Paul Sweezy, 1910-2004

Against the Current, No. 110, May/June 2004

Christopher Phelps

WHEN PAUL MARLOR Sweezy, the most widely recognized Marxist economist in the world, died at age 93 in February, a long life of exemplary commitment came to an end.  The sole surviving founding editor of Monthly Review, Sweezy built an internationally known institution that sustained the radical left through the bleakest hours of the Cold War and its aftermath.

Born in 1910, Sweezy was a scion of the establishment who opposed the ruling class from which he sprang. He was the youngest of three sons of Everett P. Sweezy, a First National Bank of New York vice president whose freethinking (honed in skepticism toward his wife Caroline’s devout Methodism) acclimated the boy to dissent early in life.

The independent means left him by his father, Sweezy believed, afforded him freedom from the pressures of a society that punishes radicalism and rewards adjustment.  “I can’t claim to be any kind of hero,” Sweezy remarked, comparing himself to those who abandoned the left.

“The only reason I blame some people is because they turned around and joined the opposite side and sold their old friends and associates down the river for the good of their careers. That I find despicable, but that they didn’t remain left wing activists, I can’t find it in me to really be critical of that. I understand it all too well.”

Sweezy attended Philips Exeter Academy and Harvard University, where he presided over the Harvard Crimson and graduated in 1931, in the depth of the Depression. Drawn to economics, he was unsatisfied by the neoclassical theory that dominated the discipline, and proved open to Marxism when he encountered it in 1932 1933 at the London School of Economics.

At LSE he mingled with political theorist Harold Laski and Laski’s Communist and Trotskyist graduate students. Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution was decisive in Sweezy’s radicalization.

Returning to Harvard as a graduate student, Sweezy was granted a Ph.D. in 1937. His mentor was the conservative Austrian emigré economist Joseph Schumpeter, whose historical approach influenced Sweezy profoundly. He also absorbed new writings by the British liberal economist John Maynard Keynes, who argued that capitalism tended inherently toward stagnation.

Sweezy taught economics at Harvard for five subsequent years; John Kenneth Galbraith, Alvin Hansen, and Oscar Lange were among his colleagues, and Robert M. Solow, Robert Heilbroner, and Paul Samuelson among his students.

Out of his lectures grew The Theory of Capitalist Development (Oxford University Press, 1942), a book still considered by many to be the best single introduction to Marxist economic theory, its title a play upon Schumpeter’s The Theory of Economic Development (1934).

From New Deal to MR

While Sweezy was a partisan of the Popular Front against fascism in the 1930s and 1940s, he never joined the Communist Party, whose “extreme dogmatism in an intellectual sense,” as he later characterized it, repelled him.

He functioned as an independent Marxist in collaboration with Communists and the New Deal’s left wing. He worked in Washington during summers, and served in the Office of Strategic Services (forerunner of the CIA) in Europe during the Second World War.  He returned to Cambridge in 1945 but, perceiving the instability of his position, resigned from Harvard, never again to take up a long term academic post.

With the labor journalist Leo Huberman, in 1949 Sweezy founded Monthly Review, a popularly written periodical that sought to bring historical perspective to bear on current reality. Articles by Albert Einstein, Scott Nearing, I.F. Stone, and Henry Wallace appeared in its inaugural year alone.

Created as McCarthyism descended, MR had to fight off many challenges. In 1953, New Hampshire’s subversive hunting attorney general jailed Sweezy for refusing to answer certain questions about a lecture he gave at the University of New Hampshire. In 1957, the Supreme Court upheld Sweezy’s First Amendment appeal.

Initially a gathering point for recovering Stalinists after the failure of Wallace’s Progressive Party campaign of 1948, the magazine grew far beyond that origin to assume a pride of place on the global left. Virtually every well known American radical, from W.E.B. Du Bois and C. Wright Mills to Staughton Lynd and Noam Chomsky, has written for MR.

After Huberman’s death in 1968, Sweezy was joined as editor by Harry Magdoff, with whom he coauthored many books; political theorist Ellen Meiksins Wood was briefly a third editor, and today the magazine is edited primarily by sociologist John Bellamy Foster and media critic Robert McChesney.  

