| God mend thine every flaw
“America! America!/ God shed his grace on thee,/ And crown thy good with brotherhood/ From sea to shining sea./…America! America!/ God mend thine every flaw,/ Confirm thy soul in self-control/ Thy liberty in law.”
These are lines from the anthem children in the United States of America learn to sing full-throatedly. The same anthem refers to America as a “thoroughfare for freedom”. The Bushes and the Rumsfelds have made heavy weather of these pious expressions. That does not extinguish the radiance of the legacy which the US can, legitimately, lay claim to. It may now sound bizarre; even so, it would be cruel to forget that a war of independence, severely fought, ushered in the American nation-state. This war was fought on the basis of an ethical principle which, by universal acclamation, constitutes the bedrock of democracy: “no taxation without representation”. The doctrine propagates a message both solemn and simple: to rule a nation, one must have the sanction of its majority.
Nor can another hard datum be slurred over. Their nation-state was roughly three-quarters of a century old, the American people again went to war, a civil war, this time to assert the nation’s belief in another equally precious moral principle: no human being has the prerogative to exploit other human beings. The civil war led to the decisive defeat of the segregationists, and the American nation can justly take as much pride in the contents of Abraham Lincoln’s address at Gettysburg as it does in those of the Declarations of Independence at Philadelphia. True, racial prejudice dies hard; it took the Americans almost another full century before the emancipation of the blacks could be both codified and ratified through effective administrative action.
The surcease of racial discrimination, some will say, is far from complete, one just has to compare the average US per capita income and the average income of its black minority, or the average holding of wealth of the two respective entities. The contrast stretches to health, education and housing facilities as well. And on the issue of defending freedom and democracy, the US global record in the recent period makes a mockery of the two concepts.
Such contemporary history still does not make mince-meat of what passes as the American legacy. Throughout the 19th century, immense waves of migrants found their way to the US; they were escaping from European misery of various descriptions, including economic distress, religious pogroms and Czarist and other forms of tyranny. Later, in the 20th century, they fled from Nazi persecution. They arrived at the land of opportunity, and, at least as far as the white citizenry is concerned, the opportunity they discovered was enriched by the imprimatur of equality. The US prospered, economically and otherwise, the liberal tradition became firmly established in the American psyche, all radical causes were accorded an open hearing: one could preach the cause of the blacks or of other ethnic groups, or campaign for the liberation of women or for the socialist millenium or for Seventh Day Adventists.
Cast your mind back to the first decades of the 20th century. Radicalism was, for large sections in American society, the beacon of the future. The socialist movement was taken seriously; in the 1912 presidential elections, Eugene Victor Debs, the socialist leader, was regarded a major contender, so much so that a first-generation Russian immigrant couple from Rostow named one of their two sons Eugene Victor, the other one was named after the great American revolutionary poet, Walt Whitman. History played one of its random jokes. Walt Whitman Rostow grew up to be an averagely good economist and happened to be the closest confidante of President John F. Kennedy in the early Sixties. He could not care less for the radical lineage of his name; he egged on Kennedy and, subsequently, Lyndon Johnson, to carpet-bomb Vietnam.
But that does not detract from the lustre of the other America. The US has always been in the habit of springing surprises. At about the time Debs was charming the American radical crowd, Paul Marlor Sweezy was born to a rich East Coast family. Wealth makes for snobs; wealth, however, stimulates liberalism, rationality and independence of thought too. The mind of Paul Sweezy was blessed by each of the latter traits. He grew up into a gentle, kind, civilized human being, whose natural instinct was to defy one’s class moorings and cross over to the side of the dispossessed. In a manner of speaking, he provided an empirical proof of a precept expatiated on by his teacher in the Harvard economics faculty, Joseph Schumpeter. Schumpeter held the view that the Marxian tenet about the secular decline in the rate of profit apart, capitalism would collapse also on account of the rapid spread of rational ideas amongst the rich capitalist progeny, who, aghast at the ugly asymmetry of capitalism, would migrate into the enemy’s ranks.
Sweezy, along with the other Paul, Samuelson, were the brightest and the best in Schumpeter’s class. Samuelson travelled to neoclassical fame. Sweezy, went, in the nadir of the Thirties’ depression, to the London School of Economics. At the LSE, Hayek’s anti-communist hectorings only made him a more devout Marxist. It was in London that he decided to write a tract in English which would present Marx’s economic construct in a non-obscure readable form to the Anglo-Saxon clientele. The outcome was The Theory of Capitalist Development, unsurpassed till today not just as an explicator of Marxist economic thought but also as its defender and annotator.
At the end of World War II, Sweezy returned to Harvard as a member of the faculty. The Cold War philosophers were, however, spreading their tentacles fast. Very soon, it was the turbulent days of Joseph McCarthy. Hounded out of Harvard, Sweezy had to face charges of treasonable activities in New Hampshire. He was a proud, noble American; he did not chicken out and fought the accusation tooth and nail; it took him years to be fully vindicated by the US Supreme Court.
As Lilian Hellman said, it was scoundrel time, it did not upset Sweezy’s equilibrium though. He was confident that his Marxist belief was in total harmony with his American patriotic passion. That passion spelled democracy, equality and the brotherhood of man. The ill spell turned out to be good for him in the long run, good for American society and good for humanity at large. Denied a teaching slot, Sweezy instead founded the Monthly Review. Economics, Sweezy told the world through the MR, was neither obfuscation nor skill-fetishism; economics is a science whose aim is to advance human welfare and serve particularly the cause of the poor and the downtrodden; economics without ideology is a sterile, empty box.
Not that scholarly work in search of Marxian truth was ever suspended: Monopoly Capital, written jointly with Paul Baran, bears evidence of that steadfastness. Even so, to heck with academic recognition. Sweezy was an activist. MR got shaped in his ideological image and was always in combat against the world’s several ills. It carried to American society and to its global readership a number of specific messages. Once its initial spurt of creativity is over, capitalism stifles human progress. In fact, it becomes a twin menace, for imperialism is only an extension of the capitalist cancer. Therefore, the fight has to be on all fronts, domestic as well as international. The MR has always believed in calling a spade a spade. If it suffered from cerebral deficiency, so what' It has been consistently in the forefront of battles against capitalism, colonialism and imperialism in the different parts of the world, and has been a thorn in the side of US imperialism. Whether the cause was Cuba or Vietnam, Rwanda or Iraq, Brazil or Venezuela, the Fund-Bank structural adjustment programmes or the World Trade Organisation’s colonial designs, Sweezy and the MR were there to give the trumpet call: expose — and resist.
Comrades, of the calibre of Leo Huberman and Harry Magdoff, were there to help him, but everybody knew where the principal source of inspiration lay. Until infirmity claimed him, Sweezy never stopped being vocal on global issues using his sober, persuasive, straightforward prose. His review of the month and the monthly commentary in the MR were compulsory texts for successive generations clinging to radical beliefs in country after unfortunate country. Was it ironical, or just natural, that, in the week Sweezy died, the US administration publicized the latest edition of the outrages it has become furious for: the ousting of Jean-Bertrand Aristide in Haiti' The battle against injustice, Sweezy would tell his admirers, is never adjourned.
He was forced to give up teaching in the Fifties, but he remained a great teacher for the next fifty-odd years. Nature’s law is nature’s law; now he is gone, but the Monthly Review survives and promises to survive all future vicissitudes. That too is a typical Sweezy-esque reflex: adversities are opportunities.