SWEEZY, Paul Malor (1910-2004)
Paul Sweezy was an influential American Marxist political economist and in 1949 the co-founder (along with the Marxist historian, Leo Huberman) of the important publication for the American Left, Monthly Review. Along with Paul Baran and Harry Magdoff he formed the core of the “Monthly Review school” of Marxist political economy centered around that magazine.
Sweezy was born in New York City, the son of a bank executive. He attended an elite prep school, Phillips Exeter Academy and then Harvard University where he graduated in 1931. He then spent a year at the London School of Economics where he was first exposed in a serious way to Marxist economic ideas. He returned to Harvard as a graduate student, where one of his professors was Joseph Schumpeter. He received his doctorate in 1937, and then began teaching economics at Harvard. During World War II he was a member of the research and analysis division of the Office of Strategic Services (forerunner to the CIA), where one of his jobs was in effect to spy on the British government! (U.S. imperialism was already thinking very seriously about the contention among the victors in the war for the control of the world that would ensue after it ended.)
In 1942 Sweezy published one of his most important books, The Theory of Capitalist Development, which summarized Marxist economic ideas (though with a partially Keynesian interpretation), and argued for what its opponents call an “underconsumptionist” theory of capitalist economic crises. This was one of the first books in English to extensively deal with a number of important topics in Marxist political economy, including the “transformation problem”.
In 1966 there appeared another important book, Monopoly Capital, by Sweezy and Paul Baran. This put forth the theory that modern monopoly capitalism is inherently prone to stagnation. However, a lot of the argument in that book is actually about how the capitalists can overcome (at least to a large degree and for a long time) this tendency. The authors say this can be done through massive corporate waste, through enormously intensified marketing, through a special focus on military production for the government, through innovation and new industries, and through the massive build-up of debt of all kinds (consumer, business and government debt). That last point is the most central, and does not receive sufficient emphasis in the book. Moreover, it seems to me that their position here is somewhat between that of Keynes and Marx. Sweezy and Baran seemed to grant the capitalists too much in the way of an ability to permanently forestall another great depression, and even—it seems at times—to grant them too much ability to forestall the lesser difficulty of “stagnation” that they talked about. That is, they did not seem to fully understand that Keynesian deficits, consumer debt, etc., themselves have definite limits and must fail in the end, and they may not have realized just how serious this would become for capitalism. Today, in early 2009, we are already getting a glimmer of the fact that for the capitalists, the real problem is not just a “tendency toward stagnation”, but something far, far worse: the inevitability of a prolonged, intractable economic depression.
Politically, Sweezy and Magdoff (who became co-editor of Monthly Review after Huberman’s death) generally improved their outlook over time. While initially enamored by Fidel Castro and the Cuban Revolution, they later developed a more cautious attitude. As time went on they became more appreciative of Mao and the great Chinese Revolution. However, like most Marxists of their generation they found it hard to completely break with the triumphant revisionism of the Soviet Union. Sweezy was one of those who used to talk about “actually existing socialism” in the USSR, meaning that with all its actual faults, it should still be viewed as “socialism”. (At least from the mid-1950s on this was definitely not the case!)
The articles that Sweezy and Magdoff themselves wrote for MR were in general much better than many of the articles they accepted for the magazine as its editors. While some of those articles were also quite good, there were also quite a number of others supporting revisionist “Euro-Communism”, reformist politics, and the like. Late in his life Sweezy admitted that their magazine should also have played a much greater role in helping to create a new revolutionary proletarian party in the U.S. Interestingly, after Sweezy and Magdoff died, and under its new editor, John Bellamy Foster, MR has further improved.
See also: Monopoly Capital (the book).
A swidden is a temporary agricultural plot produced by cutting back and burning the existing vegetation. Typically a series of different crops are then planted from one year to the next, and when the land is exhausted for agricultural use it is allowed to return to its original forest or vegetation for a prolonged period.
Thus swidden agriculture is also known as slash-and-burn agriculture. This is an ancient form of agriculture which traditionally did little harm to the environment over the long run because the vegetation or forest cover in a region was allowed to fully recover before being slashed and burned again. However, in the capitalist era it has become more common for slash-and-burn methods to spread to wider and wider areas, and to no longer allow the land and forests to recover to their prior condition at all. This is resulting in massive environmental damage to the world, and the capitalist system—far from stopping this horrendous damage—has been increasingly promoting it.
“Shifting cultivation was still being practised as a viable and stable
form of agriculture in many parts of Europe and east into Siberia at the end of the 19th
century and in some places well into the 20th century. In the Ruhr in the late 1860s a
forest-field rotation system known as Reutbergwirtschaft was using a 16 year cycle
of clearing, cropping and fallowing with trees to produce bark for tanneries, wood for
charcoal and rye for flour (Darby 1956, 200). Swidden farming was practised in Siberia
at least until the 1930s, using specially selected varieties of “swidden-rye”.... In
Eastern Europe and Northern Russia the main swidden crops were turnips, barley, flax,
rye, wheat, oats, radishes and millet. Cropping periods were usually one year, but were
extended to two or three years on very favourable soils. Fallow periods were between 20
and 40 years.... In Finland in 1949, Steensberg ... observed the clearing and burning of
a 60,000 square metre swidden 440 km north of Helsinki. Birch and pine trees had been
cleared over a period of a year and the logs sold for cash. A fallow of alder (Alnus)
was encouraged to improve soil conditions. After the burn, turnip was sown for sale and
for cattle feed. Shifting cultivation was disappearing in this part of Finland because
of a loss of agricultural labour to the industries of the towns. Steensberg ... provides
eye-witness descriptions of shifting cultivation being practised in Sweden in the 20th
century, and in Estonia, Poland, the Caucasus, Serbia, Bosnia, Hungary, Switzerland,
Austria and Germany in the 1930s to the 1950s.
“That these agricultural practices survived from the Neolithic into the middle of the 20th century amidst the sweeping changes that occurred in Europe over that period, suggests they were adaptive and in themselves, were not massively destructive of the environments in which they were practised.” —From the Wikipedia entry for Swidden Agriculture (accessed 3/7/12). [The article goes on to argue that it was not agricultural practices by themselves which had led to the disappearance of most European forests.]
See also: Richard WOLFF
“Revolutionary syndicalism—a petty bourgeois semi-anarchist trend that appeared in several parts of Western Europe at the close of the [19th] century. The Syndicalists repudiated working-class political struggle, the leading role of the party and proletarian dictatorship, believing that the trade union (syndicates) could overthrow capitalism without a revolution, through a workers’ general strike, and take over control of the economy. Lenin pointed out that ‘revolutionary syndicalism in many countries was a direct and inevitable result of opportunism, reformism, and parliamentary cretinism’. (LCW 13:166)” —Note 50, Lenin, SW 1.
A statement that from the definition of its words alone is not automatically true. Thus, “A duck is sitting on the grass” is a synthetic statement, while “A duck is a bird” is an analytic statement (automatically true because of the meaning of the word ‘duck’) and is therefore not a synthetic statement.
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