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The Commitment of an Intellectual: Paul M. Sweezy (1910-2004)

A note on the text: A version of this biographical essay was originally made available on MR’s website a few days after Paul died and was widely referred to by writers and journalists throughout the world. It appears here in print in the magazine for the first time. In addition to providing an account of Paul Sweezy’s life and work it also contains very brief biographies of Paul Baran, Harry Magdoff, and Harry Braverman, since their contributions were in many ways inseparable from his.

The Editors

The following brief intellectual biography of Paul Sweezy was drafted in September 2003 shortly before I saw Paul for the last time. It conveys many of the basic facts of his life. But as with all biographies of leading intellectuals it fails to capture the brilliance of his work, which must be experienced directly through his own writings. Nor is the warmth of Paul’s character adequately conveyed here. A short personal note is therefore needed. What was so surprising about Paul was his seemingly endless generosity and humanity. Paul gave freely of himself to all of those seeking his political and intellectual guidance. But a few, such as myself, were particularly blessed in that they experienced this on a deeper, more intense level. For decades Paul was concerned that Monthly Review not perish as had so many socialist institutions and publications in the past. He recognized early on that the continuance of the magazine and the tradition that it represented required the deliberate cultivation of new generations of socialist intellectuals. I was fortunate to be singled out while still quite young as one of those. For decades Paul wrote me letter after letter—no letter that I wrote to him ever went unanswered—sharing his knowledge, intellectual brilliance, and personal warmth. It was an immense, indescribable gift.

I first saw Paul when I was still a teenager. He had just returned from China and was speaking at the University of Washington in Seattle to an enormous crowd that seemed to dwell on his every word. In my twenties when I was a graduate student at York University in Toronto Paul took me under his intellectual wing after I sent him a manuscript that I had written entitled, “The United States and Monopoly Capitalism: The Issue of Excess Capacity.” My earlier work for my master’s degree had been on the political economy of Joseph Schumpeter, who had been Paul’s close friend and in a sense mentor, and my sharing of that work as well brought us closer together. For the next quarter century Paul and I communicated regularly—corresponding weekly, talking on the phone, and conversing in person during the few occasions each year in which we were able to get together. I visited him a number of times at his house in Larchmont, New York. I wrote my first article for MR in 1981 on the subject of monopoly capitalism. Soon afterwards I began working together with Henryk Szlajfer on an edited collection of essays entitled The Faltering Economy: The Problem of Accumulation Under Monopoly Capitalism (Monthly Review Press, 1984) that was meant to explain the origins and development of the monopoly capital theory. I wrote my dissertation on The Theory of Monopoly Capitalism: An Elaboration of Marxian Political Economy, published in expanded form by Monthly Review Press in 1986. In all of this Paul was a constant source of encouragement. Beyond mere intellectual support, Paul’s friendship extended to all the exigencies of life and if I had a personal or family crisis he was always there helping with his incomparable friendship and advice.

Very soon after I met Paul and Harry Magdoff I began to help them with MR in all the ways I could and by the end of the 1980s I was a director of the board of the Monthly Review Foundation and a member of the informal editorial committee of the magazine. In this dual capacity I saw Paul a couple of times a year. In the year 2000 I became coeditor of Monthly Review, along with Paul, Harry, and Bob McChesney. This was a time when Paul’s declining health had curtailed his active involvement and Bob and I stepped in feeling it was necessary to do what we could, together with Harry, to save the magazine. I can imagine no more important intellectual task for a socialist than to try to continue on the path that Paul and Harry (and in the beginning Leo Huberman) charted. Paul was a heroic figure in the modern struggle for socialism. His last words to me as he neared the end and faded in and out of consciousness were “I knew you were still there.” He was referring to my relation to MR and the struggle that it embodied. For me this was the highest compliment. Paul’s dedication to the struggle for humanity and socialism, which could not be separated from his love for his own family and friends, remained with him up until the time of his death. For those of us who knew and loved Paul the commitment to equality and justice will always run that much deeper because it was embodied in his life, and now, in our memories of him.

John Bellamy Foster

Paul M. Sweezy, referred to by The Wall Street Journal in 1972 as “the ‘dean’ of radical economists,” was, in the words of John Kenneth Galbraith, “the most noted American Marxist scholar” of the second half of the twentieth century.1 Sweezy’s intellectual influence, which was global in its reach, lay chiefly in two areas: as a leading radical economist (and sociologist), and as the principal originator of a distinct North American brand of socialist thought in his role as cofounder and coeditor of Monthly Review magazine. Like both Marx and Schumpeter, to whose thought his work was closely related, Sweezy provided a historical analysis and critique of capitalist economic development, encompassing a theory of the origins, development, and eventual decline of the system.

Paul Marlor Sweezy was born April 10, 1910, in New York. His father, Everett B. Sweezy, was vice president of the First National Bank of New York, then headed by George F. Baker, a close partner of J. P. Morgan and Company. His mother, Caroline (Wilson) Sweezy was in the first graduating class of Goucher College in Baltimore. He had two older brothers, Everett, born 1901, and Alan, born 1907. All three brothers went to Exeter and then to Harvard. In the early years, Paul followed in the footsteps of his brother Alan. Both Alan and Paul were editors of the Exonian and then later presidents of the Harvard Crimson. Both studied economics at the undergraduate and graduate levels at Harvard. Paul had all but completed his senior year at Harvard when his father died in 1931, interrupting his studies. Consequently, he did not graduate (magna cum laude) until the following year in 1932. In 1931–32, however, having already finished his undergraduate studies, he began graduate courses in economics at Harvard. It was during this time that his interests shifted decisively from journalism (an early and important influence on his work) to economics.

In 1932 Sweezy went to England for a year’s study at the London School of Economics (LSE). During school breaks he also studied for several months in Vienna. These experiences changed his life and outlook considerably. Like many he had been shaken by the onset of the Great Depression. His father had lost the greater part of his fortune in the 1929 stockmarket crash, although enough remained to ensure a comfortable existence. In Britain Sweezy was awakened by the intellectual and political ferment in response to the deepening depression and Hitler’s rise to power in Germany. His initial intention in attending the LSE was to work with the conservative economist Friedrich Hayek. However, in the heated debates then taking place, particularly among younger scholars, Sweezy found himself increasingly attracted to Marxism. Lectures that he attended by Harold Laski at the LSE and his reading of Leon Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution, which had just been translated into English, were key influences inducing Sweezy’s change in perspective. He was also affected by the rapid developments in economics in England during this period. It was at this time that he became acquainted with some of the younger, left-leaning Cambridge economists, including Joan Robinson.

In 1933 Sweezy returned to the United States to continue his graduate studies in economics at Harvard where the intellectual climate had been dramatically transformed. Marxism, which in his prior years at Harvard had played no part in his education, had by then become an important topic of discussion. One big change was the arrival at Harvard of Joseph Schumpeter, one of the foremost economists of the twentieth century. A conservative economist, Schumpeter nonetheless had enormous respect for the economics of Karl Marx, even going so far—as Sweezy once put it—“to build a structure of thought which was to rival Marx. In other words he took Marx as a model in a way.”2 Schumpeter had a small seminar of around a half-dozen students in which Sweezy took part. Over the years the two became fast, even legendary friends, engaged in continual intellectual discussions and debates, in which other notable figures such as Oskar Lange and Wassily Leontiev and later Paul Samuelson also took part. Sweezy was for two years Schumpeter’s teaching assistant in his graduate course in economic theory.

During these years Sweezy cofounded the journal Review of Economic Studies and published a series of important economic essays on issues of imperfect competition, the role of expectations in Keynesian analysis and economic stagnation. He was deeply affected by the revolution in economics introduced by John Maynard Keynes and incorporated aspects of Keynes’s analysis into his thought while remaining a Marxian critic.

In September 1936 Sweezy and Abba Lerner, a young economist at the London School of Economics, wrote a letter to the [London] New Statesman and Nation responding to an earlier article by Keynes on British foreign policy in that publication. They argued that the failure of Britain to oppose the fascist powers in Ethiopia and Spain was a product of the class interest of the British ruling class, which, while opposed to fascism generally, put the defense of private property ahead of its national interests. Any other interpretation but the Marxist one, they argued, would leave analysts such as Keynes, as he himself had indicated in his article, merely “surprised at the incredible stupidity that must be attributed to the British Foreign Office.” The two young economists ended their letter by indicating their “very highest admiration for Mr. Keynes’ work in our field. We think he has done more than any other writer in our time towards laying bare one of the deepest contradictions of the capitalist economy, the coexistence of willing hands and open mouths.” Keynes replied that the explanation for these shortcomings of British foreign policy was the “unqualified pacifism” of much of the British public. “Those who fail to observe it and interpret everything in terms of Capitalist and Communist theory are blind to their surroundings.”3

After Keynes’s General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money was published in 1936, Sweezy became a very active participant in the Harvard discussions surrounding the Keynesian revolution in economic theory. At the same time he married a young economist, Maxine Yaple.

During this period Sweezy worked for various New Deal agencies. In 1937 he carried out an important study of “Interest Groups in the American Economy” for the National Resources Committee (NRC), which was published in 1939 as an appendix to the NRC’s well-known report, The Structure of the American Economy. In opposition to Berle and Means’s claim that a large number of U.S. firms were management controlled, Sweezy argued that it was possible to discern eight leading “interest groups” consisting of industrial and financial alliances. In the first group he listed the investment banking firm of J. P. Morgan and Co. and its alliance with the First National Bank, in which his father had worked. Sweezy also carried out research for the Security and Exchange Commission on their study of monopoly in 1939, and for the Temporary National Economic Committee, which was charged with analyzing issues of competition and monopoly in the U.S. economy in 1940.

