Top Menu

Dear Reader, we make this and other articles available for free online to serve those unable to afford or access the print edition of Monthly Review. If you read the magazine online and can afford a print subscription, we hope you will consider purchasing one. Please visit the MR store for subscription options. Thank you very much. —Eds.

Monthly Review in Historical Perspective

Monthly Review, January 1994
Paul M. Sweezy was a founding editor of Monthly Review (along with Leo Huberman) and coedited the magazine from 1949 until 2004.
This article was a talk given at Harry Magdoff’s eightieth birthday party in New York on October 15, 1993, and is reprinted here from the January 1994 issue of Monthly Review. Magdoff joined Paul Sweezy as coeditor of Monthly Review after Leo Huberman’s death in 1968.

First, I think it is crucial to understand that all of the most significant developments had their origins in the first half, one of the most eventful periods in human history. It included: two world wars (1914–1918 and 1941–1945), global economic collapse in the Great Depression of the 1930s, and history’s two greatest revolutions (Russia 1917, China 1949, dated by the years in which the revolutionary forces took power). I don’t think it would be disputed that all of these complicated events were intricately interrelated as both causes and effects. MR was founded in the year of the last of these events, the victory of the Chinese Revolution. Its purpose was the ambitious one of using Marxian methods, historical and economic, to understand what was going on and to take positions consistent with a commitment to socialist principles.

On the domestic front the situation in 1949 was not what might have been expected in a country that had only recently emerged victorious and largely undamaged from a war that had left both its allies and its enemies in a shambles. The United States, militarily secure and economically strong, sat on top of the world as no single power had ever done before. The domestic counterpart, one might have thought would be a mood of relaxation, calm, and optimism. But it wasn’t. Instead, something like the infamous red scare that followed the First World War was in full swing bearing the name of McCarthyism. The reason for these two postwar episodes was very similar. In both cases labor had taken advantage of wartime conditions to improve its organization and bargaining power. From capital’s point of view labor needed to be taught a lesson and put back into its accustomed subservient position. But this was not the only similarity. In each case the only real winner in the war was the United States. Most of the rest of the world was in deep trouble. In these circumstances, revolutionary movements proliferated and actually came to power, in Russia after the First World War and in China after the Second World War, respectively the largest and most populous countries in the world. Thus in the late forties as in the early twenties, the United States, overwhelmingly the most powerful nation, sat on top of a world that seemed to be slipping out from under it.

The combination of a militant working class at home and a revolutionary environment abroad was rightly perceived by the U.S. ruling class as threatening the very existence of the system from which it derived its wealth and power. As such it demanded the most energetic counter-measures, which were duly organized and orchestrated, using all the varied weapons of persuasion and coercion at its disposal. This was the real root of the red scare after the First World War and of McCarthyism after the Second.

But the similarity between the two postwar situations didn’t last very long. The victory of counter-revolution in Germany was a decisive turning point, after which the Soviet Union was effectively isolated and the capitalist world more or less rapidly returned to business as usual. Nothing of the kind happened after the Second World War. The war ended with the Soviet regime intact and the Red Army in occupation of most of Eastern Europe. Washington tried hard to take advantage of the region’s devastation to bring it back into a capitalist Europe. That was one of the main purposes of the Marshall Plan as originally proposed. The Soviet leaders understood the implications and refused. That decision sealed the division of Europe into two antagonistic systems for a long time to come. Meanwhile, revolutionary unrest mounted around the globe, but especially in East and Southeast Asia, the areas occupied by Japan during the war. With the collapse of Japanese rule, deeply rooted revolutionary movements in China, Korea, and Indochina went on the offensive. The United States reacted with a vast, costly, and ultimately unsuccessful military and economic effort to shore up Chiang Kai-Shek’s regime in China. The revolutionary forces there came to power in 1949, and in the other countries the same outcome seemed to be only a matter of time.

The U.S. domestic counterpart of these events in Europe and Asia was McCarthyism, essentially an all-out ideological/political campaign to shock the American people out of a mood of postwar relaxation and to prepare them for a long and bitter struggle against what was depicted as an enemy of their “way of life,” now perceived to have grown to global proportions.

