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Monopoly Capital

In response to:

A Marxist America from the May 26, 1966 issue

To the Editors:

May I comment briefly on Robert Heilbroner’s thoughtful review of Monopoly Capital by the late Paul A. Baran and myself [NYR May 26]?

First, it is not correct that I “was released from Harvard in 1942”—or at any other time. I went into the army in 1942 with 2 1/2 years of an assistant professorship still to run. When I got out of the army in 1945, I could have returned to serve the remainder of the term. I chose not to and resigned. Whether Harvard and other universities ought to appoint Marxists to their permanent faculties is of course a debatable question, but non-hiring should not be confused with firing.

With respect to Mr. Heilbroner’s substantive criticisms, I would like only to correct certain misunderstandings. We did not cite Leo Srole’s and his associates’ Midtown Manhattan study as “evidence” (the quotation marks are Heilbroner’s) of anything. We said that the findings of the study suggest that this country may be entering a stage in which “the spread of increasingly severe psychic disorders [leads] to the impairment and eventual breakdown of the system’s ability to function even on its own terms.” Evidence and suggestion are two quite different things. For the rest, of course we as well as Heilbroner would like to know “if mental illness is increasing,” and “what a similar study would reveal in Calcutta, Paris, and Moscow.” But the necessary information is not available. In the meantime, we commend the Midtown Manhattan study to Heilbroner’s attention. I think he will agree that it is highly suggestive.

Heilbroner writes: “Behind every instance of human weakness, indifference, or cruelty they show us the underlying cause to be the defense of class interests.” This is an all too typical misinterpretation of the Marxian argument. Much can be explained by the need to defend class interests, but it is essential to understand that a vast amount of “human weakness, indifference, or cruelty” is generated not by interests of any kind but by the attitudes and mentalities which are produced by a class-divided, exploitative society. To cite but one example which appears in the book: There is evidence that the incidence of parental brutality to children is increasing in the United States today. This kind of violence is of course not in “defense of class interests”—or of any other kind of interests, rather the contrary. But it can, and we believe must, be explained in terms of the way monopoly capitalist society shapes and distorts the personalities of those living under it. It is discouraging that so perceptive a reviewer as Heilbroner has failed to see that with appropriate variations and applications, this is one of the central themes which runs through Monopoly Capital from beginning to end.

Finally, I must take exception to Heilbroner’s statement that our “argument as to the inability of the system to absorb its surplus hinges on a political rather than an economic obstacle.” We nowhere say that the system is unable to absorb its surplus: If it were it would long since have been overthrown. Our argument is that because of the structure of interests, privileges, and power which are the very essence of the system, it is unable to absorb its surplus in humanly rational ways. Hence the horrors we see all about us, both at home and abroad.

Heilbroner does not deny the reality of these horrors; but, like all liberals, he prefers to believe that they are remediable within the framework of the present system. Naturally no mere arguments will convince him that he is wrong. Only the actual course of history can do that.

Paul M. Sweezy

New York City

Robert L Heilbroner replies:

I am sorry if I misrepresented Paul Sweezy’s relationship to Harvard. I am glad to exonerate my alma mater.

I have read the Srole study, which is interesting and disturbing, but I would still hesitate to “suggest” its implications as to the trend of mental health without the international or intertemporal comparisons I mention above. Incidentally there are intertemporal comparisons on the rates of severe mental disorder (Goldhamer and Marshall, Psychosis and Civilization, 1953) which do not show any increase in the epidemiology of psychosis. As to the “evidence” of increasing parental brutality, the authors cite as their sole reference a story from the San Francisco Chronicle. This is precisely the kind of unhistorical and careless ascription of cause and effect that I object to. Let him go back and read Dickens and then declare that parental brutality is on the rise.

As to their last contention. I am in substantial agreement that this society does not absorb its surplus in rational ways. However, I am still waiting for an answer to my charge that “monopoly capital” in itself is not a sufficient explanation of this fact. Let me again remind the authors of the huge differences between capitalisms in the use of their surpluses—let us compare Sweden and Spain—a contrast that seems to me to require explanation outside the framework of sheer class structure. Let me point as well to the evidences of irrational uses of surplus in Russia or China—a fact I point out only to indicate that a monopoly of irrationality is not a characteristic of capitalism.

Finally, let me say that I share a sense of horror at the abuse of life, at home and abroad, that is carried on by the American social, political, and economic system. What I cannot bring myself to believe is that it is as directly caused by “the oligarchy” as the authors of Monopoly Capital maintain, or that it is beyond substantial alleviation within the existing system, nor that the system itself is as rigid as they believe. I cannot very well argue these points here. In my book, The Limits of American Capitalism, to be published in the fall, I try to sketch out these suggestions at greater length.

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