Sweezy’s first formal economic publication was “Professor Pigou’s Theory of Unemployment” published in the Journal of Political Economy in 1934. Over the course of the 1930s he wrote more than twenty-five articles and reviews on economic topics. Two of the papers that he wrote in this period were to be of lasting importance. The first was his article “Expectations and the Scope of Economics” in the Review of Economic Studies in June 1938. The second was his classic article, “Demand Under Conditions of Oligopoly,” in the Journal of Political Economy, August 1939. The earlier article reflected the Keynesian concern with expectations under conditions of economic disequilibrium and uncertainty. The second introduced the famous “kinked demand curve” theory of oligopolistic pricing, which explained why oligopolistic prices tend to go only one way—up. Both of these themes were to play a large role in the later theory of monopoly capital, as developed by Sweezy and Paul Baran. The kinked demand curve hypothesis originally developed out of Sweezy’s 1937 dissertation Monopoly and Competition in the English Coal Industry, 1550–1850, which won the David A. Wells prize and was published in the following year by Harvard University Press. Schumpeter was on Sweezy’s dissertation committee.

In 1938 Sweezy became an instructor at Harvard. During these years he and his brother Alan helped in the founding of the Harvard Teacher’s Union, a branch of the American Federation of Teachers. In addition to teaching the principles of economics and a course on corporations, he took over a course on the economics of socialism formerly taught by Edward Mason. It was in the process of developing the lectures for this course that he wrote his seminal work The Theory of Capitalist Development: Principles of Marxian Political Economy (1942). He later explained that it had required an enormous struggle on his part to shift from the marginal utility analysis that he had learned through classic texts by figures like Harvard’s Frank Taussig, to Marx’s labor theory of value. This was a shift in thinking that could not be accomplished in a day or even a year, since each of these frameworks raised entirely different sets of questions. In drafting the manuscript for The Theory of Capitalist Development he received help from the Japanese economist Shigeto Tsuru, who was then studying at Harvard and provided an appendix on Marx’s reproduction schemes for the book. This classic work is still used to teach Marxian analysis to students in economics. More than simply a textbook it made a number of pioneering contributions, including: its emphasis on the qualitative (not simply quantitative) value problem in Marx’s treatment of the labor theory of value, its elaboration of the Bortkiewicz solution to the transformation problem; and its discussions of crisis theory and monopoly capitalism. Its introduction also provided what was to be an influential explanation of Marx’s method.

The most important conclusion of The Theory of Capitalist Development had to do with the long-run stagnation of investment under capitalism arising from a built-in tendency in the system toward the overaccumulation of capital. “Stagnation of production, in the sense of less-than-capacity utilization of productive resources,” Sweezy wrote, evoking a theme that was to repeat itself again and again in his work, “is to be regarded as the normal state of affairs under capitalist conditions. If this view is adopted the whole crisis problem appears in a new light. Emphasis shifts from the question: ‘What brings on crisis and depression?’ to its opposite: ‘What brings on expansion?’” The Theory of Capitalist Development appeared in the same year as Schumpeter’s Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy and the two works can be seen as two sides of a complex debate on the future of capitalism and socialism. Schumpeter referred numerous times to Sweezy, and in particular to The Theory of Capitalist Development, in his History of Economic Analysis (1951), where he “strongly recommended” Sweezy’s book, “as an admirable presentation of Marx’s (and most of the neo-Marxists’) economic thought.”

Both Sweezy’s Theory of Capitalist Development and Schumpeter’s Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy were concerned with the question of economic stagnation that had become a pressing issue during the sharp recession of 1937 when unemployment leapt from 14 percent to 19 percent. Prior to this it had been assumed by most economists that recovery from the depression would occur continuously “of itself” (as Schumpeter put it) until full recovery was reached. The fact that the economy had instead sunk once again in 1937, well before full recovery, therefore came as a great shock generating a far-reaching debate over the reasons for stagnation. The question was most famously posed in the title of an important 1938 book, Full Recovery or Stagnation?, by Alvin Hansen, then the most prominent Keynesian economist at Harvard. Still, it took more than Keynes’s General Theory and fears of continuing economic stagnation to propel Washington toward “Keynesian” economic policies. Crucial in this respect in the context of the recession of 1937 was a small book written by a number of Harvard and Tufts economists entitled An Economic Program for American Democracy, which became a Washington bestseller. Paul Sweezy and his wife, Maxine Yaple Sweezy, were among the authors and signatories.

Paul Samuelson, winner of the first Nobel Prize in Economics, later recalled a debate in the late 1930s between Joseph Schumpeter and Paul Sweezy, “the foxy Merlin” and the “young Sir Galahad,” at a time “when giants walked the earth and Harvard yard.” Sweezy, Samuelson wrote, “was the best that Exeter and Harvard can produce…[and] had early established himself as among the most promising economists of his generation….Unfairly, the gods had given Paul Sweezy, along with a brilliant mind, a beautiful face and wit….If lightning had struck him that night, people would truly have said that he had incurred the envy of the gods.” Samuelson recalled “the interchange of wit, the neat parrying and thrust, and all made the more pleasurable by the obvious affection that the two men had for each other despite the polar opposition of their views.”4 Both saw the tendency toward stagnation as evidence that capitalism would inevitably fade. For Schumpeter this was because of political controls placed on the system. For Sweezy it was due to the contradictions embodied in capitalism’s own economic development, where capital, as Marx said, was the main barrier to capital itself.

Sweezy’s admiration for Schumpeter’s economics, despite the radical differences in their assessments of capitalism, was made explicit elsewhere and on numerous occasions. In a review of Schumpeter’s great 1939 work Business Cycles in the Nation (February 3, 1940) Sweezy wrote that, “Better than any economist since Marx, Professor Schumpeter has succeeded in viewing capitalism as essentially a transitory historical epoch with its own ethos and its own laws of development.” In an important article, “Professor Schumpeter’s Theory of Innovation,” published in The Review of Economic Statistics (now The Review of Economics and Statistics) in February 1943, Sweezy explained the essence of his debate with Schumpeter. Schumpeter argued that innovation should be seen as the stimulus to profits and accumulation, resting on the sociological role of the entrepreneur. In contrast, Sweezy insisted that innovation should be seen as subordinate to the accumulation process.

Others, besides Samuelson, recalled the stagnation debate and the interchanges between Schumpeter and Sweezy at this time as great moments in their own lives. Galbraith later referred to Sweezy as “a dominant voice” in the debates on stagnation and the future of capitalism of the 1930s. Tsuru said that in his “‘sacred decade of twenties’ (Schumpeter’s stock phrase),” Sweezy was “the kingpin in the Golden Era of the Harvard Economics Department in the 1930s.”5

With the United States entering the Second World War, Sweezy was anxious to play an active role in the fight against fascism. In the 1930s he had been a member of the League Against Fascism and War and various popular front organizations. He left Harvard to join the army in the fall of 1942. Shortly before he enlisted he and Maxine Yaple divorced.

Sweezy went into the army as an officer candidate and was assigned to the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) working under his former Harvard professor and colleague Edward Mason. He went to work in Washington in the summer of 1943. In the late fall 1943 he was sent to London to join the Research and Analysis program of the OSS there, where his immediate superior was another noted U.S. economist, Chandler Morse. Sweezy’s chief role was to keep an eye on British economic policy for the U.S. government. He met frequently with economist James Meade, who was in the British economic warfare agency. It was clear that the war would result in a reorganization of world economic relations and that the United States was interested in coming out of the war, as Sweezy was to recall, as the “top dog.” At that time Britain was still considered to be the number two economy and the whole question of what to do with the British Empire had not yet been decided. Sweezy later regarded his experiences in the war as reflecting the whole of U.S. policy toward its allies with regard to postwar planning and the constitution of U.S. hegemony that was described in Gabriel Kolko’s The Politics of War.

The Research and Analysis section of the OSS produced reports and analyses of developments in particular countries that were distributed to several hundred military agencies and commands in the European theatre of operations. The London branch of the Research and Analysis section had been publishing for some time a newsletter that was a weekly summary of what was happening in the Axis countries, derived mostly from the German press, but also from other occupied areas. This information was collected in neutral Portugal and then channeled into London. Sweezy began working on the newsletter and turned it into a monthly magazinecalled the European Political Report—that drew on an expanded range of sources. The newsletter took an explicitly New Deal-leftist, antifascist stance. For example, it adopted a very anti-British position on the 1944 British assault on the Greek resistance. Having encountered Sweezy in London in those days, economist Tibor Scitovsky later recalled that he had mentioned how much he enjoyed the work on the OSS magazine, and that he had declared his desire to start his own magazine when he returned to the United States after the war.6 The London branch relocated to Paris in the winter of 1944–45 and then to Wiesbaden in the spring. Later some of his branch relocated to Berlin, where he witnessed the devastation caused by the allied bombing.

In September Sweezy was sent home and demobilized. He had reached the rank of second lieutenant and was awarded the Bronze Star Medal in 1946. The citation specified that the medal was for his role as editor of the European Political Report.

