Harry Magdoff was just 15 in 1929 when he first encountered the words of Karl Marx in a used-book store. Only vaguely familiar with the 19th-century political philosopher, the Bronx boy began reading the preface of The Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy.
"It blew my mind," says Magdoff, now a Burlington resident who will turn 90 this summer. "His view of history was a revelation. I didn't understand the rest of the book, which cost me a quarter, but 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 would lead him to embrace socialism. Magdoff remains a world-famous proponent. The Age of Imperialism, his first and arguably most influential book, came out in 1969. Two years later, he began co-editing Monthly Review -- an endeavor that has kept him in the forefront of leftist thought for more than three decades.
"Harry is one of the great modern critics of imperialism," suggests Huck Gutman, a University of Vermont English professor who has known Magdoff for about 30 years. "And Monthly Review is the single-most important independent Marxist journal in the world. Like many Marxists, he believes in democracy and in listening to the least fortunate people in society."
To honor Magdoff's career of championing the dispossessed, a daylong conference called "Imperialism Today" unfolds Saturday on the UVM campus. Among the 17 historians, economists, authors and activists scheduled to participate are former Weather Underground member Bernadine Dohrn, currently teaching at Northwestern University Law School; noted media critic Robert McChesney, a communications professor at the University of Illinois who co-edits Monthly Review with Magdoff; and theoretician Immanuel Wallerstein, a senior research scholar at Yale University.
Two UVM profs will join the event's panel discussions: Jane Knodell, a Burlington city councilor, chairs the university's economics department; Fred Magdoff, who has academic expertise in plant and soil science, is one of Harry's two sons.
"My brother and I never felt any pressure from our parents about what we were supposed to think or do," Fred Magdoff, 61, says of growing up in a radical household. "We got encouragement to be whoever we wanted to be. My father certainly has a strong point of view, but he's always been so open-minded and undogmatic."
The elder Magdoff has spent a lifetime looking into the mechanics of capitalism -- what makes it tick and, in some instances, explode. His intellectual curiosity surfaced early as a child of Russian Jewish immigrants who had no formal education but valued learning.
As a teenager, Magdoff would eavesdrop on debates taking place in local parks. "One day I discovered that Great Britain 'owned' India and I was shocked," he recalls, referring to his introduction to the realities of colonialism.
At about the same time Magdoff found Marx, he fell for a pretty Bronx girl named Beatrice Greizer who had begun marching on picket lines as a preschooler with her pro-union mother. When Harry met "Beadie," as she was known, they would assemble with friends on her tenement roof to discuss art or listen to classical music. These gatherings were an outgrowth of a neighborhood group dubbed Friends of Culture.
Beadie, who died last June, was married to Magdoff for almost 70 years. The couple led an exciting and unorthodox life that got off to a rocky start.
At City College of New York, Magdoff took engineering, math and physics courses but was suspended for editing Frontiers, a magazine put out by the Social Problems Club that was not sanctioned by the school. He was later expelled after campaigning to resume publication of the monthly.
"I wasn't going to continue college, but my mother had a knipl -- a Yiddish word for 'secret fund,'" Magdoff says. "She used it to pay my tuition at New York University."
He earned a degree in economics but jobs were scarce in the mid-1930s. Then Philadelphia beckoned. There, Magdoff measured the productivity of various manufacturing industries for the Works Progress Administration, a government agency launched by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Magdoff was promoted to department head, with a salary of $4000. The money seemed good by Depression standards, but wasn't enough for Beadie to give up her teaching position in New York. He commuted.
After a few years, Magdoff relocated to Washington, D.C. His pay increased a bit at the National Defense and Advisory Board, where he studied civilian industrial capacity and productivity. The country was preparing for the possibility of what would, in fact, turn out to be World War II.
"Another group was studying the military angle," Magdoff explains. "We felt they were underestimating things. Six fellow employees and I wrote a memorandum about this because it was clear the Army's methods were outmoded. We were like Young Turks. Our memorandum reached Roosevelt's desk on the day Pearl Harbor was attacked."
The head of the War Production Board assigned the Young Turks to monitor the industrial effort. "The fight against Hitler was meaningful to us," Magdoff says. "We were doing something important."
