Letters to the Editor

By Democracy Readers

What Argument?

Like so many of the debates among the foreign-policy philosophers, the supposed strategy disagreements in Leslie H. Gelb’s piece [“Countering the Neocon Comeback,” Issue #35] seem to be mainly verbal, and a matter of rhetorical emphasis—sprinkled with some personal and professional rivalry.

Robert Kagan has now adopted much of the “liberal order” framework of Democrats like G. John Ikenberry and Anne-Marie Slaughter. And why shouldn’t he? There are no fundamental ideological and strategic differences between the neoconservatives and the liberals—only pragmatic differences about when to be cautious and when to be assertive.

Dan Kervick
Bow, N.H.

The Public Life

Thanks for Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s essay. [“Securing the American Character,” Issue #33] My grandson served a year as a combat medic in Afghanistan, and a granddaughter volunteered in New Orleans twice (just after Katrina and again after another hurricane hit there), plus took time out from her studies at the University of California for work-study missions to São Paulo, Hanoi, and other such trouble spots. Both had ups and downs and went through risky situations (to put it mildly), but both matured greatly and gained broad perspectives on living in this world.

Each says these were peak experiences in their lives so far, and though we are proud of their sacrifices and service to others, they agree that they received more benefits than they gave.

Every youth should be encouraged to take such opportunities to learn and to help build a better society.

Full disclosure: I served 28 years in the Navy and Air Force, including fighter ops in the Korean and Vietnam Wars. I was privileged to serve and am proud that my progeny are following a similar path of public service.

Paul Smith
Los Gatos, Calif.

Correcting the Historical Record

In the Jewish tradition, it is particularly commendable to help bury a person, because the deceased is no longer able to do anything for himself. In that spirit, I write to help set the record straight about historian Martin J. Sklar, who died in 2014 and can no longer defend his reputation. In the Winter 2015 issue of this journal, Rich Yeselson provided a thumbnail sketch of Sklar in an article that reflected on “New Left” historical writing, primarily through the prism of Gabriel Kolko and his scholarship. The brief profile of Sklar within the article yields a distorted picture.

Yeselson accurately reports that Sklar was “a graduate student at [the University of] Wisconsin, [who] invented the term ‘corporate liberalism.’ ” While it may be appropriate in a Kolko-focused essay to provide Kolko’s understanding of the latter term—“political capitalism,” as he called it, the “purported collusion between political and business elites”—a fuller précis of the views of the term’s originator is in order than “a sophisticated analysis that carefully distinguished different variants” plus some references to labor unions, which were not central to Sklar’s development of the concept. In his 1960 Studies on the Left essay, “Woodrow Wilson and the Political Economy of Modern United States Liberalism,” Sklar called corporate liberalism “the bourgeois Yankee cousin of modern European and English social-democracy.” He both retained and enriched that understanding over the course of his career. Earlier in the essay, Sklar wrote, “[Woodrow] Wilson’s position on the ‘trust’ question cannot be accurately understood apart from his firm conviction that law must correspond with the facts of economic life, must accommodate the people, their habits and institutions to, and facilitate, natural economic development, and in the process achieve the general welfare or national interest.”

Yeselson understates Sklar’s role as a political journalist and public intellectual. The article accurately calls Studies on the Left the “most significant historical journal of the New Left,” but while mentioning the association of Eugene Genovese and James Weinstein with the journal, omits the significant fact that Sklar was its founding editor. (Sklar later became co-founding editor of the journal Socialist Revolution and the newspaper In These Times and a founding member of The Historical Society, publisher of the recently discontinued Journal of The Historical Society.)

In writing that “Kolko, unlike erstwhile comrades like Genovese, Sklar, and Radosh, remained a committed leftist,” Yeselson distorts Sklar’s late political views. He cites only two of the three eulogies of Sklar that have been published to date, those by John Judis and James Livingston, both of whom believe that Sklar became a conservative late in life. While there is much of value in these eulogies, one can gain a fuller picture by also reading Ronald Radosh’s “A Eulogy for Martin J. Sklar, 1935-2014: Historian, Patriot, and Socialist.” Note: “socialist.” With respect to Sklar’s political views, Radosh is more accurate than Judis or Livingston. In this regard, consider also the title of Sklar’s 2012 e-book: Letters on Obama (from the Left). Note: “from the left.” This is not a simple matter. Sklar took many positions in the twenty-first century that corresponded to positions taken by avowed conservatives. When I once described Marty as a “Tea Party booster,” he corrected me, stating that he was, rather, “assessing the significance of the role they’re playing in current historical circumstances.” Those who have read his e-book may recall that Sklar discussed a development he called “the transvestiture of left and right.” By this, he meant that many avowed leftists had begun affirming such historically right-wing ideas as group privilege (identity politics), sympathy with authoritarian regimes and movements (third-worldism), anti-growth policies, and restrictions on freedom of expression, whereas there was mirror-image movement toward historically left-wing ideas by many avowed rightists. While no one is obliged to be persuaded by Sklar’s views, acknowledging them—including his enduring self-affirmation as a man of the left—is sound intellectual practice. In any case, far more important than someone’s alleged status as “liberal,” “conservative,” “left,” “right,” “Marxist,” “consensus historian,” etc. is the quality of his or her scholarship. Rather than using labels to valorize or condemn scholars, we should read and then critically and honestly evaluate what they have written.

