Of old strengths in a new era

Published : Aug 11, 2006 00:00 IST



Interview with John Bellamy Foster, editor of Monthly Review.

IN 1949, during the rise of an unmatched wave of anti-Communist repression in the U.S., a handful of intellectuals in the country published the first number of their "independent socialist magazine". Called Monthly Review, the inaugural issue bore a commissioned essay from Albert Einstein, who offered a very clear description of the magazine's role: "Clarity about the aims and problems of socialism is of greatest significance in our age of transition. Since, under present circumstances, free and unhindered discussion of these problems has come under a powerful taboo, I consider the foundation of this magazine to be an important public service."

The principal force behind the magazine was Paul Sweezy, an economist from a wealthy background whose job at Harvard University was revoked as a result of his political commitments. In 1942, Sweezy published his Theory of Capitalist Development, which followed a long tradition in American Marxism to engage with the centrality of monopoly firms (such as in The Theoretical System of Karl Marx by Louis Boudin, Chicago: Kerr, 1907). Whereas Marx wrote in an age of relatively competitive capitals, the new epoch was one in which monopoly firms dominated the economy. From Marx, Sweezy learnt that stagnation ("the sense of less than capacity utilisation of productive resources") is the "normal state of affairs under capitalist conditions".

After the Second World War, the Atlantic economies seemed less prone to stagnation than to expansion. The question for Marxists, given the normal tendency to stagnation, was, "What brings on expansion?" This question became the main theme of Sweezy's work and it provided much of what is interesting about Monthly Review, that is, the magazine shunned dogma for an engagement with social development from a Marxist perspective. In his co-authored Monopoly Capitalism (1966), Sweezy pointed to four elements of the U.S. economy that accounted for buoyancy: (1) the massive automobile economy, not only the cars but also the freeway infrastructure; (2) military expenditure; (3) the penetration of sales into production; (4) the expansion of finance at the expense of production. The centrality of warfare to monopoly capitalism needs to be borne in mind, because for Monthly Review warfare and imperialism were not an aberration of modernity, but the hallmark of monopoly capitalism.

Interest in imperialism meant that the magazine covered the rise of anti-imperialist and post-capitalist movements around the globe. When the Cuban revolution broke out, Sweezy and his co-editor Leo Huberman travelled to the island and interacted with the leaders of government. Their coverage of the revolution gave it important visibility in Marxist and radical circles (their piece, "Cuba: The Anatomy of the Revolution", appeared in the magazine in July-August 1960 and was subsequently republished in book form by Monthly Review Press). In a letter from Cuba in March 1960, Sweezy wrote: "The potential Achilles' heel is the lack of a real political party to educate and discipline the masses for the tough years to come when they really feel the brunt of imperialist counterattack." The United Party of the Socialist Revolution of Cuba was founded a year later. When one symptomatically studies a revolution, as Sweezy did, one is able to anticipate its needs and its dynamic. When the New Left grew in opposition to the bureaucratisation of U.S. life and the war in Vietnam, Monthly Review provided a salutary analysis of the world that countered the idealistic enthusiasm of the young radicals.

One of the elements of the Monthly Review approach was to show that imperialism was not a policy but "a systematic reality arising from the very nature of capitalist development". Given the anti-colonial history of its birth, the U.S. has always denied its imperial dimension (whether in the expansion westward across Native American lands, the aggression southward into Latin America, or else across the Pacific in the Philippines). In 1991, before the fall of the Soviet Union, the U.S. moved aggressively against Iraq in a dress rehearsal for the current "war on terror". Sweezy then wrote: "The United States, it seems, has locked itself into a course with the gravest implications for the whole world."

As the new wars erupted, the veterans of the magazine died (Sweezy in 2004, and Harry Magdoff in 2006). The magazine had already been turned over to John Bellamy Foster, a Professor of Sociology at the University of Oregon, U.S. Foster's first major book was a sympathetic reappraisal of the Monthly Review account (The Theory of Monopoly Capitalism, 1986). Since then he has authored or edited numerous books, including Marx's Ecology: Materialism and Nature (2000) and Capitalism and the Information Age: The Political Economy of the Global Communications Revolution (1998). One of the hallmarks of Monthly Review is its lead essay, the "Review of the Month", most often authored by one of the editors or their close associates. Since the 1990s, Foster has authored many of these, and since September 11, 2001, when he took over the magazine, he has written most of them. These "reviews" provide Monthly Review's assessment of current events. Foster's new book, Naked Imperialism: The U.S. Pursuit of Global Dominance (Monthly Review Press, 2006) collects these reviews. The political theorist Immanuel Wallerstein calls the book "a synthesis of fifty years of intelligent writing by Monthly Review authors about the realities of imperialism".

