Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 8, 2006

Harry Magdoff memorial meeting

Filed under: economics — louisproyect @ 3:10 pm

Harry Magdoff and Paul Sweezy

Yesterday I attended a memorial meeting for Harry Magdoff at NYC's Ethical Culture Society, the very same place where a memorial meeting was held for Paul Sweezy a little over 2 years ago. The passing of these two giants of Marxist thought represents the end of an era in many ways. As veterans of the 1930s, they were dedicated to keeping alive the traditions of the earlier radical movement as well as mentoring the new generation that came along in the 1960s.

I was acquainted with both of them but felt somewhat closer to Harry, who as all the speakers pointed out yesterday was warm and gregarious by nature. The two men were a study in contrasts. Harry was a plump avuncular figure from the Bronx who spoke with a NYC Yiddish accent while Paul was a lean WASP with icy blue eyes who came from a wealthy New England banking family.

My first contact with Harry took place about 15 years ago at a Brecht Forum picnic that was held annually at his summer home in Croton, NY in a leftist enclave. He gave a class on the world economic situation that left me spellbound. After the class I mentioned to him that I was very impressed with "Money," Andrew Hacker's new book. He invited me to write a review and submit it to MR. My submission was rejected later on since, according to Harry, it was not really "MR". This was the first in a series of Charlie Brown type encounters with the giants of Marxism that would leave me feeling angry and cheated. After going through the same kind of experience with James O'Connor and then Immanuel Wallerstein, I finally resolved to stick to the world of Internet 'zines, mailing lists and blogs where I really fit in.

This experience with MR and a subsequent one which was even more painful left me feeling personally alienated from the people who ran the magazine, even though I continued to openly acknowledge my ideological affinity. Eventually I patched things up and was honored when Harry himself became a subscriber to Marxmail. I got notes from him from time to time asking me to resend him some item that appeared on the list. He was especially interested in a thread that had taken place on radical films, a subject that was obviously very close to my heart.

(Although Harry had the well-deserved reputation for his writings on economics, Annette Rubinstein, who is in her nineties now, said that he had an avid interest in culture that he rued not having enough time to pursue.)

The first speaker was his son Fred Magdoff, who spoke at length about his love for his father and his respect for his scholarship. He quoted Paul and Harry on the subject of mortality. When both were in their nineties and in poor health, the question of their impending passing was obviously very much on their mind. Paul said that the only reason he would regret dying was that he would no longer be able to read the NY Times in the morning! Harry said that death would rob him of the opportunity to "see how it all turned out." These were obviously two men who were political in the deepest sense.

Apparently, when Harry reached his nineties he began to rely more and more on the computer to keep up with the type of contacts he had when he was more active. Fred reported that Harry was always glad to get email from Michael Lebowitz about developments in Venezuela. Just to give you an idea about how relative the whole notion of aging is, Harry wrote back to Michael once saying that if he was only 80 again, he'd be down in Venezuela talking to people and learning about the revolutionary process!

The main thing that came through from the various speakers was Harry's indefatigable spirit. No matter what the challenges were, he rose to the occasion–standing up to the McCarthyites or keeping the revolutionary spirit alive in times of seeming apathy. Robert Engler, a University of Chicago professor and good friend of Harry's, reported on his reaction to a fire that destroyed a lifetime of records that he had been keeping on the economy: "I should rework my materials and calculations on investments, productivity, exports and imports, employment–they were getting somewhat dated."

Bernadine Dohrn spoke about the importance of Monthly Review to SDS'ers like herself in the 1960s and 70s. Although they were anxious to overthrow the system, they keenly felt the need to grasp the theory that would allow them to develop an effective strategy. Meetings were held with Paul and Harry on numerous occasions with young scholars of the New Left who were feeling their way around the problems of Marxism and how to apply it to American society. During Dohrn's remarks, I could not help but think of the challenge that faces MR today with the passing of Paul Sweezy and Harry Magdoff. Will John Bellamy Foster and his associates be able to play the role that Paul and Harry did, as mentors to young activists? There has always been a tension in MR between the requirements to serve as the voice of a current within academic Marxism and the needs of the mass movement, which operates on a somewhat different logic. Paul and Harry emerged out of the broad mass movement that arose with FDR's New Deal. It would be incumbent on John and the collective editorial board to think about ways that it can connect to the young radicals of today, some of whom have actually launched the creation of a new SDS. Unless the magazine can find a way to relate to people on the streets who are confronting the system, it will not be fully reflective of the magazine's roots.

One of the high points of the meeting was a snippet of a filmed interview with Harry made about 2 years ago in which he described what made him decide to become a socialist. First and foremost was WWI, which even at a very young age struck him as a supremely irrational and inhuman event. After his mother learned that her brother was going to be shipped off to fight in the European trench wars, she fainted dead away on their apartment floor. Harry said that this left an indelible mark on him. A few years later, as he began to develop an interest in politics, he attended a meeting on the fight for Indian independence. As he sat in the meeting learning of British cruelty and greed, he couldn't help but think how insane it was for one country to own another. That feeling obviously stuck with him for the rest of his life.

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