ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

A+| A| A-

Tribute: Harry Magdoff (1913-2006)

Harry Magdoff, committed Marxist intellectual, and co-editor of Monthly Review, died recently. His intellectual labours were devoted to working tirelessly for a better world, one where a 'decent future' would be assured to those long exploited and subjugated. He will be greatly missed.


Harry Magdoff (1913-2006)

‘...There Can Be a Better World’

Harry Magdoff, committed Marxist intellectual, and co-editor of Monthly Review, died recently. His intellectual labours were devoted to working tirelessly for a better world, one where a ‘decent future’ would be assured to those long exploited and subjugated. He will be greatly missed.


arry Magdoff, co-editor of the well known independent socialist magazine published from New York, Monthly Review (MR, for short), and one of the most enlightening economic analysts of US capitalism and imperialism, died peacefully at home in Burlington, Vermont in the early hours of new year’s day. An entire generation of activists who came of age during the upsurge against capitalism, imperialism and the commodification of every aspect of life (better known as the “1968” movements) will feel his absence the most.

Harry Magdoff was born on August 21, 1913 in the Bronx, New York, the son of working class Russian-Jewish immigrants. In 1929, at the age of 15, he happened to read the preface of Karl Marx’s A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy; a book he had picked up for a quarter from a second-hand book store. Although the young Harry “didn’t understand the rest of the book”, the famous preface blew his mind, getting him “started reading about economics”. As he put it: “We were going into the Depression then and I wanted to figure out what it all meant”. Later on in March 1930 he was witness to a demonstration of the unemployed at Union Square at which mounted police with billy clubs beat a crowd of “gauntfaced people, dressed as you might expect people in poverty to dress” mercilessly, splattering blood all over.

The life of an individual cannot be understood without grasping the interplay of that individual and society. It seems that the troubles Harry endured in life, how he coped with them, and his efforts to “learn truth from practice” are related to the historical changes and institutional contradictions wrought by the 20th century. While looking back on Harry’s life, we cannot possibly elucidate all this in detail, but we try to provide a hint.1 At a more general level, it is almost like saying, provocatively enough, that the history that now affects human beings is world history.

Touchstones of a Life

Let’s then come back to our account of Harry, who went on to study at City College of New York, supporting himself by teaching courses on Marxism to workers. At college he became active in a progressive student organisation called the Social Problems Club, going on to become the editor of their magazine, Frontiers. During a trip to attend the founding conventions

Economic and Political Weekly January 14, 2006

of the National Students League and the Youth League Against War and Fascism he married fellow student Beatrice Greizer (popularly known as Beadie, his wife and comrade all along, until her death in June 2002). For a while, Magdoff was a coeditor of the National Student League’s magazine Student League. Expelled from City College for his radical politics, he went on to complete a BS in economics in 1936 from New York University; his mother who had never been to school but had taught herself to read, and had a great respect for education, “had squirrelled away some housekeeping money, enough to pay for a semester at NYU”.

The Depression had painfully dragged on with no end in sight. Magdoff joined the National Commission on Technological Unemployment and Re-employment of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in Philadelphia where he went on to develop productivity measures for a number of manufacturing industries, one of which is still used by the US department of labour. At the time, Magdoff published two landmark papers – one on the purpose and method of measuring productivity in the Journal of the American Statistical Association in 1939 and the other on the service industries in relation to employment trends in 1940 in Econometrica. Moving on to the Civil Requirements Division of the National Defence and Advisory Board in Washington DC, he studied industrial capacity and productivity, trying to discern bottlenecks that might arise at full capacity output. Transferred to the War Production Board, he was in-charge of their WPB-732 monthly statistical series. In 1944 be became chief economist at the US commerce department’s current business analysis division, overseeing the famous Survey of Current Business. He became special assistant to Henry A Wallace, secretary of commerce, in 1946, among other things, authoring weekly economic position papers for Wallace’s cabinet meetings with president Truman. From mid-1947 to 1952 Magdoff worked as programme director for a pro-New Deal business group, the New Council of American Business. In 1948 when Wallace made a bid for the presidency on the Progressive Party nomination, he called upon Harry to advise him on economics and foreign policy issues and to author his small business platform.

In the late 1940s McCarthyism struck and Harry found employment opportunities in government and policy circles closed to him. He was compelled to testify before congressional committees and grand juries and was harassed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Harry and Beadie, with their two sons, Michael and Fred, moved back to New York. There he was forced to take whatever jobs came his way, for instance, as a sales promotion manager selling television programmes, followed by one on Wall Street, much against his will, and then as an agent for an insurance company. In the late 1950s he joined the publisher Russell and Russell, becoming a co-owner when he put in his money at a time when the firm was going through financial distress. In 1965 Russell and Russell was bought by Atheneum; the returns he got from that sale relieved Harry and his family of years of economic hardship. The time had come to resume his role as a public Marxist intellectual; an article by Magdoff on the problems of US capitalism appeared in the Socialist Register of 1965.

