Vanishing Act

Vanishing Act

You’ve probably never heard of Martin J. Sklar. But you should have.


How does a man disappear?

On April 27, 2014, Martin J. Sklar died at the age of 78. You’ve probably never heard of him. But you should have, because he was more immediately influential in the 1960s and ’70s than any of the iconic figures associated with the intellectual origins of the New Left—more than, say, C. Wright Mills, William Appleman Williams, Norman O. Brown, Tom Hayden or Herbert Marcuse, all of whom published their seminal works in the late ’50s and early ’60s. Sklar was to the New Left what Chauncey Wright was to the Metaphysical Club at Harvard in the nineteenth century: a mercurial and electrifying thinker, and an inspiration to a coterie of friends and colleagues whose ideas were more acclaimed than his own.

How to explain Sklar’s utter obscurity? Was it his lack of academic standing? Check. The excruciating rigor of his thinking, the ponderous Germanic sound of his prose? Check. His commitment to a life on the left outside of the ivory tower, which left him isolated and burned out? Check.

Still, I knew Sklar, as a student, colleague and friend, for more than forty years—though by mutual agreement, I admit, we refused to speak to each other for twenty of them—and I’m not satisfied with these explanations. I feel obliged to offer another.

Sklar was a brilliant man made invisible by his own implacable, irascible, ruthless will to perfected individuality, his inability to play by anyone else’s rules, his gradual but relentless and virtually complete renunciation of audience, affiliation or friendship—to the point where, near death, he told his wife of four decades that there should be no memorial service and no obituaries.

Sklar never wanted to be just a professor, although he ended up as one, at Bucknell University, in the middle of nowhere. He twice walked away from a promising academic career, once as a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin in the early 1960s, then again as an assistant professor at Northern Illinois University in 1976, where his colleagues enthusiastically voted him tenure, even though he wouldn’t finish his degree (through the University of Rochester) until 1982, when he was 47 years old.

On both occasions, Sklar walked away to start magazines that, he believed, would educate the educators and thus change the political discourse. In 1960, it was Studies on the Left, one of the founding gestures of a social movement that was originally centered on—but never confined to—the college campuses. In 1976, it was In These Times, which he thought could be the new Iskra, the update of Lenin’s tribune. He always wanted to be what we now call a public intellectual—a radical journalist, a writer at large—rather than a mere academic. And he was, before disappearing into the outer darkness of small, liberal-arts academia.

* * *

Sklar was part activist, part intellectual. He was born and raised in Brooklyn, the younger of two sons raised by a schoolteacher and a labor lawyer. (His brother Richard became an eminent political scientist who made fundamental contributions to the theories of both modernization and “postimperialism.”) By the time he arrived in Madison at the age of 15 to attend the University of Wisconsin on a Ford Foundation scholarship, Sklar had spent a summer or so at camp in upstate New York, studying Marxism under the tutelage of Robert William Fogel, who would one day win a Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences. Fogel, who was then a diligent Communist, had some difficulty with the labor theory of value, and so he asked the teenage Marty—already a precocious student—to break it down for him.

Like many other undergraduates from Brooklyn—the University of Wisconsin was a magnet for “red diaper” babies—Sklar immediately joined the Labor Youth League, the Communist Party’s front group on campuses everywhere since 1949. Sklar was active in the LYL until 1956, when it dissolved in the aftermath of the Soviet invasion of Hungary. He founded the Socialist Club as an alternative and quickly built it into one of the most popular organizations on campus. Alan Ameche, who would later be awarded the Heisman Trophy as fullback of the university’s football team, and who hailed from the socialist stronghold of Kenosha, Wisconsin—it was, in fact, just that in the early twentieth century—played for the club’s intramural softball team.

Sklar was already writing a master’s thesis on Woodrow Wilson and the China market when William Appleman Williams arrived in 1957 to succeed Fred Harvey Harrington as Wisconsin’s resident revisionist. Sklar was less impressed than the other graduate students, who, according to Lloyd Gardner, Williams’s first PhD student, were galvanized by the intellectual rigor and political commitments that Williams brought to the history department. Sklar was writing an essay that would later be published in Science & Society on the business community and the Spanish-American War—the central event in Williams’s masterpiece, The Tragedy of American Diplomacy (1959)—and was deep into his MA thesis, in which he argued that Wilson’s antipathy to the big bankers who were devising means of exploiting China’s resources was not an anti-imperialist attitude expressed on behalf of small business, but rather a pro-corporate, pro-capitalist gesture meant to secure the long-term interests of an American empire.

