(OPE-L) Remembering James F. Becker

From: Gerald A. Levy (Gerald_A_Levy@MSN.COM)
Date: Tue Mar 16 2004 - 17:36:02 EST

   I learned recently of the death of James F. Becker,  a 
retired member of the Economics Department faculty at New 
York University (NYU).  This came as quite a blow to me since
he was one of the most influential mentors that I have ever had.
The news was made all the more difficult to stomach when I was 
informed  that he had died "at least five or six years ago."

   About once a year for the last nine years I did a search under
his name on the Internet, but for some reason I didn't pick up the
telephone and call him or the NYU Economics Department. 
While his book, _Marxian Political Economy_,  and several old 
articles are referred to online,  there was nothing mentioned about
his life or death.   Although this is horribly belated (for which I can't
help but feel pangs of guilt), for the benefit of all those who knew 
and cared about Jim I feel the obligation and desire to remember 
his life and influence.


    James F. Becker, Marxist scholar and educator,  was born in 
Cedar Rapids, Iowa on November 3, 1921.   He received a B.A. 
in 1947 and an M.A. in 1949 from the University of Iowa.   He 
taught journalism at the University  of Iowa in 1947 and 1948 and 
economics in 1949. He also taught economics at Iowa State 
Teachers College in 1949  and 1950.

   He received his PhD from Columbia University in 1957 and
was a Danforth fellow at Harvard University in 1959.

   Jim began teaching at NYU in 1953.  When I was there he
taught classes in introductory economics, contemporary economic 
issues, and Marxian economics.  The latter was offered as a 
graduate course.   His fields of specialization included political 
economy, the history of economic thought  (with a particular 
interest in the life and thought of Thorstein Veblen) and class

    Like several others of his generation,  he was schooled in 
neo-classical economics and only became radicalized and a
Marxist after becoming a professional economist.   In the
"Acknowledgements" to _Marxian Political Economy_ (Cambridge 
University Press, 1977), he describes this transformation:

    "For some decades the tide of protest literature has been rising ....
     Having myself come to maturity in a troubled epoch -- of 
     depression, World War II and its noxious aftermath, the cold war,
     of the new imperialism -- a mounting anger at first afflicted both
     mind and spirit.  Unaware at first that this feeling had any 
     connection with matters of social class, my early endeavors to
     understand the chaos, to find laws if not order within it, were 
     pounded and beaten by events until I was forced to admit that 
     the theories of the standard repertoire could only be brought into
     agreement with the main facts by twisting them beyond all
     point of contact with their assumptions and authentic formulations.
     For a time, confidence born of youth and a dexterous imagination
     preserved my faith in these theories, and these might have served 
     indefinitely were it not for those world events of revolution and war,
     especially the Chinese revolution and the war in Southeast Asia,
     which forced the issue whether to abandon science or to find one up
     to the tasks that such events portended.  No doubt many a Marxist 
     has been made by the Pentagon; but if Saul has his thousands, 
     David has his tens of thousands, and the Pentagon and the like
     fade into insignificance in comparison with the surging movement
     of the oppressed to whose ranks, I gradually discovered, I myself
     belong.  It is not the oppressors -- who never learn -- but the 
     oppressed who, in discovering their oppression, discover themselves."

    The dust jacket to _Marxian Political Economy_  asserted:  "Unlike 
neo-Marxist economists, who attempt to reinterpret Marx in the light 
of Keynes, Professor Becker adopts  an unalloyed Marxist approach 
to the leading problems of political economy."   This is misleading, though, 
since his work was also very _original_  and he could not be said to be 
an "Orthodox Marxist." (or orthodox _anything_, for that matter).
The sections of his book on the productive and unproductive _consumption_ 
of capital within the context of Marxian reproduction schemes and his
class analysis of the of the "managerial phase" are particularly noteworthy
and original. His analysis of the latter topics was also presented in  "Class 
Structure and Conflict in the Managerial Phase" in _Science & Society_ 
(2 parts; Fall, 1973 and Winter 1973-1974).  He published in other
journals as well ranging from the mainstream _American Economic Review_
to the New Left publication _Studies on the Left_.