Harry in MR

Harry “fell in love” with MR from the very first issue in May 1949. There were three reasons he gave – in his own words: “It talked about socialism, a taboo topic at the time; it declared itself independent, beyond the control of any party; and the language was clear and simple. These things gave it a quality that was altogether different.” He became friends of Paul Baran (1910-1964), professor of economics at Stanford and one of MR’s main contributors, and MR’s founder editors, Leo Huberman (1903-1968) and Paul M Sweezy (1910-2004). Upon Leo Huberman’s death in 1968, Sweezy asked Harry to join him as co-editor. What followed was “over 30 years of a remarkable collective relationship”. As Harry was to put it, in what was read out at a memorial meeting for Paul Sweezy on April 17, 2004 in New York City (Paul Sweezy diedon February 28 that year): “Our social origins – or, if you wish, class differences

– were distinctly apart. Paul had about the best education one can get in the United States. Mine was scraggly and very ordinary. We came to Marxism and socialism by different routes. Nevertheless, we worked year in and out in close harmony. …”.

Magdoff’s book, The Age of Imperialism: The Economics of US Foreign Policy (Monthly Review Press, New York, 1969),

parts of which first appeared as a threepart article in MR in 1968, made waves in the struggle against the war in Vietnam. The book has sold 1,00,000 copies and was translated into 15 languages. Basically, Magdoff showed that US foreign policy had its roots in US capitalism itself; with the onset of monopoly capitalism, the US state and US corporations increasingly tended to team up to expand their activities, advance their interests, their influence and their power beyond US national borders. The need of nation states at the centre to control access to the supply of crucial raw materials, including petroleum, often required political manoeuvring and military operations overseas to engender economic relations of dependency.

Critique of Capitalism

Harry’s familiarity with the US government’s economic statistics, and uncanny ability to provide analytical depth to the interpretation of this data served him well when some prominent US academics tried to take him on. He never shied away from examining theory against the facts. He carefully examined data that purported to reflect only superficial truths, delicately chiselling away to get at what really went on beneath it all. But larger questions arose regarding the history of imperialism and its relation to the growth of capitalism, which Magdoff dealt with subsequently, these essays put together in another book, Imperialism: From the Colonial Age to the Present (Monthly Review Press, New York, 1978). The main essay in this collection being ‘European Expansion since 1763’, earlier published in the 15th edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica (1974) as ‘Colonialism (c 1450-c 1970)’. Incidentally, in the subsequent 1979 edition the Encyclopaedia is said to have succumbed to political pressure, in effect, removing Magdoff’s account of the US role in Vietnam during 1954-73.

Magdoff viewed imperialism as emanating from an inner drive within capitalism itself, irrespective of the stage of capitalist development, thus arguing against linking the process of imperialism to the necessity for the export of capital. He saw imperialism as part of the expansive and, at times, explosive process of capital accumulation. It followed that the elimination of imperialism required the overthrow of capitalism itself. Magdoff’s work on imperialism meshed well with Baran’s 1957 The Political Economy of Growth and Baran

Economic and Political Weekly January 14, 2006 and Sweezy’sMonopoly Capital: An Essay on the American Economic and Social Order, published in 1966. But the need for further clarifications arose. For instance, while foreign investment provided one avenue for the absorption of the rising potential surplus, the accumulated stock of foreign direct investment generated a reverse flow of surplus that added to the problem of surplus absorption.

Sweezy and Magdoff collaborated to produce a stream of articles on the dynamics of US capitalism, including the financial explosion. To the discerning reader, in these articles Magdoff’s strengths – examining theory against the facts, working with plentiful data, while trying one’s best to discern what is really going on underneath the surface phenomena reflected therein, in the process providing analytical depth to the interpretation of data – come through very well. The extension of Baran and Sweezy’s monopoly capital model to include the financial sector as an absorber of part of the surplus and their exploration of the nature and limits of finance-led accumulation in the 1980s and beyond formed the most interesting part of the output of that phase of the Magdoff-Sweezy collaboration. The time has perhaps come for a theoretical elaboration of the integration of production and finance in the capitalist process, drawing on Keynes (chapter 12 on ‘The State of Long-term Expectation’ in The General Theory), and the work of Sweezy and Magdoff, where there are new ideas and initial attempts at syntheses.

Third World Struggles

Harry Magdoff’s concerns about the peoples of India and other third world countries go back to his youth. In his own words: “Early in my youth, I accidentally walked into a meeting devoted to mobilising support of India’s struggle for independence. The fact that stronger nations invaded other nations to own and exploit them came as a shock. Obviously, I was very young and had lots to learn. The speeches at the meeting stimulated me to study why and how this happened.” In The Political Economy of Growth, Baran tried to show how in their process of capital accumulation, the British ruling class “systematically destroyed all the fibres and foundations of Indian society”. He then went on to lay bare the exploitative relationships that characterise the structure of capitalism on a world scale.

