Marty Sklar, Giant in History, Has Passed Awaytags: economics, Sklar
Martin J. Sklar (b. 1935), one of the great historians of the 20 century, died last week in Harrisburg, PA. Here is something I wrote about him back in 2012 but refrained from publishing until now. I was trying then to guarantee that his intellectual legacy wouldn’t be reduced to his late rantings about the Obama administration. Now I’m just hoping.
The first time we stopped talking for ten years—this was the winter of 1979—I figured I’d never see the man again. His parting shot was “You’ve always been locked in an Oedipal struggle with me, Livingston.” My response was, “What else is new, you’re my teacher, what does a student do except try to kill off his figurative father? But I don’t want to fuck your wife, and my mother is dead.” I was nowhere near sober when I said it. Neither was he when he heard it. (Among other things, we were disagreeing about how I had replaced him as the editorial writer at In These Times: he thought I was breaking his one-man strike against the publisher, I thought I was doing good.)
But I knew this old mole would haunt me. Altogether we haven’t spoken for at least twenty years of a forty-year acquaintance; that’s half of the time since we met. No matter. He’s always there, in my head, an ancient superego—I almost said spirit—with unlimited access to every waking dream I write. His name is Martin J. Sklar. I have elsewhere said that he’s the most original and profound thinker I’ve ever encountered, in print or in person, and by now this roster runs from Aristotle to Zizek.
But I write this preemptive memorial because Sklar has recently published an e-book called Letters on Obama (From the Left), a document that could disfigure his intellectual legacy, as a late codicil to a will can obliterate its original intent. I write in sorrow—I feel like I’ve been disowned all over again—but also in the hope of restoring, or at any rate clarifying, this legacy.
The Letters are, in fact epistolary—they are dated documents sent to unnamed friends (with the exception of Ronald Radosh) and to avowedly right-wing pundits, celebrities, and lawyers, among them Norman Podhoretz and John Yoo. There is also the inevitable letter to President Obama, telling him what must be done to save the economy and the nation. The tattered, hasty, digressive quality of the letters make the book seem urgent, suggesting that the first person form of address must matter to readers. But in fact its urgency derives from Sklar’s performance as a voice in the wilderness—he believes that his warnings about the totalitarian and fascist implications of the “Obama regime” have been ignored, and that all his previous thinking has led him to this crossroads.
I met him in 1971 because I was getting involved, as an undergraduate at Northern Illinois University, in the social-democratic successor to SDS and the wider Left called New American Movement. He and James Weinstein (also John Judis, Nick Rabkin, and others affiliated with Socialist Revolution, a new journal out of San Francisco) were the intellectual heavyweights of this moment. I was introduced to the mix by my mentor Marvin Rosen, a young faculty member of the History department at NIU. Like everybody else on the scene, he had been thoroughly radicalized by his glancing experience of the cultural revolution made by the New Left, and had been galvanized by Sklar’s arrival in DeKalb, Illinois—Marty had taken a job as an assistant professor at NIU in 1970, with a mere M.A. from Wisconsin but ecstatic endorsements from William Appleman Williams, Eugene D. Genovese, Hayden White, and Christopher Lasch, not to mention Howard Beale and Fred Harvey Harrington or the backing of old friends like Carl Parrini, another Wisconsin alumnus, in Northern’s department of History.
With New American Movement, Marty and Jimmy, et al., were trying to put political-institutional flesh on the intellectual skeleton they had assembled first at Studies on the Left, the Madison-based journal they moved to New York in 1963; then in the “seminars” they convened in 1968 along with Genovese, Williams, Lasch, and Gar Alperovitz; and then again at SR. NAM was a vital organism until 1975. We held the organization’s annual meeting at the NIU Student Center in the summer of 1974—the summer of Nixon’s resignation!—when my (then) wife was elected to the National Interim Council because she was a non-white female who also happened to be smart, funny, and deeply committed to the cause. Then it bled out, neatly punctured by the old intellectual vampires of the New Left, flowing quickly toward variations on the laughable themes of “workplace organizing” and Marxist-Leninist purity.
