TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Sklar: Left and Right

This is the fifth—and last—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. On the basis of his understanding of political economy (see the third post) and international relations (see the fourth post), and building on his longstanding critique of sectarianism and vanguardism in left-wing politics, in his last decade Sklar argued that U.S. politics were undergoing what he termed a “transvestiture of left and right,” whereby each side of the political spectrum was (however unwittingly) adopting positions that are historically more in tune with the other end of the spectrum. Sklar’s argument will be more fully articulated in the posthumously forthcoming book American Century and World Revolution. For now, the following selections provide a window onto his evolving thinking. A few on the left—including American urban studies scholar Joel Kotkin, British journalist Melanie Phillips, French socialist Manuel Valls, Canadian novelist Nora Gold—have independently concluded, in ways consistent with Sklar’s analysis, that ascendant leaders of the American and global “left” are advocating historically right-wing policies (e.g., limited growth, group privilege, sympathy for fascist-like movements). A more typical left-wing response has been to pigeonhole Sklar as another in a long line of left-wing apostates. (For one relevant exchange, see this article and my response.) From the other side, a number of right-wing intellectuals agree with many of Sklar’s foreign and domestic policy critiques and prescriptions. However, they largely reject his framing of these critiques and prescriptions as consistent with and building on 20th-century American liberalism and its practitioners from Roosevelt and Wilson, through Hoover and Roosevelt, down to Bill Clinton and the Bushes. (Sklar explained that he enclosed “Hoover-right” in quotation marks because he largely rejected the popular notion that Hoover was a right-winger.) We can only speculate as to how Sklar might have extended, or amended, his analysis in light of the 2016 presidential campaign. Also noteworthy is Sklar’s use of the concept “thickness” in historically assessing recent left-sectarian inroads into the U.S. political system.

—Norton Wheeler

Selection 1
[Sklar never received acknowledgement that Pres. Obama received or read the following memo.]

To: President-Elect Barack Obama
From: Martin J. Sklar
Date: 9 November 2008

Subject: Some Economic Policy Ideas

. . .

[T]he corporate tax raises the cost of capital and diminishes its supply (investment)—hence, it “taxes” the working class with less capital available for adding jobs, raising productivity, paying better wages and benefits. Corporate taxes are also further paid for by the people (“middle class,” working class) through the price system, with the corporations as tax-farmers. It’s a way of government hiding its taxing the people (“middle class”), by pretending to “tax the rich.” It’s taxing growth, not the rich.

The optimal policy of a government of the Left is to instill growth and rising employment (jobs), that is, demand for labor, which raises wages and benefits (workers’ income) as well as productivity—the most powerful engine of strengthening equality of opportunity, income redistribution, and “spreading the (rising) wealth.” If this sounds like “conservatism,” don’t worry about labels, and remember, this is what the good old-fashioned Marxians and growth-Keynesians said. Where’d you think Reagan (and Laffer) got it from? Friedman? Him, too. Also, don’t forget, Friedman always adamantly denied he was a “conservative.” It was he who recommended the Earned Income Tax Credit. And government-issue (GI) school-vouchers, of great equal-education benefit to lower-income people. Like the horse and carriage, and hopefully love and marriage, Capitalism and Socialism go together. You can’t have one without the other, and the modern world, too. The task of modern state-craft is to get them working well in tandem.

Something to ponder: Many of those calling themselves (and called) left-wingers today are anti-growth, anti-working class, and in that sense, right-wingers. Many of those calling themselves (and called) right-wingers are, also in that sense, really left-wingers. Hence: working-class voters for the GOP. They know their interests.

. . .

Selection 2
[from letter to “a long-time friend and fellow left-winger,” written along with unfolding events from mid-November 2008 to April 2009.]

. . .

As the U.S. political spectrum has continued its shifting, now more strongly, to the left (not, until now, to the right or to “conservatism,” as the pundits and cognoscenti have erroneously claimed, a “consensus” left-sectarians share with them), left-sectarian circles (persons, groups, media, etc.) that had been “fringe” and outside major-party politics, . . . became part of the mainstream—or, the mainstream moved sufficiently farther left as to encompass, “bring in,” the fringe. . . . A similar, but opposite, process may be observed with right-sectarians and the GOP. Like the Dems and the society as a whole, the GOP has itself moved leftward, and fringed right-wing elements formerly mainstream (e.g., Citizens Councils, Schlafly-istas); it continues needing sectarian-right cadre and voters, but at the same time making them less and less effective in actual policy-making (whatever the platform statements)—hence the voluble expressions of discontent and voting-estrangement among right sectarians (“free-marketers” and “social conservatives,” alike). On the other hand, the sectarian left component of the Dem party, growing in numbers, influence, and office-holding, exerts an increasing policy impact.

From the late 1950s on, as left-sectarians became more and more numerous, and powerful, in academia, the media, think tanks (I had a little something to do with these three), entertainment, the foundations, churches, synagogues, mosques, trade unions, community organizing, public education, etc., it also became possible for a socio-political “thickness”-system to develop, based on these spheres, largely open to left sectarians, and to become a growing force not only in local/state, but also in national, political office-holding, apart from the traditional party-based thickness, but increasingly intersecting with it, and perhaps eventually either controlling it or replacing it, and becoming the new dominant force in electoral politics. Hence, such slogans as “Post-Partisan Politics.”