Based on the theory of monopoly capitalism, Foster shows that U.S. capitalism "has been dependent on large infusions of military spending both to support its imperial interests abroad and to prop up the economy". The dynamic of military expenditure and warfare from the 1990s produces what Foster terms "naked imperialism". Globalisation lays waste large parts of the world, and centralises finance into core countries, where a leading absorber of investment is the military industrial complex. War, therefore, is the heart of the system. The U.S., in addition, has taken on the role of being the leader of those social forces committed to globalisation. "With its immense military power and its willingness to use force, the United States hopes to keep all potential competitors permanently in check - a strategy that is likely to spell global disaster in the long run (if not sooner)." It is not easy for a country formally committed to democracy and prosperity to justify either imperialism or the centrality of warfare to its social system. Therefore, the ruling class justifies its warfare industries and its actions to its public based on the ideas of human rights interventionism (as in the 1999 war on Kosovo) or of a "war against terror" (after 9/11).

Foster demolishes the arguments for a benign imperialism put forward by liberal commentators, who are equally committed to globalisation as the salve for the growing planetary inequality. He puts paid to the notion that a cabal of neo-conservatives has captured the U.S. government - neo-liberals are equally committed to the project of U.S. capitalism (and therefore, warfare). For Foster, the tendency of monopoly capitalism is barbarism. Since hope is not a political strategy, Foster does not dwell on it, but he does long for the construction of socialism to save the planet.

How did you first get involved with Paul Sweezy and the Monthly Review (MR) group?

I believe I first heard Paul Sweezy speak in the Fall of 1974. Paul was just returning from China. So I must have just turned 21. He was speaking at the University of Washington and a bunch of us went up to see him from the Evergreen State College in Olympia. I remember that a huge auditorium was packed with hundred upon hundreds of people and we were way in the back. Afterwards though it was the Evergreen students that stayed the longest to talk to Paul. I had read Marxist works quite a lot as a teenager (I came from a Left family and had been introduced by my father to the Communist Manifesto when I was very young). I took up Marxism as a serious area of study in college in 1971-72. I found myself enamoured with MR (to which my college roommate Bob McChesney first introduced me) beginning in late 1973, around the time of the coup in Chile and the economic crisis that was developing then. There was no doubt that MR had the best analysis of the coup, of the economic crisis, and of the Vietnam war. Paul and I became correspondents and friends in 1980 after I sent him a paper I wrote (for a class with Gabriel Kolko) on "The United States and Monopoly Capitalism: The Issue of Excess capacity". The first long talk I had with him in person was at the People's Summit in Ottawa, Ontario, in August 1980 or thereabouts. After that I visited him in New York and we kept in constant contact.

What kind of political work did you get up to in your teens and early 20s?

I came from a fairly poor (for a while we were below the poverty line), but relatively educated, Left family and had a radical political consciousness at a very early age. Both of my parents had been politically caught up in the Left struggles of the 1930s and 1940s. They were both affected by McCarthyism. I was interested in civil rights issues and got involved in discussions and "sensitivity training". In terms of political activity in my teens, 1968 was naturally a turning point and I became involved in anti-war protests around that time. (I had already given my first speech against the war in junior high school when I was 14 or so. Even before that I had been concerned about the nuclear arms race.)

A lot of my political activity in 1969-1970 was affected by my involvement in high-school debate. The topic in 1969 was "Should Congress Prohibit Unilateral U.S. Military Intervention in Foreign Countries?" I read everything I could get on the history of U.S. military interventions and the Vietnam war. Like others on my team I read The Guardian and other Left publications to get information and analysis and then cited Time and Newsweek, which were basically useless but respectable, to make our points before the judges. As we went from university to university for our debates, I literally inhaled the anti-war climate on the campuses. At this time I was also involved in (very small) demonstrations in my hometown in Olympia, Washington.

In the summer of 1970 I was part of a hunger strike of high school students in the state capitol building in Olympia. We got a lot of media attention and were involved in constant debates with state legislators. The ecology movement was also starting up in these years and I was actively involved in events surrounding the first Earth Day (there was also a high school debate topic related to the environment then), including the teach-in events of that time. I was more affected by the war, however, which was an overriding focus. I was concerned that the environment was then being used in some quarters as a diversion from the issue of the war. For me it was impossible to get too worked up about pollution in the U.S. when we were dropping napalm on the Vietnamese. So my political activity mainly consisted of protesting against the war.

