Monthly Review in Historical Perspective

By Sweezy, Paul M. | Monthly Review, January 1994 | Go to article overview

Monthly Review in Historical Perspective


Sweezy, Paul M., Monthly Review


Monthly Review was started in 1949 and is now in its forty-fourth year of publication, so you could say that MR's existence is pretty much coterminous with the second half of the twentieth century. What have been the most important characteristics of this haft century?

First, I think it is crucial to understand that all of the most significant developments had their origins in the first half, one of the most eventful periods in human history. It included: two world wars (1914-1918 and 1941-1945), global economic collapse in the Great Depression of the 1930s, and history's two greatest revolutions (Russia 1917, China 1949, dated by the years in which the revolutionary forces took power). I don't think it would be disputed that all of these complicated events were intricately interrelated as both causes and effects. MR was founded in the year of the last of these events, the victory of the Chinese Revolution. Its purpose was the ambitious one of using Marxian methods, historical and economic, to understand what was going on and to take positions consistent with a commitment to socialist principles.

On the domestic front the situation in 1949 was not what might have been expected in a country that had only recently emerged victorious and largely undamaged from a war that had left both its allies and its enemies in a shambles. The United States, militarily secure and economically strong, sat on top of the world as no single power had ever done before. The domestic counterpart, one might have thought would be a mood of relaxation, calm, and optimism. But it wasn't. Instead, something like the infamous red scare that followed the First World War was in full swing bearing the name of McCarthyism. The reason for these two postwar episodes was very similar. In both cases labor had taken advantage of wartime conditions to improve its organization and bargaining power. From capital's point of view labor needed to be taught a lesson and put back into its accustomed subservient position. But this was not the only similarity. In each case the only real winner in the war was the United States. Most of the rest of the world was in deep trouble. In these circumstances, revolutionary movements proliferated and actually came to power, in Russia after the First World War and in China after the Second World War, respectively the largest and most populous countries in the world. Thus in the late forties as in the early twenties, the United States, overwhelmingly the most powerful nation, sat on top of a world that seemed to be slipping out from under it.

The combination of a militant working class at home and a revolutionary environment abroad was rightly perceived by the U.S. ruling class as threatening the very existence of the system from which it derived its wealth and power. As such it demanded the most energetic counter-measures, which were duly organized and orchestrated, using all the varied weapons of persuasion and coercion at its disposal. This was the real root of the red scare after the First World War and of McCarthyism after the Second.

But the similarity between the two postwar situations didn't last very long. The victory of counter-revolution in Germany was a decisive turning point, after which the Soviet Union was effectively isolated and the capitalist world more or less rapidly returned to business as usual. Nothing of the kind happened after the Second World War. The war ended with the Soviet regime intact and the Red Army in occupation of most of Eastern Europe. Washington tried hard to take advantage of the region's devastation to bring it back into a capitalist Europe. That was one of the main purposes of the Marshall Plan as originally proposed. The Soviet leaders understood the implications and refused. That decision sealed the division of Europe into two antagonistic systems for a long time to come. Meanwhile, revolutionary unrest mounted around the globe, but especially in East and Southeast Asia, the areas occupied by Japan during the war. …

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