This, in desperate brevity, was the situation into which MR was born. We of course had a very different view of the world than that of the U.S. ruling class. (Let me interrupt here to explain that when I use the pronoun “we” here and in what follows, I include not only those whose names have been listed on the masthead but also a varying number of like-minded thinkers and writers who over the years could be described as a sort of informal collective. Two of the most important of course were Paul Baran and Harry Braverman.) As we saw it, the great upheavals of the first half of the twentieth century, the two world wars, and the intervening Great Depression were the logical outcome of the preceding four centuries of capitalist/imperialist development, and the postwar revolutionary responses were liberatory struggles aimed at putting an end to the rule of capital and laying the foundations of a new world of cooperating socialist societies. This seemed to us to be fully consistent with the basic Marxian view of capitalism as a transitory form of society destined to be replaced by new forms more conducive to the free development and survival of the human species.

Looking ahead in 1949, we felt that domestically the prospect was very grim. We had been among those, including many conservatives, who expected the return of peace to bring back the depressed economic conditions of the 1930s. Signs of a downturn that year strengthened this view. Politically, McCarthyite reaction was riding high. These two developments, we thought, added up to a serious threat of an American brand of fascism. On the other hand the situation in the world at large seemed very promising. The Chinese Revolution was in its final stage. The Soviet Union was making a surprisingly rapid recovery from wartime devastation. Allied and freed from the constraints of capitalism, the Soviet Union and China would surely be able to outperform the capitalist world, if not in strictly economic terms certainly in matters of equity and justice which are more important to the exploited and oppressed peoples of the Third World. It would undoubtedly be a drawn-out and torturous process, but in the long run the victory of socialism seemed attainable even if not assured. It is hard today even to imagine the optimism we felt about the future as the first half of the twentieth century came to a close.

The second half of the twentieth century has been a different story. In retrospect we can see that it has been a much simpler story, one with a unifying theme and a predictable ending. I shall deal with it here briefly and in a few broad strokes.

The unifying theme has been the regrouping and energizing of the global counterrevolutionary forces under the leadership of the United States, the most powerful capitalist nation. Major hot wars in Asia (Korea in the fifties, Vietnam in the sixties and early seventies, both indirectly aimed at China) blocked and distorted the revolutionary process in that part of the world. Cold War in Europe, imposed on the Soviet Union as the alternative to a live-and-let-live settlement based on the military outcome of the Second World War, initiated and then prolonged what was essentially an economic contest, disguised as an arms race, between unequal antagonists. In retrospect we can see that the end result, the collapse of the Soviet Union, was inevitable.

Perhaps the greatest irony of this long period of triumphant counterrevolution was that the characteristic stagnation of mature capitalism which dominated the thirties and threatened a return after the Second World War was kept at bay for another forty years by the wars, hot and cold, of the second half of the twentieth century. It was this relative prosperity that provided capitalism with the surplus needed to fight these wars and submerge the revolutions its earlier wars had ignited.

One of MR’s tasks in these years of counterrevolution has been to use Marxian methods to track and understand major developments on both sides of a polarized world. Another task was to chronicle, encourage, and where possible celebrate the successes of numerous Third World efforts to escape the confines of capitalism and start on a new road for the tragically exploited and oppressed peoples of those unhappy lands. Whatever else happens, these tasks will remain.

As we look ahead, what kind of a picture do we see, and how does it compare with the one that confronted us back in 1949?

Then, as recounted above, the immediate domestic outlook was dark and menacing, while long-term prospects seemed to hold great promise for the vast majority of humankind. Today, as we look ahead, no such contrast exists.

As far as the domestic scene is concerned, not that much has changed. The deep economic stagnation of the 1930s gave signs of returning in 1949. As it happened, this process was interrupted—at the time unexpectedly—by four more decades of wars, hot and cold. Today, following the end of the Cold War, stagnation has returned and as of now nothing likely to produce a reversal is anywhere on the horizon, continuing and deepening economic, social, and political crises seem inevitable.

