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May 2024 (Volume 76, Number 1)

Monthly Review Volume 76, Number 1 (May 2024)

This issue marks the seventy-fifth anniversary of Monthly Review: An Independent Socialist Magazine, the first number of which appeared in May 1949. The Review of the Month by John Bellamy Foster addresses the historical background of Albert Einstein’s landmark article, “Why Socialism?,” published in volume 1, number 1, of the magazine, and its relation to the origins of MR.

In contrast, in the present “Notes from the Editors,” we will seek to look back not seventy-five but merely fifty years, focusing on the Review of the Month by MR editors Harry Magdoff and Paul M. Sweezy in the May 1974 issue, titled “Notes on Watergate: One Year Later.” This article dealt, as is now apparent, with a historical turning point, separating the conditions of global monopoly capitalism in the early 1970s from those of the first quarter-century after the Second World War. Magdoff and Sweezy’s May 1974 article also represented an important shift in MR’s long-term perspective, encompassing the ecological critique of growth.

“Notes on Watergate” started off by addressing the then-dominant concern on the left, cultivated also by the Democratic Party, as to whether Watergate represented a struggle between fascism and democracy. This was to be taken seriously, Magdoff and Sweezy argued, in the sense that the “fascist bacillus” definitely existed in U.S. society. Probably the best indication of this was the archvillain of Watergate, President Richard M. Nixon himself. Nixon had made his reputation as one of the leading, and ultimately the most successful, of the “exorcists of the red devil” during the right-wing McCarthyite inquisition of the 1950s. As the MR editors described that era,

Far from being an accidental phenomenon, this postwar anti-Communism was an important component of the counter-revolutions conducted directly, or spurred and stimulated, by the imperialist powers against revolutionary and national liberation movements around the world. The United States as the main driving force and organizer of counter-revolution also took the lead in exorcising its own internal red menace. The removal of Communists, independent socialists, and other radical nonconformists from crucial sectors of national life, as well as the accompanying miasma of fear, discouraged controversy over the fundamentals of U.S. foreign policy. The anti-Communism that swept the nation, plus the knuckling under of the liberal defenders of democracy and academic freedom, created the environment the ruling class needed to carry through its imperialist programs (Harry Magdoff and Paul M. Sweezy, “Notes on Watergate: One Year Later,” Monthly Review 26, no. 1 [May 1974]: 1–11).

U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy, a Republican from Wisconsin and the most notorious red-exorcist of the period, ultimately self-destructed by attempting to extend his anti-Communist crusade to members of the U.S. military—something that the U.S. power elite did not allow. Nixon, the leading, self-appointed inquisitor after McCarthy showed himself to be a far wilier politician, capable of rendering direct service to the U.S. ruling class in numerous areas, symbolized by the fact that he was chosen as Dwight D. Eisenhower’s vice president, and eventually was to be elevated to U.S. president. Nevertheless, the “dirty tricks” and various ways of abusing democratic rights that he had learned in the McCarthyite period stuck with Nixon throughout his political career and led directly to the Watergate scandal.

Watergate, with its bungling burglars known as “the plumbers”—the story of which has been told countless times—constituted an illegitimate and inept attempt to undermine not the bourgeois state itself, but rather the other ruling class party, and thus went against the game as it was supposed to be played, according to the firmly established rules of the U.S. power structure. It marked a loss of legitimacy of the liberal-democratic state within the imperial core of the capitalist system and a move toward more concentrated ruling-class power. The Watergate scandal, Magdoff and Sweezy noted, exposed “one way in which fascism might [eventually] develop in the United States,” with one of the two corespective ruling-class parties resorting to illegitimate and forcible means in order effectively to destroy its ruling-class, political-party rival. Yet, Watergate did not point to a shift of the U.S. power structure or any of its major sectors in favor of an outright fascist state. The well-established bipartisan backing of both militarism and imperialism abroad and repression of the more militant segments of the underlying population at home, particularly those emanating from racial minorities and the working class, would suffice as long as no actual, large-scale organized political and social forces from below developed aimed at directly challenging the existing order. “To put it in Lenin’s terms,” Magdoff and Sweezy observed,

the problems facing the ruling circles are objective, not subjective. The difficulties are in the area of administering the imperialist empire, of coping with rivalry of competing capitalisms, of inability to control inflation and to provide full employment…. There is yet nowhere in sight a meaningful challenge to the internal security of the capitalist state, no major force that recognizes the necessity of socialism as a way out of the capitalist morass. Under these circumstances, there is no urgency to choose [full-fledged] fascism.

