Myrdal: A Man of Genius Who Understood America

<i> Michael Harrington is co-chairperson of Democratic Socialists of America. His most recent book is "The Next Left" (Henry Holt)</i>

When I first met Gunnar Myrdal at a conference on poverty in Cleveland in 1966, he was wearing a watch on each wrist. One was set to Stockholm time, so he could tell where his body clock was; the other was Cleveland time, to tell him when to show up at the next panel.

In the obituaries for Myrdal, who died May 17, that is the persona depicted: a jet-set Nobel laureate who regularly commented on U.S. problems and politics, a man who played a major intellectual role in defining racism in America. His classic study, “An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy,” portrayed the conflict between egalitarian values and institutional racism in the United States of the 1930s and ‘40s. Given his image, it is not quite clear why he got the Nobel Prize in economics--or why he was one of the most versatile and important thinkers of these times.

This is not to deny Myrdal’s incredibly productive activism. It is simply to insist on its profound intellectual depth.

It would, of course, be impossible to ignore that activism since Myrdal, as a young man, was in one of the century’s most politically effective groups of economists: the Stockholm School. He began as a junior partner to another Swedish genius, Ernst Wigforss, and they provided the intellectual basis for the socialist success in dealing with the Great Depression. The Stockholm economists made their own reading of early John Maynard Keynes, synthesized him with Karl Marx and came up with a practical “Keynesian” politics, perhaps before Keynes himself.

Because of Myrdal and his colleagues, Swedish socialists actually knew what they were doing when they launched a deficit-financed program to reduce unemployment in the ‘30s. Franklin D. Roosevelt, who improvised similar policies, had little theoretical understanding (the first President who did was John F. Kennedy). Indeed, if Myrdal had not been a Swedish socialist, he might have been a philosopher king. He was a theorist, a Cabinet minister and a political strategist.


He was also quite proud of not being a Marxist. “We Swedes have socialized distribution, not production,” he liked to say. He would insist that he was an heir of the 18th Century, not the 19th, of the Enlightenment rather than of Marxism. At the same time, he addressed me as “brother.”

I do not want to be hagiographic. Gunnar Myrdal was a man of considerable ego and he could get on a conversational roll without knowing how to get off. One night at dinner in New York, his wife, Alva--not simply a Nobel laureate herself but every bit as remarkable as Gunnar--dealt with that problem directly, which was her style: “Gunnar you are talking too much. Stop.”

In a sense, though, I have just made the error that I attacked in the obituaries, emphasizing the practical, activist accomplishments of Gunnar Myrdal--and a personal foible or two--but neglecting his intellectual and analytic depth.

One of his earlier books, “The Political Element in the Development of Economic Theory,” was an important analysis of the inevitability, even productiveness, of bias in economics. Since the myth of mainstream economists was--and often still is--that their theories explain processes independent of any value judgments, are eternal laws that they humbly serve, the book was a political act. For it deprived the profession of the rationale for a kind of Buddhist tolerance toward human suffering defined as a sad necessity.

But my point is not that Myrdal had decided political views. It was that he gave them a rigorous intellectual foundation and wrote a book that can be profitably read today. I wish, for example, that every academic had to read the book’s lapidary formula: “Ignorance is seldom random, but instead highly opportunistic.” What people--scholars in particular--do not know can be as significant as what they do know and their ignorance is usually the ghost of a prejudice.

“American Dilemma,” Myrdal’s study of U.S. racism, is widely recognized. But that work’s very reputation has sometimes been used to downgrade Myrdal’s importance as an economist. For it allowed his more subtle detractors to praise him as a sociologist in order to forget his contributions to economics (including the sophisticated methodological material in that volume). This strategy, it should be noted, has been used against John Kenneth Galbraith--who also committed the ultimate sin of the economic profession by writing well.

“Asian Dilemma: An Inquiry Into the Poverty of Nations” and the policy-oriented summary, “The Challenge of World Poverty,” are extremely serious analyses grounded in empirical research. Myrdal showed, for example, that when you apply categories that make sense in advanced societies to the Third World, the result is often a conceptual mess. How do you develop indices of unemployment in an economy where underemployment is a way of life for masses of people? To think through the problems of the poor nations, Myrdal insisted, you must invent a new vocabulary. The International Monetary Fund, with its textbook recipes for development, might take note.

In “Asian Dilemma” the socialist economist also made a scathing critique of the “socialism” preached in a country like India. And long before the current reform movement in China, or the realization that the urban-oriented economics of the new states in Africa were undercutting their own people’s ability to feed themselves, he had developed theories of the need for a balanced industrial and rural approach to economic growth.

Above all, Gunnar--and Alva--were Swedish. That is not to revive the hoary myth that there is some genetic tendency towards compromise in rationality in the Swedish personality. Political and class conflicts are as bitter in Sweden as in other parts of the world. But it is to say that there is a special character to Swedish history and culture. I remember once laughing with Myrdal about the pop-sociological theory of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, that held that Swedes have a high suicide rate because their welfare state is so good that it takes all the fun out of life.

We chortled over possible refutations--for instance, the suicide rate was high before there was a socialist movement and probably has to do with the weather and religion. But then Gunnar got serious and said, “We had community self-help and caring in this society long before the welfare state. That is our tradition and we socialists simply acted on it. We didn’t invent it.”

Myrdal was not only a genius as a theorist and an activist, though that is true. He and Alva represented a moral attitude that was the “political"--let me say, ethical--element that pervaded all their theories. Their brilliant ideas informed their personal and public lives.