TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Sklar: Hegel and History, Part Two

This is the second in a series of posts that introduce the thought of historian Martin J. Sklar, as a prelude to a print symposium on his life and work in a future issue of Telos. For a fuller introduction, refer to the head note to the first TELOSscope post. That post featured something unusual for a historian: an excerpt from a perceptive essay on Hegel. Hegel’s understanding of human history as developmental and cumulative, particularly with respect to the expansion of human freedom, colored Sklar’s career as a historian. Excerpts from two of his published works (first and second selections, below) reflect that influence. Not all of Sklar’s engagement with Hegel was affirmative. In the third selection, he endorses Marx’s critique of Hegel’s statism. As will be further illustrated in future posts, one of Sklar’s longstanding criticisms of many fellow leftists was their equation of socialism with state control over society. From his research on the Progressive Era in the United States, he concluded that presidents and other strategic thinkers of that period consciously incorporated elements of socialism into their ideas and programs in ways that affirmed positive government as a middle way between laissez-faire and statism. This was the meaning of his somewhat cryptic assertion in an influential (but often misunderstood) 1960 essay that corporate liberalism was “the bourgeois Yankee cousin of modern European and English social-democracy” (Studies on the Left 1:3, 41). Over time, Sklar progressively (in both senses) fleshed out this insight.

—Norton Wheeler

Selection 1
[from The United States as a Developing Country: Studies in U.S. History in the Progressive Era and the 1920s (Cambridge University Press, 1992). The book is a collection of essays, most of which were written earlier than Sklar’s 1988 monograph—see below.]

. . .

The concept, periodization, presupposes an assumption of change. . . . [It] designates . . . a kind of change that is evolutionary from relatively more simple to relatively more complex modes of being: a kind of change that, however cyclical in many respects, or however slow the pace, is cumulative in significant characteristics. . . . Periods, or efforts at periodization, track change on a field of permanence—the historical field on the field of the transhistorical—as well as the transhistorical proceeding through the historical. If this sounds Hegelian, well Hegel knew a thing or two. If nothing else, he contributed greatly to our understanding of evolutionary process, particularly to our ability to think complexly in evolutionary terms (pp. 6–7).

. . .

The United States in its twentieth-century corporate-liberal mode became the quintessential nation of the evolving mix of capitalism, socialism, and populism that constitutes the “pluralist” substance of what the postclassical theorists called modernization and development. As Hegel had pronounced from an astute naivete, and as Marx later concurred from some fuller historical perspective (having earlier designated England), the United States was becoming in the late nineteenth century, and by the Progressive Era had become, the land of the future (p. 77).

. . .

How can people, who after all live in the present, have any outlook other than that determined by their present condition and thought  . . ? The dialectical historical theory, which Hegel first systematically formulated, and which Marx subsequently developed, represents the attempt to resolve this question, because it also represents the emergence of historical consciousness that presumes to humanity making its history in accordance with human will, rather than being entirely made by a predetermined past . . . (p. 207).

Selection 2
[from The Corporate Reconstruction of American Capitalism, 1890–1916: The Market, the Law, and Politics (Cambridge University Press, 1988), pp. 435–41. These excerpts sum up an extended antecedent discussion of Taft, Roosevelt, Wilson, the “trust” question, etc.]

. . .

The emergence of corporate capitalism in the years 1890–1916 coincided with the rise of an associative and cooperative outlook on society, politics, and economic organization in leading intellectual, political, and business circles. . . . The prevalent American current was corporate-liberal. It assigned to the corporation, including investment banking and central banking, and to a lesser degree to other private entities, 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. In renouncing laissez-faire and implementing programs of positive government on an ever-growing scale, it nevertheless affirmed the supremacy of the society over the state and the subordination of state policy to the dominant forces in society that composed the corporate-capitalist property-production system. It “transcended” the old small-producer republican idea of the sovereignty of the self-governing people by incorporating it in the new political-economic order. . . .

Neither corporate capitalism nor corporate liberalism in the United States should be confused with European or Latin American versions of “corporative” social relations or modes of thought. The prevalent forms of extrafamilial social relations in the United States remained contractual, associative, and bureaucratic rather than corporative in any organicist sense or in any coercively collectivistic sense. . . .

Corporate-liberal thought did acknowledge and affirm the displacement of the individual by the group (or association) as the basic functional unit of a modern capitalist economy, but it was a group that the individual might freely join or quit. . . .

[T]he American corporate-liberal outlook highly valued innovation, the reordering of economic and social relations, as well as the physical landscape, and the instabilities of growth, both at home and in America’s role in the world. The perennial search for order was the handmaiden of the perennial impulse of American corporate capitalism to disruption and change. . . .

Corporate capitalism, and the reconstruction of American society that it represented, . . . in renouncing statism, or a corporate state, pacified agrarian populism, transcended proprietary capitalism, and, in the inclusive as well as the exclusive sense, contained socialism.

Selection 3
[from a letter to Norton Wheeler, May 5, 2011]

. . .

“Associationalism” has been a basic theme in my writings over the past 30 years, with regard to characterizing both capitalism and socialism in advanced (“developed”) societies, and in particular in a society with liberal democracy such as the U.S. Modern society—”modernizing”—has meant associational relations (gesellschaft) superceding communitarian/kinship relations (gemeinschaft). Marx made this point strongly in his social-science writings, following as he did, and developing further, the thinking stretching from Locke to Hume & Smith to J. S. Mill, and under similar influence, as well as from Marx, the point is central to contemporary and subsequent thinkers like Bagehot, Maine, Weber, Durkheim, H. C. Adams, W. C. Mitchell, Conant et al. (not to mention TR, Taft, W. Wilson, Root). Marx was a gesellschaft-thinker; he regarded gemeinschaft as pre-modern and backward in terms of historical human (social) progress. He dubbed the gemeinschaft-socialists, “feudal socialists.” Today’s sectarian socialists—”communitarians” (“community-organizers,” Leninists)—are gemeinschaft-“feudal” socialists. Ditto the Islamists. Hence their affinities and alliances. Right-wing socialists, all.

Marx critiqued Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (Law, Recht), inter alia, for its emphasizing the state as the central characteristic of a modern society; Hegel, he held, mistook Prussia for a representative of modernity rather than still backward in its development compared to England. Marx argued against Hegel, and maintained in all his writings on the whole, that the rise of the bourgeoisie signified the historical event of the liberation of society from the state, an outcome at the time yet to be fulfilled completely, but the more so in England and the U.S. (esp. after the Civil War and emancipation) than elsewhere. In this respect—a most fundamental one—Marx and Mill were on the same page; they were both liberals (as I’ve written). Sectarian socialists (communitarians, vanguardists, et al.) invoke Marx in support of their gemeinschaft backwardness, and anti-socialists are happy to indulge them in the error. Obama is a gemeinschaft socialist, as may be seen in his repeated statement in public speeches, that “individual salvation is dependent upon collective salvation” (when he’s waxing religious)—gemeinschaft exactly—and also exactly the opposite of Marx’s formulation that the advanced society he anticipated would be an “association [gesellschaft], in which the free development of each is the condition of the free development of all” (not the other—Obama’s—way around). . . .

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