Some Memories of Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy
by Doug Dowd
In 1949, Paul Sweezy and Leo Huberman created Monthly Review. In the same year, Paul Baran and I began to teach in the San Francisco Bay Area: Baran at Stanford, myself at UC Berkeley. As the years unfolded, we worked together politically in the area with the same social aims and values. Meanwhile, the two Pauls also began to work together, despite the long distance between them. Then, in the 1960s, while teaching at Cornell University in New York, I, too, began to work with MR. The strongest relationship among all of these was that between Baran and Sweezy, and whatever I meant to them was little compared with what they meant to me. Most who read this will be familiar with their social critiques; what follows will be mostly personal memories, intended to acquaint you a bit with their personalities as experienced by me in the years when I was lucky to work with both of them.
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I first met Baran at the 1950 meeting of the American Economic Association. He was one of several professors giving papers on what were then called “backward areas.” The theme of all except Baran was to “blame the victims” for their misery. In contrast, Baran strongly insisted that it is precisely the relationships between the poor and the rich of the world that keep both in their conditions. As the meeting closed I introduced myself, made a few left-leaning comments, and asked Baran if he would be interested in giving a talk at UC Berkeley. He was, and that was the beginning of what became many joint talks in the Bay Area.
Baran’s paper at the 1950 meeting became two papers soon after: “On the Political Economy of Backwardness” (1952) and “Economic Progress and Economic Surplus” (1953). They then became the analytical core of his first book, The Political Economy of Growth (1957), and the basis for Baran’s contribution to his and Sweezy’s Monopoly Capital (1966).
Our relationship, by the way, was warmed by my enthusiastic review of Growth (whose critiques are more essential today than ever). Although Baran and I were very different in style and character, we were united in our analyses of the ways in which the powers of the USA were being misused at home and abroad, not least concerning our involvement in the Korean war and — secretly — arming the French as the Vietnam war began. 1 We both also argued for the need of strong political action from the bottom up to resist them.
Baran, like me, was Jewish. The Irish name of my father 2 protected me from what Baran was forced to go through. Baran, born in Russia in 1909, first experienced the hardships of being Jewish in Russia and also having a Menshevik father. Later, Baran became associated with the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt but had to flee Germany3 when the Nazis took power.
In other words, Baran’s early life was dominated by one horror after another. That may have been the psychological wellspring for what became his powerful critique of capitalism . . . and also considerable anger and bitterness in his personal life. Except for when we worked together in public programs, we seldom saw each other; when we did, he was usually as brisk with me as with others. Nonetheless, in his writing and politics Baran was a model of decency and generosity. As an example, here is a quote from the closing pages of Growth:
To contribute to the emergence of a society in which development will supplant stagnation, in which growth will take the place of decay, and in which culture will put an end to barbarism is the noblest, and, indeed, the only true function of intellectual endeavor.
Such contribution is precisely what Baran made. When he died we lost a human being who, faced with a tragic and painful life, managed to transform his suffering into means of making a better life for all. 4
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The youth of Baran, as we have seen, was dominated by the harsh conditions for Jews in Russia and by the early history of the Russian Revolution during which there were many conflicts and privations. Sweezy’s youth was different in every respect. His parents were very rich, and his life as a boy and young man was marked by pleasure and the best possible education. However, starkly different though their youths had been, the minds and lives of Baran and Sweezy in adulthood were such as to make them a cooperative duo — intellectually and politically. The readers of the superb radical analyses of Monopoly Capital would never guess that one of the writers had grown up in danger and desperation, the other in luxury. They worked together like blood brothers, provided us with one of the most valuable books of our time, and, for many years, became the key element of Monthly Review.
I became aware of MR soon after it was born and not much later I began to send works to them. My most enduring pleasure was when Sweezy asked me to take on what became “an econ class” for MR’s staff. I was tickled to do so, of course, and for some time I popped down to Manhattan to give lunch-time leftie economic lessons to a dozen or so of the staff, with Paul participating and strengthening me. Then, in the late 1960s, I induced Paul to come to Cornell to teach in the summer session. In the 6-8 weeks he was in Ithaca with us, a good deal of his time was spent relaxing with my family and friends.
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Baran and Sweezy were among the intellectual descendants of Marx who provided vital theoretical renewals of Marxism to take account of the development of 20th-century industrial capitalism, especially the modern industrial capitalism of the USA. An effective strategy for the left now requires a body of analyses which explicitly deal with and relate to each other the nature, functioning, and consequences of the contemporary capitalist state, its imperialism, and its political realities and tendencies. Baran and Sweezy were the first in the USA to take the main critical steps to meet that requirement.