   The NYU Economics Department had a reputation for being  _very _
conservative even by the standards of mainstream (marginalist) economists
-- due in part to the presence of a contingent of Austrian-style economists.
It also had a reputation for recruiting 'big names' like Fritz Machlup,
William Baumol and Oskar Morgenstern (and as I was about to graduate, 
Nobel Prize winner Wassily Leontief).  The 'big names' attracted most
of the students and Jim was intellectually and professionally isolated in the 
department -- although in the 1970's another Marxist, Edward N. Wolff, 
joined the faculty. For a while I wondered how Jim was able to survive in 
that department.  I came to realize that other faculty members viewed him 
as an eccentric (indeed, I think they viewed 'Marxist'  as simply a form 
of eccentric) rather like the good-natured character that Jimmy Stewart 
played in the 1950 classic film "Harvey."   I suspect that the reason he was 
able to survive in this milieu was simply because -- like the character of  
Elwood P. Dowd  -- he was a very _likeable_ man.   He was the kind 
of  person who could disarm a rival with a smile and a laugh.

   Jim had genuine charm and charisma in the classroom.  Even the most
conservative business students at NYU liked taking his courses.  He had
a rather uncanny way of making radicalism and Marxism seem mainstream
while making mainstream economics sound irrational and inhuman.  I think
he was able to pull this off in part because he was the very picture of Middle 
America.   Indeed, he _looked_ and even _sounded_ like the actor Jimmy
Stewart.  More than one student commented on his striking mid-Western
good looks: he was fairly tall, had endearing blue eyes, and (when I met him)
wavy blond hair.  

    He had a somewhat theatrical, but underplayed, way of teaching.  He had
what is known in theatre as _stage presence_.  It was obvious that he
thoroughly enjoyed teaching. Yet, in his introductory economics courses he
hardly ever actually followed the text -- Paul Samuelson's _Economics_.
Instead, he often lectured about what interested him -- especially his current
research and writing.  The students didn't seem to mind.  It could get 
repetitive though -- I took four courses with him and in every one he spent
hours presenting graphs on simple and expanded reproduction which were
later published in _Marxian Political Economy_.  

    A friend of mine, who I had known since our freshman year,  ended up
taking 3 courses with him even though her interest was in literature, she had
no aptitude for economics or theory, and she never got good grades in Jim's
classes.  But, so strong was his appeal that she kept taking his courses.
(This should not be misinterpreted -- he was married and devoted to his wife.)

     He also encouraged students to think for themselves and was very giving
with his time.  He was someone who _really_ cared about students and years
after I left NYU he showed a genuine concern for my progress. Although
he was my professor and I was his student,  he treated me as an equal.  He
especially respected the fact that I was politically active both on and outside
of the campus.  When I took my first course with him, I remember talking to
him after class and complaining about what I considered to be a highly
inaccurate 'Appendix' on  Marx in the 9th edition of Samuelson's _Economics_.
He encouraged me to write a critical review in lieu of the midterm examination 
which I went on to do.  After I trashed the 'Appendix' in my essay he even 
encouraged me to have it published.  Although I never followed through, his 
encouragement and praise led me to continue studying -- and being critical
about -- economics.

    While I was interested in economics, I initially took classes in history. Had
Jim not taught introductory economics classes, I almost certainly would not have
studied economics since a bad experience with a high school course in economics 
had turned me off to the possibility of studying that subject.  But, since I knew that
he was a Marxist and I could thereby circumvent the ordeal of being subjected to
introductory economics courses taught by bourgeois economists, I ended up 
doing the equivalent of a double major in history and economics.  I don't think it's 
an exaggeration to say that the course of my life would have been very different
had I not studied with him since I would not have studied economics on the 
undergraduate or graduate level, would not have become a political economist 
myself, and  -- continuing that line of reasoning -- would not have set in motion
the events that led to the creation of OPE-L.

   In his later years he made frequent trips to Italy and combined relaxation with
meetings with Italian Marxists.  

   I was told he suffered from a prolonged illness prior to his death.  He was 
survived by his wife but I was informed that she moved out of New York City.  

    Jim Becker was a modest man and I have no doubt that he would have been 
somewhat embarrassed -- yet at the same time, appreciative -- about the above.
Thousands of students benefited by knowing him and his intellectual legacy
can _still_ influence Marxists today.   If you don't believe me (or even if
you do) then  read  _Marxian Political Economy_ (which, unfortunately, has long 
since gone out-of-print).  

    Jim's life should have been celebrated and it saddens me that he could have
died with -- apparently -- hardly any of his associates, former students and comrades
taking note.  How was this possible?  I don't know.  However, if  there is someone
who influenced your life who you haven't heard from for a long time, don't you think
it's high time to attempt to contact her or him?  

    At least now, the next person that conducts a search for "James F. Becker"  on 
the Internet will know that he lived, died, struggled, was loved, and made a 

In solidarity, Jerry

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