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Obituary: Paul Sweezy

By Phil Gasper | March 12, 2004 | Page 9

PAUL SWEEZY, the grand old man of American Marxism, died last month just short of his 94th birthday. Sweezy founded the independent socialist magazine Monthly Review in 1949 and remained its guiding influence until his death.

He became a Marxist at the London School of Economics in 1932-33, after concluding that mainstream economics couldn't explain the Great Depression. The decisive moment in his intellectual development came when he read Leon Trotsky's History of the Russian Revolution. In 1942, he published The Theory of Capitalist Development, still one of the best introductions to Marxist economics.

After serving in the army during the Second World War, Sweezy returned home to launch Monthly Review. The magazine began publication just as anti-communist repression in the U.S. was reaching its height, and quickly became a leading voice opposing McCarthyism.

In 1954, Sweezy was investigated for "subversive activity" after lecturing on Marxism at the University of New Hampshire. When he refused to cooperate, he was cited for contempt. Sweezy fought the case to the Supreme Court, which eventually overturned his conviction in 1957.

Despite Sweezy's admiration for Trotsky, Monthly Review was initially a relatively uncritical supporter of Stalinist Russia. Later Sweezy admitted "I should have been...much more perceptive, selective and better informed." In the 1960s, Sweezy championed Mao's China, Castro's Cuba and other third world revolutions, and Monthly Review became an important influence on the New Left.

In books like Monopoly Capital, Sweezy wrote off U.S. workers as bought off by the profits of imperialism. More recently, however, Monthly Review returned to the classical Marxist view of the working class as central to revolutionary change in the U.S. and elsewhere.

Sweezy described his Marxism as "revolutionary, non-reformist, non-revisionist-and at the same time non-dogmatic and non-fundamentalist, realizing that Marx didn't say the last word on everything or even on anything."

The conclusions he drew were often at odds with Socialist Worker's political perspective. But Sweezy made important contributions to debates about the origin and dynamics of capitalism and imperialism, and the nature of post-capitalist society. And he remained committed to the socialist transformation of society for over 70 years. The American left has lost an important voice.

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