What, then, were the objective forces that were destabilizing the U.S. economic and political structure, and capitalism in general, at the time that Magdoff and Sweezy were writing? They pointed to three objective, “unsolvable” problems facing monopoly capitalism. First, the U.S. defeat in Vietnam marked a real sign of absolute limits to the U.S. global hegemony on which the imperial power exercised by the U.S. ruling class was based. Second, endemic to the system was a process of deepening economic stagnation, or long-term slow growth accompanied by persistent inflation. Paul A. Baran and Sweezy had argued in Monopoly Capital in 1966, at the height of the post-Second World War economic boom (coinciding with the Vietnam War) that “the normal state of monopoly capitalism is stagnation.” The onset in 1974 of the first big recession of the post-Second World War period set off a trend of secular stagnation, increasingly punctuated by financial crises, that has continued to this day, with each succeeding decade experiencing slower growth than the one before, marking the structural crisis of capital accumulation. Both of these problems—declining U.S. hegemony and economic stagnation (along with the fascist bacillus)—are at the core of the crisis of monopoly-finance capital today.

But the MR editors merely mentioned the above two objective contradictions of the system in their May 1974 article, choosing to focus, given limited space, on a third contradiction, “unsolvable” under capitalism: the ecological limits of the system of capital accumulation. As they explained, this third objective contradiction was “The deep-seated faith that increasing production and productivity are the sovereign panacea for all the ills of capitalism…. This myth has been severely shaken as we have become aware of the growing shortages of raw materials and energy sources and of the increasingly severe impact of multivarious forms of pollution on the health and well-being of whole populations. Instead of a universal panacea, it turns out that growth is itself a cause of disease.” Nor was there any way of capitalism escaping from the objective ecological contradiction by controlling growth, since capitalism was a class-based system of accumulation requiring the endless drive toward higher profits and the amassing of wealth at the top of society. To speak of limits to growth (or degrowth) from this standpoint would be to speak of deaccumulation, that is, the annihilation of capitalist relations themselves.

But what if, instead of placing the emphasis on controlling growth, Magdoff and Sweezy asked, the focus were to be placed instead “on abating the effects of growth by reducing pollution and arranging for a more rational use of raw materials and energy”? “Such an approach, it is clear, would entail a high degree of social planning: nothing less than a wholesale redirection of the economy, involving, among other things, changes in population distribution, methods of transportation, and plant locations—none of which can be subjected to real social planning without violating the rights of private property in land, factories, stocks and bonds, etc.” Once again, this would necessarily involve a struggle against the system of capital accumulation.

In short, the MR editors argued a half-century ago that the trend toward ecological destruction built into capitalism could only be alleviated by limiting its destructive growth tendencies and through social planning, both of which required moving in the direction of socialism and toward what is called today “planned degrowth” (the title of the July–August 2023 MR special issue). MR’s critique of growth in 1974 helped to inspire some of the foundational works in environmental sociology, including Charles H. Anderson, The Sociology of Survival (Homewood, Illinois: Dorsey Press, 1976) and Allan Schnaiberg, The Environment (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980).

As Magdoff and Sweezy were to declare in an article titled “Twenty-Five Eventful Years” in the June 1974 issue of Monthly Review, the goal of living “in solidarity and happiness…[was at] the core of Marx’s thinking of socialism and communism. He never conceived of these new and higher forms of society as merely more productive of economic goods and services: in his view they would be above all more human, more just, more productive of a good life for all the people.” For Marx, the solution, in other words, was always one of sustainable human development.

As the MR editors concluded in their “Notes on Watergate,” “It is only when they [the great mass of the people] begin to take matters into their own hands and to seek out solutions which leave behind all the insane tabus and myths of capitalism that history will have reached a genuine turning point.”

2024, Volume 76, Number 01 (May 2024)
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