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A Eulogy for Martin J. Sklar, 1935-2014: Historian, Patriot, and Socialist

All of these were protected by the “American liberal democratic political system.” Thus, within the “mix” of both capitalism and socialism in the sphere of the economic and political system, capitalism created a social order that “recognizes individual liberties and rights embedded in and protected by constitutional and statute law” against the power of government that operates against those rights. Hence America had a strong positive government, rather than one of “organizational corporatism or a corporate state.”

What concerned Sklar then, and concerned him before his passing, was that as the state evolved during the years of the Obama administration, that separation was eroding. He saw it being replaced by a “state-command economy” that dangerously could lead to new oppression and to a political party integrated into the state, eroding the individual rights that made America unique. His new view of social development flowed directly from the historical analysis he offered in his early work.

Writing in 2009, he argued that President Obama would create “'proto-statist' structures, ‘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.

His conclusion was that Americans who considered themselves either leftists or conservatives had to unite around what he called a movement to preserve liberty that would defeat “the state-command sectarians” who made up the Obama administration, and which he believed were working to destroy all that made the United States a great nation.

All of his most recent writings are to be found in his e-book Letters on Obama (From the Left), which gives readers a good sense of how the historical approach he takes applies to the history we are living through in the present. They form a continuation of the many themes he wrote about in his two major works of history, The Corporate Reconstruction of American Capitalism: 1890-1916, The Market, Law and Politics and his collection of essays titled The United States as a Developing Country: Studies in U.S. History and the Progressive Era and the 1920s.”

Each year, after I or others have mentioned his work, some conservatives and libertarians have discovered his writing and have learned much from them. For example, the libertarian writer Todd Seavey made Sklar’s first book his “Book of the Month” in September 2010, writing that Sklar “argues that rather than seeing any of these presidents [of the Progressive era] as true trust-busters or proto-socialists, we should see them as attempting to navigate a historic transition away from American capitalism dominated by small-scale individual owners and toward a more regulated, centralized but still capitalist system in which much-feared newly enlarged corporations would routinely turn to government for regulatory approval or guidance.”

And in NRO, Jonah Goldberg wrote that consideration of Sklar’s ideas “advances the discussion [of the concept of liberal fascism] profoundly.” So conservatives and libertarians have looked  at Sklar’s work, and learned from him.

Surprisingly, this was not to be echoed by self-proclaimed leftists, such as the lengthy would-be tribute appearing on History News Network recently by historian James Livingston of Rutgers University, who writes that Sklar was “one of the great historians of the 20th Century,” whom he praises for his work written over 25 years ago. In the "tribute" -- as one might expect -- he presents a tirade against Sklar’s e-book and anything that he has written since his two books were published.

As Livingston would have it, Sklar's latest writings “could disfigure his intellectual legacy,” and he writes to restore or clarify what he thinks Sklar’s real legacy was. If, as Livingston argues, Sklar was among the great historians of the United States, should he not seek to understand why and how his views evolved, and try to comprehend how his earlier theoretical paradigm of American development has led him to his current analysis?

Speaking as one who has read his e-book, I find that although there will be certain disagreements and arguments over some of his theories and analysis, anyone reading his discussion of the Obama years will see the same sharp mind at work, developing ideas and views that clearly build on his earlier works. Livingston’s obituary is really nothing less than a proclamation of his own sadness at how Sklar had long since moved away from the terrain of the sectarian Left -- which Livingston clearly still sees himself as part of.

As Sklar himself acknowledges, he was once part of that same social movement, but he soon came to comprehend how those who were part of the official socialist and New Left movements were not part of the broad American consensus, but were only fringe elements chipping away at its center in a way that was dangerous to America’s position as a nation based on liberty.

Moreover, Sklar made careful judgments. One will find that Sklar says he was right to oppose the nomination of Judge Robert Bork to the Supreme Court -- not because of the reasons cited by the sectarian Left -- but because he believed that Bork’s concept of trying to rule by finding the “original intent” of the Founders was wrong. On the other hand, he was a strong supporter of the nomination to the court of Justice Clarence Thomas, who, Sklar argued, rightfully believes in ruling according to fidelity to “original” views of the Constitution, which he spells out is both correct and necessary.

As one reads Livingston, a reader can see his anger build. Here a man who considers himself a disciple of Sklar, who in many ways was his real mentor, is furious that Sklar liked George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and even Sarah Palin, and in his own terms considered them part of the “robust left wing of the political spectrum.”

I understand what Sklar was getting at, and why he made such provocative statements meant to infuriate the old and new leftists whom he knew would simply flip out when they read his new interpretations. But I regularly argued with Sklar myself that even if he believed that America could be explained as a left-wing society and not a center-right one, it was too late to get anyone to accept his frame of reference, and his insistence on this would not gain any adherents, especially the likes of Norman Podhoretz, Charles Krauthammer, and other conservatives with whom he tried in vain to get to accept his way of looking at things.