After the war, Sweezy received a Social Science Research Council Demobilization grant, which was designed to allow scholars who had been in the military to resume their research. He settled in Wilton, New Hampshire and married Nancy Adams, his second wife, who he had met in London in 1944. They had three children: Samuel Everett (born 1946), Elizabeth (Lybess) MacDougall (born 1948), and Martha Adams (born 1951).

During these years he made occasional trips to Cambridge, Massachusetts to use the library and settled down to a life of study, writing frequently for the Nation, the New Republic and other publications. He spent six months reading the first six volumes of Toynbee’s Study of History, which he greatly admired, reviewing it for the Nation. At the same time Sweezy wrote his book Socialism (1949) as well as most of the essays that were to appear in The Present as History (1953). Shortly after Schumpeter’s death in 1950 he edited and introduced a book of two of Schumpeter’s essays, which were translated for the first time by Heinz Norden, under the title Imperialism and Social Classes. He ended his introduction by “paying his respects” to his great friend: “He is gone now, and neither Harvard nor the economics profession will ever be the same again.” Sweezy also edited a volume containing three classic works on the transformation problem of Marxian economics: Karl Marx and the Close of his System by Eugene Böhm-Bawerk; Böhm-Bawerk’s Criticism of Marx by Rudolf Hilferding; and “On the Correction of Marx’s Fundamental Theoretical Construction in the Third Volume of Capital” by Ladislaus von Bortkiewicz (which Sweezy translated into English from the original German). In his 1950 critique of Maurice Dobb’s Studies in the Development of Capitalism in the pages of Science & Society, Sweezy, following Marx, emphasized the role of the world market in the decline of feudalism and launched the famous debate over the transition from feudalism to capitalism that has played a central role in Marxist historiography ever since.

One issue for Sweezy at this time was whether he would resume his teaching position at Harvard and whether he would pursue a career as an academic. Having taken a military leave during the war, he still had two years left on his five-year contract as an assistant professor at Harvard. During the war a tenured position in economics at Harvard had opened, where it was necessary to appoint someone immediately. Sweezy was one of the two candidates considered for the job. The other was John Dunlop, who subsequently became a well-known labor economist and Secretary of Labor in the Ford administration. Schumpeter was a very strong supporter of Sweezy’s candidacy. Schumpeter wrote to Dean Paul H. Buck in May 1945 that Sweezy’s The Theory of Capitalist Development was “a masterly exposition of the Marxian system of thought” and that “this task…has been attempted by dozens of economists of all countries [but] has never before been done so well.” Responding to criticisms that Sweezy was a Marxist, Schumpeter wrote to the dean: “Whether we accept Marxian economics or not, it is of sufficient importance in economic thought to justify the task of propounding it from the standpoint of which it was conceived.”7 Dunlop, however, received the tenured appointment. After his return from the war, Sweezy inquired among his friends in economics at Harvard about the chances of his securing a tenured position. It was made clear to him, no doubt partly based on these prior circumstances, that there was then no chance of the appointment of a Marxist. Sweezy later insisted that if he had not been so fortunate as to have had access to surplus value through his family inheritance he would probably have been forced like so many others to succumb to the kinds of controls and pressures inevitably exerted on those who earn their livings in the academy. As it happened, however, he was under no such need to conform and he chose not to resume his former teaching position.

The persistent dream of starting a monthly magazine also helped draw Sweezy away from a university-based career. After the war he was in frequent contact with Leo Huberman, whom he had known since the 1930s. Huberman was an accomplished labor educator, journalist, and writer of best-selling histories of economic development and labor struggles. He had been chairman of the department of social sciences at New College of Columbia University, labor editor for the newspaper PM, a columnist for the magazine U.S. Week, and director of education and public relations for the National Maritime Union. His most popular books were We, the People (1932), Man’s Worldly Goods (1936), which sold more than half a million copies, The Labor Spy Racket (1937), and The Truth About Unions (1946). Huberman and Sweezy started fantasizing in the late 1940s about starting a political magazine, but saw no opportunity to make it concrete. This changed near the end of 1948. Among Paul’s closest friends was the great Harvard literary scholar F. O. Matthiessen, the author of American Renaissance (1941) and a founder of American Studies. They had worked together in establishing the Harvard Teacher’s Union and had remained in touch ever since. After the demise of Henry Wallace’s 1948 presidential campaign, in which Huberman, Sweezy, and Matthiessen had all been involved, Matthiessen, who had heard Huberman and Sweezy talking about their desire to start a new magazine, visited Sweezy in New Hampshire and told him that he had inherited some money that he had no personal need for and offered them $5000 each year for three years in succession to start the magazine. The result was Monthly Review: An Independent Socialist Magazine, the first issue of which appeared in May 1949 with an article by Albert Einstein entitled “Why Socialism?” Otto Nathan, an economist who had been a left Social Democrat in pre-Nazi Germany before he migrated to the United States obtained the article from Einstein. Nathan was a friend of Huberman’s and was for a short time a silent coeditor.

Unlike most socialist publications that once conceived expire quickly, Monthly Review flourished from the beginning, and currently is in its fifty-sixth year of publication. By the end of its first year the magazine had about 2,500 subscribers. Total circulation peaked in 1977 at around 12,000. In the 1980s and early ’90s circulation ebbed as radical publications in general went into decline, falling to less than 5000 by 1996. The magazine began a comeback in the late 1990s, its circulation rising to over 7,000 in 2003. Monthly Review’s readership, however, has always been considerably beyond what its U.S. circulation numbers would suggest. It was once referred to as “the most famous unknown magazine in America.”8 Copies are frequently circulated by hand literally across the globe. It has been published in Italian, Spanish, and Greek editions—all of which have now expired. Currently a low-cost edition is being printed in India. Editorial Hacer in Barcelona now publishes two 160-page issues each year of Monthly Review—Selecciones en castellano, a collection of recent and classic MR articles, translated into Spanish.

Monthly Review has often been characterized as the leading independent Marxist periodical in the English-speaking world, if not in the world as a whole. Always charting its own way it stayed clear of the ideology of the Soviet bloc, refusing to adopt any party line. From the start, its reputation was grounded in its economic analysis. In a portrait of the editors in 1963, Business Week magazine called Huberman and Sweezy’s vision in Monthly Review “a brand of socialism that is thorough-going and tough-minded, drastic enough to provide the sharp break with the past that many leftwingers in the underdeveloped countries see as essential. At the same time they maintain a sturdy independence of both Moscow and Peking….Their skill at manipulating the abstruse concepts of modern economics impresses would-be intellectuals…their analysis of the troubles of capitalism is just plausible enough to be disturbing.” Monthly Review’s “influence abroad,” Business Week contended, “was out of proportion to their U.S. following.”9 In the 1960s a survey sponsored by Time International (a Time Inc. publication) revealed that Paul Sweezy was one of the ten Americans that Japanese business leaders and opinion makers “would most like to meet.”10

The magazine was never, however, simply an economics publication. It took as its responsibility the need to provide a critical assessment of “the present as history,” and was noted too for its political and historical and occasional cultural analyses. Its authors frequently looked like a Who’s Who of the left, including such figures as: Albert Einstein, W. E. B. Du Bois, Shirley Graham, Jean-Paul Sartre, Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, Malcolm X, Edgar Snow, I. F. Stone, R. H. Tawney, G. D. H. Cole, Henry Wallace, William Appleman Williams, Eduardo Galeano, Anna Louise Strong, C. Wright Mills, Lorraine Hansberry, Anne Braden, Daniel Ellsberg, Noam Chomsky, E. P. Thompson, Michal Kalecki, Joan Robinson, Isabel Allende, and Samir Amin, among many others. Coming into existence in the same year as the Chinese Revolution, Monthly Review was distinguished from the start by its focus on imperialism and revolution in the third world. Huberman and Sweezy opposed and critically dissected the Korean War from the beginning. The first Review of the Month (the article-length, lead editorial that sets the tone for the magazine) devoted to the Indochina War was written in 1954. When Ned O’Gorman returned from a U.S. State Department trip to Latin America in 1964 he wrote in the National Catholic Reporter, “The Monthly Review’s editors, Huberman and Sweezy, Edgar Allen Poe, Walt Whitman and JFK are the Americans I hear most spoken of in South America.”11 In 1966 MR received the City of Omega Award, a literary prize awarded by a committee of former Italian-resistance fighters and previously won by Jean-Paul Sartre and Franz Fanon. The award citation declared: “The fundamental genius of these two writers lies in a Marxist humanism. In the world’s struggle against capitalism and imperialism there has been neither an argument nor an event which has not found in the works of Huberman and Sweezy an interpretation of high intellectual caliber and painstaking lucidity.”

In the 1950s the principal concerns of Monthly Review were the Cold War abroad and McCarthyism at home. Huberman and Sweezy were never naïve enough to assume that the McCarthy era was simply a “red scare.” It had its larger meaning in the attempt to smash the old New Deal coalition between labor, farmers, and civil rights activists. Not surprisingly, both editors were targets of the inquisition in this period. Huberman was called before Senator McCarthy’s committee in 1953. New Hampshire Attorney General Louis C. Wyman, who was charged by the state legislature with investigating “subversive activities,” subpoenaed Sweezy on two occasions in 1954. The investigation focused on a lecture that Sweezy had delivered at the University of New Hampshire, as well as Sweezy’s role in the 1948 Progressive Party presidential campaign of former U.S. Vice President Henry Wallace. Sweezy had served as chairman of the Wallace campaign in New Hampshire.