Obama represents this “new -thickness” in its trending toward a political dominance—with a strong component of its base in the left-sectarian milieu. Being “above party,” and moving through the new internet media (,,,, et al.), with lots of “old” media copycatting (e.g., NYT, Newsweek, Time, People, New Yorker, Harper’s), and active along lines of “public service” or “social service” programs and organizations (e.g., ACORN, NACA, Legal Aid, etc.), which such service programs and organizations Obama says he’s going to make central to his presidency, and which all of the new-thickness together (and very little the DNC) gave him the decisive electoral lift with money, propaganda, and voter turnout, the new-thickness could spawn proto-statist structures characteristic of fascist politics—that is, “social service” political organizations operating extra-electorally and also capable of electoral engagement, and having state-power characteristics and capacities such as armed force, coercive security, taxing (dues, “donations,” protection, kickbacks), schools, training camps, health care, media, housing, jobs and offices, uniforms/flags/insignia, etc. . . .

The modern western (and U.S.) left may be seen as having had two major currents or wings—the majoritarian Associational/Freedom wing (in the U.S., Locke-Franklin-Smith-Hamilton-Madison-Hegel-Marx-Mill-Dewey-Social Dems), and the sectarian Communitarian/Security-Victim wing (Rousseau-Young Hegelians-Romantics-Utopians-Populists-Lenin), which latter fluctuates left and right, because though of modern times, it is in big part archaic in outlook and socio-political constituency. One of the main roads to terrorism and fascism, lies through the sectarian left (security-victim, “anti-bourgeois,” faux-communitarianism/vanguardism). Those on the left who value democracy, liberty-and-equality, and progress (modernity)—the Freedom left—need to be especially vigilant, especially principled and diligent, about whom and what on the left to promote, join, or support, and whom and what to criticize, reject, and oppose. Obama’s “new-thickness” constituency includes this sectarian left in large numbers, with disproportionate funding and ideological impact on the broader constituency, an impact manifested in Obama’s statements and formulations. . . . The sectarian-left’s impact on Obama stems not only from its exerting “influence” upon him, and having claims on his policy-making and appointments, but also from its having been a major component of his own political-intellectual milieu in his formative years, as well as during the years of his more mature political career.

. . .

Selection 3
[from letter to Ronald Radosh, June 6, 2009. John Judis was a colleague of Sklar’s at the journal Socialist Revolution and the newspaper In These Times. Judis later became a columnist at The New Republic.]

Many thanks for sending along a copy of your Blog of 3 June 2009, “America’s Socialist Future: Martin J. Sklar vs. John B. Judis.”

A couple of errors in your blog: I don’t disagree with John that “the mix has increasingly tilted toward socialism”; and I don’t hold that there is, or has been, “an appropriate mix” of capitalism and socialism. Rather, it is my view that it is an evolving mix—that is, an evolving system; a system in which both the capitalism and socialism components evolve, and co-develop and interact, and in which the socialist component, since the early 20th century, has indeed grown both absolutely and relative to the capitalism component, which in turn itself has undergone evolution and change, both as such and in interaction with the socialism component. The key here, in assessing the political situation, and the well-working of the economy, is less capitalism-vs.-socialism than distinguishing between government and market/society, and defining and calibrating their interrelationship. In a highly developed, and developing, political-economy (such as the U.S.), it is the government role that should be relatively diminishing as the associational (market and civic) roles grow. Clinton in effect grasped this when he said that the age of big government is over (cf. Blair, and the “Third Way”); and the “Reagan Revolution” (as well as “Thatcherism”) was not a matter of capitalism-vs-socialism (both were, and remain, embedded modes of production in US/UK), but of liberating the Mix for further, dynamic modern development, from the fetters of obsolescent/overgrown government (bureaucracy) and guild-like obstruction: Another chapter in the long-evolving liberal-democratic liberation of society from the state, alias state-command. Marx, by the way, in his social-science mode, understood this—he differentiated government ownership from socialist (associational) ownership. . . .

The waxing of government in a society such as the U.S. is reactionary and backward—characteristic of less developed societies with less developed markets, associations, modern class formations, and civic activity and institutions (“civil society”). Obama’s “growing” the government—e.g., his thinking “stimulus” (and “social justice” and “empathy”) is government spending and taxing and dictating—is “Third Worldist” backwardness, embraced by his left-sectarian constituencies, being imposed on an advanced society—suffocating it, or forcing society to rebel against it (against fetters on the forces of production—just as in Russia and China recently; don’t sell Marx short). The so-called “conservatives” against Big Government are really the progressives—the progressive-left, and the Big-Government leftists are really the reactionary right. . . .

In the blog, you report my contrasting Obama’s high-tax, high-cost energy, protectionist, and slow-growth program (which I also characterized as analogously a “Hoover-Right” position), with Bush’s lower-tax, low-cost energy, high-growth/job stimulus program (which I also characterized as analogously a “Left-Keynesian” position). That is an accurate report of my view of Obama vs. the Bush administration policies. . . .

The Democrats, in my view, have become a party with constituencies disproportionately strong beyond their numbers (although quite numerous) that are anti-growth (anti-development), anti-working-class, anti-liberty, pro-ethnic/race identity, and in that sense, as it used to be said by those on the left, reactionary. In their party composition and politics, the Democrats have increasingly been merging with managerial/bureaucratic power in society and with “capitalists” in government—against the people’s interest in rising living standards, equality of opportunity, and strengthening of democratic liberty in the U.S. and its spreading throughout the world. This orientation of the Democrats is evident both in domestic policies and acts so far taken by the new administration, and rather strongly so in Obama’s Cairo and other speeches abroad, and in his (and Clinton’s) foreign-policy stance in general. . . .

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