that come to mind when I come across the facile solutions that some of our friends propose, whether market socialists or central planning advocates with a new gimmick.

Work and Hope

Q: You’ve been an editor of MR for thirty years now. Tell me about you and Paul, and how you have functioned together.

Magdoff: Well, it was just as natural as it could be. Either one of us would come up with an idea for the Review of the Month, and we’d talk it over and come to some decision, and one of us would take it. We would have comments on each other’s, but very minor comments. The understanding was, as with Leo, that we could each have our own Reviews of the Month. And they did: on Israel and on Czechoslovakia. But as things developed politically—China very much so is a case in point—we had the same reactions. I don’t understand it. I’m not saying that if we were in separate rooms and had to write something that the formulations or analysis would be exactly the same, but the conclusions would be pretty much the same.

When Paul asked me to join him, he said, “You won’t have to do anything.” I had been away from things for many years. I was hoping when I got free from work that I would be able to study, to catch up, read, do some research. And Paul said, “All you’ll have to do is give me your judgment on the articles, and I’ll do all the writing.” A short time afterward, I said, “Remember what you said?” I’d been writing all these Reviews of the Month. He said, “You didn’t believe me, did you?”

Q: Reading the early issues, it surprises me how early in the magazine’s life there were appeals to potential authors for brevity and clarity.

Magdoff: That has been, I think, a distinguishing feature of MR. Paul is very strong on that. Leo was more so. Leo was very critical of Paul: “Talk to workers. You have to explain things.” I mean critical in a friendly way: “Revise it. You have to rewrite it. I don’t understand.” Well, I haven’t done that with Paul, not that you need to do it much. He used to do it to mine. It made all the difference in the world. A word here, a change there—the whole thing took on different form. It was very helpful. He has been a real friend, in every sense of the word.

Q: In a 1982 essay on Edward Bellamy and other social critics, “The Meaning of Work,” you argue against the bourgeois view of work as a burden to be avoided and for seeing work as a creative activity central to human existence. It occurs to me that this spirit may help explain the extraordinary late-life productivity of both you and Paul, who have continued to write, speak, lead, and edit long after most Americans retire.

Magdoff: I suspect what you call our late-life productivity may have more to do with the competence of our doctors! It’s true that being actively involved in the good cause gives zest to life, and I feel myself fortunate in having Monthly Review as the focus of my activity. But I must admit that there is frustration, too, in having so little time to study and write about developments in the present global disorder, much of which we foretold over the years. The frustration, alas, comes from the pressure of administrative affairs, particularly efforts to get around the financial shoals. It would be so nice if Paul and I-Ellen, too, of course-could devote full time to study and write for the spread of the Marxist socialist project.

Q: What keeps you going?

Magdoff: It’s my life. I never expected a socialist America in my lifetime. That doesn’t mean that I was smarter than anyone else, but it just wasn’t my temperament.

Every summer the Marxist School has a picnic at our place, and after they go swimming and have their food, we sit for several hours and talk under a tree. It’s very nice. One person at the end this last time said, “What do you expect, and how can you be the way you are without expecting socialism?”

I said, “I don’t know. I don’t expect anything particular. But this is the way I am. I can’t be any other way. I have to believe that there can be a better world.”

1999, Volume 51, Issue 01 (May)
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