In Marx’s time industrial capitalism was still in its infancy: the era of cheap metals, fuels, etc. had just appeared on the horizon; the railroad and the steamship, etc. were dramatic symbols of modernity. In our day machine production has greatly speeded up, refined and transformed. That is, the second and third industrial revolutions before and after the Second World War have made possible and, in a capitalist world, necessary the displacement of competition by monopoly’s extraordinary degrees of concentration and centralization of production and power. The associated rising levels of productivity and production provide the basis for the surplus to rise. Less obvious but equally important in causing the surplus to rise is the ever higher unequal distribution of income, wealth, and power.
Taken together those developments assure a rising share of total output will be at the disposal of those in the upper reaches of society who own and control the giant corporations, and those in business, government, and the academy who serve as their conscious or unknowing “intellect workers.” How much of what goods and services are produced, how much of it will be divided between consumption and the generation of the economic surplus, and how it will be divided between what uses becomes the key to understanding the nature and the dynamics of modern society.5
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The foregoing has been no more than a glimpse of the past. Now a look at the present (with the wish that Baran and Sweezy were here to help us). The USA has had all too many wars since the 1980s, up to and including the first years of the 21st century. But those wars did not prevent the emergence of what has become the latest form of stagnation. (I recommend — to those who haven’t read it yet — Sweezy’s essay “Why Stagnation?” 6.) There are no signs of a meaningful recovery in the USA. Instead there are severe recessions in Ireland, Greece, Portugal, and Spain, with Italy on the brink. To the ongoing economic and political troubles of Europe and the UK must be added the emerging instability of the export-dependent economies over the globe, most clearly of China and India. The USA owes three trillion to them alone and six trillion altogether. It is impossible to predict what the continuing weakening of the US economy will mean to its creditors, several of whom are also weak. It is less than amusing to find that the Europeans are looking to the USA as potential savior. But as was said by Joan Robinson, cited by Baran in Growth, “In the present age, any government which had both the power and the will to remedy the major defects of the capitalist system would have the will and the power to abolish it altogether, while governments which have the power to retain the system lack the will to remedy its defects.” 7 In short, we are on the edge of a socio-economic cliff.
That said, I will conclude with some questions which, in the spirit of Baran and Sweezy, we must face if we are to avoid this potential disaster:
1. We must study, analyze, and deal with the great resiliency of today’s capitalism. Shaken though it has been in the past, it has come back strengthened and gone on to do greater harm. We must not allow that this time, socially, economically, politically, or militarily.
2. Despite one economic flop after another, there has been a growing rather than shrinking acceptance of capitalist means and ends in the advanced capitalist nations. We must reverse that and, in doing so, not only expose the dangers and ills of capitalism but learn and teach how much safer and more beneficial a democratic socialist society would be.
3. In connection with 2, we must study and learn what has gone wrong with socialist movements which have taken place.
4. We must ask ourselves why it is that in the underdeveloped societies left movements function more and better than in ours.
5. We must learn why there have been and still are all too strong tendencies toward fascism — or quasi-fascism — in the industrial capitalist countries.
6. We must meet, discuss, and discover the answers to this question: What must we do to create and strengthen an effective socialist movement in the USA?
1 See Marilyn Blatt Young, The Vietnam Wars 1945-1990.
2 I was born in San Francisco in 1919. My mother’s Jewish parents had fled Russia in 1880 and ultimately settled in San Francisco. Just before World War I my mother married a Catholic. They were divorced when I was small, and I lived with my mother. She had never gone beyond grammar school, and worked so hard that she never had time to read politics, but she was socially deeply decent. (My macho Irish father was a powerful athlete and became a notorious rightist.) My mother was not at all religious (nor am I), but she always took the good side of political problems. When I finished high school she insisted that I attend SF’s free junior college and become strong in shorthand. Why? So as to get a job as secretary to executives whose wives would not trust husbands with female secretaries. (That is a true story.) I did that, worked as secretary to a VP in US Steel, was fired because of my leftie politics, and became a court reporter. Then, World War II. After four years with the US Army Air Force in the Pacific, I was able to go to UC Berkeley, get a doctorate, and become a professor there. I taught there for several years and then at Cornell for 15 years.
3 Baran went first to the UK and then came to the USA. When the USA joined the Second World War he (and, separately, Sweezy) joined the war effort.
4 When Baran died suddenly in 1964, Sweezy came to Palo Alto for his funeral and asked me to deliver a memorial. Subsequently the memorial became a talk given at the 1974 Stanford symposium “The Political Economy of Growth: A Belated Tribute to Paul Baran and His Work.” It was then published in the Fall 1975 issue of Politics and Society: “Social Commitment and Social Analysis: The Contribution of Paul Baran.”
5 This and preceding paragraphs are adapted from “Social Commitment and Social Analysis: The Contribution of Paul Baran.”
6 The essay, based on Sweezy’s 1982 lecture at Harvard University, was reprinted in the June 2012 issue of Monthly Review.
7 Joan Robinson, Economic Journal, December 1936.