Marxist economics at UMass -- no apologies

Chancellor Henry Koffter is proud of having Marxist economist Samuel Bowles on the faculty of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Addressing a packed UMass lecture audience, the chancellor introduced Professor Bowles as having played a "leading role in building the most respected center of radical economics in America today."

With that, the young, blond economics enfant terrible launched into a superbly argued, nontechnical explanation of why capitalism and liberal democracy have become incompatible.

Professor Bowles, son of former US Ambassador to India Chester Bowles, used layman's language first to list the arguments for compatibility, then to demolish these arguments, and finally to put the case for socialism as the logical next step for the United States.

Quoting Marx from memory, Sam Bowles wound up by saying there's nothing to fear from socialism because it would simply "organize all of society the way the bourgeois now organize their factories."

That assurance comes from a man who, according to both fans and critics, proved his own organizational ability by the way he has revolutionized the UMass economics department.

In 1973 Professor Bowles was at the center of a tenure battle at Harvard. such respected figures as John Kenneth Galbraith, Wassily Leontieff, and Kenneth Arrow led the fight to grant tenure to the young assistant professor -- but the decision went against the outspoken Marxist.

When Sam Bowles lost the Harvard battle seven years ago, political science professor Dean Alfange was presiding over what was then a bitterly divided economics department at UMass. Recalling those stormy times, Professor Alfange says that the department was dominated by orthodox economists "who thought that economic analysis should be done in one way only."

He found a situation where a dwindling number of students were signing up for economics courses -- while in one case three professors were team-teaching a seminar being taken by a single graduate student. That seminar, says Professor Alfange, "was not contributing much to the life of the university as a whole." He felt the problem was that "the department leadership did not want anyone presenting alternative models, and Marxism in particular they felt should be in another discipline, in theology."

Professor Alfange also found that just at that difficult moment, Sam Bowles, whom he characterizes as "the premier radical Marxian economist in the United States," was looking for a job. So Bowles was given a tenured professorship as part of a "radical package" which brought in four other top Marxists chosen by Bowles. A key condition laid down by the Harvard exile was that "he didn't want to be the one token radical."

Economics department enrollments increased sharply following the Bowles appointment and have continued rising steadily. "Economics moved from the university's smallest enrollments in the late '60s," says Professor Alfange, "to become far the largest."

Today, as he looks back on the controversial economics department appointments from the perspective of a nonradical political science professor, Dean Alfange says that "the five radicals have proved superb department and university citizens, in no sense disruptive." And he points out that he was in the fortunate position of being able to make nine other new appointments at the time, balancing the five radicals with four classical economists.

What he hadn't counted on, however, was the spinoff effect. The Bowles appointment attracted large numbers of "graduate students with radical proclivities [who are] not as sensitive and have tended to polarize thinking here."

As teaching assistants who guide many of the undergraduate courses and do much of the grading of essays and exams, the graduate students play an important role. One graduate student who "came here for serious study of Marxism, which is offered nowhere else," told me he is proud of the fact that Professor Bowles "took control of the means of administration in the economics department."

The graduate student -- asking me not to print his name because being labeled a Marxist would hurt his career prospects -- denied any "blind allegiance" to Marx. He said the mark of the radical Marxists gathered around Bowles is that "we have the willingness to take alternative ideas seriously, without necessarily agreeing with them."

Professor Bowles told me that there was no room for such vital testing of serious ideas when he taught at Harvard. He sees no possibility of achieving a true balance in departments dominated by orthodox economists who "simply define economics as something that radicals cannot do."

Balance, says this blue-jeaned professor whose love of sunrises means starting each day well before dawn," depends on what you consider to be the important questions."

For Bowles, the vital questions are such things as what creates employment and unemployment, what forces affect living conditions, what leads to massive investment in nuclear power, and whether our economy is tail- spinning toward a repeat of the 1929 crash.

Orthodox economists at Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he charges, concentrate instead on technique and statistical analysis, leaving people out of the equation. "Harvard is producing highly skilled craftsmen in theorem-making and statistical analysis," Professor Bowles says, "much of which is quite irrelevant to economic policy."

That's a criticism echoed by Prof. Stephen Marglin, generally acknowledged as the only Marxist in Harvard's economics department today -- and said to remain there only because he was granted tenure before he swung sharply left during the late '60s. Following a Marglin lecture, his students told me that no- where else at Harvard can they find capitalism treated critically.

Professor Bowles directly challenges the classical economists' "presumption that the institutional foundation of society is fundamentally sound and durable. Their hunch is that the basic institutional framework works. Our hunch is that the framework is neither adequate nor desirable." So, "our emphasis here is on institutional change."

As I learned from one of his undergraduate lectures, Professor Bowles drills his students thoroughly in classical economic theory -- but encourages them to deal with such writers as Adam Smith, Ricardo, and Mill by always asking the basic radical question: "Why do you get change?"

His undergraduate teaching touches all bases, introducing his students both to classical theories and to the full range of modern economists. He includes works by the leading "New Right" economist, Milton Friedman, in his courses. but behind it all lies his basic insistence that "it is important to us that our students understand that whatever formulas are laid down by others or that we promote ourselves will be superseded."

Teaching students to question, he says, may be helped at UMass by the fact that "students here have been considerably less well taken care of by the system than Harvard students, they have greater reason to be angry about their own career prospects, and about their parents' careers."

Professor Bowles sees his economics department's 40 percent-60 percent balance between radicals and nonradicals as healthy and the best way to avoid the " indoctrination with conventional wisdom" which students face elsewhere.

He makes no apologies for his own strong opinions, explaining with characteristic frankness, "People become teachers because they believe they have something to teach. They believe that what they have to teach is superior to the alternatives.

"All teachers are selling something. The question is do they do it with intellectual honesty, do they expose their students to a variety of intellectual approaches, do they fight fair."

And Professor Bowles feels his department "teaches conventional economics courses in good faith" -- and has no choice because "We have a commitment to other parts of the university which would preclude teaching radical economics to any vast number of students."

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