So I’d bet that Williams learned more from Sklar than vice versa. Take a look, for example, at Williams’s acknowledgment of Sklar’s work on the Open Door notes of 1899–1900 (the verbal blueprints of the anticolonial imperialism that the United States would construct) in the second edition of Tragedy, published in 1962. Then read the unorthodox argument about Alexander Hamilton’s attitudes toward manufacturing in Williams’s Contours of American History (1961). The origin of that argument was an undergraduate essay Sklar wrote in 1955, which circulated then and thereafter as samizdat among faculty members and graduate students at Wisconsin, Rochester and Northern Illinois.

Studies on the Left was the intellectual analogue of the Socialist Club. In creating it, Sklar and his comrades were trying to explore and shape the intellectual and political reaction to three crucial developments: the collapse of the Communist Party in the United States, the emergence of the civil-rights movement, and the strange new energy of popular culture. In doing so, they were founding a New Left without quite knowing it. In this sense, Studies was at least as important as, say, the Port Huron Statement in the articulation of the New Left’s ideas, goals, values and methods. In fact, the magazine was an antecedent of the manifesto: Tom Hayden was a reader (and later an editor).

Apart from the sheer audacity of the venture—who did these people think they were writing for besides themselves?—and the continuity of the political vision that Sklar brought to Studies from its inception in 1959 to its demise eight years later, I’d emphasize two of his extraordinary contributions to this seminal “little magazine.” One was a behind-the-scenes editorial decision, the other his own contribution to its pages. Each profoundly shaped the thinking of the New Left in the 1960s.

In 1961, as the effective managing editor of Studies, Sklar received an over-the-transom submission of 100 pages from Harold Cruse, a would-be playwright who, having done time as a CP hack in the immediate postwar years, was having second thoughts about the party’s gospel (particularly its emphasis on class struggle); about the prospects of civil rights; and about the future of America as a racial hybrid. Cruse argued that racial solidarity and black nationalism, not integration, constituted the political mainstream of the “black masses.” Sklar edited the manuscript down to thirty typescript pages and, with Cruse’s approval, published it in the spring 1962 issue.

The essay’s impact was far-reaching, a testament to Sklar’s decision to frame Black Power as a political issue and an intellectual problem avant la lettre. When Malcolm X visited Madison in 1962, he broke his own rules and entered a white person’s residence—Sklar’s apartment—because he admired the Cruse essay and the editorial sensibility behind its publication. He told Sklar that Studies was on sale at the bookstore of his Harlem mosque. Cruse received a book contract from Morrow on the basis of the essay and wrote The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual (1967). It became the central text of a fierce debate on Black Power when Christopher Lasch, another affiliate of Studies and, by that time, someone deeply involved with colleagues like Sklar and Gene Genovese in discussions about the future of the left, endorsed it in The New York Review of Books.

Most important, the Cruse essay sparked new thinking and vigorous debate among young black intellectuals. At Berkeley, for example, it was a proximate cause of the Afro-American Association led by Donald Warden, Cedric Robinson and Huey Newton, which first convened in 1962, and which in turn led to the formation of the Revolutionary Action Movement, a precursor of the Black Panthers.

Sklar’s own contribution to Studies made liberalism the proper object of criticism from the left—an enterprise that became a growth industry in the ’60s, ’70s and thereafter, to the point that socialists, communitarians and feminists could (and still do) use “liberal” as an epithet. He accomplished this with an essay on Woodrow Wilson that introduced the concept of corporate liberalism.

Sklar noted that historians had typically reserved the term “liberal” for those who opposed “big business”—the corporate form of enterprise perfected in the United States in the first decade of the twentieth century. He showed that the regulatory urge of the Progressive Era (and the New Deal) was actually consistent with an acceptance of corporations as efficient devices for the socialization of resources, and, accordingly, that populism (meaning the anti-monopoly tradition) wasn’t the last word on the democratization of the body politic. But then neither was the new liberalism, because it repressed and mutilated socialism by means of regulation and reform.

