Martin J. Sklar—an American historian and political thinker—died on April 27 at his home in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Sklar’s final wishes were to have neither a funeral nor an obituary. I hadn't talked to him in almost a decade, but my suspicion is that these were the wishes of a man who felt he had not been given his due in life, and would not get it in death. I don’t intend what follows as an obituary, nor as a tribute to the man (toward whom I had mixed feelings), but as an appreciation of his very substantial, but insufficiently recognized, intellectual contribution to American history.
Sklar was a historian and was proud of his profession. He was also a dedicated teacher. He got into a fight with his colleagues at Bucknell, he once told me, because he insisted that the regular senior faculty should teach the introductory survey courses. He was as an assiduous scholar of Progressive Era foreign and economic policy—his book, The Corporate Reconstruction of American Capitalism, 1890-1916, is the definitive account of the battle over anti-trust legislation in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—but he was also concerned with the big questions about history and politics that Hegel, Marx, and Burckhardt and American historians from Bancroft, Turner, and Beard to Hofstadter, Hartz, and Williams tried to answer.
These include: Is there a reason to history? Are there discernible conflicts and concerns that move history along in one direction rather than another? Are there recognizable stages of history, and if so, which stage are we in, and toward which are we headed? What is the historical relationship, if any, between our politics, culture, and morality and the imperatives of economic production and expansion? What, if any, have been the principles that have guided Americans? What lies behind the century old contest between liberalism and conservatism and between left and right? Does it make sense to talk of American exceptionalism or of an American Century or an American empire? Sklar looked for answers to these question as they might bear upon present. A political activist as well as historian, he sought from history what Van Wyck Brooks called a “usable past.”
That concern with contemporary politics set Sklar off from many of his professional colleagues, who have tried to avoid drawing conclusions about the present from the past. The pitfall of avoiding the present is the trivialization of the past through research driven merely by the quest for scholarly novelty. Historical journals are filled with contributions of which one could justly ask, “So what?” or which unconsciously mimic the most banal conventional terms of contemporary thinking. On the other hand, there are pitfalls to using the past to draw lessons about the present. Passionate political convictions can shape one’s perception of the past as well as present. Sklar did not avoid this trap.
Many of Sklar’s most original notions bear the imprint of the times in which he wrote and of the causes he espoused. He went from a Communist Party sympathizer to New Left activist and ended up as a fan of Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin. Initially, he was too faithful to the Marxist dream of socialist revolution. Later, he appears to have rationalized his loss of faith in Marxian socialism by insisting that the right is really the left. But Sklar would not be the first important historian to have had sharp and sharply changing political convictions. Beard springs to mind, as does Eugene Genovese, or the Israeli historian Benny Morris. His highly original views on liberalism, America’s “open door” foreign policy, the transformation of American capitalism in the 1920s, and the relation of capitalism to socialism, should outlive the immediate political uses to which he put them.
Sklar was born in Brooklyn in 1935, the son of a labor lawyer. He went to the University of Wisconsin in 1951 on a Ford Foundation scholarship for teenagers sixteen and under. On campus, he was active in the Labor Youth League, which was the unofficial youth wing of the Communist Party. After it dissolved in 1956, he helped to found the Wisconsin Socialist Club, and in 1960, while he was still a graduate student in history, he was a founding editor of Studies on the Left, which became a leading theoretical journal of the new left. It published not only his work, but that of William Appleman Williams, James Weinstein, Eugene Genovese, and Harold Cruse. (After it dissolved in 1967, Weinstein and David Eakins published an anthology, For a New America, that is still worth reading.)
During Sklar’s time at Wisconsin, its history department was at the forefront of reassessing Cold War foreign policy and New Deal liberalism and progressivism. The faculty included Williams, George Mosse, Fred Harvey Harrington, William B. Hesseltine, and Howard Beale and it turned out a generation of outstanding historians including Sklar, Walter LaFeber, Warren Susman, Lloyd Gardner, Carl Parrini, Ellis Hawley, James B. Gilbert and Thomas McCormick. Sklar was a star in this firmament, even as an undergraduate.
While a junior at Madison, he wrote an essay on Hamilton and Jefferson that was circulated among historians and years later was a basis for a prize-winning essay by one of his graduate students. Sklar first drafted his path breaking essay, “Woodrow Wilson and the Political Economy of Modern United States Liberalism,” which appeared in Studies on the Left in 1960, as a graduate student in 1957. In that essay, Sklar coined the term “corporate liberalism” to describe a novel understanding of twentieth century liberalism. Sklar’s theory of liberalism became the subject of study groups and of numerous essays and books. He also had an early impact on the Wisconsin school’s study of foreign policy. In two footnotes to Tragedy of American Diplomacy, Williams credited the research Sklar had conducted as a graduate student on John Hay’s and Woodrow Wilson’s diplomacy.
If Sklar’s career had proceeded along the same path as some of his fellow graduate students, he probably would have ended up like LaFeber as a renowned professor at an Ivy League university. But Sklar had difficulty finishing what he was writing, and he was also pulled to and fro by the impassioned politics of the times. After he got his MA at Wisconsin, he moved to New York to work on Studies on the Left. Then he became a Ph.D. student at the University of Rochester. He could have easily converted his research on Wilson into a Ph.D. thesis, but he got involved in student politics and embarked on a reconceptualization of the history of American capitalism, based on a study of the 1920s. Some of this research ended up in an incredibly difficult but original essay in Radical America, but much of it resided in a larger manuscript that sat unpublished in a file cabinet, as did other writings. Sklar would sometimes extract these writings and read from them in order to make a point, but would then stash them back away. Sklar left Rochester and graduate school in 1969 to get a job at Northern Illinois University’s left-leaning history department, which included his friend Parrini. In spite of the enthusiastic support of his colleagues and students, he was denied tenure by the administration in 1976 because he had not finished his dissertation.
I first got to know Sklar in 1969 when we were part of the founding group of Socialist Revolution, the successor to Studies on the Left. (Partly at Sklar’s urging, we called the journal Socialist Revolution. We were “socialists” who believed in democracy and elections, not small-c “communists” as many in the new left then thought of themselves. But the editors wanted to make sure that the hardliners took us seriously, so we added “revolution” to “socialist.”) I later worked with him in Chicago on the “independent socialist weekly,” In These Times, where he wrote the editorials and where I was the foreign editor and Weinstein the editor. And my wife and I hung out with Marty and his wife Nao Hauser, a restaurant and food critic who helped me with my own writing.
Sklar was still boyish-looking well into his middle age with an endearing gap-tooth smile. He liked to drink and, even though he came from Brooklyn, was a diehard New York and then San Francisco Giants fan. He was generous with his ideas and with comments about articles and books, but he was also touchy even then about his reputation. Several of his colleagues on Studies on the Left, including Weinstein, had achieved more recognition for their work than he had, even though Sklar had been, and was acknowledged as having been, an inspiration for their work. (Weinstein began the “Acknowledgements” of his Corporate Ideal in the Liberal State, “Working with Martin J. Sklar made this book possible.”) Traces of the old sectarian leftist from the ‘50s could also suddenly emerge. His sunny disposition would turn dark, and his attitude toward those with whom he disagreed would be clothed with scorn and condescension. While he exercised a great influence on my thinking about American history, he was someone I learned to keep at arm’s length.
Sklar was a leader of SDS at Rochester, and later a member of the New American Movement, a democratic socialist group that was founded in 1971 in the wake of SDS’s degeneration into madness. He had a keen appreciation of what had happened to the new left when groups like Weathermen Underground and the Black Panthers took it over in the late ‘60s. While critical of American policy, Sklar, who grew up in the patriotic post-World War II years, rejected the anti-American currents in the New Left. He used to insist that socialism would come to America first, and later in life would argue that it had already come.