The intellectual skeleton Sklar and Weinstein had assembled wasn’t very complicated, but it was incredibly controversial on the Left of that moment. Its spine was made of these vertebrae: socialism wasn’t a foreign import, Marxism was already the mainstream of intellectual discourse (see: the humanities, NYRB, TNR), mere radicalism was insufficient to the task of revolution, electoral politics would be essential to the success of the Left, liberalism wasn’t the antithesis of anything important, and all of American history—every goddamn speck of it—was a potentially usable past, right down to constitutional jurisprudence and ruling-class consciousness. SR became the display case for these fragile bones until Jimmy and Marty revealed their next project, the new Iskra, which they called In These Times. Take a cursory look at SR ca. 1973-1977, and you’ll find a lot of articles, letters, and manifestoes by members of the DeKalb chapter of NAM, by myself among others.
Sklar left NIU in 1976 to write editorials for ITT, once again hoping to make a difference on the Left, and for the Left, construed as a real movement reaching beyond the campus. The History department had voted overwhelmingly in favor of his tenure even though he lacked a PhD and had expressed no interest in getting one. (He could have through the University of Rochester, where he was ABD, but he told me later that he suffered through the 70s from writer’s block; it didn’t show in the brilliant editorials he wrote). Carl Parrini and I had collaborated on a ten-page letter endorsing tenure for Marty, noting the various uses to which his unpublished work had been put by established scholars and lesser mortals without proper acknowledgment (for example, an undergraduate paper written for Merrill Jensen on Alexander Hamilton and manufacturing). Al Young had written an even longer letter to the same effect. But we all knew he was gone, and some of us followed him—one of the benefits of graduate school at NIU was the opportunity to participate in the discussion and articulation of ITT’s founding principles.
In that last year at Northern, Sklar taught a year-long reading/research seminar called “The Corporate Reorganization of American Society, 1896-1914.” The syllabus ran more than 50 pages—every week was densely packed with a dozen readings from the period and more contemporary takes on this so-called Progressive Era. It was an event. I couldn’t stand it. Don’t get me wrong, I learned a lot, and you could say that my dissertation book of 1986 on the Fed was one result of that seminar; you could say the same about his book of 1988. But as I told Marty in December of 1976, then again that winter day in 1979, I dropped the course after the first semester because I believed he was teaching us what to think, not how—I was sure that everybody in the class, myself included, approached each reading with one question in mind: what does Sklar want us to make of this?
Most people have one big idea in their lives, and they pursue it more or less relentlessly, albeit unconsciously. I don’t mean that Isaiah Berlin was right about hedgehogs and foxes. I mean instead that most of us don’t change our minds often enough to have a new idea, or even a fresh insight, so we’re pretty much destined to be hedgehogs, always rooting in the first intellectual territory we claimed.
Martin J. Sklar is different, but he’s not a fox as Berlin would classify this intellectual species. No, Marty has had at least four big ideas in his eight decades on this earth. I’ll list them, and let them sink in: (1) corporate liberalism, ca. 1900-present; (2) the disaccumulation of capital, ca. 1919-present; (3) post-imperialism as a dimension of American/Open Door diplomacy, ca. 1900-present; (4) the mix of capitalism and socialism in the development of the US, ca. 1900-present.
Sklar coined the term “corporate liberalism” in his seminal essay on Woodrow Wilson, first published in Studies on the Left 1 (1960): 7-47. Over the next ten years, the term—the concept—entered the lexicon of the New Left, in both its activist and its academic guises, to the point where SDS manifestoes (“America and the New Order” ) and scholarly monographs (including Weinstein’s own Corporate Ideal in the Liberal State ) routinely deployed it. (Jeffrey Lustig’s eponymous book of 1986 remains a mystery to me because it contains no mention of Sklar and no trace of the larger “oral tradition” that sustained both intellectual and political interest in the concept after 1960—where did he think this idea came from?—but then he was a political scientist.) In subsequent decades, the concept also became a point of contention for social/labor historians who mistook it for a claim that corporate liberals were omniscient rulers from the capitalist class, and who, accordingly, disputed its explanatory scope in the name of working-class agency and insurgency. By the 1980s, however, diplomatic historians up against old-school Wisconsin revisionism, particularly Melvyn Leffler and Michael Hogan, had started using “corporatism” to characterize the Cold War alliance forged between internationalist businessmen, politicians, scholars, and State Department policy- makers, having somehow forgotten that this concept carried the anti-liberal connotations of syndicalism, statism, and fascism.
