Harry Braverman: Marxist Activist and Theorist

A talk presented at the “Explorations in the History of U.S. Trotskyism Conference," held at New York University, Sept. 29 to Oct. 1, 2000.

By Michael G. Livingston


[The following is an expanded version of remarks given at the conference.]

The genesis of this paper came from a conversation I had with Frank Lovell. He visited Minneapolis with his brother after Sarah Lovell had died and we got together for coffee. After talking about the current political situation and the development of the Labor Party, Frank turned the conversation to my political evolution and how I came to be a Trotskyist. I told him that I had worked with a number of folks in the anti-intervention and peace movement who considered themselves Trotskyists, and I had respected them and admired them. Another crucial turning point was in 1981 when I read a book by Harry Braverman called Labor and Monopoly Capital: The degradation of work in the 20th Century. I was so impressed with this book that I went on to read volume I of Capital in 1983. Soon I was reading lots of Lenin’s stuff, books by Baron and Sweezy, the masterful 3-volume biography of Trotsky by Isaac Deutscher, and finally in 1987, the Transitional Program. All this time I was active in the Central America Movement. By 1987 I was a convinced Trotskyist and join the small group started by George Breitman, Frank Lovell and others who had been expelled from the SWP. Now Frank found all of this interesting, and told me that he knew Harry personally, having first met him in 1939 during the faction struggle against Schactman. He told me that Harry used the party name of Harry Frankel and wrote articles under that name in the Militant and Fourth International. He also told me that Harry was one of the leaders of the Cochran split in 1953 and was later editor of their journal, The American Socialist. He urged me to look at their literature and praised The American Socialist as one of the best socialist publications of the time. His suggestions, then, were the seeds for this project.

Harry Braverman is best known as the author of Labor and Monopoly Capital: The degradation of work in the 20th century. Paul Sweezy, one of the founders of Monthly Review, considers Labor and Monopoly Capital to be “a landmark work of Marxist scholarship and one of the high points of the Monthly Review experience" (1). He is not alone in that opinion. Upon its publication in 1974, the book was an instant sensation and won the C. Wright Mills award. By the time it was reissued in a 25th anniversary edition in 1998 it had sold over 120,000 copies. Now if you are Stephen King or Anne Rice, 120,000 copies is not a lot. But if you are a Marxist, 120,000 copies makes you a best selling author. The book is also still talked about and debated. For instance, from 1995 to the start of this year, Labor and Monopoly Capital had been cited over 400 times in the academic literature alone (2).

Reading Labor and Monopoly Capital was an emotional experience for me. Early in the introduction Braverman attempts to anticipate the criticism that he suffered from nostalgia for a nonexistent past. He wrote that this was not the case. He in fact suffered from “nostalgia for an age not yet come into being" (3). I knew immediately what he meant, as I expect many of you do, because I felt the same way.

Who was Harry Braverman and what was he trying to do? I can’t really answer this question in detail, especially given my time limits, but I would like to make two claims. First, Braverman was a Trotskyist (broadly defined) and Labor and Monopoly Capital is a Trotskyist work. Second, Braverman’s project, what he was trying to do, was to “save Marxism from obsolescence" so that Marxism could be a tool for revolutionary struggle in the US (and other advanced capitalist countries). He was also trying to build a New (Marxist) Left. Another way of expressing this was that he was trying to defend old positions so that he could conquer new ones, something, I will argue later, he did brilliantly.

So first, Harry Braverman as Trotskyist and Labor and Monopoly Capital as a Trotskyist work.

Early in his political life Braverman was won to Trotskyism and became active in the Socialist Workers Party [SWP]. Bryan Palmer ably reviewed Braverman’s early political life in an article published in Monthly Review in 1999 (4). I won’t repeat his review her, but I do need to go over some of the basic facts. Braverman was born in New York City in 1920. By the age of 17 he had been won to Trotskyism and was a Yipsel. He apprenticed at the Brooklyn Naval Yard and worked as a coppersmith and steel fabricator. Late in the war he was drafted and sent to Wyoming to work on locomotives. After the war ended he and Miriam, his wife, were sent by the SWP to Youngstown, Ohio, where Braverman worked as the branch organizer and got a job in a steel mill. In 1951 he attended the six-month Trotsky School (along with Jean Tussey, Sol Dollinger, Tom Kerry, Murry Weiss, Dan Roberts, and George Breitman. He moved back to New York were he was a member of the national committee. In 1953 he was one of the national leaders of the so-called Cochranite tendency, along with Bert Cochran, Mike Bartell, and George Clarke.