Sklar also saw much of the later New Left as a religious rather than a political movement. He once sent me a passage that an editor had excised from an essay he wrote for a Monthly Review anthology on teaching Marxism. In the passage, he described the various grouplets that looked to Cuba or China and that advocated some fantasized form of violent revolution as heirs to early American Protestant sectarianism. They demonstrated, he wrote, “the greater concern for doctrinal purity, the greater emphasis upon the right rendering of sacred texts, old and new, the greater energies invested in vying for the mantle of apostolic succession, than in actually changing the world and people’s consciousness about it.” That wasn’t meant as analogy, but as historical analysis; and it continues to ring true of the far left and right. Think of the Tea Party’s elevation of the Constitution to Biblical status.
Yet during those years, Sklar remained wedded to a quasi-religious—or one might say utopian—view of socialism. Along with Weinstein, he thought it possible to build an openly socialist movement that would challenge the existing parties. He had wanted to change the name for SDS to “Socialists for a Democratic Society.” As a member of the New American Movement, he and Weinstein called for running candidates on a socialist platform. In the early ‘70s he circulated a “General Approach of a Movement for Socialist Democracy” that portrayed socialism as the “democratization of all spheres of public life” and that called for “the liquidation of corporate capitalist imperialism.” When Weinstein tried out their strategy by running a socialist in the race for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, his candidate trailed "Jesus Christ Satan" at the bottom of the final tally. By then, Sklar had moved to Chicago, where socialism, if not a dirty word, was not something that was widely discussed or seriously considered.
Sklar quit In These Times in 1979 over a quarrel with Weinstein. The immediate issue was staffing, but I think it went back to the question of recognition. (Saul Bellow modeled Humboldt’s Gift on his relationship with Delmore Schwartz, but the book could have been about Weinstein’s relationship with Sklar.) Sklar’s resignation proved fortuitous. On the eve of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, he probably wasn’t long for socialist editorializing. He finished his dissertation at the University of Rochester under his friend Genovese. His thesis became the basis for The Corporate Reconstruction of American Capitalism 1890-1916, which appeared in 1988.
Sklar’s book represented a turn away from his utopian and revolutionary politics. Where he had previously portrayed corporate liberalism as a threat to socialism, he now celebrated it. He still identified himself as a member of the left, but he had no patience with the left that existed, including In These Times. In one letter to me, he described the left as “the triumph of philistinism” and remarked of “leftists” that the “conventionality and in most cases mediocrity of their minds is staggering.” He got a job at Bucknell, and in 1992, published a number of old and new essays in The United States as a Developing Country. His book of essays was largely ignored by historians, but The Corporate Reconstruction of American Capitalism was acclaimed by some specialists. It won the J. Willard Hurst Prize in Legal History. Sklar hoped to land a job at Columbia, which had an opening in his field. He had the support of some graduate students and professors, and was invited to give a presentation, but to his dismay, he was not offered the job.
But while Sklar took a dim view of his own prospects, he continued to insist that America was moving leftward. During the 1990s, he praised Bill Clinton, and when the Republicans took control of the Congress after the November 1994 election, he declared that Clinton had an ally in Republican Newt Gingrich in moving the country leftward. But during his last decade, in the wake of his clash with Bucknell and his disappointment at not being hired by Columbia, his anger against the left began, it seems, to color his view of politics. While he had associated Clinton with the constructive left, he viewed Barack Obama as part of the sectarian left that he despised.
In Letters on Obama, which he self-published on Amazon in 2012 as an e-book, he accused Obama of being “joined with … the fascist Islamist-Imperialism Right.” At the same time, he heaped praise on rightwing ideologues. He described Glenn Beck (whose ravings were too much even for Fox News) as “well-informed, very smart, and ingenious in communicating information and opinion.” He castigated Obama in 2008 as being unprepared to be president, while promoting Sarah Palin as a Republican presidential candidate for 2012. He echoed Beck’s and the lunatic right’s conspiratorial obsessions with ACORN, Saul Alinsky, Van Jones, and Bill Ayers.
Other former liberals and socialists, including Genovese, have turned rightward in their later years. And there is a continuity between Sklar’s earlier work and his Letters on Obama, which, despite their fevered pitch, still includes some dispassionate theoretical digressions. But there is also a disturbing nuttiness—evidenced in his adulation of Beck and Palin—that runs through his last decade’s work. I did not see or talk to him during the last decade, so I don’t know what happened to him, but I would hope those who assess his contribution to understanding American history and politics pay much closer attention to his large book and to his essays than to these letters, which I suspect were written under a kind of personal duress.
In a memoir written two years ago, entitled “Marty and Me,” historian James Livingston, who knew and studied with Sklar, cited “four big ideas” that Sklar had: first, his portrayal of American liberalism as “corporate liberalism”; second, his analysis of how American capitalism was transformed in the 1920s; third, his view of how America’s foreign policy had been based on John Hay’s Open Door Notes; and fourth, his rejection of Marx’s contention that socialism was a distinct stage of history after capitalism. For Sklar, these four were not separate notions. He developed these ideas at different times in his career, but then proceeded at each successive time to integrate them into grand synthesis of twentieth century American and world history.
Sklar introduced the idea of corporate liberalism in his 1960 essay on Wilson, but he expanded and slightly modified it in his big 1988 book and in an essay in 1991, “Political Development in the Progressive Era.” Sklar changed his mind about the political valence of corporate liberalism and even about the meaning of the term “liberalism.” But his basic insight into what Wilson and his successors were trying to do remained intact and provides an invaluable framework for understanding the evolution of American politics over the last century.
When Sklar published his essay in Studies on the Left, liberalism was understood to be a non-revolutionary alternative to socialism. Liberals were out to curb the power of business on behalf of the working class, and perhaps also small business, but without resorting to the overthrow of capitalism. “Liberalism in America has been ordinarily the movement on the part of the other sections of society to restrain the power of the business community,” Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wrote in 1946. And Wilson’s New Freedom, on which he ran in 1912, and Wilson’s achievements as president, including the Clayton Antitrust Act and the creation of the Federal Trade Commission, were supposed to be liberal in that sense.
Sklar rejected that interpretation of Wilson—and more broadly, of twentieth century liberalism. Wilson, he noted, described the transition from an individually owned and operated competitive enterprises to corporate capitalism as “normal and inevitable.” Sklar concluded:
Wilson’s position was not that of a representative of the “little man,” or the “middle class,” against “big business”; but that of one who, affirming the large corporate industrial capitalist system, was concerned with establishing the legal and institutional environment most conducive to the system’s growth, while at the same time preserving some place within the system for the “little man.”
Wilson feared, Sklar added, “that given a growing irrelevance of the ‘little man’ in the nation’s economy, fewer and fewer people would retain a stake in the capitalist system, and more and more would lose hope for betterment under capitalism and turn toward socialism or other forms of radicalism.” Wilson’s intention was not to attack business, but to co-opt and undermine those movements that sought to do so. The “progressive movements” with whom Wilson identified were not anti-business; they “were movements led by and consisting of large corporate interests and political and intellectual leaders affirming the large corporate-industrial system.”
In demonstrating that Wilson’s liberalism or progressivism was meant to strengthen the reign of corporate capitalism, Sklar was issuing a warning to socialists not to be beguiled by liberalism. They shouldn’t try to achieve their objectives by “mimicking” American liberalism, as the Communists had done during the Popular Front. Instead, they should develop a socialist politics, modeled on the old Socialist Party of Eugene Debs, that would be an explicit alternative to liberalism. The purpose of electoral activity, Sklar and Weinstein warned in Studies on the Left, “should be what Eugene V. Debs always insisted it should be: to make socialists not merely votes.”
Taking off from Sklar’s 1960 essay, SDS leaders and some young historians construed corporate liberalism as a conspiracy by corporate elites to co-opt small business and working class opponents of corporate capitalism. They used the idea of corporate liberalism to discredit liberalism, which they blamed for the Vietnam War and economic inequality and which they contrasted with revolutionary socialism. “Corporate liberalism,” SDS President Carl Oglesby declared in Washington in 1965, “performs for the corporate state a function quite like what the Church once performed for the feudal state. It seeks to justify its burdens and protect it from change.” Ronald Radosh, who had been in the Labor Youth League with Sklar and was influenced by him, wrote in an essay, “The Myth of the New Deal” that “understanding how the New Deal works will enable us to resist further extensions of the Welfare State, and commit ourselves instead to the collective effort to forge a socialist community in America.”