The family, which by then included sons Michael and Fred, finally reunited. The Magdoffs lived in suburban Virginia, while Harry helped America defeat the enemy.
His skills impressed Henry Wallace, the progressive former vice-president who had become secretary of commerce. Among other duties, Magdoff was asked to write weekly economic position papers for Wallace's cabinet meetings with President Harry Truman.
Magdoff left government work in 1947 to spend the next five years as program director of a forward-thinking business council. During this period he also advised Wallace, a candidate in the 1948 presidential race.
Although he was at the top of his game, Magdoff became vulnerable during the McCarthy Era. Hounded by investigative committees and the FBI, "I couldn't get a real job in my field," he says. "We moved back to New York. Beadie resumed teaching."
When Magdoff was called to testify before a Senate committee, his name appeared on the front page of The New York Times. Still struggling with employment issues, he now faced other repercussions, as well. "I was about 13 then," his son Fred remembers. "We had a landlord who wouldn't renew the lease on our apartment and we had to move."
Not to be undone by his accusers, Magdoff put together a patchwork quilt of gigs, some of them seemingly out of step with socialism: as a Wall Street stockbroker, for example. In the late 1950s he embarked on two enterprises better suited to his ideals: teaching economics at the New School for Social Research and assuming a partnership role at a company that published out-of-print, scholarly titles. Atheneum bought the firm in 1965.
"People thought I was crazy to sell the business, but I was finally able to do my thing," Magdoff notes.
He had the resources to pursue "a life of study," perhaps at Cambridge University in England. That wasn't to be. "'My thing' would have been an indulgence," Magdoff says. "I suddenly had an opportunity to educate for social purposes, for socialism, for what I believed in."
Monthly Review became his primary forum. When an article Magdoff wrote generated a particularly strong public response, he decided to explore the subject at greater length in a book. The Age of Imperialism, published by Monthly Review Press, sold 100,000 copies and was translated into about 15 languages for global consumption.
"The other day a colleague told me that when she was in college in the early 1970s, Harry Magdoff was all anybody talked about," says Gutman. "The Age of Imperialism emerged just as people caught up in the civil rights movement and opposition to the Vietnam War were looking for an answer."
The answer, in Magdoff's opinion, centers on the idea that the U.S. has developed its own empire. The book examines the economic picture to prove there's a "globalization of monopoly capital under conditions of U.S. hegemony," according to a biographical sketch of Magdoff by John Bellamy Foster, another Monthly Review co-editor slated to speak at the UVM imperialism conference.
Magdoff joined the journal staff in 1969; Beadie volunteered at Monthly Review Press. The dynamic duo also traveled extensively on behalf of their common cause. "We went to Europe, Norway, Mexico, Japan, India, Israel, Venezuela and Egypt," Magdoff remembers. "We made nice friendships with presidents, heads of government."
Gutman, who interviewed Magdoff last year for a piece that ran in several magazines, sees him as "a passionate socialist and a remarkable model of a human being."
In their dialogue, Magdoff reminisced about meetings with Che Guevara in Cuba and New York during the early 1960s. "Naturally, I'm unhappy when I see people go to jail," the octogenarian says of Fidel Castro's abysmal human-rights record. "But, back then, the elderly and every child under 15 was assured a glass of milk a day. That sold me."
Magdoff acknowledges the downside of post-revolutionary bureaucracies in places like China and the Soviet Union. Given the pattern of dictatorships and repression, has socialism ever succeeded?
"There isn't a country in the world I would say, 'Hooray, it's 100 percent!' about," he concedes. "Yet Cuba comes out ahead with less infant mortality than in the United States. Is it as good as it can be? Of course not. Would it make a difference if we had not imposed an embargo? Yes."
An idealist in the darkest of times, he keeps hope alive without relinquishing his critical perspective. "You have to be a pessimist of the mind, but an optimist of the heart," Magdoff says. "The job is to reach the people."
He is less concerned about the significance of reaching 90. "I don't think about it. My eyes don't see as well, but I never connect that with birthdays," Magdoff insists, before adding: "One feature about old people, though, is they like to tell their stories.