TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Sklar: Hegel and History, Part One

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. 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 as 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 preferred 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 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

Excerpts from “Hegel and Bourgeois Liberty”
(late 1960s, unpublished) [original footnotes omitted]

. . .

Those philosophers, such as Kant, who argued the impossibility of scientifically knowing the infinite, or Being, because any attempt to do so requires contradiction and hence violation of the cardinal principle of the logic of formal identity and its allied modes of scientific thought, failed to realize the true import of their argument. What they proved, according to Hegel, was not that the infinite, or Being, was scientifically unknowable, but that the logic of formal identity and its related sciences, comprised only one, relatively lower, phase of science, suited to knowledge restricted within the limits of alienated consciousness, in which separation of finite from infinite, particular from universal, dominated. They proved, that is, that a logic of contradiction was needed to construct a science of true being and to extend scientific thought to the higher realms of human reality. . . .

Hegel’s point is that reason does not explicate being, but that reason is being. . . . The comprehension of Being as Reason means humanity’s coming to know true being as the human reasoning process, not as some external unknowable thing beyond; and it involves humanity’s coming to recognize the objective world as itself actualized. . . . The emergence of the historico-dialectical philosophy signifies humanity’s beginning to come to this awareness, in the recognition of the finite, phenomenal world as nothing other than the infinite, than ultimate being, than substance which is subject, becoming actual, or, what is the same thing, in the comprehension that being’s essence is to determine itself developmentally in phenomenal existence—in human history.[1]
. . .

[M]odern Europe in its epoch of bourgeois liberty made more fully explicit the principle Hegel held to be implicit in Christian thought, that all humans were free. . . . Each individual by virtue of being human lay an indefeasible claim to the social condition prescribed by bourgeois liberty. . . . [F]reedom meant activity of the mind and will within, and their reshaping of, external matter and processes, not their release and independence from physical externality. . . .

To Hegel, the epoch of bourgeois liberty represented the highest stage of freedom yet achieved in history, in so far as, in accordance with its principle, that into which the producers poured their desire as purpose or will belonged to them in fact and in law as their individual property, and in so far as their productive activity remained independent of the will or authority of anyone other than their own. They thereby possessed themselves, in a condition of self-dependence and self-mastery. . . .

Hegel’s view of private property as the fundamental mode of expression of human freedom, and hence of human will, desire, and personality; Hegel’s view of the right to property as therefore universal; and his view of the rational nation-state as representing and protecting this property right and this freedom in property, coincided in essentials with the corresponding views of Locke. Locke understood the matter in terms of natural rights, Hegel in terms of historical development passing through necessary and unavoidable stages from lower to higher modes of freedom. Locke saw America as what the world was like at the beginning of history, a resurrected setting for the primordial “natural man” liberated at last from history. More than a century later, Hegel saw America, by then the land of quintessential bourgeois liberty and slavery, as the outcome of history, “the land of the future, where . . . the burden of the World’s History shall reveal itself.” . . .

For Hegel, accordingly, the destiny, or nature, of human being as self-producing activity, found its realization in the work-property system and its corresponding bourgeois societal type. Property as the mode of production, or self-production, was the middle term linking consciousness and freedom. But Hegel was aware of the contradictions: He understood, for example, that the more bourgeois society developed the more the property-owning producers themselves lost their self-control to the external necessities of market forces; and the more growing numbers of people became detached from property-owning and fell into an expropriated dependence, and many into poverty. He also understood that with the development of productive forces in bourgeois society, the connection between material production and human labor would increasingly dissolve. The property-production middle term between consciousness and freedom would undergo effective elimination; in which case, either consciousness as the mode of freedom must lose its fully developed meaning, or a new middle term must be discovered. Perhaps this helps to explain Hegel’s insistence that philosophy could not go beyond its own times, and his emphasis on thought-systems—especially Philosophy (science), Religion, and Art—as ultimately of greater significance in the progress of human freedom than socio-economic and political relations. . . .

The alternative lies in the conceptualization and construction of a society that validates human nature as self-producing, self-determining activity, not in terms of the work-property relation at the individual level or of immediate material production as such, but in terms directly of social and cultural production. Such an alternative is implicit in, while “transcending,” Hegel’s insistence upon the primacy of philosophy, religion, and art, as representing true human being realized. Such a conceptualization, rooted in the conditions of material production, emerged with Marx, particularly in his mature writings on political-economy and history, and it goes far to explain the continuing vigor of his impact on modern thought and politics, in spite of the almost eternally recurring assurances of Marx’s long-ago obsolescence.


1. Sklar’s decades-later annotation to this paragraph: “3/16/13 Norty—This is the essence of Benedict XVI’s critique of Islam in his Regensburg Lecture. For Islam, Being (Allah) is beyond humanity & the world, outside them, unknowable. For the Judeo-Christian outlook, Being (God) is within humanity and the world, knowable. The implicit point was (is), Islam is ‘less developed,’ Christianity ‘more developed (backward vs progressive)—hence the umbrage of the Islamists—they knew Ben ‘had a point.’
Ben: The Unity of Reason and Faith
Islam: The Disunity . . .
Ben: Freedom in the world
Islam: Obedience in the world (freedom in Martyrdom, death)”

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