Sklar tried to correct everyone in The Corporate Reconstruction of American Capitalism, 1890-1916: The Market, the Law, and Politics (1988), the book that issued from his Rochester PhD dissertation of 1982, which was “supervised” by his old friend Gene Genovese. (Sklar left ITT in 1979, in a dispute with Weinstein over control of the editorial pages, quit smoking, then reanimated his academic career by returning to the legal history of anti-trust which had preoccupied him in the 1960s.) In this now neglected book, he stressed that corporate liberalism was (a) the cross-class social movement that created corporate capitalism by accommodating small business, absorbing—not annihilating—Populism, and addressing socialism; and (b) the cross-class ideology that preserved and renewed the two core liberal principles of American politics, viz, the supremacy of society over the state (the sovereignty of the people) and the priority of individual identity over any functional, occupational, or ethnic group. In short: it wasn’t a ruling-class conspiracy, and it wasn’t corporatism.
Sklar clearly failed to convince anyone, most notably himself, that the distinction he made between corporatism and corporate liberalism was worth maintaining—for he now denounces what he calls the “Obama regime,” the center-left coalition that obviously upholds Woodrow Wilson’s vision of “positive government,” as a totalitarian band of gangsters and fascists bent on merging the Party and the State, thus erasing the difference between state and society. I am not making this up, but don’t take my word for it: see Letters on Obama, Part I.
What Sklar hasn’t learned from his own close study of American politics is that the difference between the American and, say, the German response to the catastrophe of the Great Depression was the liberal inheritance that insisted on the priority of the individual and the supremacy of society over that state. The expiration of the NIRA in 1935 signifies the end of FDR’s experiment with state-centered syndicalist planning, and the end of American flirtation with fascism. The closest we have since come to a quasi-fascist reprise occurred when George W. Bush and Dick Cheney claimed the powers of a “unitary executive” under cover of a “war on terror”: the Party and the State of War did then merge, but only briefly and tentatively, in the moral darkness of Guantanamo. Note that the military, normally the armature of fascist dictatorship, fought back against the violations of liberal principle proposed and enacted by the Bush administration. So did Republicans in the Senate.
To suggest, as Sklar now does in the Letters, that Obama and his apparatchiki are fascists, that the ferociously anti-statist opinions of Tea Party Republicans represent the last stand of our liberal inheritance, or that George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, John McCain, Sarah Palin, and Mitt Romney represent a robust left wing of the political spectrum, is to repudiate what he has so painstakingly taught us. It is to sacrifice historical judgment on the altar of political purpose—exactly what he has always said he can’t abide.
I have no objection, mind you, to redrawing the ideological map that locates Left and Right. As Sklar’s sort-of-student, acquaintance, and part-time translator, I’ve long been urging us to relinquish the ideas that have petrified our thinking on this very difference, particularly the idea that liberals, radicals, and conservatives have nothing in common (cf. Corey Robin on the reactionary mind as radicalism in reverse). But his recent Letters ignore, invert, and distort these categories. It’s one thing to put them in motion, keep them in question. It’s quite another to render them meaningless.
If you want to revisit the arguments of the 1988 book, which seem quaintly dignified in view of the Letters, you can read my review for In These Times—“It was worth waiting twenty years for,” Weinstein said when he asked me to review it—or see my “How to Succeed in Business History Without Really Trying” Business & Economic History 2 series (1992). Or go to the book itself, but make sure you memorize pp. 6-9, 29-35, 362, and 436-37 before deciding where you stand.