Sklar’s historical and political understanding evolved—cumulatively, in the best tradition of Hegel and Marx. He became increasingly—“progressively,” he might have joked—disenchanted with sectarian leftists who saw themselves as an unappreciated vanguard. He also arrived at an understanding that capitalism and socialism have co-developed American society for at least a century, with each element residing within both government (the state) and the private economy (civil society) (For instance, see his essay “Thoughts on Capitalism and Socialism: Utopian and Realistic,” in the Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era.) These two developments, though, only highlight the more pronounced continuities in Sklar’s historical and political thinking. Consider, for example, a typical statement in a 1977 piece, “The Two American Dreams,” for In These Times, which he could as easily have made in 1960 or in 2014: “The big mistake American socialists have made for some time now is to identify socialism with statism, with the requirements of social revolution in other countries with different historical experiences and with different kinds of economic development.” Sklar consistently affirmed the supremacy of society over the state as a core principle of left-wing socialism. He rejected as right-wing socialism notions, like Yeselson’s, that “a statist liberalism” is “the best bulwark against the concentrated wealth and power of conservative billionaires.”

With one small change—replace “speeches” with “writings”—the Wilson quotation that serves as an epigraph to Sklar’s seminal “corporate liberalism” essay can double as a commentary on the reception of Sklar’s own work: “Most persons are so thoroughly uninformed as to my opinions that I have concluded that the only things they have not read are my speeches.”

Norton Wheeler, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of History
Missouri Southern State University

Rich Yeselson responds:

I thank Professor Norton Wheeler for his remarks about Martin Sklar, but, aside from noting correctly that he was a founding editor of Studies on the Left, I don’t think he has provided much illumination on either Sklar’s historical work or his late-in-life politics.

Regarding the former, one can find a clear and coherent definition of Sklar’s notion of “corporate liberalism” in John Judis’s essay in The New Republic. And Judis’s definition is quite helpful because Sklar, as Wheeler, surely knows, was a notoriously terrible writer, a frequent disseminator of obscurities that occluded his often brilliant insights. Insisting that readers can understand Sklar’s ideas about corporate liberalism, in his phrase calling it “the bourgeois Yankee cousin of modern European and English social-democracy” (themselves very different things, I should note), rather makes my point. At best, that is merely restating what still needs to be explained. Wheeler’s subsequent and longer quotation by Sklar regarding Woodrow Wilson and trust policy, with its paradoxically vague emphasis on the word facilitate, is even more Delphic.

As for Sklar’s contemporary political analysis in the last 20 or so years of his life, my task was not to analyze his work after he passed through his phase as a New Left historian, anymore than it was to analyze the fascinating post-Marxist work of Eugene Genovese or Ronald Radosh’s post-leftist scholarship either.

But, yes, I did note, descriptively not pejoratively, that all three of them had moved to the right in subsequent years and if I had had more space I would have mentioned that Sklar insisted otherwise. Wheeler thinks this is unfair to Sklar and believes that Sklar’s own opinion of what to call his late-stage politics is dispositive. Wheeler takes Sklar’s word for it that he was some kind of leftist at the end of his life, but the rest of us might read that self-labeling with bit more skepticism. As Wheeler himself writes, “Sklar took many positions in the twenty-first century that corresponded to positions taken by avowed conservatives.” In the tribute to Sklar written by Radosh which Wheeler cites in his letter, Radosh observes that Sklar supported the writing and/or work of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Sarah Palin, Clarence Thomas, and John Yoo, all the while attempting to incorporate them into what Sklar, quoted by Radosh, called, “the robust leftwing of the political spectrum.”

Okay…we can resolutely agree with Sklar about Sklar. Or perhaps we ought to take these positions at face value, rather than yielding to the self-interested reframing of them by their author. Professor Wheeler writes grandly and a bit condescendingly that we should should not “valorize or condemn scholars” with pointed labels. Instead, “we should read and then critically and honestly evaluate what they have written.”

Thank you again, Professor Wheeler, and right back at ya: Carefully evaluating the efficacy of one’s sources, either written or oral, is always a good idea for a historian.

Democracy Readers who would like to submit a letter to the editor can do so by emailing dajoi@democracyjournal.org.

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