I was quite disillusioned, even a bit cynical, when the anti-war movement died down, while the U.S. was still bombing the Vietnamese. In my first year of college I studied Marx and [Herbert] Marcuse, but was also reading [Arthur] Schopenhauer and [Soren] Kierkegaard. I was momentarily attracted to solipsistic and negative existential views out of a kind of defiant cynicism. I, subsequently, turned to an even more systematic study of Hegelian and Marxist philosophy, however, and my period of political inactivity ended with the U.S. promoted coup in Chile and the economic (and energy) crisis. I worked with others (including my closest friend Bob McChesney) at helping organise the National Symposium on Chile at Evergreen in response to the coup. We brought in a number of MR writers and related writers, including James Petras, Maurice Zeiltin, Richard Fagen, Malvina Reynolds and others. In this context, I wrote a series of articles on Chilean socialism, the coup and U.S. imperialism for the school newspaper (The Cooper Point Journal) that required extensive research. I, subsequently, became business manager/managing editor of The Cooper Point Journal, which was involved in uncovering all kinds of inequities. At Evergreen I became the head of the student ombudsman's office and worked with the state human rights commission in a case on workers' rights violations at the college.

In 1976 I went to graduate school at York University in Toronto, Canada, with the aim of studying political economy and critical theory. While there I got involved in various demonstrations and strike actions. During a staff strike at the university, I was part of a sit-in in the President's office (as a foreign student I was at risk of being removed from the university). I was also part of a graduate teachers' strike. I was a fellow at a college at the university named after Norman Bethune, Canada's great communist doctor who had been with Mao in China. I was involved in a number of efforts to ensure that the college would remain true to Bethune's revolutionary values.

I did a big study of Canadian longshoring in graduate school, in which I had to go from port to port and talk to workers and management, and I tried at one time to intervene in a dispute within the labour movement between union members and casual workers. Unfortunately, I saw first hand how, in this case, labour had become corrupt with its bosses linked more to management, which taught me a whole lot. Ironically, my knowledge of Taylorism owing to Harry Braverman (Labour and Monopoly Capital, 1974) was so strong that the maritime management in the Canadian longshoring industry indicated that it might be interested in hiring me to help Taylorise the industry (which I took as a confirmation of my views of the trend in the industry). I indicated that I wasn't interested.

How was this political work related to what you were reading in MR?

It was related directly. Of course, MR at the time was centered perhaps even more than at present on economic crisis and imperialism. It did a lot of economic crisis theories, and for me it was the key to understanding all of the changes occurring in our time. Looking at the developments in the 1980s, it was immediately clear that supply-side economics or Reaganomics was an integrated class-based, imperialist attack on the world's working populations. In the U.S. the goal was to overturn the gains that the working class had made in the New Deal along with the class-race gains of the Great Society. Keynesianism was to be eliminated because of its mild progressivism. The more this became clear the more important MR's analysis became. (I had toyed with fundamentalist Marxist economic analysis in the late 1970s when I first entered graduate school but I soon became convinced they could not explain current economic events and class-imperial challenges.) MR also represented a non-sectarian Marxism that seemed in the tradition of Marx himself. And the intellectual creativity was enormous. You have to remember that such classic, dialectically interconnected analyses as Monopoly Capital (1966), The Age of Imperialism (1969), Labour and Monopoly Capital (1974) all came out in fairly quick succession in this period. MR was also connected closely to what I considered the best of the British Marxist tradition: E.P. Thompson, Raymond Williams, and Ralph Millband, and to brilliant international figures like Eduardo Galeano, Daniel Singer, Istvan Meszaros, and Samir Amin.

What is your academic training: sociology, economics, or ecology?

I have a Ph.D. in political science from York where my training was in political economy, an area that does not really exist in the U.S. I had studied mainly political philosophy, history, and economics at Evergreen, with my final emphasis on economics. I decided not to go to graduate school in economics, however, because my interests were more interdisciplinary (encompassing philosophy and critical theory) and because I knew that even in the radical economics departments, neoclassical training was the principal focus to a degree to which I was unwilling to succumb. I was convinced that radical economists were forced into a kind of Faustian compromise that often led to their self-destruction. So I decided to pursue my studies in a more interdisciplinary, political-economy frame of which York was the exemplar.

When I came back to the U.S. to teach I first took a temporary position at Evergreen teaching political economy and then was hired at the University of Oregon to teach sociology (the job advertisement asked for someone who could teach in the areas of Marxism, political economy, class analysis and imperialism). I was always interested in environmental issues, but did not engage this area fully until the late 1980s and early 1990s (around the time I got tenure) when I became increasingly dedicated to the field of environmental sociology.

MR has had a subscription resurgence. How do you account for this?

