[Marxism] Harry Magdoff interview
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Sun Jan 1 12:42:20 MST 2006
An interview with Harry Magdoff (From MR, May 1999)
The twentieth anniversary issue of Monthly Review in May 1969 carried the
announcement that Harry Magdoff - the independent economist - had
officially joined Paul Sweezy as co-editor, replacing Leo Huberman, who had
died in 1968.
Born in 1913 in the Bronx, son of a house painter, Magdoff attended the
City College of New York where he became a member of the Social Problems
Club and editor of Frontiers, the club's monthly periodical. In 1932, he
traveled to Chicago to attend the founding conventions of the National
Students League and the Youth League Against War and Fascism. On that trip,
he married fellow New York student Beatrice Greizer (familiarly known as
Beadie, to whom he has been married ever since). He was editor of the NSL's
national publication Student Review in 1932-1933. After being expelled from
City College for his activism, he attended New York University, receiving a
B.S. in economics in 1936. He accepted a position in Philadelphia with the
Works Progress Administration's national research project, for which he
conducted studies of the labor force, unemployment, industrial capacity,
and productivity. In 1940, he moved to Washington, D.C., to take charge of
the civilian requirements division of the National Defense Advisory
Commission. After U.S. entry into the Second World War in 1941, he served
with the War Production Board. Near the end of the war, he was the chief
economist in charge of the Current Business Analysis Division at the
Department of Commerce, where he oversaw the Survey of Current Business. He
spent his final years in government as special assistant to Secretary of
Commerce Henry Wallace. In 1948, he was summoned before the House Committee
on Un-American Activities. Unemployed, he returned to New York, where he
took various jobs, sometimes anonymously, in financial analysis and
insurance before joining the staff of Russell & Russell, a publisher of
scholarly out-of-print books, between 1959 and 1965. Magdoff returned to
the fore as a public Marxist intellectual with "Problems of United States
Capitalism," an essay in The Socialist Register 1965, edited by Ralph
Miliband and John Saville (London: Merlin Press). Widely recognized for his
economic analysis of imperialism, Magdoff is author of The Age of
Imperialism (1969) and Imperialism: From the Colonial Age to the Present
(1977), and co-author with Paul Sweezy of The Dynamics of U.S. Capitalism
(1970), The End of Prosperity (1977), The Deepening Crisis of U.S.
Capitalism (1980), Stagnation and the Financial Explosion (1987), and The
Irreversible Crisis (1988), all from Monthly Review Press.
The following interview was conducted by Christopher Phelps in New York
City on September 20, 1998.
Q: I thought I'd begin, Harry, by being a little unfair to you and reading
from an old piece of yours.
MAGDOFF: That's a terrible thing to do!
Q: See if you can guess when this was written: "Very often, particularly in
the classroom, imperialism is defined as the policy of a government aimed
at conquering or controlling foreign territories. . . . In its attempt to
be all-inclusive, to take in all attempts at foreign conquest, this
definition excludes the key to the understanding of each. It covers
everything but explains nothing. There is a difference between the colonial
annexation by highly developed monopoly capitalism searching for markets
and raw materials, and the colonial projects of slaveholding Rome."
MAGDOFF: That's from The Age of Imperialism, isn't it?
Q: That's from the Student Review in 1932.
Q: Absolutely. Sounds like Monthly Review, doesn't it?
MAGDOFF: I just can't believe it. I thought it was from the book.
Q: So the germs of your thought were present way back then. How did you
become a radical? I take it your parents were not, particularly.
MAGDOFF: No, they weren't, but I lived in an environment where radicalism
was not strange. When the Russian Revolution took place - the first
revolution, the Kerensky revolution - the family had relatives on the Lower
East Side whom we were visiting, half-sisters of my father. We went by
elevated train. The train was a madhouse. There were people with bottles of
whiskey, drinking and singing. It was all, "Down with the tsar!" Normally,
how would an American boy, age five or so, have any consciousness about the
tsar and the fact that this was something to celebrate?
Secondly, the First World War. My uncle was called, and to my mother it was
like her son, almost. After the draftees got their papers, they were
supposed to come together for reporting. It was in a schoolyard, and I was
with him. I saw women crying - sweethearts, mothers. In one case I heard of
a mother who couldn't come, because she couldn't take it.
So the idea of war and revolution was all part of my experience in the
Q: Then, at City College, you became more of a conscious and organized radical?
