U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Post-Trump Teach-In, Week Two (Guest Post): Ben Feldman on Baran and Sweezy at 50

Today, we are excited to post an essay by our friend Ben Feldman: a meditation on the history and continuing significance of Baran and Sweezy’s Monopoly Capital, which turns 50 this year.

Reading Monopoly Capital At The Dawn of the Trump Era

“When vulgar Marxism tries to take on the more sophisticated bourgeois economists, there is unfortunately no doubt about who comes out on the losing end!” (Paul M. Sweezy to Paul A. Baran, June 22, 1959)

Sweezy’s note to his friend and co-author was written at perhaps the nadir of Marxian political economic thought in the United States.

Most American Marxists had been cut off from the university and the public sphere, or had otherwise accommodated themselves to capitalist triumphalism. Marxian political economy in the U.S. was moribund. At the time of his death in 1964, Paul Baran—then a professor of economics at Stanford University—was the only avowed Marxist with tenure in the United States. Three years later, there were twenty-six. While there was still not a single graduate department offering PhD’s in heterodox theory in 1970, by the end of the 1970s there were fifty-three such departments.[1]

Of course, the publication of Baran and Sweezy’s jointly authored Monopoly Capital (1966) was far from the only cause of this efflorescence; nevertheless, it must be acknowledged that their work played a generative role in the rebirth of Marxian political economy in the late 1960s and beyond.[2]

Largely unread after the collapse of the New Left, Monopoly Capital today strikes us as uniquely relevant. In particular, Baran and Sweezy’s work compellingly argues that a rational economic system is impossible without a socialist politics, that cultural critiques are necessarily political critiques, and that any viable left must work to forge shared political commitments across lines of geography and identity.

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Sweezy and Baran understood their isolation as Marxian analysts as a function of the politics of the Cold War. Further, they castigated the rigidity of the ‘vulgar Marxism’ of the CPUSA—chided by Sweezy as a formation with a “marked tendency to behave like absolutely unbearable shits.”[3] In particular, Baran and Sweezy believed that the failure of Marxist political economy followed from a refusal to take seriously the theoretical advancements of the Keynesian Revolution (Baran and Sweezy were particularly taken with Michal Kalecki the Polish economist who played Liebniz to Keynes’s Newton, developing many of the theories central to Keynesianism in isolation from the Anglo-American world).

Baran and Sweezy’s willingness to integrate non-Marxian theories into a Marxian framework began with their own training (in the case of both men, an unusually heterodox introduction to political economy). Baran spent two years studying under Frederick Pollock at the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt am Main, and wrote for Rudolf Hilferding in the early 1930s before coming to the United States. Sweezy had studied at the London School of Economics (during which time he became friends with Joan Robinson), and received his PhD at Harvard (where he overlapped with Paul Samuelson). His dissertation was overseen by Joseph Schumpeter. While Schumpeter was a dedicated anti-socialist, Sweezy later recalled that in “deliberately [setting] himself to build a structure of thought which was rival to Marx…he treats Marx with a seriousness that is completely foreign to the way Anglo-American economics treated Marx.”[4] This emphasis on taking seriously the theoretical developments of one’s political opponents helped Baran and Sweezy to develop something of an immanent critique of American fiscal-managerial Keynesianism, engaging with it on its own terms, rather than rejecting Keynesianism out-of-hand for not being sufficiently Marxist.

While its analysis is in many ways imperfect, Monopoly Capital succeeds as a genuine attempt at adapting Marxian theory to the material reality of the postwar United States. Critical of the failure of Marxists to engage with Keynesian thought, Baran and Sweezy argue that their Keynesian contemporaries—who dominated economic policy in the post-war United States—err in assuming that American capitalism is fundamentally a competitive system while overlooking the extent of monopolization.

