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Obituaries

Paul Sweezy, 93; Scholar of Marxist Economics

March 07, 2004|Elaine Woo | Times Staff Writer

The possibility that Paul Sweezy would one day be recognized as America's leading radical economist seemed unlikely early in his life: His father was a Wall Street investment banker whose income afforded Sweezy a privileged education at such bastions of the ruling class as Philips Exeter Academy and Harvard University. But his family wealth, he would later acknowledge, was what gave him the freedom to spurn capitalism and carve a path to its polar opposite.

Sweezy, 93, who died of congestive heart failure Feb. 28 in Larchmont, N.Y., went on to write "The Theory of Capitalist Development," an introduction to Marxist economics published in 1942 and still used in many college courses. At the end of that decade, he co-founded Monthly Review, the nation's most influential socialist journal for more than 50 years.

The man John Kenneth Galbraith called the "most noted American Marxist scholar" of the second half of the 20th century conceived the Monthly Review at a particularly inauspicious time -- the late 1940s, when McCarthyism was heating up the political climate. The first issue featured an article by Albert Einstein titled "Why Socialism?" Subsequent issues relied on equally well-known left-leaning authors, including W.E.B. Du Bois, Jean-Paul Sartre and Fidel Castro and Malcolm X.

Through more than 100 articles and 20 books, Sweezy became the defining voice of Marxism in North America, revered by several generations of leftists as "the living proof," The Nation's Daniel Singer once wrote, "that, even in the very heart of imperialism it was possible to resist and to stick to one's principles."

Sweezy, columnist Alexander Cockburn wrote in the current issue of Nation, "wasn't at all like Marx in demeanor. Karl was hairy, bohemian and cantankerous, whereas Paul, godlike in his good looks, radiated an amiable and dignified calm.... Reading Marx, you feel you're getting to the truth of the matter, and it was the same with Sweezy. He wrote and taught with extraordinary clarity."

Born in New York City, Sweezy was the youngest of three sons of Everett B. Sweezy, who started as a sweeper in a local bank but rose to the position of vice president of First National Bank of New York, and Caroline Wilson, a member of the first graduating class at Baltimore's Goucher College.

Sweezy described his father as an extreme liberal and a religious freethinker who spent many Sunday dinners arguing with his Methodist mother-in-law about her literal reading of the Bible. "I never took part, but I would listen," Sweezy recalled in a 1999 Monthly Review interview. "I thought, 'He's right; he's right!' About the whale swallowing Jonah -- I just couldn't see all that. So my father's free thinking, I'm sure, predisposed me to being nondogmatic about everything."

At Harvard, he studied neoclassical economics and edited the Crimson newspaper before moving to the London School of Economics for a year. There, he encountered Stalinists, Trotskyites and radicals of every stripe, whose analyses of the worldwide Depression he found compelling. By the time he returned to Harvard for doctoral work in 1933, he considered himself a Marxist.

He was mentored by the conservative economist Joseph Schumpeter, with whom he developed a lifelong friendship, despite their diametrically opposite views. He became an instructor at Harvard in 1938 and founded, with his brother Alan, the Harvard Teacher's Union. His classic text, "The Theory of Capitalist Development," was published in 1942, the year Sweezy left to join the Army.

He spent World War II in the Office of Strategic Services, the predecessor of the CIA, earning a Bronze Star for his work as editor of the European Political Report, a weekly newsletter.

After the war, he returned to Harvard but gave up his teaching position after concluding that a Marxist would never earn tenure. In 1949, with financial backing from Harvard literary scholar F.O. Matthiessen, he launched Monthly Review in New York City with labor educator and writer Leo Huberman as co-editor.

Unlike most socialist publications, Monthly Review thrived, reaching a peak circulation of 12,000 in the 1970s. Although it has about 7,000 subscribers today, the magazine remains a sturdy institution of the left as it enters its 55th year of publication.

Sweezy's objective in all his work was to create an authentic North American Marxism, one that was "nondogmatic and nonfundamentalist." By 1963, Business Week magazine observed that Sweezy and Huberman had fashioned "a brand of socialism that is thorough-going and tough-minded," independent of both Moscow and Beijing. "Their analysis of the troubles of capitalism," the magazine observed, "is just plausible enough to be disturbing."

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