After the Cochranite tendency was expelled from the SWP, they started a new political group, the Socialist Union of America, and a new monthly publication, The American Socialist. Braverman edited The American Socialist from January 1954 to December 1959 (when it ceased publication) along with Cochran. Braverman wrote 107 signed articles in The American Socialist, in addition to co-editing the magazine and most likely writing some of the articles signed by the editors.

After the demise of The American Socialist Braverman got a job as an editor with Grove Press. While at Grove he edited and published The Autobiography of Malcolm X when that book was dropped by Random House, the publisher who had initially commissioned the project. Braverman quite Grove in 1967 when the president of the company refused to publish a book by Bertrand Russell on American war crimes in Vietnam.

Braverman took over the editorship of Monthly Review Press in 1967 and worked there until his death in 1976. He started writing Labor and Monopoly Capital on weekends and nights in 1970. He died from cancer caused by asbestos on August 2, 1976, a short time after the publication of his book (5).

Now, there are several reasons for claiming that Braverman was a Trotskyist (and not just in his youth) and that Labor and Monopoly Capital is a Trotskyist work. The first is a statement written by Miriam Braverman in 1987:

"Harry once said that he didn’t think he could write another book like Labor and Monopoly Capital. What he meant was that it represented a melding of his political and intellectual life with his experience as a factory worker. Harry saw this melding as the great gift of his years in the Trotskyist movement—internalizing an understanding of our world to make possible the living of a consciously socialist life" (6).

There is also abundant internal evidence that Labor and Monopoly Capital is a Trotskyist work. Braverman noted in a number of places that the book is really an application of Marx’s method to an understanding of the labor process (the mode of production) under Monopoly Capitalism and how the structure of the working class had changed under it. The abundant references to Marx’s Capital and the occasion reference to the Grundrisse also makes that clear. In some ways, Labor and Monopoly Capital is like Capital, Vol. 1, the revised edition.

There are also references to the work of Baron and Sweezy, along with Braverman’s graceful acknowledgement of their influence. Clearly, Labor and Monopoly Capital shows the influence of the Monthly Review school (7). But what is not clear, unless you had been a reader of The American Socialist, are the Trotskyist roots of Labor and Monopoly Capital. Or, to be even more specific, the roots in the Cochran tendency.

In a series of book reviews and essays written by Braverman in The American Socialist, many of the major ideas of Labor and Monopoly Capital were first developed. For instance, in 1955 he published “Automation: Promise and Menace" in which he discussed how computers and data processing would change insurance companies and other businesses in the financial sector, and how automation and computer control would shape the service industry as well as basic industry, ideas that are central to Labor and Monopoly Capital (8). This essay was accompanied by a short unsigned piece by an autoworker entitled “Before Automation came Rationalization," another idea expressed in Labor and Monopoly Capital. In July 1956 Braverman wrote "The New America" about changes in the U.S. class structure (9) and in April 1957 a detailed book review ("Our Corporate Middle Class") of William Whyte’s The Organizational Man (10). In “The World of Work," published in June 1959, Braverman analyzes the work of a number of mainstream industrial sociologist, works he revisits 15 years later. Braverman points out that these industrial sociologists do not address a crucial question: "How can work be made a satisfactory part of life instead of a theft of hours away from living?" (11). In 1958 Braverman wrote a book review/essay defending Marxism against charges that it was irrelevant. This piece, entitle "Marx in the Modern World" contained the basic germ of Labor and Monopoly Capital (12). He poses the question—given repeated technological revolutions and consequent higher living standards, “should Marxism be defended as a dogma, scrapped as a failure, or brought up to date as a viable economic theory?" I will return to this essay in a bit.