Under monopoly conditions, Baran and Sweezy insist, an increasingly large surplus is concentrated in the hands of a decreasing number of firms. These firms then seek to absorb that surplus through “The Sales Effort,” and, once the domestic market has been saturated, through imperialism. Monopoly Capital’s claim that sales and advertising create demand rather than redistributing demand that already exists seems superficially similar to Galbraith’s The Affluent Society. It differs from The Affluent Society, however, in its argument that this manufacture of waste is a foundational element––not an irrational and therefore soluble bug––of the system. Baran and Sweezy argue broadly that American growth is predicated on military production and imperial adventure: the U.S. maintains its high standard of living by siphoning off the surplus generated in the underdeveloped world. While they had earlier supported the New Deal, by the early Cold War Era Baran and Sweezy had come to consider Roosevelt’s policy revolution to have been a failure. Its inadequacy was masked by the build up to World War II and the Cold War. Sweezy observed that the inability of the New Deal “to accomplish what the war proved to be within easy reach,” had been decisively proved by the shift, in 1939, from non-defense to defense spending.[5]

Their critiques of sales and imperialism fed into a larger critique of American Keynesians. Baran and Sweezy recognized that while some of the ideas developed by the American Keynesians might have been intellectually sound, they were politically impossible under monopoly capitalism. Referencing the Italian economist Piero Sraffa, Baran wrote, “Keynesianism is the illusion of the epoch rather than Marxism.”[6] Essentially, the authors argued that the implementation of Keynesian economics (in particular deficit spending) would require socialist politics. Similar to Thomas Piketty’s call for a global wealth tax in Capital in the Twenty-First Century (with no viable path to enforcing such a tax), knowing the correct answer did liberal economists little good without a tangible set of tools with which to act on them.[7]

Baran and Sweezy firmly believed that socialism was the only political system under which the pursuit of equitable growth would be possible. However, as they realized, there was practically no support among the American working class (and in particular the white American working class) for revolution. Their answer to this dilemma—how do you make a revolution where no one wants it, and should you?––remains the most interesting aspect of their work. Sounding similar themes to the One-Dimensional Man of Herbert Marcuse (a close friend of Baran) Monopoly Capital argues that postwar Americans, while materially successful, continued to suffer through psychological pauperization. This had led to widespread “sexual repression, cultural misery, general discontent, boredom, aimlessness …aggressiveness, depression [and a] sense of emptiness and purposelessness of life.”[8] Baran suggests that the American working class had substituted the “psycho-struggle” for the class struggle, and that these negative phenomena were sub-conscious manifestations of resistance to hegemonic liberal capitalism. Without class struggle, however, the ‘psycho-struggle’ would lead not toward a rational society, but rather to a “protracted rotting of society,” and ultimately to the creation of “fascist man.”[9]

Barbarism could only be avoided via the unification of the subconscious recognition of capitalism’s essential irrationality with a real class struggle. Monopoly Capital argues that the only way to inject class-subjectivity would be by encouraging the spread of anti-colonial revolutions. The Cuban revolutionary model must spread through the developing world, until the U.S. was “quite literally fighting a world-wide anti-guerilla war.” After enough time, the deployment of American troops against national revolutions throughout the formerly colonized world would lead to a rejection of American militarism, and eventually to “rot and breakdown…in the imperialist center.”[10] The collapse of the imperial metropole, and concurrent stagnation of the economy would, in waves, radicalize marginalized groups within the U.S.—who would disproportionately feel the brunt of economic slowdown—until the revolutionary radicalism of the developing world had spread even to the white working class.

As Baran noted, this critique “remains an ideational, Hegelian criticism based on the immanent movement of reason and not on the concrete movement in society.”[11] Baran and Sweezy envisioned the psycho-struggle and the class-struggle meeting at the historical moment when the rational became the real. In articulating this vision, they provide a holistic analysis of the problems of the post-war period, and construct a template for the politics that characterized the young left between 1967-1973. Monopoly Capital recognized that middle-class malaise, anti-black racism, and imperial resistance to the Cuban Revolution were all symptoms of the same disease, and could not be understood independent of one another. In working toward an understanding of American capitalism in its totality, Baran and Sweezy were guided by their opus’s epigraph, borrowed from The Phenomenology of Spirit: The Part is the Whole.

 Monopoly Capital emphasizes that the struggle for black self-determination (and the self-determination of other national groups) is an essential component of any socialist revolution. Baran and Sweezy were hardly the first theorists to recognize the importance of Black radicalism; C.L.R. James and other Black intellectuals had argued that Black Nationalism might lead the way toward American socialism for decades. Baran and Sweezy came to appreciate the role African-Americans could play in the broader revolutionary struggle in part through the publishing of James Boggs’s American Revolution (1963) as a special issue of Monthly Review—the journal of independent socialist thought which Sweezy co-founded and co-edited. Ultimately, they may be said to have embraced a sort of proto-intersectionality, maintaining that while socialism is insufficient to the eradication of anti-Black racism, there could be no end to racial hatred without it. In foregrounding anti-colonial struggle—at home and abroad—in the fight for socialism, Baran and Sweezy’s critique had a great deal in common with that of the Black Panther Party—also celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.