In The Corporate Reconstruction of American Capitalism, which appeared almost three decades after the essay in Studies, Sklar modified his early concept of corporate liberalism. He no longer portrayed it at as an effort simply of “large corporate interests” but as a “cross-class, cross-strata construction” that had different political tendencies and social movements within it, including farm and working class organizations. In a broad sense, Sklar was right. Measures that strengthened corporate capitalism, such as the FTC or the new Federal Reserve System, received widespread support, but Sklar retained the understanding of corporate liberalism as a “hierarchic” movement, in which business leaders like Morgan’s George Perkins stood at the top, along with Wilson, or the Roosevelts. “Upper and middle class leadership could preside over progressive reform as the alternative to reform or revolution from below,” he wrote.
The key difference was in the way Sklar portrayed the political universe of American progressivism. In Sklar’s early and later work, corporate liberalism was seen as an attempt to deflect and co-opt socialism and populism. But in his earlier work, socialism was also seen as a practical alternative to corporate liberalism. Americans had chosen corporate liberalism over socialism; and the political message that Sklar and the other historians like Radosh sent was that Americans would be better off choosing socialism over corporate liberalism. In The Corporate Reconstruction, Sklar no longer portrayed socialism as the practical alternative to corporate liberalism. Americans had made a choice in the early twentieth century, but it was among three different tendencies within corporate liberalism.
Sklar distinguished three tendencies within corporate liberalism as represented from left to right by Theodore Roosevelt, Wilson, and William Howard Taft. Roosevelt wanted to regulate corporations as public utilities through the new Bureau of Corporations. Roosevelt’s “state-directed corporate capitalism” had tendencies toward a “corporate or a socialist state.” (Sklar meant socialism like that of the Soviet Union.) Taft, fearful that any national regulation could undermine capitalism, wanted regulation primarily through the courts. Wilson thought corporations had a public character, but were not public utilities except in special cases. Their public character justified government intervention, but it should be limited to agencies like the FTC. Wilson’s corporate liberalism, Sklar wrote, “assigned to the corporation, including investment banking and central banking, the primary task of managing the market, and to the state the secondary task of regulating the corporations and the lesser entities in the private sector.” Wilson, Sklar argued, sought to reaffirm the “supremacy of the society over the state.”
The Corporate Reconstruction comes closer to defining Wilson’s approach than the account in Studies. And in doing so, Sklar’s view of liberalism also delineates what would become the prevailing political debate for the rest of the century, and for this new century as well. Franklin Roosevelt’s administration would recapitulate the contest between a certain kind of statism, as represented by the National Recovery Administration, and “positive government,” as represented by the Second New Deal. Today, the struggle today over the definition of corporate liberalism between the Obama administration and the Congressional Republicans has shifted rightward to that between Wilson’s “positive government” and Taft’s anti-regulatory views. Some Republicans have gone back to the laissez-faire reactionaries that opposed Taft, Roosevelt, and Wilson, but most remain, like Taft, committed to a minimal degree of regulation and taxation.
What’s different, finally, about The Corporate Reconstruction from the early works is its underlying politics. In the Studies essay, Sklar implicitly endorsed socialism over Wilson’s corporate liberalism. But in The Corporate Reconstruction, Sklar didn’t consider Eugene Debs’ socialism as a practical alternative to corporate liberalism. Instead, he contrasted Wilsonian support for “positive government” with Theodore Roosevelt’s “statism.” Sklar warned that Roosevelt’s statism could devolve into corporatism or state socialism. He maintained that Wilson’s center-left alternative triumphed because it was rooted in the “stronger anti-statist tradition in the American political culture.” In The Corporate Reconstruction, Sklar elevated the supremacy of society over state or popular sovereignty—which, as Gordon Wood showed in The Creation of the American Republic originated in the ideological contests over the Constitution—into an axiom of American politics that could not be breached without violating fundamental freedoms.
Sklar, Williams, and the other historians of the Wisconsin School had been critical of the consensus theory of American history put forth by Richard Hofstadter and Louis Hartz after World War II. In The Liberal Tradition in America, Hartz argued that America’ absence of a feudal past cemented its commitment to a Lockean faith that denied class conflict, upheld the sanctity of private property, and belittled the role of the state. Hartz argued that America’ commitment to Lockean liberalism ruled out an American socialism or authoritarian conservatism. Sklar in his early work argued that the American avoidance of socialism and class conflict was not due to any inherent Americanism, but rather to the success of corporate liberalism in quashing the threat of socialism.
But in The Corporate Reconstruction, Sklar implicitly accepted Hartz and the consensus historian’s argument that a certain kind of liberalism – expressed in his formula of the supremacy of society over state – was inherent in the American character and ruled out “state socialist” alternatives. And unlike Hartz, Sklar celebrated the success of Lockean liberalism in establishing limits on American politics. Sklar’s difference with Hartz would emerge more clearly in the 1990s when he would argue, paradoxically, that while Wilson’s corporate liberalism had triumphed over Roosevelt’s statism, it had not triumphed over, but included within it key elements of socialism.
The Disaccumulation of Capital
In May-June 1969, the journal Radical America published a long essay by Sklar entitled, “On the Proletarian Revolution and the End of Political Economy.” Sklar’s essay concluded with a call to the barricades: “Right now the duty of every person dedicated to making humanity prevail is to mount the class struggle. Capitalism, imperialism, the profit system, the exploitation of man by man, not some external Carthage—delenda sunt.” (Delenda sunt means “must be destroyed” in Latin.) In 1992, Sklar included the essay in his collection, but omitted the last sentence, and retitled the essay, “Some Political and Cultural Consequences of the Disaccumulation of Capital: Origins of Postindustrial Development in the 1920s.” That says a lot about how Sklar’s politics and the times had changed, but Sklar retained the provocative analysis of capitalism and the 1920s. As was the case with Sklar’s analysis of corporate liberalism, his historical insights can be extracted from his hopes and fears about the politics of the time.
Sklar’s analysis of capitalism in this essay has never received the wide currency of his analysis of corporate liberalism. Besides influencing my own and Livingston’s work, I’d also cite that of Fred Block, Larry Hirschhorn, and Eli Zaretsky, all of whom were associated with Socialist Revolution in the ‘70s. The lack of attention to this essay is at least partly because the argument poses great difficulty to anyone not schooled in Marxist economics. A brief review of The United States as a Developing Country in The American Historical Review dismissed the essay’s “heavily deterministic Marxist framework” without even trying to summarize its argument. Sklar used to joke that it was written for “militant readers.” And it’s also because of the essay’s hyper-revolutionary politics, which reflected the new left’s mood in 1969. But Sklar’s analysis of capitalism remains relevant.
His theory of disaccumulation showed how post-industrial capitalism, which has included changes in the nature of work and in the ethic of consumption, originated in the economy of 1920s. That alone set his work aside. In most economic histories of the last half-century, the period up to the 1929 crash was severed from the post-World War II decades by the Great Depression and the war. Only recently, economic historians like Carlota Perez have rediscovered what Sklar wrote about in 1969: the transformation of capitalism that took place in the 1920s. That has not only deepened the analysis of Great Depression, but also of the Great Recession, which was preceded by a boom in finance and productivity very similar to the 1920s.
In Marx’s theory of capitalism, the central engine of growth is the accumulation of capital. The exchange value of consumer goods and of capital goods (plant, equipment, raw materials) is measured in the labor time it takes to produce them. The accumulation of capital (achieved when the profit from sales are invested) consists of the accumulation of labor time. Thus, during the period of rapid industrialization from the Civil War to the 1920s, there was not just an accumulation of goods and factories, but also of work-hours and of workers. From 1900 to 1920, for instance, the number of manufacturing workers doubled from five to ten million. America looked as if it were going to become a giant factory. The accumulation of capital also entailed a Protestant ethic of deferred consumption. To accumulate capital, a sizeable proportion of the consumer goods produced had to be diverted from workers and capitalists’ consumption to the consumption of new workers producing capital goods. Enforcing that deferral was the job of the capitalist class. It was its economic raison d’etre.