In addition to the ideas directly developed in these essays and reviews, some of the works reviewed or discussed by Braverman in the pages of The American Socialist later appeared in Labor and Monopoly Capital, such as Kahl’s The American Class Structure (13). In other cases, Braverman discussed works by certain authors in the pages of The American Socialist and discussed later works by these same authors in the pages of Labor and Monopoly Capital. Examples of this latter pattern include works by Peter F. Drucker and Charles Walker, two of the leading experts on the modern corporation and automation, respectively (14).

Braverman was not the only writer in The American Socialist to take up issues and ideas later developed in Labor and Monopoly Capital. Cochran also explored issues of the structure of the working class and the nature of the labor process (15), as did others in the pages of the magazine (16). Indeed, concern with these issues was a prominent theme in the pages of The American Socialist. This is not to say that Braverman did not develop these ideas considerably during the 15-year period from the end of The American Socialist and the publication of Labor and Monopoly Capital. He did. He also benefited from his collaboration with the Monthly Review group. But the genesis of his analysis is clear. Labor and Monopoly Capital represents a brilliant Trotskyist work. Or, as Braverman would have probably preferred to label it, a revolutionary Marxist work.

Braverman was also concerned that he not be identified politically with Monthly Review, that he was completely independent of them. When he took over the editorship of the press, it was with the agreement that he was politically independent, that “he owned 51% of it to insure his independence" (17). Importantly, Braverman never permitted his name to be on the magazine’s masthead.

So, what was Braverman trying to do, both in The American Socialist and Labor and Monopoly Capital?

In the introduction to Labor and Monopoly Capital, Braverman discussed what might be called the degradation of Marxism in the 20th century (18). This degradation resulted from a number of forces acting on the labor movement. Among these forces were Stalinism and Social Democracy, a focus on various conjunctural effects and crises, a focus on Capitalism as a mode of distribution rather than a mode of production, and the imitation of capitalist modes of production in the Soviet Union. Braverman goes on to write:

"[T]he critique of the capitalist mode of production, originally the most trenchant weapon of Marxism, gradually lost its cutting edge as the Marxist analysis of the class structure of society failed to keep pace with the rapid process of change" (19).

Marxism thus became, on this point, outmoded due to uncorrected obsolescence. This was not the first time he had developed this basic idea. Braverman first articulated this idea in print in May 1958 in his essay “Marx in the Modern World." In reviewing the discussion in Europe around the question of why Marx’s belief that capitalism could not flourish for more than a hundred years after the publication of the Communist Manifesto, or more aptly in Braverman’s view, “not just capitalism’s prolonged life, but the new conditions that have grown up in a century which have posed the real challenge," Braverman concludes that the problem is not with Marxism, but with the failure of Marxists to reapply the Marx’s method to a changing capitalist reality. Here is Braverman’s conclusion:

"…Much discussion of a more comprehensive nature is plainly needed. Here there remains space only to outline the dimensions of the problem [of socialism in the advanced capitalist countries], which appear to me as follows:

"All of the above difficulties in Marxism obviously stem from the fact that the capitalist system has persisted and restabilized itself repeatedly, over a much longer period than had been expected. The great expansion in labor productivity which has created such new and different conditions was not unexpected in the Marxian economic structure, a structure which, as no other before or since, focused on the technological revolutions which capitalism is forced to work continuously as a condition of its existence. What was unexpected was capitalism's length of life and its ability to expand. Marx and the movement he shaped operated on the basis of imminent crisis. If he never gave thought to the kind of living standard inherent in a capitalism that would continue to revolutionize science and industry for another hundred years, that was because he thought he was dealing with a system that was rapidly approaching its Armageddon. He thought the social wars that would usher in socialism would take place under the social conditions he saw around him. In that sense, the economic obsolescence we can easily find in him today is of a piece with his errors of political foreshortening.

"Now we live in a day and age where socialism, while clearly on the order of the historical day, will shape up under conditions far different from those under which the socialist movement was originally given its stamp.

