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American Marxist Theorist Harry Magdoff, 1913–2005

American Marxist Theorist Harry Magdoff, 1913–2005

Wikipedia and Autonomedia

Henry Samuel Magdoff (born 21 August 1913), commonly known as Harry Magdoff, died today. He was a prominent American socialist commentator. He held several administrative positions in government during the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt and later became co-editor of the Marxist publication, Monthly Review.

Early Years

A child of poor Russian-Jewish immigrants, Magdoff grew up in the Bronx. In 1929, at age 15, Magdoff first started reading Karl Marx when he picked up a copy of The Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy in a used-book store. "It blew my mind," recalled Magdoff in 2003. "His view of history was a revelation....that got me started reading about economics. We were going into the Depression then and I wanted to figure out what it all meant." His interest in Marx led him to embrace socialism.Magdoff studied mathematics and physics from 1930 to 1933 at the City College of New York taking engineering, math and physics courses; he was active in the Social Problems Club with many schoolmates who later joined the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, a Comintern organization that fought in the Spanish Civil War. Magdoff attended New York University after 1933, where he studied economics and statistics, receiving a B.S. in Economics in 1935. He was suspended and later expelled from City College for activities related to editing Frontiers (a radical student magazine not sanctioned by the school), including participation in a mock trial of the school's President and its Director.

Government Service

In the mid-1930s, Magdoff moved to Philadelphia to take a job with the Works Progress Administration measuring the productivity of various manufacturing industries. David Weintraub assisted him with letters of recommendation to get a job with the government. By1940 Magdoff was working for the New Deal Works Progress Administration (WPA) as its Principal Statistician. During World War II Magdoff worked on the National Defense and Advisory Board and the War Production Board, in the Statistical and Tools Divisions.

Accusations of Espionage

Elizabeth Bentley charged that a number of government employees had worked on behalf of the Soviets in the late 1930s and early 1940s. According to the Counterintelligence Reader, Magdoff was a member of the Perlo group. Magdoff was identified by Arlington Hall cryptographers in the Venona project and FBI counterintelligence investigators as a Soviet source under the cover name "Kant" in 1944. Code name "Tan", which appears in the 1948 Gorsky Memo, and appears once in deciphered 1945 Venona traffic, according to researcher John Earl Haynes, is consistent with Magdoff. Code name "Tan" is said to have replaced "Kant" as Magdoff’s cryptonym in 1945.

A memo from Lt. General Pavel Fitin, head of KGB foreign intelligence operations, to Secretary General of the Comintern Georgi Dimitrov, exhumed from the NKVD Archives in Moscow in the late 1980s requested information regarding Magdoff. The request dated 29 September 1944 included the same names transmitted in Venona decrypt # 687 of 13 May 1944 from the KGB Rezidentura in New York which reported on Bentley's initial contact with the Perlo group.

Victor Navasky, editor and publisher of The Nation, argues that when authors "Haynes and Klehr list 349 names (and code names) of people who they say 'had a covert relationship with Soviet intelligence that is confirmed in the Venona traffic.' They do not qualify the list, which includes everyone from Alger Hiss to Harry Magdoff....The reader is left with the implication — unfair and unproven — that every name on the list was involved in espionage, and as a result, otherwise careful historians and mainstream journalists now routinely refer to Venona as proof that many hundreds of Americans were part of the red spy network."

Ellen Schrecker agrees: "Because they offer insights into the world of the secret police on both sides of the Iron Curtain, it is tempting to treat the FBI and Venona materials less critically than documents from more accessible sources. But there are too many gaps in the record to use these matrerials with complete confidence" (Schrecker, Many are the Crimes, 1998, pp. xvii-xviii).

Post-Government Career

Magdoff was happy to leave his U.S. government position, then with the United States Department of Commerce, on December 30, 1946, and went to work for the New Council on American Business in New York until 1948, at which time he began employment with Trubeck Laboratories in New Jersey.

He was an economic advisor and speechwriter to former Vice-President and then unsuccessful Presidential candidate Henry Wallace. Unable to be reemployed in government because of security concerns, he found a career in academia beginning in the 1950s. One of his most famous works, The Age of Imperialism, his first and arguably most influential book, came out in 1969. The book sold over 100,000 copies and was translated into fifteen languages. Two years later after the death of Leo Huberman, Magdoff began co-editing the Monthly Review with Paul Sweezy, and has continued to edit the magazine into his 90th year. Magdoff and Sweezy together produced five books, as well as many years of Monthly Review. Magdoff's most recent book is Imperialism without Colonies, published at age 89. Monthly Review is one of the preeminent socialist journals in the world, a journal characterized by its independent, nonsectarian Marxist approach.

Under Magdoff's direction, the Monthly Review focused more and more upon imperialism as the key unit of analysis for global development and the forces challenging neocolonialism in the Third World. This perspective put the magazine and its press squarely on the New Left intellectual agenda since the late 1960s. His work has also kept him in the forefront of socialist thought in the U.S. from the 1930s to this day. The Great Depression left a strong impact on Magdoff's perspective on capitalism, as Magdoff recalls a sense of doom felt in the mid-century by pro-capitalists, holding that nothing since 1929 leads him to believe that the economy has become immune to cycles of severe crisis. Magdoff co-edited the Monthly Review with John Bellamy Foster.

Magdoff has two sons. His son, Fred Magdoff, is an expert in plant and soil science. His wife of almost 70 years, Beatrice, died in 2002.