Monthly Review celebrated its semicentennial on May 7 with a Manhattan bash featuring loyalists Ossie Davis, Adrienne Rich and Cornel West, and a special retrospective May issue put together by MR Press editorial director Christopher Phelps. The Landmark on the Park scene calls to mind a phrase adopted by immigrant German socialists about themselves just a century ago: alte Genossen, old comrades, grayhaired and perhaps a bit bloodied from too-frequent contact with unyielding stone walls, but unbowed and still full of lively ideas on one large subject in particular.
Opposition to empire, as the late William Appleman Williams often observed, remains the touchstone of a certain kind of American radical. Williams–whose The Contours of American History‘s recent appearance on the Modern Library’s 100 Best Nonfiction list particularly perturbed one of the judges, Arthur Schlesinger Jr.–was himself that kind of radical. So are the Monthly Reviewniks, one and all.
The MR story goes back to the Depression, when its future editors worked in the vicinity of the New Deal Administration and engaged the wide-ranging public conversation about the economic crisis. Paul Sweezy was a Marxist-inclined Harvard professor until he joined the Office of Strategic Services, the CIA’s progressive-minded forerunner. Leo Huberman, one of the century’s forgotten radical economic popularizers, had written Man’s Worldly Goods (which sold a half-million copies), chaired a social science department at Columbia and worked at PM as labor editor. Harry Magdoff went from the Works Progress Administration to the National Defense Advisory Commission and served as Henry Wallace’s special assistant at the Commerce Department. Marxists all, but also politically unaffiliated, a point of some importance.
The calamitous final months of the 1948 Progressive Party campaign, which saw Wallace submerged by cold war rhetoric and a foretaste of McCarthy-style blacklisting, prompted Sweezy, Huberman and a handful of others to look beyond disappointments to the long haul ahead. Harvard’s F.O. Matthiessen, a gay socialist and the original doyen of American studies (but under ferocious attack and only a few years from suicide), personally put up most of the cash needed for several issues. Albert Einstein supplied the magazine’s working credo in his essay for issue number one, “Why Socialism?” Published without benefit of an office or paid staff, MR advanced from 450 subscribers to several thousand and established its own voice.
In some ways, that voice could be heard best in chorus with The Nation‘s editor, Freda Kirchwey, and the professional journalists who launched the National Guardian. All of them saw the cold war and the construction of the US “security state” as the most formidable threat to global survival. And all of them tried to draw the large lessons from the outcome of the thirties and forties political experience.
Briefly put, humanity was not very likely to be saved by battalions of marching proletarians. Democratic promise rested in an interracial and international coalition of peoples breaking free of empire at home and (as it became more and more apparent) in distant parts. The Soviet Union had acted heroically at times in such struggles, directly or indirectly, but its leaders had proved themselves despots and its enlisted faithful around the world too dogmatic. Radicals needed to start over, in the middle of a tangle that showed no signs of straightening itself out.