Taking a principled stand against the proceedings on First Amendment grounds, Sweezy refused to answer questions on the membership and activities of those who had participated in the Wallace campaign; the contents of his guest lecture at the University of New Hampshire; and whether or not he believed in Communism. He was declared in contempt of court and briefly imprisoned. His case was appealed and worked its way through the state and federal courts to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in Sweezy’s favor in Sweezy vs. New Hampshire on June 17, 1957. The court found there was no legal evidence that the New Hampshire legislators actually wanted the Attorney General to obtain answers to these questions; and that the violation of Sweezy’s constitutional liberties could not be justified on the basis of political activities only “remotely connected to actual subversion.” The written opinions of Chief Justice Warren and Justice Frankfurter in this case have been regarded as among the most important judicial statements on academic freedom. Sweezy, in a statement that he presented to the New Hampshire Attorney General and that was included in the documents presented to the U.S. Supreme Court, left no doubt about his views:

If the very first principle of the American constitutional form of government is political freedom—which I take to include freedoms of speech, press, assembly, and association—then I do not see how it can be denied that these investigations are a grave danger to all that Americans have always claimed to cherish. No rights are genuine if a person, for exercising them, can be hauled up before some tribunal and forced under penalties of perjury and contempt to account for his ideas and conduct.12

The U.S. Supreme Court decision in Sweezy vs. New Hampshire is remembered historically as having delivered the death knell to the witch hunt on U.S. campuses.

The repressive climate of the McCarthy era led directly to the emergence of Monthly Review Press—the book publishing arm of Monthly Review—in 1952. The idea of starting Monthly Review Press had its origin in an accidental meeting in Central Park in 1951 between noted journalist I. F. Stone and Huberman and Sweezy. Stone told them he had written a book disputing the official history of the Korean War but had not been able to find a publisher in a climate of fervent McCarthyism and war hysteria. They asked to see the manuscript and on its strength started Monthly Review Press. Stone’s Hidden History of the Korean War, the first book published by the press, was released in May 1952.

Most of the early books published by the press, other than books by the editors themselves, were in the same mold as Stone’s: books that were viable in publishing terms, by well-known or highly accomplished authors who had sought publishers elsewhere and failed because of ideological barriers within publishing. Such titles included Harvey O’Connor’s The Empire of Oil (1955), Paul Baran’s The Political Economy of Growth (1957), William Appelman William’s The United States, Cuba and Castro (1963), and William Hinton’s Fanshen (1966). Hinton’s Fanshen was based on notes that the government had confiscated and that he had spent years in the courts fighting to get back. He finished the book in 1964 but spent three years unsuccessfully looking for a trade publisher in Boston and New York. After Monthly Review Press published it the cloth edition sold out almost immediately. Paperback rights were contracted to Vintage, and the book sold another 200,000 paperback copies.

Despite the adverse political environment, Sweezy continued to write and cowrite articles on all aspects of the critique of capitalism and Marxian theory, adding up to well over a hundred major articles and reviews in MR alone by the early 1990s. Visiting Cuba shortly after the 1959 revolution, Huberman and Sweezy got to know Fidel Castro and Che Guevara with whom they toured the island. Huberman and Sweezy were the first to recognize that Cuba would necessarily evolve in a socialist direction—if the revolution were to survive at all. A special issue of Monthly Review in which the editors wrote on the transformation of the Cuban economy, entitled Cuba: The Anatomy of a Revolution, appeared in July–August 1960 and quickly sold out. (It was later released in book form.) The two editors followed this first book with Socialism in Cuba (1969). In the midst of all of this, involving lengthy trips away from home, Sweezy and his second wife, Nancy, divorced in 1960. The following year he married Zirel Druskin Dowd.

MR Press’s publication of Paul Baran’s The Political Economy of Growth in 1957 marked the beginning of Marxian dependency theory and helped to establish Monthly Review’s primary identity as a backer of third world revolutions. Baran had been born in 1910 into a Jewish family in Nikolaev on the Black Sea. His father was a medical doctor with close ties to the Menshevik branch of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party. Baran received his formal education in Germany and Russia, studying at the Plekhanov Institute of Economics at the University of Moscow and then taking a research position at the Agricultural Academy of Berlin, followed by a research assistantship at the famous Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt. He completed his Ph.D. under Emil Lederer a distinguished socialist economist who was later to found the famous “university in exile,” a refuge for antifascists at New York’s New School for Social Research. Baran also got to know Rudolf Hilferding, the most renowned economic theorist in the German and Austrian social democratic movements, and wrote for a time for Hilferding’s journal Die Gesellschaft. After Hitler’s rise to power Baran left Germany and eventually made his way to the United States via Russia and England. In the United States he met Paul Sweezy and was a graduate student in economics at Harvard. During the war he worked in the OSS and then in the United States’ Strategic Bombing Survey under John Kenneth Galbraith. After the war he took a job at the Federal Reserve Bank and then as a professor at Stanford. In the early 1950s Baran, along with Michal Kalecki and Oskar Lange, informally advised Monthly Review’s editors. Baran wrote for MR in those years under the pseudonym of Historicus.13

Baran’s major, single-authored book, The Political Economy of Growth, had two parts. The first was devoted to accounting for the system of accumulation under monopoly capitalism in the rich countries in the mid-twentieth century. The second investigated the political economy of underdevelopment, accounting for the role of imperialism in the misuse and siphoning off of the economic surplus (the net proceeds of society after consumption and other essential costs are accounted for) generated by the underdeveloped countries. The problem, as Andre Gunder Frank was later famously to put it in his Capitalism and Underdevelopment in Latin America (Monthly Review Press, 1967), was “the development of underdevelopment.” It was this second part of Baran’s study, providing for the first time a rigorous Marxian analysis of conditions of third world dependency, which was to become the most acclaimed part of the book, contributing to its lasting influence.

However, even before The Political Economy of Growth was published, Baran and Sweezy began collaborating on a more systematic treatment of the issues raised in the first part of Baran’s book. It was this new work that they referred to for years in their correspondence as their “opus.” The result, after ten years, was the publication in 1966 of Monopoly Capital: An Essay on the American Economic and Social Order. (Baran’s death of a heart attack preceded the publication of the book by two years, but Sweezy explained in the preface that the book had been finished in all of its essentials prior to Baran’s death.)

Written in an easily accessible style, Monopoly Capital was nonetheless a sophisticated synthesis that grew out of Sweezy’s Theory of Capitalist Development as well as Baran’s Political Economy of Growth, and was directly inspired by Josef Steindl’s classic Maturity and Stagnation in American Capitalism (1952), which had been built on foundations provided by Kalecki. It also reflected the insights of Marx, Veblen, Keynes, and Schumpeter.

At the core of Monopoly Capital was the thesis that Marx’s fundamental “law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall,” associated with accumulation in the era of free competition, had been replaced, in the more restrictive competitive environment of monopoly capitalism (in which a handful of giant firms tended to control key industries and the economy as a whole), by a law of the tendency of the surplus to rise. The nature of the price mechanism under monopoly capitalism (an argument that went back to Sweezy’s earlier theory of the kinked demand curve) meant that capital tended not to adjust to shortfalls in final demand by lowering prices, but generated instead chronic excess capacity, as plants were idled to protect profit margins.

As one analyst has cogently summarized the basic contradiction spelled out by Baran and Sweezy, in the technical language of professional economics:

The potential surplus (which includes profit, interest, rent, surplus employee compensation, government spending and other wasteful expenditures) rises as productivity growth allows production costs to fall relative to prices. This potential fails to be fully realized, however, since investment spending stagnates when excess productive capacity is not eliminated by margin-squeezing price competition. Thus the existence of monopolistic conditions and so downwardly rigid mark-ups lead to inadequacy of effective demand by weakening the inducement to invest while maintaining the profit share and so restricting the growth of consumption.14

In this monopolistic pattern of accumulation, the critical problem became not so much one of surplus generation as surplus absorption. Wage earners had little or no access to surplus. The surplus was the gain to capital, derived from property income. But capital was not able to absorb the entire vast surplus at its disposal, as productivity expanded. Capitalist consumption accounted for a decreasing share of capitalist demand as income grew. Investment was hindered in absorbing the growing surplus by the fact that it took the form of new productive capacity which could not be expanded indefinitely independent of final, wage-based demand. “The tragedy of investment,” as Kalecki had put it, “is that it is useful.” To be sure there was always the possibility, Baran and Sweezy argued, of a new “epoch-making innovation,” such as the steam engine, the railroad, and the automobile, capable of transforming the entire economic landscape and emerging as a major source of surplus absorbtion. But such Schumpeterian innovations that define and accelerate the pace of economic activity, they noted, were few and far between. Finally, foreign investment, instead of being an easy outlet for domestically produced surplus, tended to generate a return flow of surplus from the third world that was greater than what the advanced capitalist world had invested there. The result was a powerful tendency toward stagnation rooted in the failure to absorb all of the economic surplus actually and potentially generated.