What differentiates the outlook today from that of 1949 is not that the rest of the world has somehow escaped the global crisis of capitalism—far from it—but that the vigorous post-Second World War revolutionary movements that had already accomplished so much by 1949 and held out so much promise for the future were decimated, ground down, distorted, despiritualized, and eventually rendered impotent by the struggles and defeats of the counterrevolutionary decades from 1950 to 1990. The big difference, in sum, is that in 1949 capitalism was confronted by a powerful enemy, while today it is virtually unopposed.

The short-run implications are all bad. The inherent tendencies of capitalism in its mature monopoly capitalist phase are to intensify exploitation, inequality, polarization, and susceptibility to crises both within and between countries. Historically, these tendencies have been somewhat reined in by opposition from workers and other victims of the system powerful enough to force ruling classes to make concessions. Absent such opposition, these ruling classes tend to adopt policies that make matters worse rather than better.

If we try to look further into the future, we see what appears to be a fork in the road. In one direction lies more of the same, in the other the rebirth of revolutionary opposition to the rule of capital.

Not much needs to be said about the first of these alternatives. In the long run, as in the short, the continued unchecked rule of capital promises nothing but disaster for the human species. The only real hope for improvement lies in the rebirth of a powerful revolutionary opposition. Is this possible? The answer surely is yes: what has happened in history can happen again. The recently defeated opposition to the rule of capital had its origins in the industrial revolution of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, whence it spread to the whole world. It took many forms, achieved successes, suffered losses and defections, shaped the lives and thoughts of hundreds of millions. Its defeat in the great showdown of the second half of the twentieth century owed as much to its own internal divisions and weaknesses as to the strength of its opponent.

Be that as it may, the defeat was not, and in the nature of the case could not, have been a fatal blow. The reason is simple. If the victory of capital meant what its ideologists claim—i.e., the beginning of a new era in which the great mass of humanity can reasonably look forward to a better future—then certainly the opposition would have been knocked out for good. But of course the exact opposite is true. Given its head, capital puts the screws on tighter than ever.

It would be foolish to underestimate the seriousness of the defeat the opposition has suffered, but it would be even more foolish to conclude that it is dead. The truth is that it is alive even if not well, and the fact that the conditions still exist that gave rise to its existence in the first place continue to operate, only more so, guarantees that it will stage a comeback as new generations of exploited and oppressed take the place of those who die or retire.

This renewal will take time. The institutional forms of the old opposition—mass organizations, political parties, sovereign States—will mostly disappear and be replaced by new ones. The same will hold for ideas and ideologies, particularly the falsified and distorted versions of Marxism that acquired the status of orthodoxies in the Social Democratic and Communist movements of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

All this will take time, and, perhaps fortunately, we cannot predict the ways it will happen, still less the outcomes it will take part in generating. We can only do our best to explain what has happened up to now and help the new upcoming generations to understand what changes are needed if the human species is to survive into a decent future. And, of course, hope for the best.

Postscript, 2022

Paul Sweezy’s comments in 1993 in “Monthly Review in Historical Perspective” were written in a general atmosphere of defeat on the left. The world socialist movement was pulverized, and capitalist triumphalism was everywhere. Nevertheless, the defeat suffered by socialism, Sweezy insisted—going against the tenor of the time—was by no means fatal. Rather, “the revolutionary opposition to the rule of capital” would inevitably reemerge in response to the destructive imperatives of the system itself. This became the message of Monthly Review in the new century.

Nearly thirty years later the power of this analysis is evident, as the planetary destructiveness of capitalism and imperialism, on the one hand, and what Marxist philosopher Georg Lukács called “the actuality of revolution,” on the other, are confronting each other in myriad ways around the globe. From the anti-globalization movement that burst out in Seattle in 1999, to the Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela with its Socialism for the Twenty-First Century, to the reinvigoration of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics in Beijing’s New Era, to the global climate movement now emerging on every continent, to today’s renewed anti-imperialist, anti-racist, and anti-misogynist struggles, to the revitalization of working-class organization—the material bases of revolt are reviving. The world is now facing an acceleration of history in every respect. Nor are the reasons for this obscure. Opposition to capitalism is no longer simply a struggle for equality and self-determination, but also for the survival of humanity itself: Socialism or Exterminism.

John Bellamy Foster
2022, Volume 74, Number 05 (October 2022)
Comments are closed.