MAGDOFF: No, I was already radical. I had read a lot of Marx by the time I
got to City College: the Critique of Political Economy, the Manifesto, and
a great deal more.
The popular notion about students in the twenties was that they drank the
hard stuff to excess and wore raccoon coats. By accident, I landed in the
high school English class from which the editors of the following year's
school newspaper were to be chosen. Among our assignments was to write an
editorial. I wrote one contrasting student riots over social issues in
Hungary - maybe Romania, I can't recall - with the indifference of U.S.
college students to poverty and politics. The teacher and I got along well.
He had read Veblen and asked me to talk about Veblen to the class. But at
the end of the term, when the editorial staff of the next term was
announced, the class expressed surprise that I wasn't listed for any
position. The teacher apologized: "Can you imagine the editorials Harry
I think the determining element in my radicalization was the demonstration
of the unemployed in Union square in March 1930. The fact that I went there
shows an inclination, an interest. The experience, however, was
overwhelming. The square was mobbed, crowded with gaunt-faced people,
dressed as you might expect people in poverty to dress. They listened
quietly to the speeches, applauding and shouting from time to time. Then a
speaker roused the crowd to a high pitch and urged that all march down to
City Hall. As the crowd began to move, mounted police appeared. With billy
clubs, they beat anyone within reach ruthlessly on heads, arms, shoulders.
Blood splattered. I ran like hell.
Q: What were the circumstances of your expulsion from City College?
MAGDOFF: Well, in the early thirties, the change among students was
startling and sudden, not a revolution but a transformation, a rapid growth
of student political activity. That was where my politics grew. As I
remember, those of us in the Social Problems Club at City College decided
to put out a magazine called Frontiers, and I became editor. My first
article was about the dangers of fascism, when the Nazis got their first
big vote in the election. We sold it for a nickel. It got to be very
popular on campus, and we sold large numbers. We just barely covered our
costs. Not like Monthly Review! You know, we'd take it one place and they'd
do something for us, and we'd carry the type someplace a little cheaper -
that sort of thing. It was also the Depression years. People cut prices. I
don't remember the details, all I know is that we didn't have the deficits
that I've known later in my life!
Q: Ah, the carefree days of youth.
MAGDOFF: That's right. What happened was, you were supposed to get approval
to have a publication, we didn't, and they suspended the club. We checked,
and we found that the Democratic Party club had a paper, and they never got
the formal approval of it. We complained, but that did nothing. So a group
of us got together, I think at my house, and we wrote a leaflet telling
what had happened and protesting it. I headed the leaflet, "Stop Whistling
in the Dark." I used the idiomatic expression incorrectly, but it was
appropriate for getting people's attention! We distributed it at the subway
and at the school. That was a violation, and we were then suspended.
We could only gather again, after a period, with a faculty advisor. None of
the teachers we approached wanted to be faculty advisor, partly because it
was a nuisance, but more likely because they did not want to displease the
bureaucratic college administration. Finally, somebody in our gang said,
"why don't we ask Morris Cohen?" Morris Raphael Cohen, the philosopher, was
God to most of us. Some of our group went to him and he said yes, on one
condition: that the meetings be held in his presence at his room during his
lunch period. This room had many glass bookcases filled with medieval
documents, it seemed to me. His desk was on a small platform. He sat and
ate his sandwiches while we had our meetings. His sandwich came in a brown
bag with grease spots, just like my mother's, the same kind of sandwich: an
omelette or something like that in a roll. He would slowly chew on a
Mallomars cookie. I can still visualize it. We stood, we talked, we
discussed affairs of the world - and he'd never open his mouth. He sat as
if he was listening to what we were saying. He never read but seemed to pay
strict attention to momentous debate, which he probably disagreed with. It
was an impressive experience, and of course consistent with his firm belief
in the freedom of speech.
Now, I don't remember all the events that led to our expulsion. At some
point the administration did something we thought so unjust and arbitrary
that we wanted to rouse public attention and, of course, public support. We
rented a big hall and conducted a trial of the City College president,
Robinson, and other college officials. We named our own judges - I was one
of them - and our prosecuting attorney, and invited the school to have
equal time for reply. They didn't come, of course. We had a wonderful,
packed meeting. Got lots of publicity. Shortly thereafter, a number of the
activism were asked to come to a meeting of the board of trustees, who
asked a lot of questions about the trial and then expelled us.
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