What was most distinctive about Monopoly Capital, however, was not this argument in itself, which they had presented to a considerable extent in their earlier works (and which was also present in the work of Kalecki and Steindl). Rather the uniqueness of their argument was to be found in their attempt to answer the more immediate historical question: Why if there is such a powerful tendency toward stagnation under capitalism (particularly in its monopoly stage) was the system expanding so rapidly? Monopoly Capital was written during the great postwar expansion of the U.S. (and the world capitalist) economy—the period that has so often in later decades been characterized (somewhat misleadingly) as the “golden age.” Baran and Sweezy were intent on explaining the reasons why the postwar expansion could be seen as “exceptional,” due to special factors that did not contradict their fundamental thesis that stagnation was the “normal” state of monopoly capitalism. Some part of the post-Second World War economic expansion, they argued, could be explained in terms of the favorable conditions following the war: the built-up consumer liquidity and the new role of the United States as the hegemonic force in the world economy, which served to increase demand for U.S. goods. The expansion was also helped along by the second wave of the automobilization of the economy, which had to be seen in terms of the stimulus that this offered to the glass, steel, and rubber industries, and the enormous increase in the construction of highways together with the emergence of suburbs with all their attendant effects on the retail sphere. Here a truly epoch-making innovation had played a part. But the additional stimulus from these factors soon began to wane.

The result was that the U.S. economy became dependent on various forms of economic waste in order to maintain its momentum. Here Baran and Sweezy highlighted three forms of waste: the expansion of the sales effort (encompassing the entire marketing system as well as, following Veblen, “the penetration of the sales effort into the production process”); military spending (not only Cold War spending but the effects of two regional wars in Asia); and growth of the financial sphere. Subsequently, Sweezy criticized Monopoly Capital for not having placed enough emphasis on the growth of the financial sector. But the fact that a section in the book was devoted to this constituted a remarkable insight at the time.)

Once the expansion of the sales effort, military spending, and the ballooning of finance were added to the stimuli provided by consumer liquidity and a second wave of automobilization after the war, the remarkable nature of the post-Second World War boom stood out. As Baran and Sweezy wrote, “it is probably safe to say that never since the height of the railroad epoch has the American economy been subject in peacetime to such powerful stimuli. What is really remarkable is that despite the strength and persistence of these stimuli, the familiar symptoms of inadequate surplus absorption—unemployment and underutilization of capacity—began to appear at an early stage and, apart from cyclical fluctuations, have been growing more severe.” Nor was there any easy answer to this for monopoly capitalist society, since the most effective means of stimulating demand—price-cutting and expansion of civilian government spending—were ruled out by the vested interests that ruled the society.

Monopoly Capital was greeted with rave reviews in places as varied as the American Economic Review, the New York Review of Books, the Nation, and Science & Society. For the New Left that emerged at this time it became one of the fundamental texts. As one activist from those days recalled, Monopoly Capital “was one of those books ‘everyone’ [in the student movement] read or discussed in a study group or recommended to radical friends.”15 Monopoly Capital also represented the original theoretical ground of most of the younger radical economists in the United States who formed the Union for Radical Political Economics in 1968. Neither entirely Old Left nor New Left Monthly Review was often a meeting place of ideas, carrying forward a historical tradition of critique in a way that both old and new radical activists could understand. Nina Serrano a student activist in Madison, Wisconsin in the late 1950s and ’60s later recalled that after Paul Sweezy gave a talk on the University of Wisconsin campus: “Most of us left his reception as subscribers to Monthly Review. For the next few years, articles from that magazine were often the center of lively discussion.”16

In 1971 Sweezy delivered the Marshall Lecture at Cambridge University. Entitled “On the Theory of Monopoly Capitalism” (later reprinted in Modern Capitalism and Other Essays, 1972) it constituted perhaps his most explicit discussion of the deeper issues associated with economic waste and its consequences and the role that this played in the original Monopoly Capital argument. In 1974–76 he served on the executive board of the American Economic Association. His reputation in this period among the younger leftwing political economists was nothing short of formidable, an almost legendary figure. Richard Wolff, an economics professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, was quoted by the Los Angeles Times as saying in 1977: “He is without question the leading American radical economist. No one holds a candle to him. Even the straight (orthodox) economists agree.”17

Two Op-Ed page articles in the New York Times aimed at the burgeoning New Left economics, were written separately in 1973 by Kenneth Arrow and Paul Samuelson, both Nobel Prize winners in economics. Arrow and Samuelson directed their barbs in particular at Paul Sweezy (who later replied in an essay entitled “Capitalism for Worse” in Leonard Silk, ed., Capitalism: The Moving Target). Arrow especially displayed skepticism regarding Baran and Sweezy’s argument that military spending was the main fiscal means of maintaining effective demand in the U.S. economy and that expansion of civilian government spending as a share of total federal spending on goods and services was largely blocked by the capitalist class. For Arrow there was no reason to believe that civilian government spending would not displace military spending as a fiscal stimulus sometime in the near future. More than three decades later, however, history seems only to have added further credence to Baran and Sweezy’s argument. Heavy reliance on military spending still characterizes U.S. capitalism in the opening years of the twenty-first century, even though the Cold War is long gone. Meanwhile the powers that be are demanding deeper and deeper cuts into social welfare spending to the point that even Social Security, once considered politically sacrosanct, is now targeted for privatization.

From 1954 on, Huberman and Sweezy wrote one trenchant critique after another in Monthly Review on the Vietnam War. These articles were collected together in 1970 in Vietnam: The Endless War, 1954-1970—a book that as much as any other reflected their powerful critique of U.S. capitalism. Huberman died suddenly of a heart attack in 1968. Sweezy cowrote the last few essays of the book with Harry Magdoff, who was to join him as coeditor of Monthly Review after Huberman’s death, and who, even more than Huberman and Sweezy themselves, devoted himself to the systematic critique of imperialism.

Magdoff was born in 1913 in the Bronx into a left-wing family and was well-versed in Marx even before he began studies at the City College of New York, where he initially focused on mathematics and physics. While at City College he joined a radical group called “The Social Problem Club” and edited the group’s monthly magazine, Frontiers. Later he joined the National Students League and the Youth League Against War and Fascism. He became editor of the National Student League’s Student Review in 1932–33. After he was expelled from City College for his political activities he went to New York University’s School of Commerce, where he received his B.S. in economics in 1936. Upon graduation he took a job with the National Commission on Technological Unemployment and Reemployment of the Works Progress Administration. While working for this project he developed the method for measuring productivity in individual manufacturing industries still used by the Department of Labor. Subsequently, Magdoff worked for the National Defense Advisory Board and the War Production Board. In the latter capacity he inspected and was involved in the planning and control of factories producing machinery and equipment for metalworking factories. Near the end of the war, in 1944, Magdoff was named director of the Current Business Analysis Division of the Department of Commerce and was responsible for overseeing the publication of the Survey of Current Business. Beginning in 1946 Magdoff served as special assistant to Henry Wallace, then the secretary of commerce. In mid-1947 he took a job with the New Council of American Business, a pro-New Deal business group. When Henry Wallace ran for president in 1948 Magdoff wrote Wallace’s small business platform.

The rise of McCarthyism, however, ended Magdoff’s career in Washington. He was called before various Congressional investigative committees and grand juries questioning his political background and found himself blacklisted. For most of a decade, out of economic necessity, he worked on Wall Street as a financial analyst and a stockbroker, finally taking a job selling insurance. In the late 1950s Magdoff joined Russell and Russell, a publisher of out-of-print scholarly books. He eventually bought an interest in the company. He remained at Russell and Russell until 1965, when Athenum bought the firm.

Magdoff attained a modicum of financial independence through the sale of his interest in Russell and Russell and was at last free to pursue his intellectual and political interests. In March 1965 he wrote his first article for Monthly Review, “The Achievement of Paul Baran,” following Baran’s death. After a few years occupied partly by teaching as an adjunct professor at the New School for Social Research, he joined Sweezy in 1969 at MR. During these years Magdoff wrote a series of pathbreaking articles on U.S. imperialism, which became The Age of Imperialism (1969), a work that complemented Monopoly Capital. His subsequent book, Imperialism: From the Colonial Age to the Present (1978), which consisted mainly of essays from Monthly Review, led off with a long article that he had written for the Encyclopedia Britannica.

At the same time Magdoff and Sweezy began writing a continuing series in MR on the U.S. economy, which combined the theoretical analysis that Sweezy had helped to develop, and in which Magdoff was equally well-versed, with Magdoff’s in-depth knowledge of U.S. government statistics. These articles offered an empirical basis for a critical appraisal of the U.S. economy, rarely seen in radical publications, and seldom equaled elsewhere. Already in the 1965 Socialist Register Magdoff had drawn attention to the crucial role of financial expansion as a countervailing factor with respect to stagnation. Now Magdoff and Sweezy systematically analyzed the relation of stagnation and finance, and a whole host of other economic problems in a running commentary that was to be gathered into five books: 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).

A major development in the monopoly capital argument that was to influence Sweezy emanated from the work of Harry Braverman. Braverman became the director of Monthly Review Press in 1967 after the press grew beyond what Huberman and Sweezy could handle on their own. Born and raised in Brooklyn, Braverman had worked for many years as a coppersmith and metalworker in the shipbuilding and steel industries, where he had also been a trade unionist and socialist activist in the Trotskyist tradition. In 1953 Braverman and a group led by Bert Cochran left the Socialist Worker’s Party and the two published The American Socialist, until it ceased publication in 1960. In 1958 The American Socialist and Monthly Review published a joint issue on U.S. labor. With the demise of The American Socialist Braverman had gone to work for Grove Press, where he eventually rose from editor to vice-president and general manager. He left Grove Press to take up the job as director of Monthly Review Press.