According to Sklar—and he had copious data to prove it—during the 1920s, the disaccumulation of capital began to appear. Because of the introduction of new technology—in the 1920s, electricity spread to almost all workplaces– and because of new forms of work organization, including the assembly line, goods production increased, but not the amount of labor time devoted to its production. Manufacturing workers slightly shrunk during the decade, and farm employment significantly shrunk. The amount of physical capital grew, but capital as crystallized labor time, disaccumulated. Some economists including John Maynard Keynes and The New Republic’s George Soule noticed this, and remarked upon its significance, but the development, and what it meant, was soon buried under the rubble of the Great Depression, from which Sklar resurrected it in his 1969 essay.
Disaccumulation—and the new forces of production behind it -- created the potential for an increase in economic and personal freedom. Labor would no longer have to be devoted primarily to the perpetuation, or reproduction, of the working class itself. Disaccumulation, Sklar wrote, “means that less and less labor power is required for the production of the goods necessary for sustaining and reproducing physical and social life. The people are increasingly freed to apply their labor, or life-time, to other pursuits and fields of endeavor.” In addition, “the immediate contradiction ... between production expansion and immediate consumption deferral need no longer pertain.” As a result, the capitalist class itself—as the enforcer of deferred consumption and the reinvestment of savings—was no longer necessary. (Keynes famously predicted the “euthanasia of the rentier.”)
But within the continuing social relations of capitalism, this potential was thwarted. Instead of disaccumulation leading to freedom, it helped bring about the Great Depression by creating a surplus of capital, which was no longer needed for reinvestment in goods production, and which flowed into speculative outlets. Disaccumulation also led to technological unemployment, which increased the ranks of the long-term unemployed. The capitalist class survived the Great Depression by adapting capitalism to the needs of its own survival. That resulted, Sklar wrote, “in the malfunctioning, underutilization, and perverted utilization of production capacity,” which included extending capitalist enterprise “beyond the sphere of goods-production” to services that would otherwise exist outside the market; military production; and the establishment of domestic and overseas markets for superfluous goods.
In the Studies essay on Wilson, Sklar had portrayed corporate liberalism as the capitalists’ attempt to thwart the rise of socialism and populism. In the Radical America essay, he portrayed it as the capitalists’ attempt to frustrate the liberatory potential of disaccumulation. Corporate liberalism, Sklar wrote, “is the response of the bourgeoisie in general ... to the disaccumulation process—a response suited to sustaining the existence and power of a profit-appropriating social class where such appropriation no longer bears a necessary relation to expansion of production capacity, and increasingly devolves upon a parasitic engrossment of social wealth.”
Sklar viewed the transition from accumulation to disaccumulation through the prism of Marx’s theory of history. In his Contribution to a Critique of Political Economy, Marx wrote of how when the “material forces of production come into conflict with the existing relations of production” and when “these relations turn into their fetters,” a “social revolution” will occur. Sklar was writing in the Sixties at a time when a social revolution seemed to be in the air (a colleague on Socialist Revolution used to call me the “little black cloud” for my belief that the revolution was decades rather than years ahead). Sklar thought that the attempt to deflect and distort disaccumulation was coming to a climax and was leading to the “social revolution” that would usher in socialism and eventually communism.
Sklar did not envisage communism along Soviet lines, but along the lines that the young Marx had described it in The German Ideology. “The objective of socialism,” he wrote, "is a society where people increasingly express their freedom … in dealing with necessity, and where they open greater and greater areas for discretionary, voluntary life-activity; a society, moreover, where no people are doomed to narrow specialization as a class or subsection of a class … where the social organization … is not that in which one class organizes, dominates, exploits, the labor of another class, but that in which the people discharge that execution and development as freely associating equals, and in which every person is increasingly educated for universal competence in a broad range of society’s activities.
But disaccumulation did not give way to a “social revolution” and to socialism—not then, and not now. Sklar often resorted to Marx and Engels’ use of the term “utopian” to deride political theories and ideals that were “ahistorical or extra-historical,” but Sklar’s own view of capitalism’s future, as put forward in the Radical America essay, fit into the utopian literature of the Sixties, along with such works as The Triple Revolution, Norman O. Brown’s Life Against Death, and Charles Reich’s The Greening of America. Still, the essay’s analysis of capitalism remains relevant.
Sklar’s concept of disaccumulation illuminated, and still illuminates, the new phase of capitalism that began in the 1920s. During this phase, capitalism—no longer confined to goods production for the perpetuation of the working class and for capitalist luxury—has spread to niches that had formerly been outside the market—from fast-food restaurants (that replaced the family dinner at home) to customized clothing (that stressed fashion and design rather than utility) to health clubs, theme parks and retirement villages. In Marx’s terms, what had been production for use has become production for exchange. Recreation, for instance, has become a commodity to purchase.
The new capitalism, as Sklar foresaw, also transformed the older blue-collar based working class into what he called a “variegated proletariat.” It now extended from low-wage home healthcare workers to personal trainers and software developers, from clerks and car mechanics to poets, professional athletes and doctors and from janitors and truck drivers to project managers and university deans. It contained all the skills to run a post-industrial economy. Under the impact of disaccumulation, the ethic of capitalism has also changed dramatically from the self-sacrifice and austerity of the Protestant Ethic to the hedonism and the pursuit of self-fulfillment. Capitalism’s survival now depends on consumption rather than saving. (Building on Sklar’s theory, Livingston has explored these changes in his book, Against Thrift.)
In economic terms, however, the theory doesn’t entirely hold up. To say that capital has continued to disaccumulate, and that capitalism has entered a phase of disaccumulation, would suggest that the working time that workers devote to their reproduction has continued to lag. That would in turn require a very strict definition of “socially necessary labor” that would rule out the production of many services, including healthcare and education. Service producers are part of the working class, and their labor time has to be counted as part of the total labor time embodied in capital. For that reason, it’s hard to say in purely quantitative terms that after the 1920s, capitalism passed into a phase of disaccumulation where, overall, production expanded as a function of the reduction of labor time.
What it is possible to say is that post-1920s capitalism has continually had to contend with a tendency toward disaccumulation that can affect very large sectors of American industry. In the ‘80s, the introduction of new computer technology began to affect productivity in services as well as goods and to eliminate bank tellers, airport clerks, secretaries and other white-collar workers. That rise in productivity in services as well as goods played a role in the onset of the Great Recession similar to that which increases in productivity in factory and farm during the 1920s played in the Great Depression. In other words, a tendency toward disaccumulation continues to haunt American capitalism and has continued to threaten economic crises and to transform the way we live and work.
Sklar’s theory of disaccumulation exposed tensions that lay beneath the surface of capitalism and that have provoked periodic political and cultural eruptions. Since its inception, capitalism has subjected relations between human beings and between human beings and nature to exchange relations. That process has been accelerated by disaccumulation. There are hosts of activities that could have been conducted cooperatively—for instance, daycare, dining, recreation, and the arts—that have become for-profit industries. The current debate over whether college athletes should be paid is the outcome of college sports becoming a business. Sklar’s understanding of how this happened across the society opened a window on how the modern economy might have developed very differently.
Imperialism and the Open Door
While Sklar can be credited with the notion of corporate liberalism and of the disaccumulation of capital, he was one of several historians who sought to unearth the economic basis of twentieth century American foreign policy. They were led by Williams (The Tragedy of American Diplomacy), but included LaFeber (The New Empire) , Gardner (The Economics of New Deal Diplomacy), Thomas McCormick (China Market) and Parrini (Heir to Empire). Sklar’s initial contribution was his analysis of Wilson’s foreign policy, but over the decades, he modified his overall view of American foreign policy, as the political basis for his earlier view eroded.
During the 1950s, the prevailing view of American foreign policy was that it was devoted to defending freedom and democracy—making the world safe for democracy against imperialists, fascists, and communists—but that it had degenerated at times (during the Taft or Coolidge administrations) into “dollar diplomacy” to aid the overseas investments of banks and corporations. The thrust of the Wisconsin school was to say that moral, political, and economic concerns were fused in American foreign policy—that “dollar” diplomacy had always been combined with political and moral idealism, and vice versa.
