[OPE-L] EPW Commentary, Tribute: Harry Magdoff (1913-2006)

From: glevy@PRATT.EDU
Date: Tue Jan 24 2006 - 11:20:40 EST

EPW Commentary January 14, 2006

                  Tribute: Harry Magdoff (1913-2006)

                  '...There Can Be a Better World'

                  Harry Magdoff, committed Marxist intellectual, and
co-editor of Monthly Review, died recently. His
intellectual labours were devoted to working tirelessly
for a better world, one where a 'decent future' would be
assured to those long exploited and subjugated. He will
be greatly missed.

                  Bernard D'Mello

            Harry Magdoff, co-editor of the well known independent
socialist magazine published from New York, Monthly Review
(MR, for short), and one of the most enlightening economic
analysts of US capitalism and imperialism, died peacefully at
home in Burlington, Vermont in the early hours of new year's
day. An entire generation of activists who came of age during
the upsurge against capitalism, imperialism and the
commodification of every aspect of life (better known as the
"1968" movements) will feel his absence the most.

            Harry Magdoff was born on August 21, 1913 in the Bronx, New
York, the son of working class Russian-Jewish immigrants. In
1929, at the age of 15, he happened to read the preface of
Karl Marx's A Contribution to the Critique of Political
Economy; a book he had picked up for a quarter from a
second-hand book store. Although the young Harry "didn't
understand the rest of the book", the famous preface blew his
mind, getting him "started reading about economics". As he put
it: "We were going into the Depression then and I wanted to
figure out what it all meant". Later on in March 1930 he was
witness to a demonstration of the unemployed at Union Square
at which mounted police with billy clubs beat a crowd of
"gaunt-faced people, dressed as you might expect people in
poverty to dress" mercilessly, splattering blood all over.

            The life of an individual cannot be understood without
grasping the interplay of that individual and society. It
seems that the troubles Harry endured in life, how he coped
with them, and his efforts to "learn truth from practice" are
related to the historical changes and institutional
contradictions wrought by the 20th century. While looking back
on Harry's life, we cannot possibly elucidate all this in
detail, but we try to provide a hint.1 At a more general
level, it is almost like saying, provocatively enough, that
the history that now affects human beings is world history.

            Touchstones of a Life

            Let's then come back to our account of Harry, who went on to
study at City College of New York, supporting himself by
teaching courses on Marxism to workers. At college he became
active in a progressive student organisation called the Social
Problems Club, going on to become the editor of their
magazine, Frontiers. During a trip to attend the founding
conventions of the National Students League and the Youth
League Against War and Fascism he married fellow student
Beatrice Greizer (popularly known as Beadie, his wife and
comrade all along, until her death in June 2002). For a while,
Magdoff was a co-editor of the National Student League's
magazine Student League. Expelled from City College for his
radical politics, he went on to complete a BS in economics in
1936 from New York University; his mother who had never been
to school but had taught herself to read, and had a great
respect for education, "had squirrelled away some housekeeping
money, enough to pay for a semester at NYU".

            The Depression had painfully dragged on with no end in sight.
Magdoff joined the National Commission on Technological
Unemployment and Re-employment of the Works Progress
Administration (WPA) in Philadelphia where he went on to
develop productivity measures for a number of manufacturing
industries, one of which is still used by the US department of
labour. At the time, Magdoff published two landmark papers -
one on the purpose and method of measuring productivity in the
Journal of the American Statistical Association in 1939 and
the other on the service industries in relation to employment
trends in 1940 in Econometrica. Moving on to the Civil
Requirements Division of the National Defence and Advisory
Board in Washington DC, he studied industrial capacity and
productivity, trying to discern bottlenecks that might arise
at full capacity output. Transferred to the War Production
Board, he was in-charge of their WPB-732 monthly statistical
series. In 1944 he became chief economist at the US commerce
department's current business analysis division, overseeing
the famous Survey of Current Business. He became special
assistant to Henry A Wallace, secretary of commerce, in 1946,
among other things, authoring weekly economic position papers
for Wallace's cabinet meetings with president Truman. From
mid-1947 to 1952 Magdoff worked as programme director for a
pro-New Deal business group, the New Council of American
Business. In 1948 when Wallace made a bid for the presidency
on the Progressive Party nomination, he called upon Harry to
advise him on economics and foreign policy issues and to
author his small business platform.

            In the late 1940s McCarthyism struck and Harry found
employment opportunities in government and policy circles
closed to him. He was compelled to testify before
congressional committees and grand juries and was harassed by
the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Harry and Beadie,
with their two sons, Michael and Fred, moved back to New York.
There he was forced to take whatever jobs came his way, for
instance, as a sales promotion manager selling television
programmes, followed by one on Wall Street, much against his
will, and then as an agent for an insurance company. In the
late 1950s he joined the publisher Russell and Russell,
becoming a co-owner when he put in his money at a time when
the firm was going through financial distress. In 1965 Russell
and Russell was bought by Atheneum; the returns he got from
that sale relieved Harry and his family of years of economic
hardship. The time had come to resume his role as a public
Marxist intellectual; an article by Magdoff on the problems of
US capitalism appeared in the Socialist Register of 1965.