In his new capacity, Braverman sought to put the press on a more solid basis as the “university press of the left.” In this period Monthly Review Press published many of its most important works, including translations from other languages: Andre Gunder Frank’s Capitalism and Underdevelopment in Latin America (1967), Che Guevara’s Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War (1968), Ernest Mandel’s Marxist Economic Theory (1970), Louis Althusser’s Lenin and Philosophy (1971), Aimé Césaire’s Discourse on Colonialism (1972); Eduardo Galeano’s Open Veins of Latin America (1973); Samir Amin’s Accumulation on a World Scale (1974), Rayna Reiter, ed., Toward an Anthropology of Women (1975) and Charles Bettelheim’s Class Struggles in the USSR (1976).

But the press’s best seller was Braverman’s Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century (1974). In Monopoly Capital Baran and Sweezy had dealt almost entirely with the absorption of the economic surplus, while neglecting that part of the Marxian critique that went directly to the root of the problem: the generation of economic surplus in the labor process itself. In Labor and Monopoly Capital, published two years before his death in 1976, Braverman took on the prevailing assumption that labor conditions in the capitalist world had steadily improved, with rising skill levels. Building on Marx’s analysis and carefully examining the role that Frederick Winslow Taylor’s scientific management had played in reshaping modern work relations, Braverman demonstrated that the labor process under capitalism continued to be dominated by the degradation of work and struggles over job control between labor and capital. Within sociology Braverman’s critique was a bombshell, leading to a whole new area of studies on the labor process. In 1996 his book was designated by Contemporary Sociology, the American Sociological Association’s book review journal, as one of the ten most influential books in U.S. sociology in the previous twenty-five years. For Sweezy, who wrote the foreword to Braverman’s book, Labor and Monopoly Capital was a revelation, a solid confirmation of the power of Marx’s critique. Sweezy went so far as to point to one place in Monopoly Capital, where, lacking Marx’s genius and Braverman’s intimate knowledge of the labor process, he and Baran had gone too far in swallowing the prevailing ideology on rising skill levels in society. Only Braverman’s Labor and Monopoly Capital, he said, had allowed him to see his mistake.

During the course of the 1950s and ’60s, Sweezy and Monthly Review had partly lost sight of labor struggles in the United States, but Labor and Monopoly Capital served to reconnect Monthly Review and Sweezy with these issues. Sweezy’s position on the working class immediately following the publication of Monopoly Capital was presented in a 1967 talk called “Marx and the Proletariat,” delivered at the third annual Socialist Scholars Conference in New York. Here his argument was that Marx had expected the industrial proletariat to become a revolutionary force as a result of the transformative technology of modern industry, which degraded and homogenized the work force. However, the failure of revolution to take place in the industrial capitalist countries in the nineteenth century, due more than anything else to the lack of a revolutionary situation in this period, had created conditions, partly through the actions of trade unions, that had reversed the process of homogenization (if not the actual degradation) of work, creating “a vast proliferation of job categories” and status differentials within labor’s ranks, submerging class consciousness. Consequently, the proletariat in the advanced capitalist states had moved from a revolutionary to a reformist orientation.

Yet, the industrial proletariat of advanced capitalism, Sweezy went on to argue, was not the only possible revolutionary agent. The history of the twentieth century had proven that the revolutionary impetus had been transferred to the third world, the mass of the population of which had become the focal point of world capitalist exploitation in a way similar to what Marx had suggested for the industrial proletariat at the center of the capitalist system in his day. Hence, the future of the revolt against capitalism and the building of socialism were to be found primarily in the periphery of the capitalist world.

This fit with the general orientation of Monopoly Capital, which was dedicated to Che Guevara and which included a chapter devoted to the nature of racial exploitation in the United States. It had pointed in its conclusion to the possibility of an alliance between exploited peoples of color in the center of the system and revolutionary forces emanating from the third world. Imperialism and racism then became the weak points of capitalism and could be countered only by a revolutionary break with the system.

Sweezy was a strong supporter of Salvador Allende’s democratically elected socialist government in Chile, where he was invited as a guest of honor at Allende’s inauguration. But he and Magdoff strongly cautioned Allende’s Popular Unity government that without military power to back them up, their state—as with any state in a surrounding capitalist environment—would be vulnerable. The subsequent CIA-directed coup in Chile suggested, in Sweezy’s view, that given the realities of U.S. imperialism, revolution in the periphery could probably only occur through armed revolution. (See Sweezy and Magdoff, ed., Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Chile.) Monthly Review resolutely supported armed revolutions on all three continents of the third world. As

C. Wright Mills had said of the Cuban revolution, the MR approach was to worry not “about” these revolutions, so much as to worry “with” them.

Still, although Sweezy was to continue to insist throughout all of his subsequent work that the main prospect for revolution lay in the periphery, he became more attuned to class struggle in the advanced capitalist world from the 1970s on, partly as a response to Braverman’s work and a whole host of labor process studies that Monthly Review nurtured, and partly due to the new signs of life in the working-class movement which, for a time, accompanied the economic crisis conditions of the 1970s. By the late 1980s and early 1990s Monthly Review was making new efforts to connect with and address the needs of radical labor—even as radical labor activists themselves became more concerned with globalization trends and the need to create solidarity with third world workers.

All of these transformations in Sweezy’s analysis were evident in his short book, Four Lectures on Marxism (1981), comprised of four lectures delivered at Hosei University in Tokyo in October 1979 under the title of “Marxism Today,” and two long appendixes added later. More than simply a statement of the monopoly capital theory, the book amounted to a brief sketch of his critique of the system together with his assessment of actually existing socialism. In terms of the theory of accumulation it represented a subtle shift away from the monopoly capital argument as such and toward the larger historical issue of industrial maturity, related to stagnation, that Sweezy had addressed in The Theory of Capitalist Development but that he now tried to explain in more historical terms.

The argument was couched in terms of the two-department model of Marx’s reproduction schemes, consisting of department 1 (or investment goods industries) and department 2 (consumption goods industries). Accumulation under capitalism prospered as long as department 1 could grow more rapidly than department 2. But this created a tendency towards overaccumulation, since the growth of department 1 was ultimately dependent on department 2—one could not “build mills to build more mills forever” as J. B. Clark had contended. The maturity argument, which was derived from Hansen, but was presented by Sweezy in Marxian terms, suggested that rapid growth of department 1 was easiest at the initial stages of production, when all industry had to be built up from scratch. But once basic industry had been developed new investment was more likely to be impeded by investment that had occurred in the past resulting in the growth of ample capacity able to satisfy not only current demand but also further expansions in demand in most industries. Together with the problem of monopolistic accumulation, this generated a strong tendency toward stagnation.

This shift in emphasis in Sweezy’s argument—where larger historical factors similar to those raised by Hansen gained more prominence, and the problem of monopolistic accumulation was then seen as taking place in that wider context of “maturity and stagnation”—became even more pronounced in Sweezy and Magdoff’s writings in the 1980s. In the face of the growth of supply-side economics, which went against the main theoretical breakthrough of the Keynesian revolution (the critique of Say’s Law that supply creates its own demand), Sweezy and Magdoff returned again and again to the stagnation debate of the 1930s and the historical problem of investment in capitalist societies. This was signaled in particular by Sweezy’s lecture “Why Stagnation?” delivered to the Harvard Economics Club in March 1982, in which he rehearsed the Hansen-Schumpeter debate and its significance. In this and other articles such as “Full Recovery or Stagnation?” (from the title of Hansen’s book) and “Listen, Keynesians!” Magdoff and Sweezy attempted to advance the analysis of stagnation in the 1980s, while reintroducing their readers to the economic insights of the past (since supply-side economics was then flying in the face of these). As always the issue came down to the thesis that stagnation was the “normal” state of monopoly capitalism—so that the problem was less one of explaining stagnation, than of accounting for periods of rapid growth. It was the 1960s, not the 1970s and ’80s, Sweezy and Magdoff argued, that were the exception to the rule of slow growth and underutilization of labor and productive capacity. In 1987 Sweezy provided his most succinct summary of the history of the analysis of monopoly capitalism in an essay on that topic in The New Palgrave Dictionary of Economics.