The key documents for the Wisconsin School were the Open Door notes issued in 1899 and 1900 by William McKinley’s Secretary of State John Hay. Hay’s notes demanded “perfect equality of treatment” for American commerce and navigation in all of China, including those areas held by foreign powers. Hay’s notes, which declared American opposition to European colonialism, were seen at the time as the hallmark of an a disinterested American idealism—or negatively, as feckless and irrelevant, by George Kennan in American Diplomacy —but Williams, Sklar, and other Wisconsin historians argued that the notes had laid out the path of an American political and economic diplomacy that fused dollar diplomacy with moral idealism.
In the last decades of the nineteenth century, Britain, Germany, France, and Russia had partitioned off much of Asia and Africa into colonies, protectorates or exclusive spheres of influence. The United States was a latecomer to this contest for empire, but after the Depression of the 1890s, American bankers and industrialists decided that America desperately needed to establish overseas markets to dispose of the growing surplus of capital and consumer goods its factories and farms could produce and American citizens alone could not buy and consume. And they believed that if American industry could compete equally with that of the European imperial powers, Americans would win out. Hay’s open door notes were meant to protest European colonialism and to establish a beachhead for American products in Europe’s colonies and spheres of influence.
What the notes foresaw was American firms establishing the same relations of dominance over markets in Asia or Africa as the European powers had, but without establishing formal colonies. They would buy up farms and factories, extract raw materials, build railroads, and sell consumer goods. On their behalf, Washington would exercise influence over these countries’ Treasuries and Foreign Ministries, and if absolutely necessary, send in the Marines. It was imperialism without colonies. Sklar used the term “non-annexationist imperialism.” The Wisconsin School interpreted the Cold War itself as at least partly the result of the United States wanting to maintain a similar “open door” against Soviet domination in Asia, Eastern Europe, and Latin America. The United States didn’t want to colonize Iran, Guatemala, Cuba, or later Vietnam; it wanted to prevent them from becoming part of a closed system that would block American investments and trade.
Sklar’s Master’s degree thesis, which Williams cited, concerned Wilson’s policy toward American banks in China. His essay on Wilson in Studies generalized from the extensive research he had done. Sklar described how Wilson’s “thought in matters of political economy embraced a body of moral concepts, just as his moralism presumed certain principles of political economy and corresponding social relations.” Wilson, Sklar wrote, believed that
with the end of the continental frontier, expansion into world markets with the nation’s surplus manufactured goods and capital was … indispensible to the stability and prosperity of the economy. It was ... in no way morally invidious since in his view, the nation’s economic expansion was a civilizing force that carried with it principles of democracy and Christianity ... Given the United States’ superior industrial efficiency she would assume supremacy in the world’s markets providing artificial barriers were removed.
Sklar rejected the prevailing view, however, that in opposing outright colonialism—whether in China or in his Fourteen Points—Wilson had turned his back on imperialism. “The essence of open door expansion involved an international system of economy identical to that established by England and the European industrial nations with their colonies and agrarian areas,” Sklar wrote. The new imperial powers played the role of capital and the agrarian country’s population the role of labor and of suppliers of raw materials. “Control over, and investment decisions affecting decisive sectors of their economies were to become … integrated within the United States corporate economy.” American corporations were to become an “imperium in imperio” [state within a state] within the agrarian nations.
In the Studies essay, Sklar never used the term “imperialist” to describe Wilson’s foreign policy. He merely suggested that Wilson and others were being disingenuous in claiming that they had abandoned imperialism. But over the next decade, Sklar repeatedly asserted in essays and political manifestos that the United States in the twentieth century was engaged in imperialism. In his Radical America essay, he described “the current epoch of U.S. history” that he believed was drawing to a close as that of the “Imperialist Corporate-Capital order,” and cited the “coercive establishment of markets for superfluous goods through taxation and imperialism” as a prime strategy for withstanding the effects of disaccumulation. I found in my files a draft of the opening statement for Socialist Revolution in which Sklar replaced the anodyne phrase “liberal order and corporate-liberal ideology” with “the corporate-imperialist order and corporate-imperialist ideology.” In those days, Sklar couldn’t write “corporate” without adding “imperialist.”
Over the next two decades, Sklar changed his view of the “open door” and of imperialism as much as he changed his view of corporate liberalism. Sklar now conceded that America’s “open door” strategy was what it purported to be: an attempt to take the world beyond imperialism toward what he, following the lead of his brother, UCLA political scientist, Richard Sklar, called “post-imperialism.” During the twentieth century, America had become the seat of a new empire, but it was an empire that would dissolve into what a British commentator had called a “United States of the World.”
Sklar articulated this new understanding in an essay he contributed in 1999 to a book, Postimperialism and World Politics, co-edited by his brother, and in a longer paper that he wrote for Diplomatic History, but that he withdrew when the editor asked him to alter its style, which was written as a numbered outline rather than essay. (I tried myself to edit the piece for publication in The New Republic, but editing Sklar turned out to be like bending light. I told Sklar that the “Euclidean style of propositions” was “pompous” and gave the paper a “stuffy professorial air.” He wrote back, “Thanks for the August Company, but: Not Euclid: 1) Proposition not postulates, 2) Not geometric in any real meaning of the word.” That ended my attempt at editing the piece.)
To make matters worse, Sklar presented his revised views of foreign policy obliquely. He first summarized the “thinking” of leading foreign policy officials, economists, and bankers at the turn of the last century, and then showed that their ideas turned out to be a good guide to the century to come. He didn’t specifically endorse their views, but still suggested they had been right all along. These thinkers, Sklar wrote, had a generally favorable view of European imperialism. They appreciated its effect on the countries it colonized. It had introduced modern science and technology—and in some cases, liberal governance—to backward areas of the globe. Imperialism “meant the global spread of modernization to and within less developed nations, with or without their consent and under Western controls and tutelage.”
But these American thinkers also recognized that the attempt by Western powers to divide up the globe had led to imperial rivalries between the sea-based open empires that stood for “free trade, liberty, individuality and democracy” and the land-based closed empire that stood for “protected trade, state command, conformity and centralized-autocracy.” And these rivalries had led to World Wars I and II and to the Cold War. America’s strategy as a sea-based power was Hay’s Open Door Notes, which Wilson amended with his Fourteen Points. It was a strategy for going beyond imperial rivalries eventually toward a post-imperial world in which countries no longer vied for colonies, and in which the giant transnational corporation steadily transplanted the nation-state as the agent for economic development.
By going beyond imperialism, America would also go beyond the cycle of empires that had begun millennia ago. Since ancient times, the known world had gone through a cycle of empires, and America, the thinkers believed, would succeed Britain as the “seat of empire,” and assume its “global pacifying and stabilizing capacities.” Sklar argued that after World War II, the “American Century,” a term popularized by Time founder Henry Luce, had finally come into being, but that its achievement was leading to its own “negation” as the “World Century.” That had begun to occur, Sklar argued, with the dissolution of the Soviet empire, which Sklar attributed to the failure of its Stalinist relations of production to keep pace with the new capital-mobile international economy. The United States then achieved global dominance, but in an open system in which “domination by the United States or any single nation or group of nations would be so difficult as to be practically impossible.” “Transnationalism and international cooperation” would replace “imperial rivalry.”
“The tendency is growing,” Sklar wrote, “for a pluralism of cultures, societies and nation as, contributing to, and enriching, an increasingly common global society-type .. acknowledging principles of a universal humanity, while adapting them to a various cultures and historical traditions.” The key to this global culture is the transnational corporation. “As anticipated in early twentieth century America’s thinking development investment (‘capital’) has been and remains the driving force in 20th century would affairs, and its principal agency has been and continues to be the large corporation operating transnationally, increasingly with international staffing, and decreasingly with a singular national identity.”