"Every movement develops its own style, rhetoric, way of making itself heard. Socialism was cradled in the intolerable conditions of the primitive working class, and flamed with the barricades spirit of the revolutions of 1848 into which it was launched at its infancy. Instead of evolving with changed conditions, this tone and approach survived in frozen rigidity which sometimes even outbid Marx. One of the main reasons was that the first of the long-waited revolutions broke out in a country whose condition was more appropriate to the Europe of the early nineteenth century than the early twentieth, and whose social struggles reflected that fact. Then, to compound the difficulty, that revolution got ossified and bureaucratized at the top, and insisted on imposing its every prejudice and dogma on the world socialist movement. The result was a Communist formation, the recognized repository of “Marxism," with a Zeitgeist from another century and a paralyzed mentality. Is it any wonder that the work of digging out Marxism and restoring it to usable form is so difficult?

"If the thought is right that the trouble lies not in original error but in uncorrected obsolescence, than the job is not to see where “Marx was wrong" so much as to make a fresh application of his theory to the world around us as it is, not as it once was. To borrow a comparison from the field of physics, we need socialist Faradays and Maxwells or if we are lucky, Einsteins and Plancks, not people who confine themselves to knocking Isaac Newton." (20)

Braverman set out to reapply Marx’s method, to renovate the Marxist critique of the mode of production and the Marxist analysis of the working class. These things he did, showing again, that those who cannot defend old positions will never conquer new ones, for he both defended the old positions and in applying Marx’s methods, conquered new ones.

Braverman also sought to build a New (Marxist) Left, a phrase used frequently in The American Socialist. This New Left would be based on a vibrant, renovated Marxist critique of capitalism as a tool for revolutionary action. In addition, this New Left would have intellectual centers. Indeed, the aim of The American Socialist was to be such an intellectual center “that could again make socialism a purposeful and exciting adventure and could revive interest in the message and cause among new groups of students, intellectuals, and workers"(21). The New Left would also have collegial, nonsectarian collaboration among revolutionaries. The American Socialist developed a collaborative working relationship with Monthly Review which lead to the publication of a joint special issue (the same set of articles appearing in both The American Socialist and Monthly Review and in a book published by Monthly Review Press) in July-August of 1958. The American Socialist also developed close collaborative relationships with radical pacifists such as Mulford Q. Sibley and political independents sympathetic to the CP, such as I.F. Stone.

After the demise of The American Socialist, Braverman continued to carry out the general political approach of the Cochranites, especially after he joined Monthly Review in 1967. As the editor of Monthly Review Press Braverman was part of perhaps the leading left journal and publishing house of the time. He published works from the Monthly Review tradition, but also works by former collaborators such as Conrad Lynd (who was a frequent contributor to The American Socialist), prominent members of the Fourth International such as Ernest Mandel (whose Marxist Economic Theory and The Formation of the Economic Thought of Karl Marx, 1843 to Capital Braverman edited and published) and works from the broad Trotskyist tradition (such as books by Carl Boggs and Hal Draper). At the same time, he gave advice and help to editors at the SWP’s Pathfinder Press, whose editor, George Breitman, was a friend (22). Through his efforts at The American Socialist, in the Socialist Union of America, and at Monthly Review, Braverman practiced what he preached. He tried to create a New Marxist Left, worked to create intellectual centers and renovate Marxism, and worked collaborative with a variety of revolutionaries. In his efforts to create a New Marxist Left he was both sadly unsuccessful and brilliantly successful, failing in his objectives but leaving us a lasting intellectual and political legacy.

Braverman never lost his faith in the working class of the advanced capitalist countries as the agents of socialist revolution. He never lost his nostalgia for an age not yet come. He did, however, reject Canonism as too sectarian and dogmatic, while at the same time respecting the SWP’s work in defense of the Cuban revolution, the African-American struggle, and in the movement against the Vietnam War. He also never lost his respect and admiration for James Canon (23).

In his last essay in The American Socialist, in the last issue of that magazine, Braverman summarized his position. The essay was entitled "Socialism in Our Time.”