In 1979 Sweezy was drawn back into the debates over Marxian value theory due to criticism generated by followers of Piero Sraffa at Cambridge University. In response to Ian Steedman’s argument that Marx’s labor-value theory was not wrong, but essentially “redundant” in relation to Sraffian (or neo-Ricardian) analysis, Sweezy insisted—returning to his argument in The Theory of Capitalist Development—that what mattered was not just the quantitative value problem, which neo-Ricardian theory could provide an answer to, but the qualitative value problem to which the quantitative analysis was inseparably related in Marx’s analysis. The qualitative value problem lay at the core of Marx’s key concept of the rate of surplus value and the economic sociology that it entailed. The distinctions between the British school of Marxian economics, which had been influenced by the work of Maurice Dobb and had concentrated simply on the quantitative value problem, and the American school of Marxist economics, which was based on Sweezy’s Theory of Capitalist Development with its added emphasis on the qualitative value problem thus stood out in bold relief.18

In addition to his work on capitalist development, Sweezy contributed over the years to the analysis of the contradictory economic and social path of what he was to call “post-revolutionary societies.” In On the Transition to Socialism (1971, with Charles Bettelheim), Sweezy boldly contended, against the theory and practice of market socialism then gaining ground in Eastern Europe, that attempts to utilize the market mechanism as the central means of building socialism were likely to lead to nothing less than the restoration of capitalism. It was the bureaucratic-Stalinist political system rather than central planning as such, Sweezy argued, that constituted the real weakness of Soviet society—although the two could not easily be separated and the failure to grant more political power to the workers would eventually generate mounting economic problems as well. In December 1970 he wrote in MR in his debate with Bettelheim:

What I wanted to emphasize was that when the bureaucratically administered economy runs into difficulties (as it certainly must), there are two politically opposite ways in which a solution can be sought. One is to weaken the bureaucracy, politicize the masses, and entrust increasing initiative and responsibility to the workers themselves. This is the road forward for socialist relations of production. The other way is to retreat (as was the case with the New Economic Policy under Lenin) but as an ostensible step toward a more efficient “socialist” economy. This is in fact to elevate profit-making to the guiding role in the economic process and to tell the workers to mind their own business, which is to work hard so that they can consume more. It is to recreate the conditions in which commodity fetishism flourishes along with its associated false and alienated consciousness. It is, I submit, the road back to class domination and ultimately the restoration of capitalism.

A decade later in Post-Revolutionary Society (1980) he advanced the thesis that, although the original socialist character of the October Revolution was not open to question, a qualitative break had occurred during the early Stalin era, leading to the emergence of a class-exploitative system of a new kind—neither capitalism nor socialism. In the concluding paragraph of that book (which preceded by five years the rise of Gorbachev), Sweezy declared that the Soviet system had “entered a period of stagnation, different from the stagnation of the advanced capitalist world but showing no more visible signs of a way out.” Later, in a new preface to the 1990 Japanese edition of Post-Revolutionary Society, he argued that as a result of perestroika and “the revolution of 1989” in Eastern Europe, it had become clear to the entire world that the new class system that arose in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe in the Stalin period has come to “a dead end.” “The conclusion that emerges from this analysis,” Sweezy went on to observe, “is that the crisis of the Soviet Union and the collapse of its East European allies was not due to the failure of socialism. The struggle for socialism in the Soviet Union as recounted above, was lost long before with the consolidation of a class system, and it was this system which, despite its undoubted achievements, ultimately failed.”

Sweezy’s writings on China displayed the same critical sense. The Chinese Revolution, he believed (and as Mao had emphasized) was at all times in jeopardy because of the possibility of a new class emerging that would ultimately destroy the prospects of the revolution and lead to a restoration of capitalism. Sweezy and MR thus sympathized very broadly with Mao’s call for a “Cultural Revolution” and the motive that had inspired it, aimed at stopping the emergence of such a new class—without supporting all of what was to develop in Mao’s failed attempt to reinvigorate the revolutionary process in China.

In all of this he remained resolutely committed to a socialist future. Asked in 1999 whether the world was “closer to socialism now than it seemed when you started Monthly Review, or farther?” Sweezy answered: “Well, if socialism is ever going to happen, we’re nearer to it now than we were then.”

Sweezy has long been regarded as one of the leading figures of Western Marxism in the twentieth century. “The most original American contribution to Marxist theory,” David McLellan wrote in his Marxism After Marx (1989), “has been in political economy.” Here he singled out in particular the works of Baran and Sweezy and Braverman. But Sweezy’s contribution to Marxism is in many ways as sociological and historical as it is economic. Indeed, it is in sociology that Sweezy is often held in the highest regard today, where he is seen as playing as a fundamental role in many areas, including the important debate over ruling class or power elite that emerged in response to C. Wright Mills now-classic work, The Power Elite (1956). Sweezy had been the most forceful thinker in his time in putting forward the notion of the “ruling class” as the principal force in U.S. society—a ruling class that had its basis in ownership of property income, or surplus value. He had responded to a question on the nature of the ruling class from a sociology graduate student by writing a two-part article entitled “The American Ruling Class” in the May and June 1951 issues of Monthly Review.

When C. Wright Mills in The Power Elite seemed to address hierarchical power in U.S. society while abandoning the notion of a ruling class, Sweezy provided an influential reply: “Power Elite or Ruling Class?,” followed more than a decade later by “Thoughts on the American System”—both of which appeared in his book Modern Capitalism and Other Essays. In response to Mills’s objection that “ruling class” was “a badly loaded term” because it involved the proposition that an “economic class rules politically” Sweezy responded: “What of it? The question is whether the theory is applicable to the United States today, and if the investigation shows that it is, then the only ‘loading’ is on the side of truth. As I have argued…most of Mills’ factual material supports the ruling class theory to the hilt.” For Sweezy, Mills’s attempt to explain things in terms of a threefold power elite consisting of the political elite, the corporate elite, and the military elite had serious shortcomings, since it could easily be shown that these were not three separate institutions each with their clearly defined sphere, but represented overlapping realms in which the corporate rich were clearly the ruling force. Not only did politicians feed at the corporate capitalist trough, but also military leaders were subordinated to the needs of the capitalist class. As Sweezy pointed out in “Thoughts on the American System,” at the time of Nixon’s presidency, “since the Truman administration, this post [secretary of defense] has normally been in the charge of a top executive of one of the country’s biggest corporations: General Motors, Proctor and Gamble, Morgan Guaranty Trust, and Ford.”

Sweezy’s lucid analysis of the U.S. state and the role of the ruling capitalist class was made evident again and again at the most concrete level in his analyses of U.S. militarism and imperialism and state efforts to organize class exploitation and cope with economic crisis. Like Marx, Veblen, and Schumpeter before him, Sweezy constantly crossed the boundaries between economics and sociology, creating a system of thought that belonged to both worlds—necessarily so since he denied the value of such artificial academic boundaries. Although originally an economist he constantly expanded the domain of his analysis. For example, in July-August 1985 Monthly Review ran a very influential special issue, introduced by Magdoff and Sweezy and organized with the help of Cornel West, on “Religion and the Left.”

In his Four Lectures on Marxism Sweezy had started out discussing the question of the dialectic and the distinction between materialism and idealism in Marxist thought—entering into the epistemological (and ontological) realm. Shortly after the book was published he received a letter from his friend Professor Pesi Masani of the Department of Mathematics and Physics at the University of Pittsburgh, which, though enthusiastic about the book, chided Sweezy on his use of the term “materialism” for what would nowadays be called “realism.” As Masani put it,

If I ask what my red ball point pen is, I run into several answers. It is an aggregate of chemical molecules, it is an electromagnetic field, it is a spatio-termporal region (a class of events) with a particular curvature tensor. Each answer has to be thought of as a particular coding of the pen. The pen itself is what is common to all these codings—what Russell calls relation-structure, and what nowadays is described as a group-invariant. This is [a] highly mathematical and therefore ideal concept. So if we really want to ontologize, we would all have to be called “idealist” or “realist-idealist.”

Sweezy replied:

If I understand you there are no serious disagreements between us on an epistemological level. The question of what your red ball point pen is may be infinitely complicated, but what it is not is relatively simple: it is not an idea originating in someone’s head. In fact it existed, at least in potentia, long before there were any heads. As I read Marx and Engels, this defines the dividing line between materialism and idealism. If you prefer the term “realism” to “materialism,” I have no objection except that it may tend to obscure the interpretation of the Marxist position.19

One area that had long been of concern to Sweezy was the environment. For a thinker who deplored in a Veblenian vein the vast amount of waste associated with monopoly capitalism this was in fact a natural development. In their popular Introduction to Socialism (1968) Huberman and Sweezy had emphasized the need for conservation of natural resources. Monopoly Capital had argued that production should be for use not for exchange (or profit) and that enormous sales efforts engendering unnecessary expenditures should be curtailed—a point that Baran and Sweezy also made in their important article “Theses on Advertising,” published in the Winter 1964 issue of Science & Society. In “Cars and Cities,” which appeared in Monthly Review in April 1972 Sweezy presented a far-ranging critique of the automobilization of U.S. society—looking at the effects with respect to urban sprawl and the generation of a “Gasopolis.” Writing in the Quarterly Journal of Economics in November of that year he pointed out that the alleged “‘benefits’ of automobilization on the U.S. scale include such things as urban decay and breakdown, growing and perhaps irreversible destruction of land and pollution of air.” In 1989, with growing world concern about global warming and other global scale environmental problems, Sweezy wrote two pathbreaking essays: “Capitalism and the Environment” (cowritten with Magdoff) and “Socialism and Ecology.” Building on the work of Barry Commoner and refusing to turn away from the logic of his own analysis, Sweezy argued, in a way that was radical even by the standards of ecological economists, that “essential for success” in the environmental domain was “a reversal, not a mere slowing down of the [growth] trends of the last few centuries.” But this was something that the capitalist accumulation process itself would not allow.

