YESTERDAY’S MAN

Harry Magdoff (1913-2006) 


Ideas, though nothing more than a reflection of the materiality of being, do matter.  And the most powerful idea of the twentieth century was Communism.  Harry Magdoff came into this world just as that idea was bursting on the international scene from the unlikeliest corner of Europe, full of spite and vinegar and credibly promising to transform humanity itself.   He death this morning in his ninety-third year saw off an exemplar of a much-reduced idea, that of “Western Marxism”, or a Marxism without the proletariat and retaining only its function as a sort of cultural criticism of bourgeois civilization.  


Mr Magdoff is best remembered both for his stewardship of the much-admired but little read Monthly Review and a half-baked theory of imperialism that was briefly in vogue shortly before North Vietnamese regulars drove into downtown Saigon in the wake of the most spectacular defeat ever suffered by an imperialist power.   Western Marxism at that moment was at its zenith, flattering itself by its imagined (but largely fictitious) role in the Communist victory before quickly degenerating into the phalanx of failed social-welfare economies and “identity” politics that was to follow hard on the heels of April, 1975.


The post- Vietnam denouement has in fact been so unkind to the generation of western marxists exemplified by Mr Magdoff that it is fitting to speak of his as a “failed generation” of thinkers on the Left.   Never quite sure of where they stood at any particular moment — at various times flirting with Maoism, Trotskyism, anarchism, syndicalism, or what-have-you — most finally settled into the vapidity of calling, forlornly, for a welfare state financed by taxing the market.   Largely gone was Lenin’s wager on class struggle and political will to reach the classless society.   As constituencies shrank, many quit the fight altogether, though Harry Magdoff remained steadfast in his belief in socialism, even if he could never cogently define quite what he meant by it.


So, Mr Magdoff is finally gone.   And with him are gone most of the illusions of the Western Left.  The social-welfare state is dead or dying;  strident nationalisms and noxious fundamentalisms vie to fill the vacuum left by socialism’s eclipse.   The Left itself is divided into a galaxy of minute, warring sects, united only in their inability to attract more than an insignificant fringe of the workers’ movement or, even, to present a tenable program of action.   All that is left, really,  of the Monthly Reviews of the world is the genre’s cultural critiqe of the bourgeoisie.   There is little to reckon such an asset will facilitate a renewal of the Marxian project.


What follows, then,  for the heirs of Marx here in the West?   Perhaps a rejuvenation of Leninism’s uncompromising prescriptions for class struggle.   More likely a nostalgic tailing after of Chinese “confucian collectivism” fueled by the dynamic of “authoritarian” Asian economies.  Marxism, after all, was once a canon of the inexorable, the unstoppable, the super-dynamic of inevitability.   Magdoff’s generation succumbed to the liberalism that everywhere surrounded them, whereupon the Marxist doctrine of the future descended into a catechism of the weak, the incompetent, the perennially unsuccessful, the raison d’etre of the welfare state.  


Marxism could not flourish within such strictures.  Perhaps the passing of the generation which best exemplified the degeneration of Marx into a garden-variety liberal will prove to be the necessary pre-requisite for the beginnings of a new and productive era in Marxism itself. 

7 Comments

  1. Jim F.

    January 2, 2006 @ 2:26 pm

    1

    Well, don’t let anyone accuse Louis of being overly gracious. He groups the late Harry Magdoff and his colleagues at Monthly Review as being part of “Western Marxism.” Presumably, by the term “Western Marxism,” Louis means much the same thing that Perry Anderson meant by the term in his Considerations on Western Marxism, where he characterized it in the following terms:

    “The hidden hallmark of Western Marxism as a whole,” wrote Anderson, “is thus that it is a product of defeat”. This variant of Marxism was characterised by “an ever increasing academic emplacement of the theory that was produced” and evolved into “an esoteric discipline whose highly technical idiom measured its distance from politics”, this was “the sign of its divorce from any popular practice”. In these circumstances “the needle of the whole tradition tended to swing increasingly away towards contemporary bourgeois culture”. Amd according to Anderson, the theoretical innovations of ‘Western Marxism’ shared “one fundamental emblem: a common and latent pessimism.”

  2. Jim F.

    January 2, 2006 @ 2:26 pm

    2

    Now I take it that Louis feels that the Monthly Review crowd, including Magdoff, exhibited most of these characteristics too. In part, I think that he is correct, but only in part. For one thing, unlike most of the thinkers that have been classified as Western Marxists, Magdoff, Sweezy et al. always retained a strong interest in political economy, whereas most of the leading Western Marxist thinkers were notable for their relative lack of interest in that subject. Indeed, both Magdoff and Sweezy were trained as professional economists and that subject has always been central to Monthly Review. On the other hand, their brand of Marxian political economy was always strongly influenced by Keynesianism, indeed Sweezy was one of the first American Keynesians, along with his better known colleagues: Paul Samuelson and J.K. Galbraith. Both Sweezy and Magdoff, tended to emphasize tendicies towards underconsumption, as being central to their analyses of capitalist crises. A lot other Marxist economists would take issue with them over this, but their emphasis on underconsumption clearly reflects a Keynesian influence.