Just as Sklar’s view of disaccumulation leading to a “social revolution” was shaped by the late ‘60s, his view of the “World Century” seems to have been a product of the “new economy” utopianism fueled by the boom of the late ‘90s. Sklar’s views were also shaped by the apparent acquiescence of Russia and China in a new American-led world system and the pacification of the Middle East in the wake of the first Gulf War and the Oslo agreement. That heady optimism would dissolve several years later with September 11, the dotcom crash followed by the Great Recession, the disastrous invasion of Iraq, the growing hostility of China and Russia to American hegemony, the Eurocrisis, and the Arab Spring-turned-Winter. But as with Sklar’s theory of disaccumulation, Sklar’s utopian musings can be put to one side, leaving important truths contained in his analysis of American foreign policy.
Williams, Sklar and the Wisconsin School had unearthed the economic basis of American diplomacy in the twentieth century. But their original analysis was clouded by the presumption that a socialist revolution could have altered the trajectory of American foreign policy. Williams presumed that the United States, instead of seeking foreign outlets for its surplus, could have created a “cooperative commonwealth” at home. Sklar cited imperialism as one of the means by which the capitalist class was holding back the liberatory possibilities of socialism after disaccumulation took hold. In his later work, Sklar abandoned these utopian alternatives as a framework for assessing American diplomacy. Instead, he argued that Hay was right, and so was Wilson in his Fourteen Points, to seek an alternative to imperialism that would not involve colonization and national rivalry, but that would open countries to trade and investment, leading eventually to a postimperial world order.
In his later view of corporate liberalism, Sklar no longer posed socialism as a practical alternative to corporate liberalism; now the choice was between positive government and statism. Similarly, in his later view of Open Door diplomacy, Sklar no longer posed the practical choice as being between imperialism (including non-colonial imperialism) and socialism, but between the older imperialism and the non-colonial imperialism that would lay the basis for post-imperialism. Sklar’s view of the present of the immediate prospects of post-imperialism was colored by Clinton-era utopianism, but he had nonetheless succeeded in describing the choices for American policy makers. Unfortunately, after September 11, George W. Bush, under the influence of Washington’s neo-conservatives, would try to revive some elements of the older imperialism.
In Sklar’s writings from the 1950s through the mid-1970s, he had espoused a classical Marxist view of the stages of history. History passed through different stages that were based on different ways of organizing production—from feudal class relations of lord and serf to the capitalist relations of bourgeoisie and wage-laborer. The transition from one mode of production to another occurred through social revolutions that transformed these class relations. In his Radical America essay, Sklar adhered to this view of history. He contended that American capitalism was in the midst of a crisis that would lead to socialism and a new stage of history.
But in revising his view of corporate liberalism and Open Door diplomacy, Sklar suggested that in the twentieth century, the United States had overcome, or was on the verge of overcoming, the contradictions and crises that had bedeviled American and world capitalism. In a series of papers he wrote and presented in the 1990s, Sklar argued this point, but with a twist: He now maintained that the transition to socialism, which Marx had predicted could only occur through a social revolution that would wrest power from the capitalist class, had already begun, and that Americans were living in a society that artfully blended capitalism and socialism. Sklar called this society and stage of history “the mix.”
Sklar dated “socialist tendencies” from the American Revolutionary period’s idea of Americans as “citizens” who exercised “self-government” and “self-control” in their economic and political lives. But he dated the mix from the rise of the corporation in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. “Corporate enterprise,” Sklar wrote, “represented a shift from individual-proprietary to associational forms of property ownership … It represented ‘private’ property ‘publicly held.’” It invited public intervention from government and internally from stock-holders and investors (who were now separate from managers) and from labor unions and consumer groups. “Socialist relations have appeared in political, associational, and contractual activity that seeks to provide an alternative to, and a means of redefining, property ownership. Such activity seeks to make the market socially accountable and responsible through political, social and economic reordering that regulates, modifies, remedies, or displaces market behavior and outcomes.”
In the Studies and Radical America essays, Sklar had presented corporate liberalism as socialism’s antagonist. Corporate liberalism co-opted it and in the process blunted and thwarted it. Now Sklar presented corporate liberalism as absorbing what was most positive, constructive and practical in socialism. Sklar now redefined corporate liberalism as “the prevalent sociopolitical movements in the United States, which since the early twentieth century have operated incrementally to combine capitalism and socialism with liberal democracy.”
Sklar did not posit a stage of history beyond the mix, but he believed that in the twentieth century, the United States had moved leftward by increasing the socialist share of the mix. “A citizen-associational stake in society increasingly supplements, refashions, and in some degree displaces the property stake, as an increasingly preponderant authority in society,” he wrote. Later, in one of the less politically charged sections of Letters on Obama, Sklar explained that the development of the mix and the response to disaccumulation went hand in hand—for instance, the expansion into health, education, and housing entailed “the socialist complement enlarging and developing in old and new ways.” But he didn’t hold out socialism as the eventual goal. Instead, he believed the mix was superior to its parts. “Capitalism needs socialism for stability and civic development,” he wrote, “and socialism needs capitalism for the wealth creation that it generates and supports an ever expanding equalitarianism and noncapitalist investment and labor activity.”
Sklar still insisted that he was echoing Marx’s views. Marx, he wrote, had “assessed” the change from individual to corporate capitalism as “transitional between capitalism and socialism.” Marx, he also wrote, identified socialism with “modern capitalist market development.” These statements indicate the degree to which Sklar remained emotionally wedded to his own Marxist past. In fact, Sklar’s concept of the mix represented a rejection of Marx’s theory of history on several fronts. That doesn’t make him wrong by any means—Marx’s predictions of social revolution in the developed West have certainly not come to pass—but it provides a way of clarifying how Sklar’s views had changed from the ‘60s.
Sklar now rejected the idea of a final socialist stage of history. There was no separate, future stage of socialism in Sklar’s theory. Sklar’s theory was an echo of Walt Whitman Rostow’s 1960 work Stages of Economic Growth, in which the economist, who later became a Lyndon Johnson advisor, foresaw modern American mass consumption capitalism as the final state in history toward which Russia’s socialism was eventually headed. What Rostow called the last stage of capitalism Sklar called the “mix.” Marx did regard the public joint-stock corporation as a transitional form between capitalism and socialism—but he meant that it laid the basis for socialism, not that it was a socialist institution. In his view of the mix, Sklar envisaged public corporations as being “as much socialist as capitalist entities.”
But the most telling departure from Marx was in his concept of historical agency. Marx’s theory was itself a departure from, but also an adaptation of, Hegel’s philosophy of history. Hegel had contended that history often proceeded by the “cunning of reason.” It was the resolution (as in physical vectors) of millions of different seemingly inconsistent, contradictory, unrelated intentions that cohered into Spirit’s singular intention and moved history forward in one direction rather than another. Marx thought the cunning of reason explained much of world history through the development of capitalism. Revolutions, for instance, were often fought on the basis of religion, but resulted in fundamental changes in the relations of production. In the transition to socialism, however, the working class, organized through a socialist party and conscious of its special role in history, would create a new society under its direction.
Earlier, Sklar had fully accepted this facet of Marx’s theory of history. In his Studies essay on Wilson, he drew a sharp distinction between Wilson’s view of history, which Wilson had inherited from Burke, and Marx’s view. Wilson’s view stressed the natural evolution of institutions and assigned to political actors a role in merely adapting society to these institutions. By contrast, Sklar wrote, “Marxism demands the understanding of objective laws of social development operating independently of man’s will precisely in order to subject social development to man’s conscious will.” In his Radical America essay, he argued that the emergence of a “variegated proletariat,” in which mental labor existed alongside manual, had laid the basis for a “modern universal class ... conscious of its historical significance” and capable of “moving into the next world-historical epoch.” The key to doing this was the creation of an explicitly socialist movement.
In his concept of the mix, Sklar jettisoned the need for an explicitly socialist party or movement. “The relative paucity of votes for a ‘Socialist Party,’” Sklar wrote, “does not mean that socialism has been absent from, or has not been a major characteristic of American society.” But then things got murky. On one hand, he suggested that corporate liberalism was the conscious movement that replaced a socialist movement. On the other hand, he reverted to Hegel’s cunning of reason and to Wilson’s natural evolutionary view of history. The mix was a mixture of socialism and capitalism, but it had developed without conscious agency. “Usually the same people,” he wrote, “have been engaged in constructing and affirming capitalism and socialism at the same time, whatever their intent” (my italics). That is Hegel’s idea of the cunning of reason, as applied to the mix, and it is a theory of historical agency that is entirely at odds with that of Marx or with Sklar’s own earlier writings.
