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The Radicalization of Stephen Marglin


By Tom Lee

CAMBRIDGE WILL BE a little lonelier next year for Stephen A. Marglin '59, Harvard's only tenured radical economist. Arthur MacEwan, who has been the other radical economist since Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis were shown the door in 1972, is leaving town. He too has been denied tenure. Even sympathetic liberals, like John Kenneth Galbraith and Wassily Leontief, seem an endangered species. So Marglin will be almost alone in his challenges to mainstream economics and, more than ever, he will seem the Economics Department's bright-boy-gone-bad.

Marglin can't pinpoint any single experience that radicalized him and established him as the department pariah, but at 37, he is getting used to that role. The dark, wiry activist has survived five years with the reputation of someone who once did respectable work, who won tenure in 1967 as a "straight," but who emerged as a closer Marxist shortly after. He wasn't surprised or hurt when James S. Duesenberry, chairman of the Economics Department, implied that Marglin and MacEwan were politicians, not economists, at a debate in April. The 700 spectators in the Science Center winced, but Marglin, who says he and Duesenberry are on "very cordial" terms, thought the debate was unexpectedly mild. He grimly acknowledges that he will be known as "Harvard's only tenured radical economist" for some time. But he shrugs, and jokes that he is "probably being called a lot worse things as well."

When Marglin first came to Harvard in 1955, he never dreamed that he would become a radical professor of economics, or any kind of professor at all. He was a football player--a fullback--and a swimmer from Hollywood High School in Los Angeles. His father was a salesman, and he wanted to be a U.S. senator.

Marglin almost didn't get by at first. He played freshman football behind a high school all American, and his schoolwork those first few months was "uniformly sad, if not disastrous. I just didn't have any notion of how to write a paper or anything like that." He realized that of his two collapsing careers, only his academics were salvageable, so after football ended his work improved dramatically. But the adjustment period was painful, and Marglin, who says he has never made friends easily, remembers his freshman year as "pretty dismal in almost every way."

What irritated him then and angers him now was the way Harvard worked to make him "conform to an elite mold--socially, politically, Christ, in so many ways." The pressure to conform went beyond clothes and into studies. Marglin realized after he discovered economics his freshman year. "The main thrust around here was how complicated life was, and how you should be deferential to authority," he says. "Mary wasn't worth studying because he was simplistic. My first economics course spent two days on Mary, which is the way Protestantism is taught in Catholic schools. It was taught as heresy you had to learn what the heresy was, and you were immediately told why it was wrong so you didn't have to pay any more attention to it."

Marglin didn't pay any more attention to Mary as he went on to graduate studies in economics and picked up his Ph.D. in 1963. He espoused a liberal Democrat's line, arguing in 1960 with his parents--who were considerably more leftist than he that Kennedy and Nixon really were different. He didn't see much that he could change in America, so he took his Ph.D. and good intentions to India, a neo-classicist Peace Corps man. At the time, he didn't realize it, but he was joining a Harvard generation of future radical economists in Third World countries Sam Bowles in Neigria. I am Weisskopf in India, and MacEwan in Pakistan. All went abroad as "straights" Marglin recalls that "it was a modern day version the white man's burden."

MARGLIN didn't start questioning his economics or his liberalism until 1965, when he returned to Harvard and began teaching graduate seminars. Like many of his students, he was horrified by the Vietnam War and slowly moved farther to the Left. But he was also shocked when those same students began questioning economic theory as a whole. He had though economics was a trade, with tools that were value-free and effective on both capitalist and socialist problems. Suddenly, he was forced to step back and see neoclassical economics as a system--"a description of the world, an attempt to justify capitalism."

This revelation was confirmed when he returned to India in 1967, and saw his Indian students mindlessly mastering formula without understanding the context of their skills. "The question just had to hit you in the face," he recalls. "What did this have to do with the problems of Indian development?" He picked up Galbraith's The New Industrial State, and found many of his vague concerns about traditional economics and its deficiencies clearly stated. The seeds of discontent were sown. All he needed was hope for something new.

That hope arrived for Marglin while he was still in India, in the form of newspaper reports of the 1968 French student-worker revolt, or "the French Almost-Revolution," as Marglin calls it. "One of the central pillars of my system in terms of the lack of relationship between my economics and politics was that the capitalist system was perfect," he says. "There was going to be no change other than making it better at the margins. The crucial change was the belief that things can change, will change. Of course, you can say the French revolution didn't come off, but it came so close that I had to revalue my nations of the permanence of the system."

Before Marglin returned in 1968, he was officially awarded tenure, but several years passed before the faculty realized that they had elected a monster to their midst. Harvard had its hands full with the growing student movement, culminating in the University Hall occupation in 1969.

