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Monthly Review: An interview with Paul M. Sweezy

From 1999. Christopher Phelps:

Monthly Review: An interview with Paul M. Sweezy - founding editor of the 'Monthly Review - Interview:

Q: Do you regret any of those positions in the early days of the magazine? The editorial after Stalin died in 1953, for instance, called him one of the greatest men in history, I believe.

SWEEZY: Something like that. Well, in some ways he was, but he had his underside, too. I guess one should have been more cautious, but I think you had to take positions which were pretty much unambiguous. Either you were for or against the regimes, the actually existing socialist countries. I should have been, of course, much more perceptive, selective, and better informed. No doubt about that. I'm sure I wouldn't write anything the same now as I would have at any given time in the past. I wouldn't want to go back and try to rewrite those articles.

Q: Did you ever respond to Irving Howe's famous article "New Styles in Leftism" in Dissent, where he referred to you as a leading authoritarian leftist?

SWEEZY: No, but I did one time appear on a program someplace with Irving Howe. What I remember is Howe taking the position that I was the most dangerous of all, because I knew what was going on, and still kept supporting these horrors. See, the rest of the left were just dupes, who believed the nonsense. Pretty early on, there was a position like the Webbs's - that the Soviet Union was an ideal new society. Gradually one had to get over that. But not by turning around, becoming an enemy, joining the other side. That's always a difficult line to follow, I think, but it's absolutely essential.

Q: And in some way it involved defense of those states?

SWEEZY: Yes, yes, indeed...


Q: Then again, by the sixties, your criticisms of the Soviet Union were quite penetrating, of a very fundamental nature, calling it a new class society.

SWEEZY: Yes, to my way of thinking, the problem of the revolutions of the twentieth century is that they did not bring to power the proletariat organized as a class. What they did bring to power is tightly organized revolutionary parties drawn from elements of various sections of society. Those parties expropriated the traditional bourgeoisie but did not do away with the capital-labor relation as such. They substituted the state for the private capitalists as the employer of labor, unifying the many capitals which had grown up independent of each other in the course of capitalist history. That is not to say that all units of capital were put under one management, of course - only that all the separate managements became subject to the same ultimate authority, which now assumed the life-and-death powers that had previously been exercised by the impersonal forces of the market.

The question then arose of what we should call these states. They weren't socialist, but were they capitalist? Charles Bettelheim and I had an exchange on this point, among others, that lasted a period of some years. Bettelheim thought that we should call the Soviet Union a capitalist society, but I thought that would introduce into our analysis preconceptions, expectations, and biases which would inevitably influence our findings and cause much confusion. To my way of thinking, the power, prestige, and privileges of the Soviet rulers did not derive from the ownership of private wealth but from unmediated control over the state apparatus and hence over total social capital. The Soviet Union, though a class society and not the socialist society it claimed to be, had none of the economic laws of motion comparable to those of capitalism. For example, there was nothing like the chronic unemployment typical of the West.

To me, the precise terminology made no great practical difference, so I called the Soviet Union, rather indeterminately, a post-revolutionary society. I held that most of the distortions in post-revolutionary societies could be traced to the conditions of capitalist hostility, that the behavior and ideology of the Soviet ruling class was the result of its long struggle against an economically and militarily more powerful enemy...