Paul Sweezy (1910-2004)

By Brandon, Josh | Canadian Dimension, May-June 2004 | Go to article overview
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Paul Sweezy (1910-2004)

Brandon, Josh, Canadian Dimension

Paul Sweezy died this spring in New York at age 93. His career as an activist, economist and publisher spanned more than seventy years.

From the standpoint of his class background, Sweezy might appear an unlikely candidate to become, in the words of J.K. Galbraith, "the most noted American Marxist scholar" of the second half of the twentieth century.

The son of a First National Bank vice-president, Sweezy was educated at an elite New England boarding school and at Harvard University and the London School of Economics, where he studied economics. At Harvard he studied with economist Joseph Schumpeter. At LSE he was influenced by political scientist and leading British socialist intellectual, Harold Laski. There he became, in his own words, "a convinced but very ignorant Marxist." Sweezy believed it was his class privilege that allowed him to escape conformism. "I am lucky to be able to devote a piece of the economic surplus to fighting the system," he once said.

Sweezy was radicalized by the experience of the Great Depression and the coming to power of Hitler in Germany. In 1938, he became an instructor in the economics department at Harvard and a founder of the Harvard Teachers' Union. During the 1930s he was a member of the League Against Fascism and War. In 1942, Sweezy left Harvard to join the army and, like a number of other intellectuals at that time, he ended up in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS).

Denied a tenured position at Harvard for his left-wing views upon his return there at the end of the war, Sweezy left the university system and became involved in the Progressive Party, promoting the need for a socialist voice in U.S. politics. For most of his life after this time he was associated with the Monthly Review, an independent socialist magazine that he founded in 1949 with his friend Leo Huberman. That first issue featured an article by Albert Einstein entitled "Why Socialism," reprinted many times since in MR and elsewhere. Over the years, Monthly Review educated thousands of activists and academics around the world about Marxism, socialism and political econmy, while providing insightful analyses on current events and the state of the economy.

For a time, when the McCarthy witch hunts were at their height, Sweezy was one of the few voices of Marxist economics in the United States. He himself was twice subpoenaed by the Committee on Un-American Activities and was jailed for refusing to provide testimony concerning lectures he had given in New Hampshire. Freed on appeal, his case went to the U.S. Supreme Court, where his conviction was overturned in 1957. "No rights are genuine if a person, for exercising them, can be hauled up before some tribunal and forced under penalties of perjury and contempt to account for his ideas and conduct," he wrote at the time. His defence of academic freedom helped bring about an end to the McCarthy hearings.


Through his publishing house, Monthly Review Press, Sweezy offered one of the few outlets for authors wishing to critique American capitalism. Works censored elsewhere, like I.F. Stone's The Hidden History of the Korean War and Harvey O'Connor's The Empire of Oil, were among the best sellers of the 1950s. Sweezy continued to write and lecture throughout this period, providing a continuity to the discipline of Marxist political economy between the radicals of the depression era and the resurgence of the New Left in the 1960s. Without his contributions, this tradition might well have been extinguished this side of the Atlantic. Whether it might have resurfaced in time is speculative; what is certain is that his clear and penetrating style of exposition and analysis left its stamp on the subsequent generations of scholars who have followed in his footsteps.

Sweezy was the author of a score of books and dozens of articles. Their content covered the breadth of the social sciences.

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