Long before the book, while a PhD student and SDS leader at the University of Rochester, Sklar had invented the notion of disaccumulation: see his “On the Proletarian Revolution and the End of Political-Economic Society,” Radical America (May-June 1969): 1-41, reprinted in The United States as a Developing Country (1992). It’s not an easy read. Suffice it here to say that Sklar used Marx’s theory of accumulation to show that in the second and third decades of the 20 century, output and productivity began to increase without additional inputs of either capital or labor—for the first time in human history. In other words, growth proceeded as the function of a declining volume of net private investment, on the one hand, and a technologically driven extrication of living labor from goods production, on the other.
The implications of these trends are momentous. To begin with, the labor theory of value becomes moot, as “socially necessary labor” recedes and workers become mere watchmen and regulators in a production process in which they were once the main characters. The capital-labor relation that created class conflict and consciousness recedes accordingly, changing social relations (including consciousness) to the same extent. Moreover, any intelligible relation between the production of value through work and the receipt of income is now obscured at best. And consumer expenditures no longer represent a constraint on economic growth because their proportional reduction of saving and investment no longer matters—again, growth proceeds as a function of declining net investment.
A half-century ago, Roy Harrod and Evsey Domar translated John Maynard Keynes’s General Theory (1936) into a theory of growth, which is, by definition, a theory of crisis as well. The result, the “Harrod-Domar model,” is still part of the macroeconomics curriculum, probably because it draws so heavily on the Marxist sources and tangents of the Keynesian Revolution, including Michal Kalecki and the Soviet planning debates of the 1920s. You might say that John Judis and I are the Harrod and Domar of Sklar’s concept of disaccumulation; for we have tried, over the years, to translate it into a theory of growth and crisis. The results are not yet part of any curriculum I know of, but you can sample John’s efforts at The New Republic as recently as 2013 and mine in Pragmatism and the Political Economy of Cultural Revolution (1994) or Against Thrift (2011).
In view of the trends specific to disaccumulation, the worst possible fiscal policy is to reduce taxes on corporate or business profits, in the hope that higher profits will induce more private investment, thus more jobs, higher productivity, and increased per capita incomes. This policy will always and inevitably produce bubbles, because once disaccumulation commences, profits become more or less superfluous—they aren’t required to drive growth via investment, so they flow toward speculative markets, as in the 1920s, and as in the long boom-bust cycle following the Reagan Revolution, ca. 1983-2009, when transfers of income shares from labor to capital made not just for inequality but for economic crisis, or rather produced crisis by enhancing inequality.
To suggest, as Sklar now does in the Letters, that a tax-cutting, pro-business fiscal policy must be the cause of the (liberal) Left is to ignore the economic history of the 20 century illuminated by his own theory of capital disaccumulation—and to consign the majority of Americans, not just the young and the old, to a future in which penury becomes normal and business cycles become unmanageable. The last time I spoke to Marty (on the phone in 2003), we argued angrily about the probable effects of the Bush tax cuts. I said another bubble, another crash, he said solid growth. If we may judge from the Letters on Obama, not even the Great Recession has changed his mind, despite the fact that it was a phenomenon made predictable and preventable by his own intellectual efforts of 40-plus years ago.
Sklar’s brother Richard, a political scientist at UCLA (now emeritus), is credited with the concept of “post-imperialism,” which he introduced in 1976. Richard developed the concept as a way of sketching a de-centered, post-colonial, trans-national order managed, but not dominated, by a corporate bourgeoisie without borders—think Hardt & Negri’s Empire (1999) minus Spinoza and you’ve got a grip on the argument. Richard was interested mainly in what a post-imperialist order would mean for the new nations of Africa and, by analogy, the developing countries of Asia. His brother saw a bigger picture.
Marty had already made original contributions to the revisionist cause with his M.A. Thesis on Wilson and the China consortium. William Appleman Williams said as much in the 2nd (1962) edition of The Tragedy of American Diplomacy (1959), when he cited Sklar’s analysis of John Hay’s third installment of the Open Door notes (see also Ivan Dee’s essay in Lloyd Gardner, ed. Redefining the Past , a festschrift in honor of Williams, as well as Gardner’s introduction).
