Ron Radosh

America's Socialist Future: Martin J. Sklar vs. John B. Judis

The question of whether or not America is heading towards some form of “socialism” keeps popping up. This is not surprising, given the decision to push Chrysler into bankruptcy and to create in effect a government take-over of General Motors.  Writing in USA Today, Jonah Goldberg mocks those same liberals who hope that America is moving towards some form of European social-democracy and who at the same time yell and scream when the Republicans accuse them of favoring socialism. 

Of course, there is nothing wrong with believing in and hoping that America becomes a social-democracy.  It is a legitimate point of view that, as Goldberg notes, many commentators believe in strongly, among them writers like Harold Meyerson, E.J. Dionne and Matthew Yglesias. They should, however, be honest and not have fits when others who favor a different path for our country respond critically.

Goldberg also notes that the reality is that most conservatives, liberals and centrists all believe in a mixed economy, only disagreeing on “where to draw the line.” Most liberals don’t want old style collectivism a la the Bolsheviks; nor do most mainstream conservatives disavow any regulation or social insurance.

Months ago, on this blog, I talked about the theoretical analysis of  historian Martin J. Sklar.  In his book, The United States as a Developing Country, Sklar argued that at the turn of the century, the United States saw the emergence of a new “corporate capitalism” that mixed together elements of both populism, capitalism and socialism. The modern American state evolved into a system that mixed public and private, socialism and capitalism- “A Mix,” Sklar calls it, that has made the United States not only stable and dynamic, but the most progressive of any nation in the world.

And the above passage led me to the essay appearing in the May-June issue of Foreign Policy , written by TNR senior editor John B. Judis.  He begins by quoting a contribution he made to a forum back in 1995, where he argued that once Soviet communism was laid to rest,  “politicians and intellectuals of the next century will once again draw openly upon the legacy of socialism.” Now Judis believes that he was prophetic.  After our economic collapse, he notes that the “specter of socialism” has reappeared.  Socialism, he proclaims, “has made a startling comeback.” Is it a remedy, he asks, for today’s crisis?

His answer, as if he is writing to prove Goldberg correct, is that what he calls “liberal socialism,” – as distinct from the Cuban or Soviet totalitarian version, “has a lot to offer.” And he writes: “As the historian Martin J. Sklar has argued, these [Western European] economies represent a mix of socialism and capitalism; that mix has increasingly titled toward socialism.” ( my emphasis )

This is not the first time Judis has cited Sklar as a mentor and inspiration; a man whose scholarly work has informed his own concept of how our economic  and political system works. He also wrote a few columns for TNR on line elaborating about this. In one of these, he writes: “A decade ago, I might have been embarrassed to admit that I was raised on Marx and Marxism, but I am convinced that the left is coming back.” And he recommends to his readers a list of books that informed his outlook, including Marx’s Das Kapital,  and books by the late sectarian Marxist -Maoist economist Paul M. Sweezy, his colleague the late Paul M. Baran, and others in his old collective at the journal Socialist Revolution.  And he writes, “I got my introduction to economic history from the historian Marty Sklar, who was also a member of that collective.”

So I thought it pertinent to find out what Sklar says about socialism and capitalism today, and what he thinks about the direction Obama is moving our country in. The results will prove  surprising, especially to John Judis.

First, Sklar- who coined the phrase “corporate liberalism” that became a mainstay of the New Left in the 60’s and 70’s- disagrees with Judis’ belief that the “mix has increasingly tilted toward socialism.” His argument, to the contrary, is that for decades, America has had an appropriate mix that already incorporates elements of what is traditionally called capitalism and socialism;  that is why it is a mix.  Sklar, like Judis, defines himself as a man of the Left, and in an article he has been circulating, titled “A letter to a Long-time Friend and Fellow Left-winger,” Sklar shakes things up.  Sklar considers himself to be a “Freedom Leftist” who believes in a pluralist-democratic and “publically accountable left” as opposed to Obama who he considers a “left sectarian doing his mass work.” At his core, Sklar writes, Obama’s “world view is ‘Third-Worldist’ sectarianism.” 

More surprising for a man of the left, Sklar believes that “Bush has been one of our more effective and progressive-left Presidents in domestic and international affairs.”  Sklar believes that Obama’s economic proposals are based on high-tax, protectionist and a slow-growth program. Bush’s in contrast, was based on a lower-tax, low-cost energy, “high-growth/job stimulus” program, and was not “ensnared in the green business/academia lobby agenda of high-cost energy,” which would work to both restrict economic growth and workers’ incomes.

Moreover, Sklar is concerned, as he writes, that Obama will make “central to his presidency” what he calls “proto-statist structures characteristic of fascist politics- that is, ‘social service’ political organizations operating extra-electorally and also capable of electoral engagement,” that will lead to “party-state systems…in which the party is the state.” Thus, he notes that during the campaign, Obama favored armed public service groups that could be used for homeland security, that would tie leadership bureaucracies to him through the unions and groups like ACORN.

Thus Sklar argues, in a letter he provided to me written to a columnist in April of this year, that  the real issue is not whether we move to socialism but whether we can maintain  a liberal democracy based on the mix that nurtures “Liberty and Equality and Progressive Development.” This, he writes, is “something the Bush/Cheney administrations championed, and the reason I, a person of the left, strongly supported them, including the interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the (world) war against Islamist imperialism.” (my emphasis.)

Finally, in a personal letter to me, Sklar calls for a unified liberty movement of people who see themselves on the left or liberal side, and those who see themselves as conservatives, to defeat “the state-command sectarians,” and bring together those on the democratic left and right in an effort to rejuvenate “the prospects of liberal democracy.”

Clearly, the man who mentored John Judis has quite a different perspective on what to do to save our country—one that is more in accord with the views of a Jonah Goldberg than of John Judis. Sklar tells me that I am not a conservative, but a freedom leftist, as he is and beckons me to join his movement, but I guess he wouldn’t welcome John Judis into the ranks.