Cambridge, Mass. — "Lectures should be where half-baked ideas are worked out to the point where they are worthy of publication," said economist Stephen Marglin to introduce his one-hour discourse on how capitalism is undermining itself.
So this Marxist Harvard professor switched easily from free-wheeling discussion with his students to straightforward explanations of what Marx and Weber have written on the subject.
Striding the classroom stage in a three- piece suit (replacing his normal blue jeans), he explained quickly to his attentive students that the cultural patterns set up by the capitalist system encourage self-gratification, as shown in the credit-card plunge into debt. He touched briefly on "production for profit alone," the disintegration of the family, and the general tendency to see all relationships in terms of money and self-interest.
With his team-teaching colleague Willim Lazonick nodding agreement, Professor Marglin said that such patterns "suggest that the culture of capitalism will destroy capitalism's economic base."
And he related the discussion directly to his students. He said Harvard was preparing its students to head corporations, become top government figures, or become independent professionals. The Harvard rhythm of great freedom -- followed by crushing demands -- "fits well with the rhythm you will have later on. . . . You will be expected to have a dedication to your work which knows no bounds of time."
A student broke in, beginning his question with "When you were arguing . . ." Dr. Marglin corrected him: "Suggesting, not arguing," and went on to explain why "it's basically impossible to justify morality in an individualistic society."
Speaking later in his office, Professor Marglin said that it is only because he was given a tenured position beforem becoming radicalized by the '60s that he is able to stay on at Harvard.
From his lonely perspective on the left, the professor describes Harvard University as broadly representative of the United states as a whole. But, he told me, "In terms of different views of the world and what a university should be providing, our spectrum is far to the right. What we call 'left' here is right of center on a world scale. Radical revolutionary change is simply not part of our spectrum."
He agreed that the university gives him relative freedom to pursue his own scholarly interests and teach Marxist economics courses. But he is disturbed that, in his view, students are not being given a balanced education, because one man cannot offset the weight of an entire university.
He feels strongly that important alternative viewpoints have been stifled -- that important questions are left unasked.
He sees his colleagues "developing economics as essentially a technocratic problem- solving field, much like engineering, rather than pursuing inquiry into the nature of the economic system and how it operates."
He explained that at Harvard, radical economics "is conceived of as a special field rather than as a valid alternative description of how the economic system works."
"It's a question of whether all students should have to be exposed to radical economics," he explained, "or whether it simply should be made available to them. My view is that an alternative view of the economic system should be part of the basic curriculum."