In his concept of the mix, Sklar was returning to Wilson and Burke in another way, and stepping back over Marx to Hegel, whom he had read carefully and written about when he was at Rochester in the ‘60s. Like Hegel, Sklar suggested that his own time and country was the consummation of a historical development. The contradictions that had compelled history from one stage to another had been tamed and absorbed in the mix. And like the later Hegel, Sklar was positioning himself at the end of a period in which he had been a political participant. While Sklar asserted that the socialist part of the mix had gained power at the expense of capitalist, he no longer depicted socialism as a realm of freedom, outside capitalist exchange values. Instead, it was a current in the mix that might only be discerned analytically after the fact, as he himself was doing. “The owl of Minerva takes its flight only when the shades of night are gathering,” Hegel had written of philosophy.
Sklar’s theory of the mix, like his later theory of corporate liberalism or of the Open Door diplomacy, was an attempt to come to terms with the failings of his earlier theories and with Marx’s theory of history. Marx had believed that capitalism’s death knell would ring well before the twentieth century concluded. He didn’t anticipate the evaporation of American socialist politics, the rise and fall of the labor movement, the triumph of a bastardized state socialism in Russia or China, several world wars, the triumph of corporate capitalism, or for that matter the resurgence of the political right in the United States in the late twentieth century. Sklar attempted to come to terms with all these unexpected turns in the historical road.
Sklar was certainly justified in questioning Marx’s theory of the transition from capitalism to socialism. Marx, writing in the shadow of the French revolution, conceived the stages of history as being separated by a sharp revolutionary break. But capitalism had developed within feudal society, and it’s quite possible to conceive of socialism as developing within capitalism. Sklar began that discussion at a time when many Marxists had simply abandoned any attempt to comprehend the future. But he also took it to the point where socialism and capitalism became so intermingled that the terms began to lose their meaning. Sklar wrote, for instance, that “capitalism and socialism both exhibit class conflict, class complementarity and analytically distinct, yet historically intersecting modes of consciousness… the large corporation, smaller enterprise and the market in general are not simply capitalist.” But what did it mean to say that the market or a small business is partially socialist? Or that public corporation are “as much socialist as capitalist entities?”
On the least plausible level, Sklar seemed to be reverting to the old theories of “people’s capitalism” according to which public stock ownership meant that the public, or society, now owned private corporations. More plausibly, Sklar was recounting how agents of power (unions, public interest groups, government agencies, pension funds) had adapted “market relations to social goals” and fostered “corporate social accountability.” But when a union or government agency forces a corporation to adopt certain social objectives, does it transform the corporation into a partially socialist institution or does it simply force a capitalist institution to adopt certain socialist (that is, social and not merely private profit-driven) objectives without fundamentally altering the nature of the institution? When a corporation, under the eye of the Occupational Health and Safety Administration, adopts certain workplace protections, does it thereby become partially socialist?
In Germany, where there is worker co-determination, one could argue that corporations are no longer simply private institutions driven by the imperatives of capitalism. In Germany, unions, representing a company’s workers, are represented on corporate boards, and major wage and investment decisions often involve private management, unions and government. But in the United States, it would probably be more accurate to characterize corporations as capitalist institutions that occasionally bow to public demands to act in the national interest.
Sklar was also reluctant to allow the federal government to be a key arena where the imperatives of socialism clash with those of capitalism. Marx had called the state “the executive committee of the ruling class,” but over the last 150 years, the state has become a contested arena where the public has sought to limit or restrict the prerogatives of private businesses, and where the public has been able to achieve lasting institutional change. In the U.S., as the labor movement has declined, conflict over state power has become even more important. It has been the focus of the struggle between the Obama administration and the Republicans and Tea Party. But Sklar, eager to assert the supremacy of society over state, was reluctant to cast the state as a particularly important repository of socialist values. In his last years, Sklar’s anti-statism would led him to sympathize with the Republican and Tea Party rejection of Obama’s policies.
Sklar’s theory of the mix goes beyond the usual idea of a “mixed economy,” which merely applies to the greater role of government in the economy and not to the adoption of social goals by corporations or to the role of unions, public interest groups, foundations and other civic organizations. It allowed Sklar to go beyond consensus history by suggesting that socialism was developing within Lockean liberalism. But in suggesting that the mix could be found everywhere –even in the very nature of the limited-liability corporation – Sklar made the concept less useful for explaining historical conflict and change.
Sklar was also on grood grounds in rejecting the idea that only a socialist party could introduce socialist elements into capitalism. And he did suggest that corporate liberal movements could do the job. But in explaining the mix in the late 1990s, Sklar also insisted that a politician like Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a stalwart foe of unions and business regulation, was moving the country "leftward" -- whatever his actual intent. That, too clouded the concept of the mix. That said, one can imagine Sklar over the next decade clarifying his concept of the mix, removing the ambiguities in his treatment of the corporation and of liberal or leftwing politics. He seemed to be headed toward a conception of liberalism (in its twentieth century incarnation) as America's special and peculiar response to the rise of the public corporation and to disaccumulation. But this final synthesis would elude him.
Over the span of Sklar’s writings—from his years in Madison through the development of the “mix” in the 1990s—he continued to think of himself as a socialist and as a man of the left, and continued to insist that history was moving in his direction. When I worked with him on In These Times, he always used to talk about interpreting events “dialectically”—which meant, in his case, seeing the underlying socialist meaning in the Supreme Court’s Bakke decision or in Pope John Paul II’s Hegelian encyclicals. In 2000, Sklar joined historian Richard Schneirov and other former students in creating he William English Walling Society, which was named after an American socialist. In 2003, the Society held a conference in Washington D.C. to honor Sklar. Sklar continued to the very end to identify himself as a man of the left. The Letters on Obama, which appeared in 2012, were subtitled “From the Left.”
Some of the changes in Sklar’s views over the last three decades were the result of his having to reconcile his own commitment to socialism, which was rooted originally in American Communism, and then in the Sixties New Left, with a long period of conservative ascendancy in American politics. That period began with Richard Nixon’s election, was confirmed by Ronald Reagan’s two landslide victories, and reaffirmed by the conservative Republican capture of the House as well as the Senate in 1994 and by George W. Bush’s election in 2000. As the New Left expired—In These Times of the ‘70s was one of its last gasps—Sklar moved away from the Marxian socialism of the Radical America essay as an alternative to capitalism or imperialism. Wilson’s corporate liberalism became a leftwing alternative to statism; the Open Door a path to postimperialism, and the mix an alternative to both laissez-faire capitalism and state socialism. Disaccumulation became the catalyst for the mix rather than for a socialist revolution.
In the 1990s, Sklar characterized those who promoted corporate liberalism, Open Door diplomacy, and the mix as socialists or left-progressives who were moving America leftward. And he believed that America had turned leftward. That included the Republican Party. That made a certain amount of sense. Clinton, for instance, advertised himself as a centrist “new Democrat,” but he took positions on health insurance or worker retraining or environmental regulation that would have been inconceivable in the early twentieth century. America had moved leftward over the century. But there was also an element of rationalization creeping into Sklar’s position.
When the conservative Republicans won control of the House in November 1994, that boded ill for the country’s continuing movement leftward. They advocated disbanding many of the social and regulatory programs of the previous ninety years. But Sklar insisted that Gingrich was his kind of leftist. “In the 1990s,” Sklar wrote in 1998, “President William Clinton and House Speaker Newt Gingrich were the outstanding leaders of the this bipartisan leftward shift in party politics and the political culture.” By describing Gingrich in that manner, Sklar was beginning to allow his sentimental political commitments to shape his view of history. Sklar took a similar tack with George W. Bush. He supported Bush’s regressive tax cuts as being “left-Keynesian,” even though Keynes would not have backed tax cuts focused on those least likely to spend rather than save them. Sklar also supported the invasion of Iraq as a blow against “Islamist imperialism,” and continued to do so even after it had proved to be a deadly fiasco. He was casting “Islamist imperialism” in the role of fascism or Soviet communism and ignoring Bush’s own imperial pretensions. Yet it could still be said that Sklar was looking for a dialectical interpretation that demonstrated America’s continuing turn leftward. As Obama’s presidential campaign gained momentum, however, Sklar’s views took a distinctively undialectical turn.