The faculty's reaction to the occupation suddenly showed Marglin how hypocritical and shallow the University could be, adding to his political discontent. But Marglin was a radical without radical economics--he had no alternatives to neoclassical theory to offer, and felt he "couldn't reject the only thing I had." IN 1969, one graduate student asked him. "How come if you're as radical as all this, you're doing all this neoclassical crap?" He answered. "If all you can do is fiddle while Rome is burning, then you fiddle." Two years later, the same grad student heard Marglin speak, and told him the difference was "like night and day."

Marglin followed the lead of Weisskopf. Bowles, Gintis, and MacEwan--non-tenured economists who abandoned the mainstream in the late '60s, and began developing a radical perspective on capitalism. In 1970, he offered a course with Gintis. "Alternatives to Neoclassical Theory." "I shudder when I think of the primitive nature of that course." Marglin says, recalling how eight or nine students came to hear them talk about their work Now, Marglin thinks that his classes are more systematic--"They're real courses," he says.

As Marglin's metamorphosis developed, his relations with the rest of the department soured. In 1972, he proposed Bowles's promotion at an executive meeting of the department--and was soundly defeated. At a student-faculty meeting shortly after, Marglin read his notes from the debate over Bowles's election, without attributing quotes. "There were so many half-truths being uttered by my colleagues that I wanted to say what my recollection of the meeting was." Marglin explains. The rest of the faculty was incensed, and the controversy over radical economists took on a new bitterness. At the next executive meeting--when MacEwan was voted down--Marglin remembers. "I really feared that two people might have heart attacks. There was a total breakdown of their gentlemanly way of doing things."

Since then, the hostility has died down as the campus has become de politicized and the non-tenured radicals have left, one by one. Marglin talks with many of his colleagues, but some don't speak to him at all. "I rather doubt that if I were a candidate today I would get tenure," he says.

THE difference remains that mainstream economists--as demonstrated in the April debate when Otto Fekstein bluntly asserted. "I believe in capitalism"--are still committed to the system: It's not that they are unable to reconcile their politics with their work, as was the radicalized Marglin in the late '60s. He thinks mainstream economists are inextricably bound to capitalism. "Their politics are quite consistent with their economics." Marglin say. Marglin doesn't think many economists were radicalized by the debate last month--"I didn't really expect to shake Otto's faith in capitalism," he laughs. But he does believe that the mainstream representatives--Duesenberry and Eckstein--"gave up a lot of ground to us...Of course, the terrain was very favorable to us--7 per cent inflation and 9 per cent unemployment."

But Marglin feels the best aspect of the debate was that "a lot of people were exposed for the first time to the idea that there were alternative ways of looking at American capitalism that are worthy of consideration.

That's not something that the standard education in economics around here would lead them to believe," he says. "A lot of people came up to me and said this is what we should have as part of our education. That notion was common around here five or six years ago, but along with the radicals' departure, it disappeared. That's as good a thing as I think one can hope for. The fact that 700 people came to an extracurricular activity seems to say a lot about what's missing from the undergraduate curriculum."

Unfortunately, Marglin believes that alternative approaches to economics will remain scarce at Harvard. The tiny liberal caucus in the Economics Department, which sided with him in many of the battles over his departed fellow-radicals, is dwindling, Galbraith will be making movies for BBC next year, and Leontief, disgusted with the department, has announced his intentions to "vote with my feet" and is leaving for New York University. Albert O. Hirschman went to Princeton last year. Only Kenneth Arrow remains. With these resignations, Harvard has lost much of the variety in its economic thought.

"I feel the future of this department is quite grim," Marglin says. "It's dominated by people roughly my age, a little older, who are very energetic, very prestigious, and very good at what they do. But they're doing the wrong thing. Well, let's say there's a lot more in economics than what they're doing which should be represented here, and isn't going to be represented here as long as these people are in the saddle."

For the time being, Marglin doesn't plan to move on to more accommodating campuses. He has his economics, which he has always enjoyed most when working alone, and his wife and three children are well-rooted here. "I'm not afraid of isolation," he says.

Marglin asserts that the success of alternative approaches depends not on faculty votes at Harvard, but on the political awareness throughout the nation. "We draw our strength from the movement for radical change in this country, for turning this country around, for giving people control over their lives," he says, pointing out that he and the other radical economists all came to Harvard as "straights." "We will succeed and be respectable only insofar as that movement succeeds."

"Now that's not the movement Derek Bok represents," he continues. "That's not the movement Henry Rosovsky represent. That's not the movement the Board of Overseers and the Harvard Corporation represent. They're the other side in my judgement, probably in theirs, too."

Marglin looks for a resurgence of radical consciousness that will bring radical economics to Harvard despite the votes of the faculty, and expects that it will be met with hostility again. "There will be a next time around, and there will be growth," he says. "But it won't be respectable to the mainstream because it's a threat. It's a threat to their power, to their prestige, to their incomes, every way you cut it."

So Marglin, whose circle of friends waned with the student movement, will patiently wait for it to wax again. Until then, he will remain Harvard's only tenured radical economist--a mistake the faculty made when their guard was down, but the best evidence that alternative approaches cannot be easily silenced.

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