Would Lenin Have Become a Maoist? A Chat With Paul Sweezy and Harry Magdoff

Alexander Cockburn and Paul Sweezy in Istanbul, 1994. Photo: Ahmet Tonak.

I went to the Monthly Review and interviewed Paul Sweezy and Harry Magdoff.

HM: Back in 1949, at the founding of Monthly Review, Paul and Leo [Huberman] said, We’ve got to talk about the socialist idea. Now again we have to explore fundamental socialist ideas. You cannot create a decent society with emphasis on growth alone. The question is, What kind of growth? For what purpose? We have to go back to the basic principles of socialism, out of which Marx and Engels grew: utopian socialism.

PS: Socialism is now perceived by most people who call themselves socialists as removing the worst excesses of capitalism. That’s understandable, but totally wrong in the sense that what is needed is the negation of capitalism, not the removal of its excesses. Excrescences and excesses are not the essence of environmental degradation here. It’s the system itself. You have to have people in charge who care about things other than making profits; and the people implementing the policies have to care too.

HM: Which means economic, political and cultural revolution.

PS: Mao had the right ideas. Probably was impossible to carry them out.

AC: How do you think Mao looks these days?

PS: I think he looks great.

AC: You don’t think he destroyed the party with the Cultural Revolution?

PS: He probably destroyed the party because he had to, because it was a lousy party.

HM: There was a capitalist road!

AC: That’s true. How do you think Fidel looks?

PS: I don’t know. I haven’t followed too closely. I sympathize deeply with him for standing for what he believes. He’s headstrong and he’s made a lot of mistakes, flew in the face of common sense. But what the hell, that’s probably the way human history has to go anyway.

AC: Why do you think Mao looks so good?

PS: Because he said the kind of things–believed them and really inspired people to believe them­–which have to be done to have a decent society: “Serve the people;” “Public service, not private gain.” Marx, if he had come back alive, would have said, Mao’s his boy…I haven’t seen anything in Marx that isn’t good. I think he’s gotten better and better; I really do. Mao is the only real Marxist at the leadership level in the post-Marx world.

AC: Leaving Vladimir Ilych out of this, are we?

PS: Well, his problems were so different. I think that if he’d lived he might have become a Maoist, in the sense of attacking the party and bombarding the party headquarters out of necessity to change the whole thing around.

HM: Mao challenged the idea that economic planning would dissolve conflicts of interest between people. He saw it more dialectically: conflicts between intellectuals and manual workers,  between the city and the countryside, stratification in the party and society. He said it was necessary to struggle to overcome these differences, whether it takes 100 or 500 years. But now within the framework of socialism–which is really social welfare in a social democratic framework–all they want to do is get the kind of economic growth of the capitalist world. It creates the same kind of problems as in the capitalist world.

PS: If we had a revolution here, in this rich country, we’d have to change our whole way of life.

– May, 1989, New York City.

This is excerpted from The Golden Age is In Us.

Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined!, A Colossal Wreck and An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents are available from CounterPunch.