February 29, 2004

What Do I Think of Paul Sweezy?

People are asking me what I think about Paul Sweezy...

What do I think about Paul Sweezy?

I think...

Well, first I think it's annoying to have to spend time figuring out whether a paragraph Sweezy writes is (a) what Sweezy believed, (b) what Sweezy thought would be good for the Movement to believe, or (c) what Sweezy did not believe and did not think it would be good for the Movement to believe but that he felt he had to pretend to believe because it was the Party Line.

Going roughly in chronological order...

I think that the _Theory of Capitalist Development_ (1942) is mostly what Sweezy thought. He's still young enough, convinced enough, and bold enough to (largely) say what he thinks. It is clear that--for example--when he argues that after World War II ends those nations that wind up in the socialist camp will develop much more rapidly and successfully than those that wind up in the capitalist camp, this is something he really believes.

But even in _TCD_ there are some passages that I, at least, find it hard to believe that Sweezy believed them. For example, on p. 191 there is Sweezy's dismissal of Marx's "The monopoly of capital becomes a fetter upon the mode of production.... Centralization of the means of production and socialization of labor at lat reach a point where they become incompatible with their capitalist integument.... The knell of private property sounds. The expropriators are expropriated" as "not so much a prediction as a vivid description of a tendency." Sweezy cannot say, under Party discipline as he is, that there is a jot or tittle of the Apocalypse of St. Karl of Trier that is wrong, but he can redefine Marx's prediction as a mere tendency that can be overwhelmed for centuries if not millennia by counter-tendencies that somehow Marx doesn't find space to talk about.

Nevertheless, _TCD_ is valuable in two dimensions. It is valuable as an explication and updating of Marx. It is valuable as the record of the intellectual position a very smart man takes up as he tries to wrestle with the world under the assumption that the Apocalypse of St. Karl of Trier is gospel. I think _TCD_ is the most valuable of Sweezy's books.

Sweezy's contribution to the intra-Marxist Dobb-Sweezy debate on the origin of capitalism is also quite valuable. Sweezy has a powerful advantage over his intellectual adversaries: they are trying to prove that Marx was right, while he is trying to figure out what happened. And Sweezy was right: urban commerce was a principal knife in the prying-open of the feudal oyster.

Later on Sweezy--to my mind at least--deterioriates. In Sweezy's 1953 essay collection, _The Present as History_, it is hard to avoid seeing the Party hack. For example, consider claims that the "political leadership in the Soviet Union is acting as the agent of the working class.... [T]he working class is the ruling class in the Soviet Union," or that there is "more genuine democracy in the economic and social spheres in the Soviet Union than anywhere else in the world." These simply cannot be taken seriously as attempted descriptions and analyses of the state of the Soviet Union in the late 1940s and early 1950s by anybody who has made any attempt to inform themselves. They are party-line bilge.

The mid-1960s book, _Monopoly Capital_ I find harder to classify. Very interesting (and I think valuable) in _MC_ is the neo-Galbraithian neo-Veblenesque critique of consumer society: capitalism's problem is not that it is less productive than socialism but that its productivity is directed toward useless, counterproductive, and happiness-destroying ends. This critique does, I think, have a lot of truth in it, and I have always found it quite valuable. It does, however, lead me to places I do not want to go: "One need not have a specific idea of a reasonably constructed automobile, a well planned neighborhood, a beautiful musical composition, to recognize that the model changes that are incessantly imposed upon us, the slums that surround us, and the rock-and-roll that blares at us exemplify a pattern of utilization of human and material resources which is inimical to human welfare...." Sweezy would have been very happy indeed as the Commissar for Culture who banned Jefferson Airplane and Big Brother and the Holding Company.

In _MC_ Sweezy (and Baran) have the potential for freedom. By the mid-1960s there is no longer a serious Party to be a hack for, no longer a Stalin for a stooge to follow. But they don't take advantage of it. The health of the Movement takes a certain priority over the intellect, in the same way that the Party line had done in previous decades. There is a bait-and-switch on foreign policy going on in the book: On one page the Communist Bloc is peaceful and subject to brutal attack by the likes of Dean Acheson who is "organiz[ing] counterrevolutions in Eastern Europe" (never mind that Acheson was a believer in containment, not rollback. Hell! Dulles was a believer in containment, not rollback, save when he wanted to appear otherwise for domestic political purpose). On another page we have "the revolutionary peoples have achieved a series of historic victories... Vietnam, China, Korea, Cuba, and Algeria.... It is no longer mere rhetoric to speak of a world revolution: the term describes... the dominant characteristic of the historical epoch." It's as if Sweezy (and Baran) expect their readers to be stupid: not to recognize that the World Communist Movement cannot at the same time be peaceful and defensive and also expansionist and militant.