The key to that analysis, in the thesis of 1960 and after, was the significance Hay accorded to investment in defining “a fair field and no favor” as the goal of an Open Door world. To my knowledge, Sklar and Parrini are the only revisionists from the Wisconsin school convened by Harrington and Williams who have understood and emphasized this dimension of modern American imperialism, as theory and in practice. Scholars from other disciplines, particularly economics (Bill Warren, Jeffrey Frieden), have also understood it, but none so thoroughly, and none, save perhaps Hardt & Negri, have grasped its post-imperialist implications. (Long story short: Hobson and Hilferding notwithstanding, once investment rather than trade drives imperial goals, the “transfer of technology” becomes the material means of hegemony, and this transfer must reduce the quotient of exploitation in the relation between imperial powers and host nations. Dependency and “world systems” theories make sense as far as they go, in other words, in explaining uneven development as a consequence of free trade, but when investment supersedes trade as the key variable in international economic relations, their explanatory adequacy wanes.)
In a short published piece of 1999, Sklar examined those implications, suggesting that as early as 1900, US policy-makers were designing and implementing, to the extent American power permitted, the post-imperialist world order they called the Open Door. In doing so, he was both preserving and transcending what Williams had wrought in Tragedy, and what his brother had written in 1976. He wasn’t the first to go beyond Williams or to broaden the chronological scope of “post-imperialism”—Keith Haynes did that—but he was the first to recast modern American diplomacy as an intellectual continuum animated by the quest for a world in which imperialism was a relic of barbarism.
You will laugh out loud at this proposition, and reach for Noam Chomsky or Andrew Bacevich when your diaphragm has returned to normal. I still think Sklar was right, and that this big idea of his needs elaboration. The trouble is, he doesn’t.
Since 2001, he has instead been railing against “the Islamists” and their threat to western civilization in the clinically hysterical rhetorical mode made familiar by Paul Berman, Christopher Hitchens, and Dick Cheney: those terrorists might as well be Nazis, therefore we need to take the fight to them as we did in the 1940s when confronted with a comparable existential threat! And as we did in (the farce of) 2003. The Letters accordingly depict the inevitable military withdrawals from Afghanistan and Iraq as appeasement of the enemy, and indeed cast Obama as a stealthy infiltrator—as someone trying to tilt the world in favor of the Islamo-fsacists. The alternative to such appeasement, according to Sklar, is more boots on the ground in the Middle East, permanently, and more power to a president willing to rely on John Yoo’s tortured rendition of the Constitution. Again, I am not making this up: see for yourself in the Letters, Parts 2 and 3.
Sklar has, in this sense, repressed and mutilated the intellectual legacy offered him by the policy-makers he studied, by Williams, and again by his own brother: he has disowned himself. For if they taught us anything, and if the catastrophe called the 20 century has any lessons still worth learning, it is that military superiority means nothing in the long run—maybe even in the short run, from the Gulf of Tonkin, say, to the Tet Offensive—and that the expansion of executive power inevitably means the decay of democracy.
Sklar denies that his concept of “the mix”—the interpenetration of capitalism and socialism in the development of the US in the 20 century—has any genealogical roots in the postwar notion of a “mixed economy” (a notion that had social-intellectual sources in the idea of a “post-industrial society,” which was, however, a form of resistance to the idea of totalitarianism). He might have a point. His definitions of socialism and capitalism are deeply informed by historical consciousness and evidence rather than moral categories and imperatives. Still, I wish he had acknowledged some of these bourgeois roots, as I wish he had acknowledged them in developing the concept of disaccumulation.
But there is no doubt that “the mix” as Sklar presents it makes us think differently about the relation between capitalism and socialism. If you take him seriously, you can’t believe that these are the terms of an either/or choice, or stages of a necessarily linear historical progression. You have to start looking for socialism in places you wouldn’t expect to find it because you begin to understand that it has no predictable political valence—it can be democratic, it can be despotic, it can be both—and that it can never simply replace capitalism.