            Harry in MR

            Harry "fell in love" with MR from the very first issue in May
1949. There were three reasons he gave - in his own words: "It
talked about socialism, a taboo topic at the time; it declared
itself independent, beyond the control of any party; and the
language was clear and simple. These things gave it a quality
that was altogether different." He became friends of Paul
Baran (1910-1964), professor of economics at Stanford and one
of MR's main contributors, and MR's founder editors, Leo
Huberman (1903-1968) and Paul M Sweezy (1910-2004). Upon Leo
Huberman's death in 1968, Sweezy asked Harry to join him as
co-editor. What followed was "over 30 years of a remarkable
collective relationship". As Harry was to put it, in what was
read out at a memorial meeting for Paul Sweezy on April 17,
2004 in New York City (Paul Sweezy died on February 28 that
year): "Our social origins - or, if you wish, class
differences - were distinctly apart. Paul had about the best
education one can get in the United States. Mine was scraggly
and very ordinary. We came to Marxism and socialism by
different routes. Nevertheless, we worked year in and out in
close harmony. .".

            Magdoff's book, The Age of Imperialism: The Economics of US
Foreign Policy (Monthly Review Press, New York, 1969), parts
of which first appeared as a three-part article in MR in 1968,
made waves in the struggle against the war in Vietnam. The
book has sold 1,00,000 copies and was translated into 15
languages. Basically, Magdoff showed that US foreign policy
had its roots in US capitalism itself; with the onset of
monopoly capitalism, the US state and US corporations
increasingly tended to team up to expand their activities,
advance their interests, their influence and their power
beyond US national borders. The need of nation states at the
centre to control access to the supply of crucial raw
materials, including petroleum, often required political
manoeuvring and military operations overseas to engender
economic relations of dependency.

            Critique of Capitalism

            Harry's familiarity with the US government's economic
statistics, and uncanny ability to provide analytical depth to
the interpretation of this data served him well when some
prominent US academics tried to take him on. He never shied
away from examining theory against the facts. He carefully
examined data that purported to reflect only superficial
truths, delicately chiselling away to get at what really went
on beneath it all. But larger questions arose regarding the
history of imperialism and its relation to the growth of
capitalism, which Magdoff dealt with subsequently, these
essays put together in another book, Imperialism: From the
Colonial Age to the Present (Monthly Review Press, New York,
1978). The main essay in this collection being 'European
Expansion since 1763', earlier published in the 15th edition
of Encyclopaedia Britannica (1974) as 'Colonialism (c 1450-c
1970)'. Incidentally, in the subsequent 1979 edition the
Encyclopaedia is said to have succumbed to political pressure,
in effect, removing Magdoff's account of the US role in
Vietnam during 1954-73.

            Magdoff viewed imperialism as emanating from an inner drive
within capitalism itself, irrespective of the stage of
capitalist development, thus arguing against linking the
process of imperialism to the necessity for the export of
capital. He saw imperialism as part of the expansive and, at
times, explosive process of capital accumulation. It followed
that the elimination of imperialism required the overthrow of
capitalism itself. Magdoff's work on imperialism meshed well
with Baran's 1957 The Political Economy of Growth and Baran
and Sweezy's Monopoly Capital: An Essay on the American
Economic and Social Order, published in 1966. But the need for
further clarifications arose. For instance, while foreign
investment provided one avenue for the absorption of the
rising potential surplus, the accumulated stock of foreign
direct investment generated a reverse flow of surplus that
added to the problem of surplus absorption.

            Sweezy and Magdoff collaborated to produce a stream of
articles on the dynamics of US capitalism, including the
financial explosion. To the discerning reader, in these
articles Magdoff's strengths - examining theory against the
facts, working with plentiful data, while trying one's best to
discern what is really going on underneath the surface
phenomena reflected therein, in the process providing
analytical depth to the interpretation of data - come through
very well. The extension of Baran and Sweezy's monopoly
capital model to include the financial sector as an absorber
of part of the surplus and their exploration of the nature and
limits of finance-led accumulation in the 1980s and beyond
formed the most interesting part of the output of that phase
of the Magdoff-Sweezy collaboration. The time has perhaps come
for a theoretical elaboration of the integration of production
and finance in the capitalist process, drawing on Keynes
(chapter 12 on 'The State of Long-term Expectation' in The
General Theory), and the work of Sweezy and Magdoff, where
there are new ideas and initial attempts at syntheses.

