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.
Never were such lonely voices harder for most Americans to hear than in the early cold war years, and never were they more badly needed. The outbreak of armed conflict saw another MR intimate, journalist I.F. Stone, write The Hidden History of the Korean War (1952), and the Monthly Review Press was created to publish it. Stanford economist Paul Baran likewise delivered The Political Economy of Growth (1957), which explained cogently why poor countries had been programmed to stay poor. Sweezy and Baran irregularly delivered segments of a magnum opus, Monopoly Capital (finally published in 1966) to interpret the bouts of stagnation that inexplicably blighted the golden days of postwar capitalism.
Like historian Williams (another MR irregular), the editors of Monthly Review focused more and more upon empire as the key mode of global development and its hardest-hit victims as the most likely prospects for challenging the system. This slant put the magazine and its press–with the peacenik Liberation, as well as Frantz Fanon and Herbert Marcuse–squarely on the New Left intellectual agenda. In fact, these assorted savants may have created the agenda (as another forties political survivor, Betty Friedan, did for the women’s movement), not excluding its dark corners. What about the working class, after all, and how could US radicalism revive as a social movement? Answers were few for these otherwise acute critics of capitalism, of empire and of racism, a strategic deficiency steadily more apparent as time suddenly ran out on New Left impulses.
The long run turned out to be longer and longer. In a particularly vivid interview in the May retrospective, Harry Magdoff recalls the sense of doom felt by capitalism-watchers at mid-century. Nothing, certainly since 1929, had caused them to believe that the system could escape cycles of severe crisis. Naturally, some kind of socialism (or worse forms of collectivism) seemed perennially in the offing, if not in the United States then elsewhere. Then things changed. For a staggeringly large part of the globe, of course, prosperity has never been more than relative, and collective disaster imminent. But don’t try to sell Monthly Review‘s skepticism to Wall Street or the mainstream press, for whom, especially since the fall of Communism and the rise of the global economic order, happy days are truly and permanently here again.
To that almost seamless perspective, MR has tried to counterpose major flaws and impending limits. Ecology has, understandably, become increasingly central in recent years. But so has the close observation of globalization’s many uncertainties, including the rampant financial speculation, which (in the editors’ view) points back to the underlying stagnation of productive capital. Seasoned readers, then, see the magazine as a firm hand on the economic-interpretive tiller.
Still, it hasn’t been easy. Readership has fallen seriously from the sixties/seventies peak of 11,500, and several years ago the press nearly suffered a meltdown. The operation has been shored up recently by Ellen Meiksins Wood, a much-admired political theorist and now the fourth editor in MR‘s history. Phelps remarks at the close of his mini-history of the magazine that it remains what Monthly Review always has been, the “flagship journal of an American Marxism in solidarity with liberation struggles the world over.” Fair enough, and good luck for another fifty.