Paul Marlor Sweezy (1910-2004)

On February 27, 2004, Paul Sweezy breathed his last in Larchmont, New York.

Sweezy’s intellectual influence, which was global in its reach, lay chiefly in two areas: as a leading radical economist, and as the principal originator of a distinct North American brand of socialist thought in his position as co-founder and co-editor of Monthly Review magazine.

Born April 10, 1910 in New York, Sweezy began graduate courses in economics at Harvard in 1931-32. In 1932 he left for England for a year’s study at the London School of Economics. It is here that Sweezy found himself increasingly attracted to Marxism, influenced by Harold Laski’s lectures and Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution. Later at Harvard he forged a close friendship with Joseph Schumpeter. In 1938 he wrote his seminal work The Theory of Capitalist Development: Principles of Marxian Political Economy (1942). With this he launched a debate with Schumpeter’s Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy on the future of capitalism and socialism.

In the 1930s Sweezy had been a member of the League Against Fascism and War and various popular front organizations. He left Harvard to joint the army in fall 1942 and while working with the Army Research Branch in London in 1943, he edited its monthly magazine European Political Report which took an explicitly left, anti-fascist stance. While he was on military leave, he was denied appointment for a tenured position in economics at Harvard only because he was a Marxist and coming back from the army he realised that there was then no chance of a Marxist obtaining a tenured position. He therefore decided not to resume his former teaching position. Instead, along with Leo Huberman, he pursued his long-cherished idea of starting a monthly magazine. The result was Monthly Review: An Independent Socialist Magazine, the first issue of which appeared in May 1949 and carried an article by Albert Einstein entitled “Why Socialism?” Sweezy continued as an editor of MR until his death in the 56th year of its publication.

In the 1950s the principal concerns of MR were the Cold War abroad and McCarthyism at home. Huberman and Sweezy were became targets of the inquisition in this period. New Hampshire Attorney General, investigating “subversive activities”, subpoenaed Sweezy on two occasions in 1954. When he refused to answer questions on his past activities he was declared in contempt of court and consigned to the county jail (from which he was released on bail). Later he was purged of contempt by the Superior County Court and later by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1957. The repressive climate of the McCarthy Era led directly to the emergence of Monthly Review Press – the book publishing arm of Monthly Review – in 1952. Noted journalist I.F. Stone had written a book disputing the official history of the Korean War but had not been able to find a publisher in that era of fervent McCarthyism and war hysteria. Sweezy and Huberman saw the manuscript and decided to publish it and thus MR Press was founded.

From 1954 on Huberman and Sweezy had written one trenchant critique after another in MR on the Vietnam War. Visiting Cuba shortly after the 1959 revolution, Huberman and Sweezy got to know Fidel Castro and Che Guevara with whom they toured the island. Paul Baran’s The Political Economy of Growth in 1957 marked the beginning of Marxian dependency theory and helped to establish MR’s primary identity as a backer of third world revolutions. After ten years, in 1966, Baran and Sweezy authored Monopoly Capital: An Essay on the American Economic and Social Order, a book Sweezy dedicated to Che Guevara.

In 1967, Sweezy argued that the history of the twentieth century had proven that the revolutionary impetus had been transferred to the third world, and the future of the revolt against capitalism and the building of socialism were to be found primarily in the periphery of the capitalist world. Sweezy was a strong supporter of Salvador Allende’s democratically elected socialist government in Chile, where he was invited as a guest of honor to attend Allende’s inauguration. The CIA-directed coup in Chile in which Allende fell victim, made it abundantly clear to him that given the realities of U.S. imperialism, revolution in the periphery could only occur through armed revolution.

In On the Transition to Socialism (1971, with Charles Bettelheim), Sweezy boldly contended, against the theory and practice of market socialism then gaining ground in Eastern Europe, that attempts to utilize the market mechanism as the central means of building socialism were likely to lead to nothing less than the restoration of capitalism. However Sweezy believed that “the crisis of the Soviet Union and the collapse of its East European allies was not due to the failure of socialism.” Sweezy sympathized very broadly with Mao’s call for a “Cultural Revolution” and the motive that had inspired it. In all of this he remained resolutely committed to a socialist future. Asked in 1999 whether the world was “closer to socialism now than it seemed when you started Monthly Review, or farther?” Sweezy answered: “Well, if socialism is ever going to happen, we’re nearer to it now than we were then.”

(excerpted from an obituary written by Jogn Bellamy Foster)