            Third World Struggles

            Harry Magdoff's concerns about the peoples of India and other
third world countries go back to his youth. In his own words:
"Early in my youth, I accidentally walked into a meeting
devoted to mobilising support of India's struggle for
independence. The fact that stronger nations invaded other
nations to own and exploit them came as a shock. Obviously, I
was very young and had lots to learn. The speeches at the
meeting stimulated me to study why and how this happened." In
The Political Economy of Growth, Baran tried to show how in
their process of capital accumulation, the British ruling
class "systematically destroyed all the fibres and foundations
of Indian society". He then went on to lay bare the
exploitative relationships that characterise the structure of
capitalism on a world scale.

            In MR, a great deal more attention has been paid to third
world situations and third world struggles than by any other
publication on the left. A variety of armed struggles in the
third world were covered in MR. In retrospect, some critics
have said that the magazine uncritically put its hopes in such
movements, which turned out to be unwarranted. Harry's
response has been: "I don't think that it is up to the left to
judge whether it is warranted or unwarranted when people are
in struggle where there is tremendous poverty, misery, and
little hope, and in the process either make mistakes, or don't
make the best decisions, . History does not come easy. . But
to judge? It's wrong. Marx at one point says that there will
be many revolutions and wars and defeats before the working
class learns how to be a ruling class. . History takes a hell
of a lot more work, comes with many setbacks, than we expect."

            I am reminded of Tilak D Gupta's article on 'Recent
Developments in the Naxalite Movement' (MR, September 1993).
When he first read the article, Sweezy wrote (June 16, 1993):
"Thank you very much for the splendid article . It is exactly
what we wanted and thought would be most useful to our
readers. ." Sweezy and Magdoff encouraged an indigenous
socialist enterprise, Cornerstone Publications, floated by
Subhas Aikat in Kharagpur (West Bengal) that also prints,
publishes and distributes a low-priced Indian edition of MR.
Called Analytical Monthly Review, it also carries a local
editorial focusing on south Asia, much like in the MR
tradition. Harry was greatly pleased to hear of the growth of
its circulation.

            On an academic visit to the US, I met Harry and Beadie in
September 2000 at their home in New York. Beadie was full of
warmth and good humour, and, I might add, a motherly concern
for me. And Harry. Here was a Marxist intellectual very unlike
those I have met, modest and devoid of the arrogance
characteristic of some sections of the left. He spoke with
warmth about his friendships and his interactions with people
during his visits to India. But one thing that startled him
was "the aristocratic disdain for manual labour by
intellectuals and professionals". I had attributed this to the
caste system. He responded: "even when there isn't the
precision of the caste system, other social formations and
other ideologies bring similar results. One finds the
separation of head and hand in ancient Greece, when slaves
were the manual workers, and throughout the third world".

            The widening of the gap between a handful of rich nations and
the rest of the world, as also the incredibly uneven
distribution of the productive forces, including technology,
was of great concern to him. In a note on the occasion of the
150th anniversary of The Communist Manifesto he wrote: ".in
view of the way capitalism has spread throughout the world as
well as in the most advanced nations of the world, it is
essential that the vision of socialism focus on a social
transformation which will put first and foremost: the
empowerment and meeting the basic needs of the poorest, the
most oppressed, and disadvantaged." It must be added, for
Harry, the qualification democratic as in "democratic
socialism" was redundant; that which is not democratic cannot
be socialist. My impression of Harry gathered from this lovely
afternoon in September 2000 with the Magdoffs was that of a
great teacher. As the conversation drifted to the New York
Marxist School, I could visualise Harry, in the twilight of
his life, gently helping the younger generation - those for
whom the morning had just dawned, resplendent himself like the
sun at that time of the day - understand what has happened up
to now and what may be needed if humanity is to survive and
create a decent future.

            The short 20th century ended with the defeat of the opposition
to the rule of capital. That opposition had many weaknesses
and was internally divided; moreover, capital was very strong.
It has been a devastating defeat, but this is not the "end of
history"; the conditions that gave rise to an opposition
continue to exist, which guarantees that the opposition to
capital will stage a comeback as newer generations of the
dominated, exploited and oppressed, and intellectuals, like
Harry, who cannot remain unmoved take their side, both taking
the place of those who die or retire.

            In an interview published in the 50th anniversary issue of MR
in May 1999, in response to a question from Christopher Phelps
"What keeps you going?" Harry said: ". I can't be any other
way. I have to believe that there can be a better world".
Harry Magdoff did his best and hoped for the best, right to
the very end. We will miss him.

            Email: bernard@epw.org.in


            1 We rely on numerous past issues of MR. A large chunk of the
facts are drawn from Christopher Phelps' interview with Harry
Magdoff in the 50th anniversary (May 1999) issue and John
Bellamy Foster's 'The Optimism of the Heart: Harry Magdoff
(1913-2006)' at
http://mrzine.monthlyreview.org/foster020106.html last
accessed on January 9, 2006. We have also drawn from the first
edition of a selection of Harry Magdoff's Essays on
Imperialism and Globalisation, Cornerstone Publications,
Kharagpur, India, 2002, and from personal correspondence.

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