Moreover, there are statements in _MC_ about the U.S. domestic economy in the mid-1960s that are extremely hard to credit as attempts at analysis. To argue in the mid-1960s boom that "capitalism’s basic law of motion, temporarily thwarted [during World War II] soon resumed its sway. Unemployment kept steadily upward, and the character of the new technologies of the postwar period sharply accentuated the disadvantages of unskilled and semi-skilled workers.... By the end of the 1950s the real state of affairs could no longer be concealed: it was impossible to continue to believe in the existence of a meliorative trend..." Such passages are things it would be helpful for the Movement to believe. They are not conclusions reached through serious analysis." The failure to theorize about just why the U.S. and Britain wound up on the USSR's side in World War II similarly strikes me as a place where Sweezy (and Baran) dare not go, because the conclusions they will reach will be unhelpful to the movement.

As for Sweezy's other and later writings.... I always found anything cowritten with Magdoff to be worth reading.... I always found anything cowritten with Huberman to be not worth reading.... I always wondered how much of the stuff about the revolutionary economic and political potential of third-world socialism was meant to be taken as serious analysis, and how much just to keep up the spirits of the Movement by telling them earnestly that somewhere socialism was advancing and utopia was being constructed.

Posted by DeLong at February 29, 2004 12:32 PM | TrackBack

Comments

Now you attempt to evaluate Sweezy after having disgraced yourself by smearing him. As if anyone who questioned the goodness of capitalism were the devil incarnate. You owe your readers an apology (but of course you haven't the courage for that). But then, Maxspeak shows you for what you are: Cowardly toward a formidable adversary now deceased.

Posted by: Dick Fitzgerald on March 1, 2004 10:11 PM

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". . . how much just to keep up the spirits of the Movement by telling them earnestly that somewhere socialism was advancing and utopia was being constructed. "

"Workers' paradise" is an oxymoron, but I see no reason to believe Cuba couldn't evolve into a successful socialist/capitalist hybrid, particularly if the U.S. lifted its embargo and allowed Cuba to compete on a level playing field.


Posted by: Odin on March 2, 2004 01:11 AM

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Actually, as regards the first point about Marx having delineated tendential laws rather than made precise predictions, that is largely correct, from a philosophical vantage, whether one cites the Hegelian influence or the Aristotelean. (Though see comment #92 on the immediately above thread.) And I don't think that any 19th century economist could or would have claimed to do more, in contrast to the professional pretentions nowadays, when second-rate mathematics passes for physics. (I credit there's much better than that, though it makes my point.) Perhaps it's Marx' chiliastic tendencies that offend your liberal sensibilities. Maybe that had something to do with his dislike for his mother, the daughter of a rabbi, or maybe it was a German thing, something to do with the unresolved issues from the Reformation. Or maybe it had something to do with what he himself described as an "overwhelming consciousness" as to the extent of the changes that were to overtake the world. (Then again, there's his promethean side- and is that just a piece of 19th century romanticism?) But aside from such gaucheness, the fact remains that the coming Apocalypse far exceeded his expectations. And that is perhaps a far harsher criticism than liberal moderation would allow.

Marx is a classic, who now belongs on the bookshelf,- (or internet archive)-, together with the other members of the gang, Vico and Kant and Hegel and Rousseau, who no more instigated the French revolution than Marx ordered the liquidation of the khulaks. But to tar all projects and aspirations for social change and the re-ordering of power relations outside the dictates of "liberal" capitalism with the brush of Stalinism, in fairness, one would have to tar capitalism itself with the crimes of Hitler,- (since were there not plenty of German industrialists and conventional-conservative politicians, who, imagining they could use him for their own purposes, facilitated his installation in power?)

I share your distaste for communism- (and let's not kid ourselves: in this context, "distaste" is what it amounts to, since no one is holding a gun to our heads and pretending to affiliate with all the victims amounts to histrionics)-, but I don't share your faith in ahistorical moral judgments. And, though I think moral and intellectual judgments need not and perhaps ought not to be sundered, they do need to be differentiated. (You just posted to acknowledge the existence of Paul Sweezy, the scholar, from whom perhaps you can take something). And to accuse Sweezy of being a potential commissar because he had the bad taste to censure questionable taste- (though he may have had some of those neurons sloshing around in his head together with all the rest of his neurons- who doesn't?)- is weak tea, indeed. Would you rather have had Adorno do all that dirty work?

Posted by: john c. halasz on March 2, 2004 02:02 AM

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Yes, there is a plentiful supply of heartbreak to go around. We can all eat our heartbreak.

Posted by: john c. halasz on March 2, 2004 02:21 AM

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Brad,

You label Sweezy a "Party hack."

I don't know much about Sweezy's personal history. But, given that this is an inflammatory label, I think you need to provide some evidence that: (1) Sweezy was a member of the Communist Party and (2) that Sweezy was willing to change what he wrote _because_ he was a “Party hack” (rather than that he changed in mind independent of the demands of “the Party.”).