MR's subscriptions fell drastically in the 1980s and early 1990s. This was result of a number of things: a political shift, difficult economic times, and the fact that the MR editors, Paul and Harry, by the early 1990s were not able to write or to edit the magazine at the same level as before - as they approached their eighties. Things got better when Ellen Meiksins Wood joined MR in the late 1990s, and the magazine made more progress in its subscriptions in the early 2000s when Bob and I joined Harry as co-editors (which coincided with Ellen's departure). MR was perhaps the only major independent Left publication still focusing on U.S. imperialism at the time of September 11, 2001. Our subscriptions, therefore, rose rapidly as people sought meaningful answers. We also provided a critique of the "New Economy" myth of the late 1990s that attracted much attention. This was a time of a remaking of the magazine itself, in ways that were designed to recover its old strengths in a new era.

So I think this in itself attracted a lot of new readers. In addition to Harry, Bob, and myself, there was a core of dedicated thinkers who made up our informal editorial committee and devoted themselves to renewing the magazine, including Michael Yates (Associate Editor), Claude Misukiewicz (Assistant Editor), John Mage, John Simon, Barbara Epstein, Victor Wallis, Fred Magdoff, and, recently, Brett Clark. Martin Paddio, Rene Pendegrass, and Andrew Nash helped with the press. Bill Fletcher supported MR as an active board member. We renewed within MR a common spirit. But for all of this, the main reason, tragically, that MR has been gaining influence, is that we are living in an age of naked capitalism and naked imperialism, such as has not been seen for many years. MR has stayed on top of these exploitative developments. An indication of MR's global influence is that it is now published separately in more editions in more countries than in any time in its history. Foreign language editions of MR are published in Spain, Greece, and Turkey, and a separate English language edition is printed in India. The rapid growth of MR's Web presence has taken place with the emergence of MRzine.org last year (edited by Yoshie Furushadi).

What does "independent" mean to you in the subhead of the journal?

It means a number of things. MR is strongly anti-sectarian. While we recognise that there are various Left parties and groupings, the magazine itself is meant to stay clear from any particular party-lines attached to Left political organisations, in the spirit of a wider critique. By the same token, MR has not hesitated to raise critical-theoretical and political issues regarding post-revolutionary states. MR grew out of a popular front struggle (in the times of the New Deal, the Great Depression and the Second World War). We seek to bring a Marxist analysis to the widest possible liberation struggle. Finally non-sectarian means that we generally try to avoid issues of Left organisation in the magazine. Such issues are of course vital. But they must occur at other levels and for MR to get too involved in such questions would undermine what it can best do for the Left - promoting a larger critical-revolutionary vision and conception of the present as history.

Of course none of this can be taken as fixed. There are no hard and fast rules. There are times when we may sometimes cross our own boundaries in this respect. The MR editors came out strongly in 1984 in support of Jesse Jackson's Rainbow Coalition as representing a helpful opening in U.S. politics. The magazine offers theoretical positions and historical interpretations, and has its own broad perspective on the development of capitalism and post-revolutionary societies. But these are taken seriously as theories demanding criticism and development, and not as dogmas.

The main theme of your new book appears to locate the "new imperialism" (David Harvey) or "naked imperialism" (John Bellamy Foster) in the dynamics of monopoly capitalism, though the monopoly capital section is only one, and in the middle. Is this a good assessment of what you are doing in the book?

At one point in Monopoly Capital, Baran and Sweezy said that "imperialism is simply the international face of monopoly capitalism". In Naked Imperialism the emphasis is on understanding imperialism first and foremost, but that always connects back to the roots of the system in accumulation. Monopoly capital theory has been a way of understanding the stage of accumulation underlying this. Without this little can be understood. This emphasis on monopoly capitalism as the basis of contemporary imperialism goes as far back at least as Lenin who said that imperialism "in its briefest possible definition" was "the monopoly stage of capitalism".

But obviously a lot has changed since Lenin's Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism first appeared, and even since Monopoly Capital was written 40 years ago. Imperialism has evolved and so has the system of monopolistic accumulation. One change is globalisation, which obviously means that the relation between accumulation and its "international face" as imperialism has changed. I try to address that in the chapter on "Monopoly Capital and the New Globalisation", which is the most theoretical chapter of the book. Theory in historical materialism is first and foremost a question of historical specificity, a phenomenon that has to be understood dialectically. The object then is to understand what has changed and what has remained the same from the twofold standpoint of monopolistic accumulation/imperialism and how globalisation affects how we look at this question.

We also need to address, though my book does not do this, what Paul called in one of his last articles (a product of many years of thinking) "The Triumph of Financial Capital". Imperialism is not simply an economic phenomenon, but in Marxist theory it is always linked to the accumulation tendencies and contradictions in the system as a whole. Aside from the question of the relation between accumulation and imperialism a central organising concept of the book is the question of U.S. hegemony - its decline and reassertion in the form of naked imperialism. This, however, cannot be judged irrespective of the broader tendencies of the system.

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