    Both Magdoff and Sweezy served back in the 1930s and 1940s, in a number of New Deal agencies. They both worked in the presidential campaign of Henry Wallace in 1948, which was the last gasp of the New Deal era. I have, quite a number of times, characterized Magdoff and Sweezy as having represented the extreme left-wing of the New Dealers. I suspect, this is what Louis may have been referring to, when he accused Harry of succumbing to the illusions of the welfare state. While they played a role in the creation of the US version of the welfare state, I think they were quite aware of the contradictions that beset it. They recognized early on that the capitalist state would never make full use of Keynesian economic tools to sustain full-employment over the long haul, since that would empower labor at the expense of capital, and capital would never stand for that except during periods of crisis. They also recognized how in the US, the practical application of Keynesianism took the form of a military Keynesianism, in which government spending was channeled into the military-industrial complex rather than into social welfare programs. This brand of Keyensianism was seen by Harry and Paul as being more acceptable to capital than the more social welfare-oriented brand.

  3. Jim F.

    January 2, 2006 @ 2:27 pm

    3

    >Louis in branding Harry as a Western Marxist, accuses hims of having shared their historical pessimism. Again, I think there is some truth to this. They seemed to have been rather pessimistic concerning the revolutionary proclivities of the American proletariat, so they turned much of their attention to revolutions in the Third World, including China, Cuba, and Vietnam. Monthly Review was often accused back in the 1960s and 1970s of promoting a Third Worldism on the radical left. And there was much justice in that accusation. On the other hand, the magazine never entirely ignored labor issues in the United States, and has often reported on insurgent movements within American labor unions.

  4. Jim F.

    January 2, 2006 @ 2:32 pm

    4

    If they were pessimistic about the revolutionary potential of the US working class, well the period in which they did most of their significant work,

  5. Jim F.

    January 2, 2006 @ 2:37 pm

    5

    that is the period stretching from the early 1940s through the late 1980s and early 1990s

  6. Jim F.

    January 2, 2006 @ 2:41 pm

    6

    And during this period too, the US working class suffered a number of significant defeats at the hands of capital, which further sapped any rebellious proclivities. I don’t think that either Magdoff or Sweezy can be blamed for this situation. This is a situation that has confronted and continues to confront Marxists, whether they be academics, magazine editors, or organizers on the shop floor. Most of the problems that afflict the radical left and most of the negative traits of the radical left, which Louis deplores, are a direct result of that situation. If Magdoff failed to come up with a solution, well no one else, including Louis, has been able to either.

    Louis takes Magdoff to task over his writings on imperialism, finding his theory of imperialism to have been “half-baked.” Maybe so, but it seems to me that his writings on imperialism did much to revive interest in imperialism, back in the 1960s and 1970s, as a reality to be recognzied and confronted by progressives.

  7. Louis Godena

    January 2, 2006 @ 11:48 pm

    7

    Well, Communists in the labor movement never amounted to more than a minor nuisance, anyway. But even the extraordinary incompetence they consistently displayed would not have been the problem it was except for one thing. The workers themselves were not the restless proletarians of Marxist lore. Whatever else they wanted, it was not revolution. Most strikes and walkouts, even those accompanied by violence, were quarrels over wages, not harbingers of armed insurrection. In Russia, the unions were charged with carrying out economic policies of the Soviet government. In the West, the protestant traditions which clearly sided with the downtrodden and oppressed also accomodated a respect for a liberal society and the rule of law, and the prospects for winning concessions for the workers within that society. There was nothing here of the anarchist strain which figured so prominently in the Russian worker. Western Communists were trying to win by using the playbook for not merely another team, but for an entirely different game. I don’t think Sweezy and Magdoff ever quite understood this; they were too much a product of the dominant strains of Western Marxism, which had yet to successfully come into its own. In many ways, it always remained the bastard child of the October Revolution, painfully unaware of its paternity and condemned to repeating slogans which simply failed to resonate among their national proletariat. This led to frustration and, ultimately to despair and cynicism. By the time they were old men, they did not have the time of day for real revolutionaries and contented themselves with listening to their arteries harden while exhorting others along the path that had served them so poorly. That was their real sin and that is why I call them members of a “failed” generation.

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