Beyond their emphasis on the relationship between The Black Left and (mostly white) student Left, Monopoly Capital attempts to navigate between the more economistic ‘mature Marx,’ and the Hegelian ‘young Marx,’ at the dawn of the New Left. In joining a Western-Marxist critique of cultural degradation with a real revolutionary praxis, Monopoly Capital functions as a sort of rejoinder avant la lettre to Perry Anderson’s Considerations on Western Marxism (1976).  As against Anderson’s critique of the Western Marxist turn away from economics and politics, and toward culture and aesthetics. Baran and Sweezy illustrate one way in which a cultural critique can inform a radical politics.

Regardless of the accuracy of its economic analysis, or the desirability of importing guerilla war, Monopoly Capital provides some lessons for our own nightmarish political moment. Baran and Sweezy were neither the first, nor the last to suggest that the future presented us with a stark choice between socialism and barbarism. Yet their prediction that ‘fascist man’ was the necessary outcome of a politics devoid of class-solidarity seems ominously prescient in 2016. Monopoly Capital serves as a reminder that anti-racist politics must include (but can not be limited to) class-struggle, and the reconstitution of a viable Left-politics in the wake of white-nationalist victory will require a coalition made up of people of color and the white-working class. In short, we need the Ellison coalition, rather than the Clinton coalition; one committed to a defense of self-definition and to a left-economic populism, rather than Clinton’s empty defense of meritocratic multiculturalism: form without content. Embracing the former by no means ensures victory, but it gives the politics of solidarity a fighting chance.

Notes

[1] Frederic Lee, A History of Heterodox Economics, 59

[2] Baran and Sweezy did most of their co-writing through letters, sent back and forth over more than a decade between Baran and Stanford and Sweezy at his home in New Hampshire. These letters provide tremendous insight into the developing thought of their authors as they worked toward the publishing of ‘their opus,’ fifty years ago. https://purl.stanford.edu/km151hd0812

[3] Sweezy to Baran (June 4, 1951)

[4] Christopher Phelps and Andors Skotnes, “An Interview with Paul M. Sweezy,” Monthly Review 51.1 (May 1999), pp. 31-53

[5] Paul Sweezy to Paul Baran, 1962 (no date or location noted on this letter)

[6] Paul Baran to Paul Sweezy, August 30, 1962

[7] Though Piketty, perhaps unlike Paul Samuelson and John Kenneth Galbraith, seems aware of the political unfeasibility of his policy recommendation. Baran and Sweezy alternated between accusing Keynesians who failed to recognize the impracticability of their policies of idiocy, mendacity, or both: calling Simon Kuznets “a fool or a knave,” (Sweezy to Baran February 1, 1962); Paul Samuelson a “dishonest bastard,” (Baran to Sweezy March 2, 1963) and John Kenneth Galbraith “a cheap snob-completely gone to pot,” whose The Liberal Hour could best be reviewed through bouts of “massive vomiting.” (Baran to Sweezy April 12, 1960).

[8] Baran to Sweezy (February 3, 1957)

[9] Baran to Sweezy (February 3, 1957)

[10] Sweezy to Baran (April 26, 1963)

[11] Baran to Sweezy (February 3, 1957)

(Ben Feldman is a PhD Candidate at Georgetown University. His dissertation, tentatively titled “Liberation From the Affluent Society”, will explore the role of the Third World in post-war American political thought. The author wishes to thank Nicholas Baran for his generosity in sharing primary source materials and digitizing them).

4 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Ben: allow me to be the first to say how much I enjoyed this wonderful piece.

    I wonder if we might tease out from Baran and Sweezy’s mapping of the capitalist valorization process a more forceful structural location for racism than is usually on display in US Marxist writings on capitalist reproduction. Imperialism requires, after all, the cultivation of racist sentiment, and carries back to the metropole imperial affects (certainly this was the case pre- and post-1898). Could we use Monopoly Capital as a rejoinder to those Marxists who continue to see racism as outside the logic of capital, stricto sensu?

