Marxist author Paul Marlor Sweezy co-founded and edited (with Leo Huberman) the Marxian “independent socialist” magazine Monthly Review. Sweezy and Huberman were “two old-line, pro-Soviet Marxists,” writes historian Ronald Radosh, noting that they called themselves “independent socialists” only because they “had minor differences with the tactics and organizational demands of the official American Communist Party.” The economist John Kenneth Galbraith once called Sweezy “the most noted American Marxist scholar” of the second half of the twentieth century.
Born in April 10, 1910 in New York City, Paul Sweezy was the son of Everett B. Sweezy, Vice President of the First National Bank of New York. Paul was educated at the elite New England boarding school Philips Exeter Academy and then at Harvard University, where he was editor of the campus newspaper, The Harvard Crimson.
After graduating from Harvard with an economics degree in 1932, Sweezy spent a year at the Fabian socialist London School of Economics. He then went to Europe in hopes of studying under Austrian free-market economist Friedrich von Hayek but fell, instead, under the spell of: (a) socialist professor Harold Laski; (b) young left-wing teacher Joan Robinson (who later became a Maoist and a formative influence on Arianna Huffington); and (c) Leon Trotsky’s newly translated History of the Russian Revolution. Sweezy emerged from these influences, in his own description, “a convinced but very ignorant Marxist.” “While [Sweezy] never joined the Communist Party,” wrote socialist biographer Nick Beams in 2004, “he later recalled that he might easily have done so, indicating that he had no significant differences with its political orientation.”
Returning to Harvard in 1933, Sweezy became fast friends with Josef Schumpeter, the University’s resident Austrian Economics Professor who, despite his own free-market orientation, had a deep respect for Marxist theory. After completing his doctorate in 1937, Sweezy began teaching at Harvard and in 1938 helped establish its Harvard Teachers’ Union. During these years at Harvard, Sweezy was deeply affected by the economic principles of John Maynard Keynes and co-founded the Review of Economic Studies.
In the 1930s as well, Sweezy was a member of the League Against Fascism and War and a number of popular front organizations. In 1942 Sweezy published his seminal work, The Theory of Capitalist Development: Principles of Marxian Political Economy. “The most important conclusion of [this book],” says Monthly Review, “had to do with the long-run stagnation of investment under capitalism arising from an in-built tendency in the system toward the over-accumulation of capital.” As Sweezy himself put it: “Stagnation of production, in the sense of less-than-capacity utilization of productive resources, is to be regarded as the normal state of affairs under capitalist conditions.”
Sweezy served in the U.S. Army from 1942-45, working as an analyst in Europe for the Office of Strategic Services (later to become the Central Intelligence Agency), and eventually becoming a Second Lieutenant. He was awarded a Bronze Star for his role as editor of the European Political Report.
After completing his tour of duty in the military, Sweezy returned to Harvard in 1945 but was turned down for its available tenured professorship in economics. He subsequently told an interviewer that “there was never any chance they would take a Marxist.” “Sweezy later insisted,” wrote colleague John Bellamy Foster, “that if he had not been so fortunate as to have had access to surplus value through his family inheritance he would probably have been forced like so many others to succumb to the kinds of controls and pressures inevitably exerted on those who earn their livings in the academy. As it happened, however, he was under no such need to conform and he chose not to resume his former teaching position.” Indeed, Sweezy’s inherited money became the base from which he would operate for the rest of his life.
Sweezy plunged into political activism in the 1948 presidential campaign of Progressive Party candidate Henry Wallace, who had served as U.S. Vice President under the late Franklin D. Roosevelt. It was a losing campaign that attracted many other Marxists and Soviet sympathizers in addition to Sweezy.
Following Wallace’s defeat, Sweezy became founding co-editor of the Marxist journal Monthly Review, which drifted toward Maoism in the late 1950s during the Sino-Soviet split. Originally, Monthly Review was intended to be a non-Party rallying point for fellow Marxists. Friends from the Wallace campaign, including journalist co-editor Leo Huberman and financial benefactor F.O. Matthieson, helped launch the magazine.
In March 1949, Sweezy was a sponsor of the Scientific and Cultural Conference for World Peace which was held in New York City and was organized a Communist Party USA front group known as the National Council of the Arts, Sciences, and Professions.
In 1952 Sweezy and Huberman created Monthly Review Press, which went on to become one of America’s largest publishers of Marxian books and authors.
In 1954 Sweezy was twice subpoenaed by the New Hampshire Attorney General and was asked to divulge the names of his associates and whether he advocated Communism. Sweezy refused to answer, invoking his First Amendment right of free expression. He was cited for contempt of court and briefly jailed. The U.S. Supreme Court overturned the citation in 1957.