My opinion of Sweezy’s work might change IF you could support both (1) and (2) above. I always thought that Sweezy was an “independent socialist,” but if you could prove otherwise I would have to rethink Sweezy’s work.

But if you can’t provide evidence of (1) and (2) above I think you should refrain from labeling Sweezy a “Party hack.” Regardless of this, you could still say he was wrong, misguided, or a dupe if that is what you believe.

Posted by: Eric Nilsson on March 2, 2004 08:55 AM

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Dear John Halasz

You seem to have overlooked a bit of mere facticity. Brad criticized Paul Sweezy not Karl Marx. The fact that you read a criticism of Sweezy's response to Stalin as an attack on Marx tells us much about you and nothing about Brad.

Posted by: Robert Waldmann on March 3, 2004 08:35 AM

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Ciao Paul,
mi hai guidato durante la tua vita, spero che tu possa ridarmi i germi della tua genuina sapienza, della tua invincibile voglia di combattare contro la violenza.
Un saluto: Roberto e (Luciano)

Posted by: roberto on March 3, 2004 01:48 PM

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Ciao Paul,
mi hai guidato durante la tua vita, spero che tu possa ridarmi i germi della tua genuina sapienza, della tua invincibile voglia di combattare contro la violenza.
Un saluto: Roberto e (Luciano)

Posted by: roberto on March 3, 2004 01:48 PM

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Dear Robert Waldman:

Of course, what I post says something about me. But why the accusatory tone? Prof. DeLong got himself into a bit of doo-doo with his post on Sweezy and received many objections from all sorts of points of view. And, in particular, he omitted the context of the citation, in which Sweezy "agreed" with Stalin, which was Marx' "law of value" and whether it had been "abolished" under Soviet communism. In effect, Sweezy was amending his prior statement, so as to say that the coercion of labor, as it occurs under the exchange mechanism as a measure of value, still operates under the Soviet system, thereby agreeing with Stalin- (we now know this to be a severe understatement and perhaps Sweezy should have known it to be such at the time and never adequately came to grips with the matter later, but it is scarcely a "utopian" claim.) Then Prof. Delong interpellates another post, straining to give a more balanced account of Sweezy, and begins by citing a quote from Marx- unsourced, but I think its from "The Communist Manifesto"- and saying that it strains credibility to claim that this is not a prediction-( actually, it's not a prediction, since it contains no datable and locatable conditions, but rather something more like a prophecy)-, but a general tendency, when, in fact, Marx' "laws of motion of capital" were precisely intended as a delineation of the systematic tendencies of industrial capitalism. (And note, the issue is not whether or not such an interpretation is true, but, whether in the context, Sweezy could have believed it- i.e. Sweezy's truthfulness or "authenticity".) Prof. DeLong then goes on to deride the "Apocalypse of St. Karl of Trier" as unfalsifiable, which ignores the fact that economics, not being an experimental science, is not exactly falsifiable, in the strict sense, and, contrary to Popper's claims, matters can be falsified by means other than strictly empirical evidence (and, in fact, in experimental science, matters are never falsified by experimental evidence alone, without reacting upon theoretical concepts.) (And as for the "countertendencies that somehow Marx doesn't find space to talk about", Adam Smith forgot to mention industrial machinery.)

So what in my comment was not exactly germane to the issue, Mr. Waldmann? I was not offering a rigorous critique or a thourough-going refutation, just a comment. Prof. DeLong chose the occasion to, almost literally, beat a dead horse, reviving an old debate between liberalism and communism, and one has to ask what exactly is the function of doing so just now? Sweezy may, in fact, have been something of a life-long Leninist, as seems to have been the case, and he may have produced some junk together with some high-quality scholarly work, however blinkered in some respects the latter may have been. But this does not suffice to evaluate that work in its entirety, any more than if he had been an Islamicist, nor to sum up the personal qualities of the man. And Prof. DeLong's second post is a backhanded acknowledgement of this, but one that also has its blinkered aspects.

Marxism, and not just communism, is dead now as a political framework. But this does not mean that all the issues that were drawn together in that framework have simply vanished from relevancy, or been resolved. Many of its concerns are still with us, mutatis mutandis, and its framework can still be of heuristic, as well as, cautionary value. And in economics, in particular, Marxian economics- or more generally Ricardan economics, since Marx was, as Keynes quipped, just a "minor Ricardan"-, stripped of its historical pretentions, still may have something to contribute in getting at and framing some core problems and issues in the basic subject matter. Free markets and mass plebiscitary democracy are not necessarily the "end of History" and things may still evolve in ways other than what we confidently expect. There are, in fact, some suggestions of world-wide over-capacity and deflation as a looming threat, together with large masses of "surplus" labor. (I personally think that Marx gravely underestimated and mistook the nature and role of the state and that this was his Achilles' heel, in more ways than one. But nowadays, it is perhaps neo-classical economics that underestimates the importance of the state in economic development and stability.)

Posted by: john c. halasz on March 3, 2004 02:27 PM

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