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The Man Who Explained the Empire

Remembering Harry Magdoff


In reflecting on Harry Magdoff’s life, who died this past New Year’s Day at the age of 92, one has to start with the obvious. Harry was a committed, lifelong socialist, who stuck to his guns despite having paid a heavy personal price for doing so. Harry was also one of the very best economists of his time — and I don’t mean to include only socialist economists in the comparison, but the whole gamut running from left to right — despite his having had no graduate training or the advantages of an academic job. Harry was also extremely warm and friendly, a heavy-set person with a kind of half-scruffy, half-stylish beard, a pipe, and with a personal style that came directly from the Jewish/Yiddish immigrant community in New York. His small apartment on West 84th Street was lined inch-to-inch with books. When I spent time there in the late 1970s and early 1980s, his 90ish mother-in-law was living in the apartment with Harry and his wife Beadie (about whom more later). Harry and Beadie always made an effort to keep the older woman in the mix of things, right along with all the lefties and intellectual heavies that seemed to regularly come through.

Harry was best known for two fundamental contributions to the intellectual vitality of the left: his 1969 book The Age of Imperialism and subsequent work on the issue of imperialism; and his serving as co-editor of Monthly Review, along with Paul Sweezy, from 1969 onward. These were both formidable achievements.

The Age of Imperialism was the most widely read and cited work on the nature of U.S. imperialism at the time of the Vietnam War. The connection between the book and the war was crucial. As of 1969, when Harry’s book came out, the case in behalf of the war had already started collapsing. Johnson quit the Presidency in 1968 after having been challenged with some success in the Democratic Party primaries by a fairly obscure anti-war candidate, Senator Eugene McCarthy (who also just died a couple of weeks ago). But before Harry’s book came out, the dominant arguments of the anti-war movement were liberal in perspective: that the war was a mistake, that it was unwinnable, that the U.S. had overstretched itself in the efforts of containing Communism. Of course, these liberal perspectives continued to be dominant into the 1970s. But with Harry’s book, the left now had a whole new framework on which to think about Vietnam and the Cold War more generally. This was the view that the Vietnam War was an outgrowth of a systematic effort at creating a U.S. empire in the post World War II epoch. Harry wasn’t the only person saying it, of course. Others included the great Wisconsin historian William Appleman Williams and some people who followed his perspective.

But Harry’s work was in a class by itself because of three things: first, his grasp of broad historical trends; second, his ability to write difficult arguments in a clear and accessible way; and third, his unique capacity for understanding and presenting statistical data, again, in a way that was clear and accessible.

Marshalling these abilities, Harry made a powerful case that U.S. foreign policy was fundamentally about defending and advancing the interests of U.S. capitalists throughout the world. Moreover, Harry showed that these efforts were equivalent to what the European imperialist countries had undertaken in the era of colonialism and what Lenin had written about in that period. Harry was arguing that the drive for capitalists to expand their markets, to control supplies of crucial raw materials such as oil, and to also control the levers of global finance did not end with the collapse of formal colonialism.

Quite the contrary. Marx showed how workers in a capitalist economy were still exploited even though they no longer lived under the formal legal shackles of slavery or feudalism. Similarly, Harry argued that under the new U.S. imperialism, it was no longer necessary to maintain formal colonies in order for U.S. business to exploit the resources of developing countries to promote its profits. The Cold War was quite useful to U.S. business in serving these goals, since it provided a pretext under which the U.S. could demand domination of the politics and economics of the underdeveloped countries. Vietnam, and Southeast Asia more generally, fit into this framework very clearly.

Harry built these arguments through the compelling use of statistics. Just to take one example somewhat randomly from Chapter 1 of The Age of Imperialism, Harry constructs a table showing the amount of minerals being imported by the U.S. relative to the amount of minerals being consumed within the U.S. economy. From 1920-29, that figure was 0.7 percent. By 1961, it had risen to 14 percent, a huge increase in reliance on foreign sources. The point was clear: if U.S. capitalists were going to increasingly buy raw materials from abroad, it would certainly help their profitability if they could maintain political control over those sources of raw materials. It wasn’t necessary that there always be wars for U.S. business to maintain this control over global resources. It would actually be preferable to simply buy off governments, or overthrow unfriendly ones through the CIA. But wars would be fought as needed, and this, Harry argued, is what the Vietnam experience was fundamentally about.

Lots of criticisms have been raised about The Age of Imperialism over time. For example, that it didn’t present a coherent case as to the distinct roles of monopoly firms versus the U.S. state power in formulating an imperialist agenda. Another criticism was that Harry didn’t demonstrated how much U.S. monopolistic firms really needed imperialism as the foundation for their super-profits. But the power of Harry’s work was primarily historical and descriptive rather than as high theory. And as a historical/descriptive work at the time, it was unmatched. Harry identified and understood the major themes: control of major raw materials, including, of course, oil; control of finance; using foreign aid to control governments. These were of overriding importance then. But don’t they also have something of a contemporary ring today as well?