Since 1960, when the Wilson essay appeared, countless historians, political scientists, sociologists and activists have deployed the phrase “corporate liberalism” to describe—and to criticize—the ideology of the American ruling class. Within Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), among activists, it quickly became a local colloquialism, an insider’s designation for everything that made American society and culture disgusting. Among academics, meanwhile, it caused a still-heated debate that turns on the question of who—what social classes and movements—demanded regulation and reform of the new corporate economy: Did it come from the bottom up, from workers and farmers, or was it imposed from the top down, by capitalists and their corporate-liberal allies? Of course it’s a pointless chicken-or-egg question, but that’s how debate often goes in polite, professorial company.

Sklar himself eventually clarified the meanings of corporate liberalism in The Corporate Reconstruction of American Capitalism, 1890–1916: The Market, the Law, and Politics (1988). It was a cross-class construction, he insisted, not the capitalists’ imposition on, or co-optation of, workers and farmers who hated “the trusts.” In any case, he showed that corporate liberalism was more consistent with the American political tradition than either populism or socialism (construed as state command of the market), because it presupposed the sovereignty of the people—the “supremacy of society over the state”—and the priority of the individual rather than functional groups or “artificial persons,” like corporations themselves, in imagining the conduct of politics.

Absent the introduction, this book might be mistaken for a metastasized law-review article. It reads (if that is the right word)like an endless brief on important antitrust cases, from the Sherman Act in 1890 to the restoration of the common-law “Rule of Reason” in 1911. But there is no better book on the Progressive Era.

* * *

Meanwhile, Sklar decided to return to graduate school. Having met with SDS leaders—including Tom Hayden and Bill Ayers—to discuss joint ventures with Studies, he was curious about the state of social movements on campus. Then too, he had resigned in protest from Studies because, over his strong objections, his fellow editors had published Genovese’s blistering review of The Great Evasion (1964), Williams’s book on Marx. In 1967, as Studies folded, Sklar enrolled at the University of Rochester to work with Loren Baritz and Hayden White. (Herbert Gutman, a Wisconsin alumnus and another transformative figure in American historiography, had recently arrived there, and Genovese would join the faculty in 1969.) When I met White at a conference in 1994, I asked if he remembered Sklar from his time there. “Jesus!” White thundered. “Do I remember him? Yeah, I remember him. He was my TA for a year, and I learned more from him in that year than I ever learned from any of my colleagues. Brilliant bastard. Told me Marxism was the future of the profession. He was right.”

At Rochester, Sklar became a leader in the local SDS chapter, writing manifestos, typing position papers, mimeographing flyers, making speeches, putting on plays. He also completed a huge manuscript that, like the earlier manuscript on antitrust law cited by James Weinstein in The Corporate Ideal in the Liberal State (1968), has never been published. The new “book” was on the Young Intellectuals of the 1920s, who, according to Sklar, had discovered a “usable past” in pressing their claims against the pragmatism and puritanism of American culture. Among other achievements, these writers—Van Wyck Brooks, Waldo Frank, Harold Stearns, Lewis Mumford—established an American literary canon that was centered on the antebellum decades before, as they saw it, the intellectual blight of corporate industrialism disfigured the larger culture.

Why didn’t Sklar publish these books? He certainly had big names willing to shop them, including Baritz, Williams, Genovese, Lasch and White. What was he waiting for? A different, nonacademic audience? More approval? I ask myself the very same questions these days, as I try to write for an audience that reaches beyond the campus. Who can judge such work? Who will decide its worth, its legitimacy—whom am I writing for? Does a person disappear when he stops asking and starts writing only for himself, meeting his own expectations but no others? Or does he vanish at the other end of the spectrum, when he starts writing only for his readers, meeting their expectations but not his own?

Sklar didn’t remain silent. In the spring of 1969, he published an essay in Radical America, Paul Buhle’s little magazine, which summarized the findings of the book manuscript on the 1920s. To my mind, it’s the most important piece Sklar ever wrote, and perhaps the most important interpretation of twentieth-century economic development ever written.

In this long, clotted, complicated essay, Sklar revisits Marx’s law of accumulation to explain why socially necessary labor—the time it takes to reproduce the existing material conditions of civilization as we know it—began declining in the 1920s. He called the process the “disaccumulation of capital.” By this, he meant that economic growth no longer required net additions either to the capital stock or the labor force. That sounds boring, like Econ 101. But look at it this way: for the first time in history, human beings could increase the output of goods without increasing the essential inputs of capital and labor—they were released from the iron grip of economic necessity.

