A Eulogy for Martin J. Sklar, 1935-2014: Historian, Patriot, and Socialist
I was a friend of Marty Sklar since 1955, when I first met him as an entering freshman at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. His name had been given to me by a friend in New York City, who said that Marty was a leading figure on the left in Madison, and would gladly take me under his wing. He was also my graduate teaching assistant in the U.S. history course I took in Madison.
Since that meeting, I have been engaged with Marty for over half a century, agreeing and disagreeing with him about history, politics, and the state of American society. Throughout these years, one thing was constant about Marty: he said in 1955 -- and held to this belief up to his passing -- that he was a socialist.
Marty’s definitions of socialism, however, were something other than how most people would define that system. I have written about his concept before at PJ Media, particularly in this column, in which I tried to explain his original theory called “the mix,” in which he argued that all modern societies are composed of elements of both socialism and capitalism. This led him to argue that he considers himself to be a “Freedom Leftist” who believes in a pluralist-democratic and “publicly accountable left,” as opposed to Obama, whom he considers to be a “left sectarian doing his mass work.”
At his core, Sklar writes, Obama’s “world view is 'Third-Worldist sectarianism.'” Moreover, he argues that Obama’s economic proposals are a high-tax, protectionist, and slow-growth program. Those of Republicans, in contrast, were based on a lower-tax, low-cost energy, “high-growth/job stimulus” program, and are not “ensnared in the green business/academia lobby agenda of high-cost energy,” which would work to both restrict economic growth and workers’ incomes.
Here is what Sklar wrote in 1999 in an essay titled “Capitalism and Socialism in the Emergence of Modern America,” which appears in Reconstructing History: The Emergence of a New Historical Society. His paragraph defines how he looks at both capitalism and socialism:
Social change in [the Progressive era] inaugurated an incessant interaction, both antagonistic and complementary, between capitalism and socialism that shaped and reshaped American society in the twentieth century. The continuing corporate reorganization of enterprise and the national economy has in its essence involved the meshing of capitalism and socialism in an American society distinguished politically by liberal democracy. ... The rise of corporate capitalism in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century may therefore be understood as also representing the early phases of a sociopolitical reconstruction of American society based upon a hybrid of capitalism and socialism in a liberal democracy.
Sklar was insistent on the principle that state and society had to be separate from each other, and that the individual and liberty had to be protected against all encroachments by the state against individual citizens. Capitalism, he believed, broadened individual initiative and guaranteed principles of liberty and efficiency, as well as egalitarian values and behavior.
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.
Livingston does not agree with Sklar’s analysis of the contemporary era. So he descends to name-calling, and accuses him of having “mutilated the intellectual legacy” of William Appleman Williams. This is not the time or place to discuss that legacy, but I would argue that much of what Williams wrote was quite wrong-headed. Take Williams’ now fortunately forgotten book on Fidel Castro and the Cuban Revolution, in which he moves from a critique of U.S. policy towards Castro -- a legitimate enterprise -- to apologia for Castro’s growing totalitarian measures and continuing lying about the dictator’s real agenda.
Livingston calls Marty Sklar “another reactionary utopian.” Were Marty still with us, I suspect he would use the same words to describe Livingston’s arguments. He, of course, faults Sklar for thinking highly of John Yoo’s books, and faults him for writing to him and engaging in dialogue. But it is Yoo himself who sees the relationship between Sklar’s early work and his present-day views.
Yoo wrote me the following in an e-mail, which he has given me permission to use.:
My basic view is that Sklar's evolution in thinking was not all that different from neo-conservatives such as Daniel Bell (one of my undergraduate professors), Irving Kristol or even Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who began by studying social problems like capitalism, distribution of wealth, etc. They did not think capitalism was perfect, but they saw that government intervention, despite its good intentions, often could make things worse. I think it is perfectly reasonable for Sklar, who studied the alliance of corporations and government during the progressive era, to worry about a similar unholy alliance taking place now. Many neo-conservatives also became worried about the weakness of the Left on foreign policy, and Sklar's evolution view seems no different. (emphasis added)
Yoo understands the continuity of Sklar’s analysis of the progressive era with his dissection of the statism of the Obama administration. The new unholy alliance Yoo refers to is evident in policies like the government handouts to “green” energy companies, the moves to shut down coal production, the auto bailout, and the like. If one reads Sklar’s e-book, they will find concrete discussion of Obama policy in which he spells this out in detail.
Let me end by citing some of the letters Sklar wrote to me only a short time before his passing. On February 20, he argued that his analysis of Obama in his letters had been confirmed by recent events:
Obama’s confirmed use of the IRS to suppress political opposition in general and GOP voters in particular (b) Obama’s FCC recent initiatives to suppress freedom of the press … indeed establish totalitarian control over the media … note that “researchers” sent by the FCC are analogous to the CP and Fascist commissars that dictated “the line” -- ditto the Obama “regulators” sent into the banks and Obama agents ... at various non-financial corporations.”
Sklar was also quite upset about journalist John Judis regularly endorsing his work and analysis, as late as a recent issue of Dissent and in many columns in TNR. He was most concerned with Judis’ writings about Israel, and reminded me that when he founded the socialist newspaper In These Times and wrote its editorials, he informed the staff that the paper would not, unlike the rest of the New Left, assume a stance of opposition to Israel.
Hence Sklar wrote that Judis’ claim that Israel was created against the opposition of its neighbors was foolish, since “so was the U.S., so was Poland, so was Germany, so was England, so was Italy -- indeed, so were just about all nations throughout history. So was Iraq, so was Syria, so was Jordan … Judis’s pretense is better described as ‘ahistorical selection,’ (aka propaganda). Such provincialism, and or ignoring of history. Such bias against Israel. The ‘scandal’ here is not just that Judis takes himself seriously as a ‘historian,’ but that so many ‘members in good standing’ of the intelligentsia … do also.”
Judis wrote, Sklar noted, that Israel always played a “destabilizing” role in the Middle East. Sklar added that this “self-avowed "Marxist" revolutionary is the champion of stability and the foe of ‘instability’ … he’s pro-stability of reactionary tyrannies; both secular and Islamist … That kind of reactionary stability is ok.”
To Sklar, Israel was alone in the Middle East as nation that stood for “progress, democracy, and modernization and against reactionary states established by … imperialism.” He noted as well that Judis said not one word against the establishment of Arab states where none had existed before, singling out only Israel for condemnation.
The “Marxists,” “Progressives” and “Revolutionaries,” Sklar quipped, “forsake their own avowed basic principles in the face of their own deep-seated anti-Semitism … combined with their ‘Third-Worldism’ allegiances.”
Finally, Marty Sklar was a patriot and a proud American.
Writing to me about my remarks about Pete Seeger, Marty wrote this past February 5 that Seeger was “‘lucky’ to be an American -- anywhere else, his bad would have outweighed the good … it was America that made Seeger more good than bad -- something he’d probably not want to concede, seeing himself as ‘going against the American grain’ -- whereas in historical reality” he was part of it.
Unlike those self-proclaimed leftists, including James Livingston and John B. Judis -- who at various times tell readers to read and study Marty Sklar’s writings -- Marty Sklar believed in America and its promise. We need more socialists like him.