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Wednesday, May 04, 2016

Sklar: Hegel and History, Part One

Courtesy of Bucknell University Archives
"Martin J. Sklar, who died in 2014, was a historian, left-wing activist, and original thinker. As a scholar/journalist-activist, he founded Studies on the Left, co-founded Socialist Revolution and In These Times, and was a founding member of The Historical Society." continues Telos Press.


As a historian, he originated the influential concepts of “corporate liberalism” and “disaccumulation” and shaped the thinking of historians of the Progressive Era, the Jefferson–Hamilton divide, Lincoln’s revolutionary role in ending slavery, the sources and consequences of U.S. imperialism—and more.

Three interrelated ideas that Sklar derived from his study of U.S. history, particularly the Progressive Era, in conjunction with his reading in political economy and political philosophy, guided both his research agenda and his activism. First, the United States has been, for most of its existence, to the present, a majority left-wing country, understood as favoring liberty, equality, and progress. Second, socialism (particularly since Lenin’s talk of “commanding heights”) has been widely misunderstood, by proponents and well as opponents, as government ownership or control of business. Third, socialists (especially those living in and/or studying the United States) have looked for “socialism” in the wrong places—in parties and self-proclaimed (often sectarian) leftist “leaders,” rather than (as with capitalism, feudalism, etc.) in empirically observable socio-economic relations and institutions (Marx’s “relations of production”).

In his last years, building on and further specifying his understanding of political economy and politics, Sklar originated two more ideas, which may over time surpass “corporate liberalism” and “disaccumulation” in their influence. First, his notion of a “capitalism/socialism mix,” while affirming the older “mixed economy” idea that the two systems might coexist (“co-develop” was Sklar’s term) for an extended period of time, he upended the other tenet of conventional “mixed economy” theory, i.e., that capitalism = private ownership/control whereas socialism = government ownership/control. Instead, he postulated a measurable “capitalist investment component” and a corresponding “socialist investment component,” with the understanding that both CIC and SIC inhere in government and in civil society. Second, by the dawn of the twenty-first century, Sklar believed that U.S. politics were undergoing a “transvestiture of left and right,” whereby many self-proclaimed leftists affirmed historically right-wing ideas like group privilege (identity politics), sympathy with authoritarian regimes and movements (third-worldism), anti-growth policies (extreme “environmentalism”), and restrictions on freedom of expression (“safe spaces,” etc.), whereas there was mirror-image movement toward historically left-wing ideas by many avowed rightists. Sklar’s notion of such a “transvestiture” alienated some long-time friends.

This is the first in a series of posts that will introduce Sklar to new readers and refresh or update the memories of those already familiar with his work. A future Telos symposium will provide critical perspectives on Sklar’s wide-ranging ideas, and a posthumously published book (American Century and World Revolution) will provide a summing up of his views.

The first excerpt, below, is from an unpublished 1960s essay on Hegel. Hegel—like Marx, not least because of Hegel’s influence on him—was a crucial source for Sklar’s bedrock assumption, confirmed by his research, that historical development is evolutionary, cumulative, and (ultimately) rooted in reason. The next post will provide illustrative examples, from his writings, of this influence. At the end of the following excerpt, Sklar’s 2013 notation on his 1960s discussion of reason is typical of his very latest writing, most of which consisted of letters. In these letters, Sklar drew on his deep and wide historical study to understand contemporary events. In this case, his affirmation of the role of reason in history led him to endorse Pope Benedict’s implied critique of Islamic anti-rationalism.

—Norton Wheeler 
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Source: Telos Press


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