Most of Harry’s essays in The Age of Imperialism and its companion book Imperialism: From the Colonial Age to the Present appeared originally in some form in Monthly Review. And so Harry’s work on imperialism was closely tied up with his work as Co-Editor of MR. But Harry didn’t only write about imperialism in MR. He covered all the issues that socialists would care about: the U.S. working class, global poverty, boom-and-bust business cycles, reflections on classic writers such as Rosa Luxemburg and Lenin, and strategies for advancing a socialist agenda.

One of the major topics he worked on was what we now call the "financialization" of contemporary capitalism, i.e. the increasing dominance of financial interests, of the interests of "Wall Street,"we might say, using that term broadly, in setting the direction for capitalism both in the U.S. and globally. This increasing dominance of Wall Street interests has been a fundamental feature of the ascendancy of neo-liberalism throughout the world since the mid-1970s. Harry and Paul Sweezy were true pioneers in recognizing this trend, with collections of their MR essays including The Dynamics of U.S. Capitalism in 1972, The End of Prosperity in 1977 and Stagnation and the Financial Explosion in 1987.

Here again, a major aspect of their work was the fact that these essays tracked in simple but compelling empirical detail the emergence of financialization as a phenomenon. For example, Harry and Paul wrote about the increasing pattern of corporations to buy and speculate in financial assets rather than invest in new factories. They also recognized before almost anybody the increase in the reliance on debt by U.S. households as a means of maintaining their living standard as their wages started to stagnate or fall. These trends remain with us today. And as such, Harry’s ability as a real-world, down-to-earth, but highly skilled statistician was absolutely crucial to the overall project. It is not clear when people on the left would have noticed and made sense of these trends without Harry, along with Paul, having done so first. I shall return to this point.

As I mentioned above, Harry was essentially an autodidact. He did go to City College, but got kicked out for doing leftist political organizing. He then ended up graduating from NYU. But he had no fancy graduate degrees and he never made a living as a socialist scholar. Rather, implausibly for a major leftist economist, Harry learned about doing economics primarily as a U.S. government employee, rising up the ranks very rapidly as a government economist/statistician during the 1930s Depression and World War II. In 1940, at the age of 27, he was put in charge of the civilian requirements division of the National Defense Advisory Commission. During the war, still in his late 20s and early 30s, he rose up to become the chief economist of the Current Business Analysis Division at the Department of Commerce.

Harry once told me how, with these jobs, he was supervising small armies of Ph.D. economists and statisticians. I asked him how he was able to establish himself as a boss in these situations, given that he was both without any graduate degrees himself and much younger than virtually all of them. I’ll never forget his answer. He said "Well, I was pretty heavy then. That somehow gave me a sense of authority that I wouldn’t have had otherwise."

For his last government job, Harry became special assistant to Henry Wallace when Wallace was Secretary of Commerce from 1944–46. But Harry got drummed out of the government with the red scare witch hunts that began with the Democratic Truman Administration and continuing on with McCarthyism. Out of government work, Harry then went back to New York and took a series of jobs with Wall Street firms, doing data analysis and writing up reports-not too different, in this stage of his career, from the career path taken by someone like Alan Greenspan. But far different from the young Greenspans on Wall Street, Harry maintained his leftist convictions throughout this period. He told me about one of his bosses who was impressed with his work, and wanted to encourage him. Harry said this boss would drop boxes of expensive cigars on his desk on a regular basis, without saying a word. Harry took his boss’s message to be "look at all the great things money can buy, if you would just give up on all this socialism nonsense."

I got to know Harry when I was a graduate student at the New School, then, as now, a leading center for heterodox economics, including Marxism and left Keynesianism, in the late 1970s and early 1980s. I became interested in writing a dissertation on finance and stagnation in contemporary U.S. capitalism in large part from reading his and Paul’s essays in MR on this subject. It’s hard to convey now just how fresh and important this work seemed to me then. This was the period when Milton Friedman of the University of Chicago and the free-market ideology of "monetarism" were becoming dominant in the economics profession and in global policy-making circles. Think of Gen. Pinochet and 1973 coup in Chile. Almost immediately after the coup and destruction of the democratically elected socialist government of Salvador Allende, Pinochet announced that a new economic program would guide his government, that program would be "monetarism" and the new policy heavies were to be Milton Friedman’s students, who were touted as "los Chicago Boys."

During this period, almost nobody on the left had anything serious to say about money and finance. For example, we had no field in the subject at the New School. But how could we even hope to effectively counter Milton Friedman and his ilk if we didn’t think hard about money and finance ourselves? When I raised this point with fellow students and faculty members at the New School, I was generally considered a bit off. One common response was, "Why should we tell the capitalists how to understand their financial system?" Another was to just "go read Marx", where I would find all the answers I needed.