Writers and theorists of very different disciplines and purposes, myself included, have appropriated Sklar’s theory of disaccumulation over the years, but we haven’t had much effect. Why not? It could be the arcane quality of the theory. Sklar wrote in a ponderously Marxist manner, and he never acknowledged earlier or parallel lines of inquiry in conventional economic theory. On the other hand, it could be that we didn’t properly understand the concept of disaccumulation. Several months ago, for example, Ronald Radosh forwarded a December 2012 letter from Sklar in which he denounced my use of his theory in Against Thrift, a book published in 2011.

I prefer to think that this admittedly abstruse theory remains mostly unknown because nobody knows what to do with its revolutionary implications. Here are a few to consider, as I understand them (and bearing in mind that Sklar himself thought I was wrong).

If growth no longer requires net additions to the capital stock—which simply means net investment—corporate profits become pointless, superfluous and dangerous, because they can’t be reinvested in productive ways: hereafter, the “financialization” of all assets and the creation of new speculative bubbles become the norm. If growth no longer requires net additions to the labor force, work itself can’t be justified by the invocation of economic necessity, and income must be detached from work: “full employment” becomes a fool’s errand. And if growth requires neither more capital nor more labor, leisurely consumer spending becomes the key to balanced growth and the good life, just as Lord Keynes predicted.

In short: the disaccumulation of capital means the decomposition of capitalism. Is anybody out there willing to say that?

* * *

Sklar wrote very little in the 1970s except for short, occasional pieces published by Socialist Revolution, a journal he and James Weinstein started in 1970. He told me much later that he suffered from writer’s block for the entire decade. I now surmise that he was withholding, as ever, building a better bibliography and writing for himself. He was certainly rethinking his political positions as he threw himself, in 1971–72, into the founding of the New American Movement (NAM)—the belated offspring of the “seminars” convened by Weinstein in 1968–69 to sketch an alternative to the debacle that SDS was becoming.

In 1976, as NAM dissolved into sectarian idiocies and became a constituent of Michael Harrington’s Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee, Sklar left NIU to found In These Times with Weinstein as publisher. He wrote weekly editorials and pseudonymous articles—he was not exactly at a loss for words in these supposedly blocked years—until August 1979, when he resigned in what he called a labor dispute with Weinstein over control of hiring for the editorial page. He never went back, and he never forgave his old friend: they never spoke again. He changed his mind about many things, but the consistent pattern of his behavior when it came to real people was renunciation.

Sklar then returned to academia out of economic necessity. With Genovese’s help in assembling a dissertation committee and jumping the bureaucratic hurdles, he arranged to finish his PhD at Rochester in 1982. But instead of submitting the book-length essay on the 1920s, he returned to the antitrust manuscript completed earlier in the ’60s. The dissertation, which became Part I of The Corporate Reconstruction, put him on the academic job market at the age of 47. Bucknell hired him as an associate professor of history and as its first MacArthur Chair in 1983, then granted him tenure in 1986.

At Bucknell, Sklar alienated everyone except his students. He didn’t retire until 2004, but he spent the last ten years there fighting almost full-time with colleagues and deans who wanted him gone, one way or another, because they couldn’t bear his explicit condescension and contempt. I know this because I was one of several old friends and comrades who tried to make his case, legal and otherwise, to the Bucknell administration and the American Association of University Professors. But he alienated us, too.

In his spare time, Sklar kept reading, if not writing. The works he published in the 1990s and after were essays—the old ones collected in 1992 as The United States as a Developing Country, and a few new ones published between 1999 and 2003. There was also the hodgepodge e-book from 2012, Letters on Obama, in which Sklar informed us, by means of obsequious missives to right-wing pundits, that the president was a fascist.