Subsequently, Monthly Review increasingly addressed the environmental crisis. On several occasions, in the Notes from the Editors, Sweezy analyzed the annual State of World reports of the World Watch Institute, examining the implications for capitalism and the environment. His last book review, entitled “The Guilt of Capitalism” (MR, June 1997) reviewing Who Owns the Sun? by Daniel M. Berman and John T. O’Connor, recounted how the vested interests of the system in the United States had blocked the development of solar power. For Sweezy there was no contradiction between classical Marxism and concern for the environment—as Marx himself had demonstrated his sensitivity to the ecological contradictions of capitalism.20

Sweezy’s final economic statements were among his more important, reflecting as ever his emphasis on the historical changes in the system. In June 1994 he wrote a piece called “The Triumph of Financial Capital” that described the evolution of monopoly capital into a system in which financial capital was ascendant, shifting “the locus of economic and political power.” Even those in the boardrooms of the dominant multinational corporations were now constrained by the global network of financial markets (in which they of course were direct participants). Nation-states, even the United States itself, he argued were to a considerable extent subject to the exigencies of these markets. Economically, this situation had grown out of prolonged stagnation. In a reversal of earlier trends financial explosions now occurred during and as a result of stagnation, rather than feeding mainly on expansions of production. This carried far-reaching ramifications for the future of the capitalist economy and Sweezy posed this as the primary unsolved problem for those trying to understand much less oppose the capitalist system. In September 1997 he wrote his final article: “More (Or Less) On Globalization.” In that article Sweezy entered the globalization debate. “Globalization,” he argued, “is not a condition or a phenomenon: it is a process that has been going on for a long time, in fact ever since capitalism came into the world as a viable form of society four or five centuries ago.” Globalization should not be viewed as “the driving force of capitalism,” since that lay in the internal motor force of the system: capital accumulation itself.

Sweezy’s last major article on imperialism (cowritten with Magdoff) was written as a response to the 1991 Gulf War on Iraq. Entitled “Pox Americana,” it provided a brief history of U.S. interventions in the third world and ended grimly:

The United States, it seems, has locked itself into a course with the gravest implications for the whole world. Change is the only certain law of the universe. It cannot be stopped. If societies are prevented from trying to solve their problems in their own ways, they will certainly not solve them in ways dictated by others. And if they cannot move forward, they will inevitably move backward. This is what is happening in a large part of the world today, and the United States, the most powerful nation with unlimited means of coercion at its disposal, seems to be telling the others that this is a fate that must be accepted on pain of violent destruction.

Alfred North Whitehead, one of the greatest thinkers of this past century, once said: “I have never ceased to entertain the idea that the human race might rise to a certain point and then decline and never retrieve itself. Plenty of other forms of life have done that. Evolution may go down as well as up.” It is an unsettling but by no means far-fetched thought that the form and active agency of this decline may be taking shape before our very eyes in these closing years of the twentieth century A.D.

This is of course not to suggest that irreversible decline is inevitable. In human affairs nothing is inevitable until it happens. But it is to suggest that the way things have been going for the last half century, and especially for the past year, holds that potential. And it is also to recognize that we, the American people, have a special responsibility to do something about it since it is our government that is threatening to play Samson in the temple of humanity.

As with many great thinkers and writers, a large part of the power of Sweezy’s thought had to do with the lucidity of his prose; his marvelous capacity for clarity in areas where so many others offer merely obscurity, jargon, fashionable claims, and a seeming inability to separate the essential from the trivial. As with Marx, Veblen, Schumpeter, and Galbraith the style with which he conveyed his ideas was often almost as important to their reception as the ideas themselves. The brilliance of his prose occasioned numerous comments and inquiries. In 1979 one admirer wrote “the thing that captivates me apart from your enrichment of Marxism is your prose style. This has so appealed to me that I have finally yielded to the temptation of not so much asking you of the secret of it; but who is your favorite prose writer. I am assuming, I hope not undialectically, that you were not born with the art, and perhaps consciously developed it from a creative imitation of a favorite prose writer.” Sweezy replied on December 25, 1979:

My prose style, such as it is, was largely formed in years apart at both school and college in writing for and editing the school and college newspapers, which I did at the expense of my studies and originally with the intention of adopting a journalistic career. Eventually I shifted to economics, but with the benefit of having taught myself to write simply and clearly, at least by the standards of the economics profession. As to my favorite authors: Marx of course is by far the first, a beautiful stylist as well as an incomparable intellect. I could name many others, I suppose, though I am not sure how I would rank them, but that would not be of much use to you. So I will just mention three: Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, and Edgar Snow (a fine example of top-notch journalism). You mention Orwell, and while I haven’t read anything by him in a long time, my recollection is of a very fine writer too. One more: Trotsky, whose History of the Russian Revolution (translated into English, I believe, by Max Eastman) played an important role in converting a very bourgeois American first-year graduate student into a Marxist (my admiration for Trotsky as a writer never led me to become a political Trotskyist).21

In his later years Sweezy taught occasionally as a visiting professor at Cornell, Stanford, the New School for Social Research, Yale, and Manchester University. In 1983 he was granted an honorary doctorate of literature from Jawaharlal Nehru University in India, and in 1999 he received the Veblen-Commons Award from the Association for Evolutionary Economics. But he remained for the most part removed from the academic world after his departure from Harvard. As an intellectual and a Marxist Sweezy rose at a young age to the pinnacle of the academic profession and then felt compelled at a crucial point in his life—if he was to remain true to his socialist beliefs—to abandon a university career. As he always insisted, he was fortunate to have access to the surplus value that would allow him to chart an independent course. The result was the creation of a new institution of the left, Monthly Review, in which he was free to develop his critique of capitalism in a way that academics seldom are, and at the same time to nurture, not only those trying to navigate their way from the Old Left to the New, but also generations of younger radicals. His correspondence was voluminous, since he wrote not just in his role as an editor, but also as an educator, assisting anyone who sought to penetrate to the roots of capitalist society. His role in this respect was inseparable from the larger purposes of Monthly Review as an institution devoted to left education. As Russell Jacoby wrote in his best-selling book, The Last Intellectuals (1987):

Although often ignored, the writings by the associates of Monthly Review and, specifically, the books by Paul Baran, Paul Sweezy, Harry Braverman, and Harry Magdoff formed a school that in coherency, originality, and boldness no other American Marxism has come close to matching. When Marxists of other countries turn to American contributors, it is primarily to these authors….The force of these works [by Baran, Sweezy, Braverman and Magdoff] cannot be attributed simply to the lives of the authors; but neither can it be cleanly separated from them. The Monthly Review authors stood largely outside the universities and they wrote for the educated reader. Their books are not rehashings of Marxist dogma; nor are they monographs for colleagues. “The desire to tell the truth,” wrote Baran, is “only one condition for being an intellectual. The other is courage, readiness to carry on rational inquiry to wherever it may lead…to withstand…comfortable and lucrative conformity.”

Paul Sweezy died in Larchmont, New York on February 27, 2004. Not the least of his legacies is the model of intellectual independence that he has left behind. He demonstrated what Baran called the courage as well as the commitment of an intellectual. And through the creation of Monthly Review he made it possible for many others to share in the same commitment and courage. He forever changed us. His life is a marker to us all.


  1. “The Unorthodox Ideas of Radical Economists Win a Wider Hearing,” Wall Street Journal, February 11, 1972; John Kenneth Galbraith, Economics in Perspective (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987), 189.
  2. Sweezy, Interview November 1986–February 1987, Columbia University Oral History Project.
  3. A. P. Lerner and Paul M. Sweezy, “British Foreign Policy,” New Statesman and Nation, September 5, 1936; John Maynard Keynes, Collected Writings, vol. 28 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), 56–57.
  4. Paul Samuelson, “Memories,” Newsweek, June 2, 1969.
  5. John Kenneth Galbraith and Shigeto Tsuru, tributes to Paul Sweezy, Monthly Review, April 2000.
  6. Scitovsky to Sweezy, January 25, 1994.
  7. Schumpeter’s letter quoted in Richard Swedberg, Joseph A. Schumpeter: His Life and Work (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1991), 140, 272.
  8. Lifschultz, “Could Karl Marx Teach Economics in America?”
  9. Business Week, April 13, 1963.
  10. Notes from the Editors, Monthly Review, February 1960.
  11. Quoted in Larry Lifschultz, “Could Karl Marx Teach Economics in America?” Ramparts, April 1974.
  12. U.S. Supreme Court, U.S. Reports, vol. 354, October Term, 1956.
  13. Another key figure advising the MR editors on economics in this period was the economist Oskar Lange, whom Sweezy had known at Harvard.
  14. Tracy Mott, “Monopoly Capitalism,” in Philip Arestis and Malcolm Sawyer, eds., The Elgar Companion to Radical Political Economy (Brookfield, Vermont, 1994).
  15. Joanne Barkan, “A Blast from the Past,” Dissent, Spring 1997.
  16. Nina Serrano, “A Madison Bohemian,” in Paul Buhle, ed. History and the New Left: Madison, Wisconsin, 1950–1970 (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990), 75.
  17. Richard Wolff quoted in “Leading Prophet of Economic Collapse Cheers Up,” Los Angeles Times, August 21, 1977.
  18. Sweezy, “Marxian Value Theory and Crisis,” Monthly Review, July–August 1979; reprinted in Ian Steedman, et. al., The Value Controversy (London: Verso, 1981).
  19. Pesi Masani to Sweezy, August 31, 1982; Sweezy to Pesi Masani, September 29, 1982.
  20. Ecologically, Sweezy agreed with the main thrust of Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen’s critique of economics and his emphasis on entropy, particularly as set out in his Energy and Economic Myths (1976).
  21. Letter to Paul M. Sweezy, author’s name obscure, no date; Sweezy’s reply to unknown author December 25, 1979.

2004, Volume 56, Issue 05 (October)
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