In 1959 and 1960, Sweezy and Huberman visited Cuba, touring the island with Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. Soon thereafter, Monthly Review Press published the Sweezy-Huberman book Cuba: Anatomy of a Revolution. In 1969, MRP published another Sweezy-Huberman collaboration, Socialism in Cuba.
Sweezy argued that under advanced capitalism, the “industrial proletariat” was the only possible revolutionary agent. His most widely applauded defense of Marxist dogma is found in his 1966 book Monopoly Capital: An Essay on the American Economic and Social Order, co-authored with Paul Baran. This book dealt with the idea that according to Karl Marx, capitalism should self-destruct from stagnation as growing monopolies caused chronic excess capacity as a result of production being idled to maintain profit margins. Though this prediction was apparently proving incorrect, Sweezy and Baran argued that Marx would be proven correct in the long run. But wicked capitalists, they claimed, had temporarily maintained economic momentum and escaped stagnation by: (a) using better selling tactics to increase demand, (b) growing the financial sphere of credit and investment, and (c) spending excessively on military projects.
In 1966 Sweezy served on the steering committee for the Socialist Scholars Conference (SSC) in New York City. In subsequent years – including 1990, 1992, and 1997 – he was a guest speaker at SSC gatherings.
After Leo Huberman’s death in 1968, Sweezy recruited Harry Magdoff, a Marxist economist who had run the Current Business Analysis Division in the Department of Commerce under Presidents Roosevelt and Truman, to be co-editor of Monthly Review. Credible rumors had long swirled that Magdoff was a former Soviet spy.
In the 1960s, Sweezy said that because Israel had been propped up by the “imperialist powers” of the West, Arab hostility toward the Jewish state was “as natural as black hostility to the white settler states of Africa.” Nevertheless, he called on Arabs to stop threatening to annihilate Israel, and to instead ally themselves with “the Israeli proletariat” in a “people’s war” against “imperialism.”
Circa 1969, Sweezy served as a sponsor of the GI Civil Liberties Defense Committee, a Socialist Workers Party front group.
In May 1978 at American University, Sweezy co-sponsored “A National Organizing Conference” held by the Palestine Human Rights Campaign. Other sponsors included members and sympathizers of the Communist Party USA, the World Peace Council, the hard-left antiwar groups commonly dubbed as the “Hanoi Lobby,” black Marxists, radical Christians, and Arab organizations.
In 1979 in New York City, Sweezy spoke at a “Conference on the Nature of the Soviet Union and Its Role in the World Today,” an event co-sponsored by the Union for Radical Political Economics and the Economics Society of the New School.
In 1981 Sweezy congratulated the New American Movement on the occasion of its tenth anniversary.
By 1980, Sweezy had begun to acknowledge that a new ruling class contrary to professed Marxist ideals had arisen in the Soviet Union. As John Bellamy Foster wrote, Sweezy and Monthly Review “sympathized very broadly with Mao’s call for a ‘Cultural Revolution’ and the motive that had inspired it, aimed at stopping the emergence of such a new class.”
In the 1970s and ’80s, Sweezy lectured widely in Japan, India, Europe and the Americas. In 1984, he and Magdoff published a special issue of Monthly Review extolling the virtues of liberation theology. Also growing increasingly concerned about environmental degradation, Sweezy warned about the dangers of “automobilization.” Moreover, he addressed what he viewed as the potentially catastrophic phenomenon of global warming and other environmental problems which he attributed to capitalism. In 1989 Sweezy wrote two particularly notable essays – “Capitalism and the Environment” (co-authored with Magdoff) and “Socialism and Ecology” – in which he argued that “a reversal, not a mere slowing down of the [growth] trends of the last few centuries” was “essential for success” in protecting the environment.Sweezy’s last major article on imperialism, co-authored with Magdoff in 1991 and titled “Pox Americana,” was written as a condemnation of the Gulf War specifically, and of U.S. foreign interventions generally. The authors claimed that “the United States … has locked itself into a course with the gravest implications for the whole world” – i.e., telling other nations that they must, “on pain of violent destruction,” agree “to solve their problems in … ways dictated by … the most powerful nation with unlimited means of coercion at its disposal.”
In his later years, Sweezy taught briefly as a visiting professor at Cornell, Stanford, and Yale Universities, at the New School for Social Research in New York City, and in England at the University of Manchester.
Sweezy died on February 27, 2004, in Larchmont, New York.
For additional information on Paul Sweezy, click here.
Further Reading: “Memorial Service for Paul Marlor Sweezy (1910-2004)” (by