But those late essays are still worth attending, whatever you make of the last, bitter, reactionary phase of his intellectual career. Sklar had concluded The Corporate Reconstruction by claiming that corporate capitalism “contained” socialism in both the inclusive and exclusive senses of that word. From this, it was a short step to his idea of “the mix” of capitalism and socialism as the defining characteristic of twentieth-century American politics and culture. So conceived, socialism is not the afterlife of capitalism, as heaven is to earth, but rather an essential component of capitalism, in the here and now, that modulates market excesses and rectifies market failures. Nor is it only, or even mainly, the work of radicals, cadres, political parties and programs; it’s a set of emergent social relations, and it appears as the function of markets as well as the result of state regulatory apparatuses. In these terms, the corporation itself is a socializing institution, as Kenneth Burke, Alan Trachtenberg and others (myself included) have argued, in very different ways.

This idea of “the mix” is worth close attention, because it lets us relinquish the notion that socialism requires the presence of avowed socialists—or, to put the same thing differently, that there is no socialism in the United States because there is no socialist movement or party to speak of. It also lets us think historically, thus politically, about the relation between capitalism and socialism without falling back on epic, linear, progressive narratives—whether liberal or Marxist—about reform and revolution.

But there’s a catch to this kind of thinking. If capitalism and socialism are now so symbiotically entwined that neither can survive the absence of the other, where do we draw the line, how do we treat capitalism as the impediment to socialism, and act accordingly—that is, politically? What prevents us from claiming that socialism has become a fetter on the development of capitalism, as Sklar did in Letters on Obama?

I have some experience addressing these questions, because my critics have often mistaken me for a complacent celebrant of corporate capitalism. My pragmatic answer all along has been that it’s not an either/or choice. Sometimes radicalism in the name of socialism is required of us, as it is just now. More often, though, reform is enough. For, like political democracy, social democracy needs markets to subsist—it can’t be measured or justified by the scope of state command over markets.

* * *

The question remains: How did Sklar disappear? Because he taught in backwaters where graduate acolytes couldn’t gather? Because his ideas about capitalism and socialism are either mystifying or repulsive to the academic left of our time? Because he broke all the rules of the academic game? Did he perish by not publishing books he had already written—by renouncing every audience?

I once met Sklar for a drink in a huge, decaying disco lounge, a sunken, upholstered living room the size of a football field. “What the fuck are we doing here?” I asked. Marty sipped his bourbon and replied, “Your problem, Livingston, is that you’re an aristocrat. You think you’re better than these people, and maybe you are—but you don’t get to decide. You don’t get to choose the people who will judge you.” Sklar was always uttering these sorts of oracular sentences, but I now believe that on such occasions he was talking to himself, trying to persuade himself of something he didn’t believe. Until 1979, when he walked away from In These Times, he found himself persuasive—so he tried to speak to an audience he hadn’t chosen, and he was willing to consider, if not submit to, its judgments.

Thereafter, he didn’t. It’s not that his activism or his journalism kept him honest all those years, and that the final, weary retreat to the ivory tower turned him into an intellectual snob—a left-wing version of Allan Bloom without the bestseller, say, or an empty-handed Humboldt. Rather, the opinion of his peers on the left mattered less and less to him, to the point where he began to believe, in the 1990s, that they were the political problem: the intellectual integument that separated the people from enlightenment. So he eventually chose to be judged by his peers on the right, with Letters on Obama.

l’ve asked many people to help me explain Sklar’s vanishing act. Well, not that many, because there aren’t a whole lot who stayed in touch with him on his terms. I certainly couldn’t. The last time we spoke was in 2003, and Sklar was gung ho for war in Iraq, not to mention Bush’s tax cuts. Our angry conversation would make for the second ten-year silence in our forty-year relationship. My experience was by no means unique. By the time he composed Letters on Obama, Sklar had broken with almost everybody from his days on the left except Radosh, another refugee.

Stanley Aronowitz, who worked with Sklar over the years in various political venues, had this to say about the man’s disappearance: “Marty was notoriously reclusive. In fact, his friends forced him to submit his dissertation so he could hold on to an academic job…. From his perspective, almost all of us were mediocre, and he did not hide his views. Like it or not, despite his talents, these opinions are likely to spur blowback. Isolation breeds marginalization.”

So, your problem, Marty, is that you were the aristocrat, not me. You thought you were smarter than all the people you criticized or avoided or ridiculed, and maybe you were right about that—most of the time, anyway. Still, you didn’t get to choose who would judge you. They did.

But then Stanley also said: “Sklar was among the two or three truly original, brilliant and courageous left historians of his generation.”

I agree. RIP, Marty. Disappeared, but not forgotten.

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