In MR, a great deal more attention has been paid to third world situations and third world struggles than by any other publication on the left. A variety of armed struggles in the third world were covered in MR. In retrospect, some critics have said that the magazine uncritically put its hopes in such movements, which turned out to be unwarranted. Harry’s response has been: “I don’t think that it is up to the left to judge whether it is warranted or unwarranted when people are in struggle where there is tremendous poverty, misery, and little hope, and in the process either make mistakes, or don’t make the best decisions, … History does not come easy. … But to judge? It’s wrong. Marx at one point says that there will be many revolutions and wars and defeats before the working class learns how to be a ruling class. … History takes a hell of a lot more work, comes with many setbacks, than we expect.”

I am reminded of Tilak D Gupta’s article on ‘Recent Developments in the Naxalite Movement’ (MR, September 1993). When he first read the article, Sweezy wrote (June 16, 1993): “Thank you very much for the splendid article … It is exactly what we wanted and thought would be most useful to our readers. …” Sweezy and Magdoff encouraged an indigenous socialist enterprise, Cornerstone Publications, floated by Subhas Aikat in Kharagpur (West Bengal) that also prints, publishes and distributes a low-priced Indian edition of MR. Called Analytical Monthly Review, it also carries a local editorial focusing on south Asia, much like in the MR tradition. Harry was greatly pleased to hear of the growth of its circulation.

On an academic visit to the US, I met Harry and Beadie in September 2000 at their home in New York. Beadie was full of warmth and good humour, and, I might add, a motherly concern for me. And Harry. Here was a Marxist intellectual very unlike those I have met, modest and devoid of the arrogance characteristic of some sections of the left. He spoke with warmth about his friendships and his interactions with people during his visits to India. But one thing that startled him was “the aristocratic disdain for manual labour by intellectuals and professionals”. I had attributed this to the caste system. He responded: “even when there isn’t the precision of the caste system, other social formations and other ideologies bring similar results. One finds

Economic and Political Weekly January 14, 2006

the separation of head and hand in ancient Greece, when slaves were the manual workers, and throughout the third world”.

The widening of the gap between a handful of rich nations and the rest of the world, as also the incredibly uneven distribution of the productive forces, including technology, was of great concern to him. In a note on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of The Communist Manifesto he wrote: “…in view of the way capitalism has spread throughout the world as well as in the most advanced nations of the world, it is essential that the vision of socialism focus on a social transformation which will put first and foremost: the empowerment and meeting the basic needs of the poorest, the most oppressed, and disadvantaged.” It must be added, for Harry, the qualification democratic as in “democratic socialism” was redundant; that which is not democratic cannot be socialist. My impression of Harry gathered from this lovely afternoon in September 2000 with the Magdoffs was that of a great teacher. As the conversation drifted to the New York Marxist School, I could visualise Harry, in the twilight of his life, gently helping the younger generation – those for whom the morning had just dawned, resplendent himself like the sun at that time of the day

– understand what has happened up to now and what may be needed if humanity is to survive and create a decent future.

The short 20th century ended with the defeat of the opposition to the rule of capital. That opposition had many weaknesses and was internally divided; moreover, capital was very strong. It has been a devastating defeat, but this is not the “end of history”; the conditions that gave rise to an opposition continue to exist, which guarantees that the opposition to capital will stage a comeback as newer generations of the dominated, exploited and oppressed, and intellectuals, like Harry, who cannot remain unmoved take their side, both taking the place of those who die or retire.

In an interview published in the 50th anniversary issue of MR in May 1999, in response to a question from Christopher Phelps “What keeps you going?” Harry said: “… I can’t be any other way. I have to believe that there can be a better world”. Harry Magdoff did his best and hoped for the best, right to the very end. We will miss him.




1 We rely on numerous past issues of MR. A large chunk of the facts are drawn from Christopher Phelps’ interview with Harry Magdoff in the 50th anniversary (May 1999) issue and John Bellamy Foster’s ‘The Optimism of the Heart: Harry Magdoff (1913-2006)’ at <http:// > last accessed on January 9, 2006. We have also drawn from the first edition of a selection of Harry Magdoff’s Essays on Imperialism and Globalisation, Cornerstone Publications, Kharagpur, India, 2002, and from personal correspondence.

Economic and Political Weekly January 14, 2006

Dear reader,

To continue reading, become a subscriber.

Explore our attractive subscription offers.

Click here


(-) Hide

EPW looks forward to your comments. Please note that comments are moderated as per our comments policy. They may take some time to appear. A comment, if suitable, may be selected for publication in the Letters pages of EPW.

Back to Top