In analyzing the causes of the Great Recession, Sklar suggests that the socialist components of “the mix”—Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, among others—were as culpable as the capitalist components. Here again he might have a point, if only he made it. Instead, he writes as if the necessary regulatory corrections contained in Dodd-Frank are at best onerous and at worst evidence of the Obama regime’s quest for statist command of the market. And once again a tax-cutting, pro-business policy becomes the cure for everything that ails us.
One of the crucial moves that Sklar made in explaining “the mix” was to claim that socialism and statism aren’t identical, or, to put the same proposition another way, that socialism resides in and flows from markets, commodities, and price systems—in and from what we typically associate exclusively with capitalism. Regulation of the market in the name of social goals is of course a result of public policy enforced by state power and judicial rulings, but it’s also the result of price systems managed, modulated, and changed by non-governmental organizations such as trade unions, interest groups, and consumer boycotts.
I would like to take Sklar as seriously as I have in the past, but he has now decided that every policy proposed by the Obama regime enlarges the regulatory role of the state, and thus distorts “the mix” between public and private enterprise—as I suppose any fascist regime would do. He has chosen to ignore the vast and still mounting evidence that shows the president is perfectly willing, indeed eager, to accredit and subsidize private enterprise in seeking both economic recovery and long-term growth.
I would go to court to challenge this spastic codicil, these Letters on Obama, if there were such a place to register my disapproval and disagreement. But there’s no such place, and if there were, how would my standing be measured? I’m not Martin J. Sklar’s heir apparent any more than Ronald Radosh or John Yoo is.
I write to restore your memory, not mine—I don’t want you to let this late deviation determine your approach to the rest of what the man has given us. I’m not asking you to overlook it, as if you need to forgive him for a “senior moment.” I’m asking you to ignore it.
As I have elsewhere argued, Gene Genovese’s political odyssey makes sense—he could never locate a source of redemption or renewal in the actually existing social relations of his time, so he posited a world elsewhere that was the intellectual’s equivalent of religious faith. Marty Sklar was, until recently, too Hegelian for that—socialism was immediately practical and eminently plausible, he insisted, or it was pie in the sky. As both Hegel and Marx taught us, either we assume the ethical principles we live by are at least faintly legible in the historical circumstances we live with, or we become utopians (radicals or reactionaries) seeking escape from the world as it is.
In a tragic parody of Genovese, Sklar has turned himself into another reactionary utopian, desperate to find a principle of hope in a world elsewhere. He’s able to register the political decadence of actually existing socialism—but he locates it “domestically,” unlike Genovese and every other leftist, in the “fascist” denouement of the New Left carried out by the “Obama regime,” rather than in the “deviations” of a Stalinist Soviet Union or in the more recent vandalization of socialism in the People’s Republic. Meanwhile Sklar is unable to recognize the atrocities generated daily by actually existing capitalism: these are figments of the Left’s deluded imagination. As a result, he has no historical grounding for his arguments except the epoch of Civil War and Reconstruction, where, as you might imagine, Obama is cast as Tilden, not Lincoln.
So “the mix” still has a verifiable, empirical significance for Sklar, but the intellectual balance the concept once gave him are gone. When socialism becomes fascism, capitalism looks like the moral high ground. No wonder he now searches for validation on the Right by writing fan letters to Podhoretz and Yoo—where else can he turn?
Martin J. Sklar was one of the great historians of the 20 century. For much of that century, he was also a faithful servant of the Left at its very best. He tried to change its course, to make it a self-consciously mainstream movement rather than a marginal collection of individuals devoted to dissent—which is to say, defined by faith in another world, which would appear after capitalism, after exploitation, after this life in these times. In 1957, in the aftermath of the Soviet invasion of Hungary, Marty founded the Socialist Club in Madison with that mainstream possibility in mind; it was soon the most popular student organization on campus. With the same possibility in mind, he founded Studies on the Left, Socialist Revolution, and In These Times. In this sense, I guess, he, too, was a man of faith. He believed in what was evident yet unknown, and acted upon it. He conveyed, no, he lived, the conviction of things unseen. But until very late in his life, he was in and of this world, without apologies. Thank God, he was not a beautiful soul.
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