"Socialism has come a long way in its single century of existence. It has been unexpectedly seized first by the people of nations with primitive economies, and used by them as a means of development, and at the same time has been stained and compromised by brutalities and unforeseen problems. Along with its nobility, idealism, and successful critiques of the old order, it has fallen into vast confusions, opportunist weaknesses, and sectarian dogmatism of the crudest kind.

"But it has sunk massively and ineradicably into the consciousness of humanity. Take that fact together with the inability of capitalism to find its way much further into the future, and you have a combination that offers the greatest likelihood of socialism as the next stage of human history. If so, the shameful irrationalism, pessimism, and obscurantism that pervade the West will stand out upon all whom they have afflicted as a badge of disgrace, for it is the dawn, not the dusk, of the gods." (24)

Like Braverman and like many of you, I suffer from a nostalgia for an age that has not yet come into being. Yet now is not the time to wallow in our nostalgia. We have much yet to learn and even more to do, for it is the dawn.


(1) Paul M. Sweezy, “Harry Braverman’s Achievement." Monthly Review, September 1978, p. 31.

(2) Web of Science citation search

(3) Harry Braverman, Labor and Monopoly Capital: The degradation of work in the Twentieth Century, 25th anniversary edition. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1974/1998, p. 5.

(4) Bryan Palmer , “Before Braverman: Harry Frankel and the American Worker’s Movement." Monthly Review, January 1999, pp. 33-46.

(5) In addition to Palmer’s article in MR, see the obituaries of Braverman, notably George Breitman, “Harry Braverman: Marxist writer" in The Militant, 1976; “Braverman, Marxist author, dies" in The Guardian, August 18, 1976; and “Harry Braverman, 56, a writer on Marxist economics, Is Dead," The New York Times, August 5, 1976.

(6) Letter from Miriam Braverman to Prof. Philip W. Nyden (Loyola University), April 21, 1987 (author’s files).

(7) Labor and Monopoly Capital, p. 6. Also see Chapters 11 & 14.

(8) Harry Braverman, “Automation: Promise and Menace," The American Socialist, October, 1955, pp. 7-12.

(9) Harry Braverman, “The New America," The American Socialist, July 1956, pp. 8-11.

(10) Harry Braverman, “Our Corporate Middle Class," The American Socialist, April 1957, pp. 6-10.

(11) Harry Braverman, “The World of Work," The American Socialist, June 1959, pp. 12-18.

(12) Harry Braverman, “Marx in the Modern World," The American Socialist, May 1958, pp. 10-15.

(13) Harry Braverman, “No Matter How You Slice It: A review of Joseph A. Kahl’s The American Class Structure," The American Socialist, September 1957, pp. 21-22.

(14) See Labor and Monopoly Capital for references to Drucker and Walker. Also see Harry Braverman, “The Crystal Ball: A review of America’s Next Twenty Years by Peter F. Drucker,” The American Socialist, May 1957, pp. 21-22 and Harry Braverman, “The New Mill: A review of Toward the Automated Factory by Charles R. Walker," The American Socialist, February 1958, pp. 22-23.

(15) See for example Bert Cochran, “Efficiency versus Humanity: A review article of Daniel Bell’s Work and Its Discontents," The American Socialist, October 1957, pp. 18-20.

(16) See for example William Glazier, “Automation and Labor," The American Socialist, July-August 1958, pp. 17-21.

(17) Letter from Miriam Braverman to Alan Wald, July 27, 1987. Author’s files.

(18) Labor and Monopoly Capital, pp. 6-9.

(19) Labor and Monopoly Capital, p. 9.

(20) Harry Braverman, “Marx in the Modern World," The American Socialist, May 1958, p. 15.

(21) “Contributing Editors Board," The American Socialist, November 1957, p. 5.

(22) George Breitman, “Harry Braverman: Marxist writer," The Militant, 1976.

(23) See Harry Braverman’s remarks in James P. Cannon As We Knew Him, edited by Les Evans. New York: Pathfinder Press, 1976. Braverman’s poignant tribute to Cannon was made at a memorial meeting to Cannon held in New York on September 18, 1974.

(24) Harry Braverman, “Socialism in Our Time," The American Socialist, December 1959, p. 10

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