Sklar’s Letters on Obama spanned the years 2008 to 2012. If Sklar had followed his past practice, he would have culled whatever was positive, and contributed to America’s movement leftward, from Obama’s presidency. Instead, the letters, which were primarily addressed to a roster of right-wingers, including Norman Podhoretz, Wall Street Journal editorial page columnist Daniel Henninger, and former Bush administration official or torture defender John Yoo, echoed a conservative—and in some cases, a very far rightwing—line on Obama’s president. Sklar depicted Obama’s presidency as a harbinger of an American fascism. He described Obama as a “state-command left-sectarian morphing right to fascism.” He warned that Obama’s presidency was leading to a “monolithic dictatorship or the breakup of the U.S., the latter more likely.” In foreign policy, he saw the Obama administration as
aligned with Islamist imperialism in world affairs as well as with Chavezist/Fidelist “3rd-World”-Fascist backwardness—anti-liberal democracy, anti-modern development—and is in effect (and in intent) disarming the U.S. in the war and the struggle, and dismantling its modern economy via “recovery,” “environmental,” and other such policies.
In The Corporate Reconstruction, Sklar had described a debate within the liberal tradition between Theodore Roosevelt’s statism and Wilson’s theory of positive government. But in the Letters, Sklar put Obama’s center-left politics well outside the liberal pale. “Obama and his colleagues” were the leading “sectarian leftists.” They were also “proto-fascist/communist,” “latter-day Leninists,” “Third-Worldist Sectarians” and “doctrinaire consumption Keynesians.” They appeared to be on the left, but were really on the right. Sklar even evoked Hitler’s film director Leni Riefenstahl to describe the setting of the Democratic convention in 2008.
Those who represented the left were improbably Bush, John McCain and Sarah Palin, and the Republican Party and the Tea Party. Sklar wrote that
the GOP/TP is, in my view, historically the left-progressive force still vibrant in the U.S., with a sustainable base in the half or more of the people who center their interests in the “private sector,” and in commitment to modern society, liberty, and freedom. I say left-progressive because the GOP/TP politics and policies stand for the following: pro-working-class growth and development and corresponding rising standards of living; development, not obstruction, of the modern forces of production, and the Constitutional-Republic securing the people’s sovereignty, and their life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness, in essence securing the cause of freedom in modem historical circumstances.
Sklar applauded the Tea Party calls for the repeal of the Affordable Care Act and for the rejection of government spending and of raising the debt limit. Sklar’s letters broke off before the November 2012 election, but he wrote in May 2010 that he was backing Palin for president:
Just now, Palin is my preferred “candidate” for President and, in general, [she’s] a leader of the Liberal-Democracy cause—she calls it “Conservatism”—but [in historical perspective,] she’s a very strong Left-Progressive [pro-development, pro-growth, pro-working-class, pro-women’s equality and pro-racial equality, pro-universal education, pro-liberty & -democracy, anti-fascist in domestic and foreign affairs, conservation-wise and socially distributive management of Alaska’s resources etc.]; she knows the issues now who’s our [U.S. democracy’s] enemies & our friends -- & very bright and brave [by historical analogy, a ‘TR Progressive’]. (The brackets above are from Sklar not from me.)
There were analytical passages in the letters that were on the level of Sklar’s earlier writing. There was a discussion of disaccumulation in which he described it as a “trend” and identified it with “the transition from goods production to services.” But there were other passages that suggest Sklar went off the rails. These included his endorsement of Palin and of Beck and apocalyptic warnings about fascism and dictatorship and the end of the U.S. There were other telltale signs of disorder. Sklar had also been anything but sloppy in his writing—he wrote everything by hand, and usually wrote in complete paragraphs—but the style of the Letters was often staccato and telegraphic. There were absurd misstatements such as a warning against “Black Panther/SEIU thuggery.” The Black Panthers were defunct by 1980.
I don’t know what happened to Sklar in the last ten years of his life. Age and illness may have taken their toll. But what I read from the letters is his continued bitterness at the left—not the imagined left of McCain and Palin, but the self-identified left of the Sixties and Seventies, of In These Times, and later of the academy. By the time he wrote The Letters, Sklar’s own ties with people on the left had frayed. The William Walling Society dissolved after the 2003 conference, and Sklar fell out to various degrees with his former students, most of whom had become distinguished historians. The only historian whose correspondence he included in the letters was Radosh, who, like him, had moved sharply to the right.
Some of the accusations that Sklar hurled at Obama went back to his own critique during the ‘70s of the New Left—among these, “sectarian,” “Leninist,” and “third-worldist.” (“Third Worldist” referred to the leftwing groups that championed Cuban or North Korean or Chinese brands of socialism.) They fit the early ‘70s groupuscules, but they didn’t apply by any stretch to the cautious, center-left politician who was elected President of the United States in November 2008. Why, one has to ask, was Sklar so obsessed with the self-identified left? My guess, based on my acquaintance with him, is that it had to do at the bottom with his feeling that he had never been given due, and that the left, and particularly leftwing historians, were primarily to blame.
In writing an appreciation of Sklar’s work, I considered omitting entirely The Letters on Obama. They have some interest because they show Sklar’s lifelong determination to see himself as a socialist and man of the left, even at the expense of inverting the usual categories, but they are not part of his lasting contribution to our understanding of American history. Sklar was important because he tried to answer the big questions that most of his colleagues, and most writers about politics, have ignored or avoided. And while he didn’t provide final answers, he came as close to doing so as any other historian of his generation.
His analysis of corporate liberalism—from the Wilson essay in Studies through The Corporate Reconstruction of American Capitalism—gets at the basic framework by which Americans over the last century have debated what government should do, and what the relationship should be between government and business. His analysis of disaccumulation—presented in almost incomprehensibly Marxist terms in the Radical America essay—delves into the transformation from industrial to post-industrial capitalism that has taken place from the 1920s to the present and that remains—witness the gobbledygook coming out of Silicon Valley—a subject of mystery. (Economist Lawrence Summers, freed from the fetters of government service, has taken up the issue in earnest.) His essays on Open Door diplomacy lay bare the assumptions of America’s post-imperial foreign policy. Would that George W. Bush and the neo-conservatives who still haunt Washington have understood and embraced these assumptions. And his discussion of the mix dwells on the question of where our history is headed and what defines left and right in American politics.
Much of Sklar’s intellectual career took the form of a debate with Marx. Even in The Letters, he attempted to show that Marx’s view of the “withering away of the state” accorded with his own the supremacy of society over state. One might argue that a continuing dialogue with Marx dated Sklar and makes his theories irrelevant. But I’d argue the contrary. Marx’s particular theories have been shown to be lacking, but not the historical enterprise that he and Hegel and other great historians have undertaken. If you look at the history of twentieth century liberalism, Herbert Croly was deeply influenced by Auguste Comte’s Hegelian theory of history; Reinhold Niebuhr and Daniel Bell by Marx. Hartz looked back to Hegel for inspiration. Many of the most compelling conservative thinkers—including James Burnham, Whittaker Chambers, Frank Meyer, and Irving Kristol—began, like Sklar, with the challenge of Marx. If you look today at the Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, much of its magnetic appeal is from Piketty having taking up the large questions where Marx left off.
Americans who aspire to understand where the country is headed ignore the big historical questions at their peril. And Sklar is well worth reading because he tried to answer them. He deserves in death the recognition that he didn’t really get in life. May he rest in peace, and may his work endure.
*I received advice and comments from James Livingston, William Burr, Larry Lynn, and Richard Schneirov, all of whom studied with Sklar, and kept in contact with him over the years.