So against this background, I asked Harry if he would be willing to serve as one of my dissertation advisors, even though he had no formal affiliation with the New School or any other academic institution, in addition to having no advanced academic degrees. Harry agreed to do this, and his first piece of advice was very straightforward: that I should master the Federal Reserve’s statistical tables on the financial system, the Flow of Funds Accounts. That was probably the best single piece of advice I ever received on doing research, especially given that, as an advanced graduate student, I had never even heard of the Flow of Funds Accounts before he mentioned them.

But it was precisely through Harry having mastered the Flow of Funds Accounts, and comparable statistical sources on other aspects of the economy, that he was able to make breakthroughs in understanding capitalism from a socialist perspective and thereby to seriously challenge the Pinochets and the Friedmans. Harry did read deeply in Marx, Luxemburg, Lenin, and all the other socialist classics. But mere exegesis or interpretations and reinterpretations of classic texts wasn’t what turned him on. He was able to tell powerful real-world stories about the nature of capitalism of our own time precisely because he knew how to read the Flow of Funds Accounts as well as Marx. As part of his socialist convictions, Harry was committed to describing today’s world as clearly and effectively as possible.

Not surprisingly, Harry had done lots of informal teaching of this sort over the years. He was especially committed to teaching young people about current affairs from a socialist perspective. For example, in the 1980s, he started coming to the summer conferences the Union for Radical Political Economics, which were held in summer camps. Lots of us would be presenting our new research ideas at these gatherings. But Harry was mainly interested in teaching "radical economics for kids". No grown-ups other than Harry were allowed to attend these sessions. Who ever heard of groups of 9–14 year olds coming to, and actually enjoying such as class, especially when they could have been out swimming or playing basketball instead? Somehow Harry managed to pull it off. My own two daughters were among the devotees of Harry’s sessions in these years.

One cannot think about Harry without also thinking about his wife Beadie, who died a few years before Harry. Beadie was every bit as sharp and strong-willed, but also just as warm as Harry. She also came out of the New York Jewish immigrant community, which one could figure out within seconds of meeting her. Beadie was part of a pre-feminist era. So Beadie also worked at MR. But she handled the reception desk and book sales while Harry was in the back of the office editing or conferring with Paul. Harry and Beadie would have great dinner parties, in which Beadie did all the cooking and serving while Harry stayed put at the table. Despite this, from all appearances, Beadie and Harry appeared to treat each other as total equals. And Beadie was much sharper in speaking her convictions and taking on people she disagreed with.

I was once on the receiving end of Beadie’s no-hold’s barred style of argument. Alex Cockburn and I had co-written an article in The Nation in 1987 endorsing a highly progressive pastoral statement on the U.S. economy by the U.S. conference of Catholic Bishops. At our editor’s suggestion, we also went on in the article to think about some of the ways in which some of the bishops ideas could be formulated into policies. I happened to call the Magoff home around the time the article came out. Beadie picked up the phone and said, "How dare you and Alex, such good boys, write such reformist drivel. I’m now going to put Harry on to give you a piece of his mind also." So, Harry and Beadie definitely operated as equals, in this instance among many others, but with Beadie taking the lead.

This anecdote does bring up one aspect of Harry’s work that I could never fully figure out. As part of Harry’s worldview as a socialist, he referred regularly to the positive progressive experience of the New Deal, and the positive lessons that one could take from that experience. Of course, Harry lived through the New Deal as a high-level government economist. Nevertheless, despite this, Harry was not receptive to the idea of thinking about reformist-type measures comparable to the New Deal that might play a progressive role today — the types of "non-reformist reforms," (in Andre Gorz’s phrase) that could move a left agenda forward from the starting point of where we are today rather than where we might like to be. Outside of the New Deal experience, Harry viewed such reformist programmatic thinking this as undermining a socialist agenda for today. This was why Harry and Beadie couldn’t see any merit to Alex and I having endorsed and expanded on the Catholic Bishops’ statement.

There will be much time for serious critical reflections on Harry’s life and work. Harry would want it no other way. Now is the time to celebrate the life of a wonderful man — a person of conviction and personal warmth, who devoted all his formidable intellectual skills to advancing the well-being of ordinary people, in the U.S. and throughout the world. At the suggestion of Victor Navasky, I once asked Harry about writing his autobiography, or at least an essay on his life. His answer was typical: "Nah, my life isn’t all that interesting. Besides, I have lots of other things I’d rather be writing and thinking about."

Working right to the end as a Monthly Review editor, Harry certainly did make the absolute most of his 92 years on this planet.

ROBERT POLLIN is professor of economic and founding co-director of the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachuesetts-Amherst. His groundbreaking book, Contours of Descent: US Economic Fractures and the Landscape of Global Austerity, has just be released in paperback by Verso with a new afterward. He can be reached at: pollin@counterpunch.org.

A recent interview with Pollin can be read at the PERI site.