A leading American Marxist economist, he founded the socialist magazine
John J Simon
Thursday March 4, 2004
The American economist Paul Sweezy, who has died aged 93, was initially an
unlikely socialist prospect. The son of a vice president of the First
National Bank of New York (predecessor to Citibank), Sweezy went on to
become the author of The Theory Of Capitalist Development (1942) and many
other works of socialist theory. That book, a clear and straightforward
definition of Marxism and how to use its tools of economic and social
analysis, became a key volume during the radical wave that swept over the
west during the 1960s and early 70s.
Its value, and the rest of his journalistic and scholarly contribution, to
be found in more than 100 articles and 20 books, was confirmed in
mainstream circles when the Wall Street Journal described him as the "dean
of radical economists". John Kenneth Galbraith called him the "most noted
American Marx ist scholar" of the second half of the 20th century.
Sweezy was educated at Philips Exeter Academy, an elite New England
boarding school, and Harvard University, where he edited the undergraduate
daily, Crimson, and studied neoclassical economics. In 1932, he went on to
the London School of Economics. At the LSE, in those shattering early
years of the great depression, Sweezy went through a political and
intellectual transformation provoked by the rise of Hitler, student
agitation, his friendships with the young economists Joan Robinson, Oskar
Lange, and Abba Lerner, and not least of all, the transfixing lectures of
the LSE's professor of political science Harold Laski.
Sweezy returned to Harvard in 1933 as he put it, "a convinced but very
ignorant Marxist". There, he took a doctorate, wrote an acclaimed
dissertation on the coal cartel during the English industrial revolution
(1938), became an instructor in the economics department, began work on
The Theory Of Capitalist Development, and helped found the Harvard
Mentored by the conservative economist Joseph Schumpeter, Sweezy developed
an undogmatic approach to economics, incorporating, especially, the
analytic tools of John Maynard Keynes. Although his association with
Schumpeter evolved into a deep lifelong friendship, he was not afraid to
confront his hero. Nobel laureate and fellow Harvard graduate student Paul
Samuelson recounts a celebrated debate between "the foxy Merlin"
(Schumpeter) and the "young Sir Galahad" (Sweezy) who had "established
himself as among the most promising economists of his generation".
In 1948, Sweezy and labour journalist Leo Huberman worked in Henry
Wallace's quixotic Progressive Party presidential campaign. Wallace,
supported by the leftwing of the trade union movement - liberal,
socialist, communist and radical remnants of Franklin Roosevelt's 1930s
new deal - stood on an anti-cold-war platform and lost decisively.
Sweezy and Huberman thought one of the reasons for the Wallace movement's
failure was its reluctance to articulate socialist alternatives. What was
needed in the US, they thought, was a periodical offering an understanding
of current affairs from just such a perspective. So in 1949, in the teeth
of the mounting cold war, a time when the House Un-American Activities
Committee was in action and incipient McCarthyism was gathering momentum,
they launched Monthly Review: An Independent Socialist Magazine.
Despite the worsening political climate, MR, as it become known, went on
to become one of the most influential radical forums. Its contributors
were to include Albert Einstein, WEB DuBois, Jean-Paul Sartre, Fidel
Castro, Che Guevara, Malcolm X, GDH Cole, Eduardo Galeano, C Wright Mills,
Daniel Ellsberg, Noam Chomsky, EP Thompson, Ralph Milliband, Joan
Robinson, and Isabel Allende.
Then in 1954, Sweezy himself was ensnared in the McCarthyite maelstrom.
Convicted for refusing to turn over notes for a lecture he had given at
the University of New Hampshire, he received a jail sentence for
"contempt", later overturned by the US Supreme Court. That decision, in
1957, was one of several that led to the gradual end of the anti-left
In 1960, in the wake of the revolution that brought Castro to power,
Sweezy and Huberman travelled to Cuba to study developments in education,
nationalisation of industry, and land reform. In a special issue of MR,
Cuba: Anatomy Of A Revolution - which achieved a huge international sale -
they concluded that the transformation which was taking place there was of
a socialist character. They made this claim nearly a year before Castro
did and may well have influenced him to do so.
MR's interest in the Cuban revolution prefigured a growing engagement with
revolution in the developing world. Increasingly, Sweezy turned his
attention to economic, political, and environmental issues in the third
world. In 1971, he wrote that "the principal (capitalist) contradiction
... is not within the developed part but between the developed and
undeveloped parts", an argument that found an enthusiastic audience among
many of those opposing US imperial projects in Vietnam and elsewhere.
After Huberman's death in 1968, Sweezy asked Harry Magdoff, a former New
Deal economist, to become co-editor of MR. These were heady times for MR.
Magdoff's book, The Age Of Imperialism (1969) joined Sweezy's work and
Monopoly Capital (1965), by Sweezy and Stanford University Marxist Paul
Baran, as near-essential read ing for young radicals.
In the 1970s and 80s Sweezy lectured in Japan, India, Europe and the
Americas. Increasingly interested in environmental issues, he wrote a
classic article on cities and cars and the dangers of "automobilisation".
He also had a lively exchange in the 1970s with the British Communist
economist Maurice Dobb on the transition from feudalism to capitalism. And
he and Magdoff published a sympathetic special issue of MR on liberation
Witty, and charismatic, Sweezy had a wide circle of friends, colleagues,
and comrades, and an energetic social life. He was married three times and
is survived by his second wife, Nancy, his third, Zyrel, and three
children, Samuel, Lybess, and Martha.
· Paul Marlor Sweezy, economist, born April 10 1910; died February 27 2004