Re: (OPE-L) Remembering James F. Becker

From: Gary Mongiovi (MONGIOVG@STJOHNS.EDU)
Date: Tue Mar 16 2004 - 17:59:16 EST

Jim was one of my teachers too. I knew of his death when it happened and it saddened me greatly.  He was a profoundly kind and decent man. At the time I was his student I was still sorting through my own ideological issues: I was nowhere near as left-leaning as Jim was, and if truth be told I was quite suspicous of Marxism. But Jim was the first teacher I ever had who thought dialectically, and he at least convinced me that I needed to take historical materialism seriously. I guess that was the thin edge of a rather large wedge for me.  Thanks, Jerry, for your reminiscences, which brought to mind warm thoughts of a fine man.

	-----Original Message----- 
	From: OPE-L on behalf of Gerald A. Levy 
	Sent: Tue 3/16/2004 5:36 PM 
	Subject: (OPE-L) Remembering James F. Becker
	   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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