The book publishing arm, Monthly Review Press, founded in 1952, was most famously presided over by Harry Braverman in the 1960s and 1970s. It has issued books by William Appleman Williams, Oliver Cromwell Cox, E.P. Thompson, Hal Draper and Daniel Singer, as well as English language editions of Rosa Luxemburg, Kwame Nkrumah, Amilcar Cabral and Louis Althusser, among others.

Without Sweezy, the magazine and publishing house almost certainly would neither have existed nor been so inclusive.  Across his life, Sweezy engaged generously in left wing dialogue.  He initiated a celebrated 1950 1953 Science & Society debate over the transition from feudalism to capitalism, and he contributed to Against the Current after the 1987 stock market crash.

Theory of Monopoly Capitalism

While open to a wide range of voices on the left, MR became known for its editors’ positions, especially in political economy.  Even before his dissertation, published by Harvard as Monopoly and Competition in the English Coal Trade, 1550 1800 (1938), Sweezy showed interest in the effect of monopoly in macroeconomics.  In this, he was strongly influenced by the Polish economist Michal Kalecki.

The theory of monopoly capitalism became a hallmark of Sweezy’s thought, culminating when he and Stanford University economist Paul Baran wrote Monopoly Capital (1966), published after Baran’s death.  Monopoly Capital held that because of declining competition, the tendency of the rate of profit to fall had been eclipsed by a “tendency of the surplus to rise.”

The imperative to consume or invest this surplus, argued Baran and Sweezy, accounted for military expenditure, advertising and other waste (drawing on social critic Thorstein Veblen).

For the next fifteen years, however, the rate of profit fell, leading to criticism of the Baran Sweezy thesis.  Classical Marxists faulted Sweezy’s perspective as unable to grasp the shift from boom to austerity that resulted from the profitability crisis and, correspondingly, the employers’ offensive against labor.

Nonetheless, Sweezy’s spare style made his writings widely appreciated, and his view of capitalism as a system of profit maximization and class interest – as well as his sharp appreciation of the increasing role of finance – contrasted with mainstream economics and its obsession with ostensibly apolitical mathematical modeling.

Sweezy’s courageous, implacable opposition to imperialism for its production of misery and underdevelopment yielded many insights, including his prescient 1954 warning about American involvement in Indo China (Vietnam).

On the other hand, Sweezy mistook the economic, political and human rights catastrophe of China’s Cultural Revolution under Mao for liberation. Moreover, Monopoly Capital, dedicated to Che Guevara, devoted no attention to the labor process or working class in advanced capitalism, and Sweezy’s 1960s position that only the Third World proletariat had revolutionary potential encouraged many young radicals in the United States to write off the working class, right on the verge of a wave of rank and file rebellions against employers and union bureaucrats.
However, Sweezy often recast his thought constructively. In the 1970s, he criticized the Soviet bloc (which he had defended between the 1930s and 1960s) as dominated by “a new ruling class,” bureaucratic but not capitalist. In the early 1980s, he strongly supported the Polish labor movement Solidarnosc in its uprising against the command state.

Beyond Formulas

His casual elegance, sense of whimsy, wry smile, calm demeanor, genuine interest in the views of others, translucent blue eyes, and physical handsomeness all made Sweezy an attractive, unpretentious person. He was married three times; his wife Zirel survives him, as does his earlier wife Nancy, children, stepchildren, grandchildren, and great grandchildren.

I knew Paul toward the end of his life.  By then, he was ancient and fragile, but he attended Wednesday meetings at MR whenever he could. I found him unfailingly gracious and considerate.  

One day, pausing on his walker, Paul told me with a sparkle in his eye that he had been enjoying my biography of Sidney Hook, the 1930s Marxist philosopher turned 1950s cold warrior. “I’m waiting for him to go bad,” Paul said playfully. “Do you hit him hard?” Indeed, I said.  “Oh, I can’t wait,” he replied.

Sweezy held that the challenge of Marxist thinking is to go beyond formulas or schemas. The method of Marxism, he emphasized, is internalized only with patience.  In a life that arced from the Old Left to the New Left and beyond, Sweezy’s accomplishment was to show just how gracefully and successfully that may be done.

ATC 110, May-June 2004