    • Thanks Kurt,

      Baran and Sweezy were in agreement on most issues, but they often had differences in emphasis. Sweezy focused on the utility of racism from the standpoint of the ruling class, essentially that capitalism has always required a divided working class and that skin color “is the best basis for discrimination” (Sweezy, March, 1963). He argued that racism would persist under Monopoly Capitalism, because—with the exception of massive war mobilization—monopoly conditions generate a large labor surplus, which increases the utility of a racially divided working class. Like the New Deal, they believed that Civil Rights legislation and agencies (Sweezy noted the creation of the Fair Employment Practices Commission in particular) were simply not effective enough to reverse this trend. Baran agreed with this more structural analysis, but felt that it was “only one leg,” and pushed back against the idea that “The Negro issue is strictly a social problem, that the Negroes are the most oppressed social stratum, and therefore: that their struggle is class struggle á outrance.” (Baran, July, 1963) He added that while capitalism could explain racism, it could not explain the degree of hatred, and for this reason that racism must be considered as “related to but also independent from the class conflict.” All of this is to say that they were largely in agreement that racism was both a byproduct of capitalist development and imperialism, and in some sense an essential component of capitalist development and imperialism, but Baran in particular believed that one manifestation of the ‘psycho struggle’ was a sort of racial hatred that had surpassed what might be considered a ‘rational’ level within the context of the system.

      Their analysis led to a sort of tension in that, while they were explicitly in favor of all Civil Rights legislation and in favor of full employment, they had “an uneasy feeling,” that full employment would “drastically curb the Negro movement.” They felt even if there was full employment (which they believed to be impossible other than under extreme circumstances), it would end the hopes for a revolution in the United States—which depended on the radicalization of African Americans. Baran wrote “It is the confluence of discrimination and economic misery which makes the Negro an explosive force today….” Civil Rights legislation and full employment would not, by themselves end racism, and even if they did the best case outcome would be to integrate African-Americans into the class-free psycho struggle of the white working class: a multi cultural fascism. Sweezy concluded: “Integration is therefore a utopic for the black masses. So is withdrawal…Negroes will therefore either have to abandon the struggle or take the revolutionary road.” (Sweezy, July, 1963)

      So to more directly address your question, I would say that indeed, Monopoly Capital sees racism as within the logic of capital, but suggests that the psycho-struggle (which is also of course a product of monopoly capitalism) has caused racism to spiral into a pathology far in excess of what is ‘necessary’ (from the standpoint of capital) in order to maintain the system.

  2. Ah, tis good to read a smart Marxist piece always, but the specter of the “fascist man” makes this text even more relevant. Like Kurt, I thought that the references to black self-determination and imperialism are essential. By any chance, are there any allusions to the growing question of gender and sexuality in Monopoly Capital? Since Marcuse himself started confronting these matters in the sixties, it would not be too surprising. I am interested in the question of proto-intersectionality, but am not sure it’s the best descriptor. It seems that what is described here is pure dialectics: racism is not outside the logic of capital but it is subsumed into class struggle, as you say, the part of a whole. Ultimately, this was C.L.R. James’s position: Black Nationalism was not just black nationalism for him; it would help create the path toward socialism for all. One can see this in his critique of Carmichael, who for him embraced racial separatism too heavily. It appears that Baran and Sweezy were also reading their Gramsci, when one takes into account their emphasis on culture, did that dialogue happen? Were his ideas actually having an impact in the sixties? (I am clueless in this regard, so I apologize if this comes off as a naive question).

    The importance of Cuba also cannot be overstated in how the U.S. left imagined anti-imperialism, though it’s fascinating to see how throughout the sixties some activists and intellectuals changed their mind about Cuba (while others stood their ground), when they noticed the growing centralization of power and authoritarianism as well as the lack of Black people among its leadership.

    • Kahlil, thanks for your comment,

      There is very little analysis of gender or sex (other than the sort of post-Freudian engagement with sexual repression) in Monopoly Capital or in their correspondence.
      As to Gramsci, it is clear that they were familiar with his work as early as the late 1950s (and perhaps before), but they don’t seem to directly engage with him much—they were also in touch with the Studies on the Left crowd in the early 1960s, including ‘Gene’ Genovese—with whom they corresponded about the ante-bellum South—so I’m sure Gramsci influenced their thinking in various ways. Re: your question on James/ Dialectics I may have addressed above in my comments to Kurt, but yes, I would say they were largely in line with James’s position regarding racial separatism.

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