Digital

Exclusive online content

Revisiting the American Century

By: Ronald Radosh
September 17, 2018

istorian Martin J. Sklar, who died in 2014 soon after completing Creating the American Century: The Ideas and Legacies of America’s Twentieth-Century Foreign Policy Founders, is not exactly a household name, but his prodigious research and analysis has influenced many American historians. His 1988 book, The Corporate Reconstruction of American Capitalism: 1890-1916, won the J. Willard Hurst Prize in Legal History. The late Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Thomas K. McCraw called it “the most arresting reinterpretation of the Progressive Era to appear in two decades.” He concluded Sklar “has written a masterpiece that places all of us in his debt.”

McCraw’s praise was unusual because Sklar was widely known as a socialist activist who influenced the entire New Left with his concept of “corporate liberalism.” The New Left, ignoring Sklar’s context, appropriated the term as their own descriptor of the American system. They used it to attack—not big business, or Republicans, or Democrats—but those on the left they deemed “corporate liberals.”

Sklar tried to explain how they misunderstood him. In his eyes, corporate liberalism upheld the corporate-administered market and the rise of regulatory government but did not lead to a “corporate state” or a statist command system. Corporate liberalism wasn’t simply the ideology of corporate capitalists but rather a broad cross-class ideology “expressing the inter-relations of corporate capitalists, political leaders, intellectuals, proprietary capitalists, professionals, and reformers, workers and trade union leaders, populists, and socialists—all of those who could, to a greater or lesser extent, identify their outlook or their interest in administered markets and government regulation with the rise, legitimation, and institutionalization of the corporate capitalist order.”

Sklar later developed the “capitalist-socialist mix” theory, which holds that every modern economic system contains elements of both capitalism and socialism, which simultaneously move together in conflict and cooperation. Writing as a socialist, Sklar increasingly saw conservatives as defending individual liberty against the power of the state, and he praised capitalism for broadening individual initiative and protecting liberty. His beliefs led him into becoming one of President Barack Obama’s most severe critics. He feared that the separation between state and civil society was eroding, destroying the individualism that made America great. Obama, he charged, was creating “proto-statist structures” in which “‘social-service’ political organizations” would operate “extra-electorally” and could lead to “party-state systems…in which the party is the state.” These bureaucracies, like the trade union leadership and groups like ACORN, would be tied directly to the administration and be used for its own purposes.

Sklar’s new political judgments enraged those who considered themselves his students. Historian James Livingston acknowledged Sklar as “one of the great historians of the 20th Century,” but feared his new views “could disfigure his intellectual legacy.” Sklar’s protégé John B. Judis saw “a disturbing nuttiness” in Sklar’s late works.

Sklar came to view right-wing figures like Dick Cheney, George W. Bush, Norman Podhoretz, and Charles Krauthammer not as conservatives but as part of a “robust left wing of the political spectrum.” Sklar failed to convince anyone of this, left or right, but former Bush administration official John Yoo wrote me that “Sklar’s evolution in thinking was not all that different from neo-conservatives such as Daniel Bell…Irving Kristol or even Daniel Patrick Moynihan…. Many neo-conservatives also became worried about the weakness of the Left on foreign policy, and Sklar’s evolution [in] view seems no different.”

In Creating the American Century, Sklar reassesses the roots of American foreign policy. He finds a continuity in depictions of the United States as a strong power with the responsibility to lead the world in defense of freedom and democracy against enemies who favored “state-command economies,” be they the Soviet Union or Islamists.

He begins with an examination of Henry Luce’s February 17, 1941 Life magazine essay, “The American Century.” Leftists believe Luce represented the views of a reactionary big business community seeking to implement American hegemony so they could reap giant profits and control the economies of other nations. Sklar sees Luce’s essay quite differently.

Sklar ties the essay to a speech delivered in February 1902 by prominent New York banker Frank A. Vanderlip. Vanderlip assured his businessman and banker audience that “[t]he twentieth century is America’s century,” and that the United States was to become “the dominating influence in the industrial affairs of the world,” ascending “to a dominating political position.” The country’s new power would require a new international responsibility for the United States, so that “other people will advance with us.”

Luce’s 1941 essay updated Vanderlip’s argument. Luce, Sklar observes, was carrying on a four-decades old “tradition” in American foreign policy, joining President Franklin Delano Roosevelt “in recalling the U.S. to its proper role in world history.” Luce wrote that he stood against “the virus of isolationist sterility.” He advocated, Sklar argues, for both an advance in American leadership and strength and “social democratic reform and the modernizing and protection of U.S. democracy itself.” Luce hoped isolationism would be destroyed for good and American internationalism seen as being “as natural to us in our time as the airplane and radio.”  Sklar emphasizes that, rather than advocating unrestrained empire and imperialism, Luce’s essay had “a distinct left-wing character.”  Thus, Sklar sees continuity in America’s role in the world from the “1890s to the 1990s and beyond.”

The third section of Sklar’s book deals with U.S. foreign policy from the war years and the Cold War down to the present day and the rise of radical Islamism. The Cold War, he argues, wasn’t simply a fight between East and West, or Communism and democratic capitalism, but rather between “national-racist closed-system imperialisms” and their opponents, believers in “open-system” capitalism who rejected “Communist state-command, closed-empire socialism.”

Opposing the open-system capitalists were advocates of “Communist socialism”—which, like Nazi and fascist socialism, was “corporatist, with party-state command and quasi-communal obligations, restrictions, and rights, in accordance with ‘pre-modern’ conditions of less developed societies.”

In the ensuing Cold War, democratic socialists renewed and maintained the World War II coalition with liberals and open-system capitalists, now against Communist state-command, closed-empire socialism. The “West,” or the open system, was immeasurably strengthened by its mixed capitalist/socialist institutions…both in its internal affairs and in its appeal to the people in the closed system. The “East,” or the state-command, closed and monolithic (totalitarian) system, was severely and ultimately fatally weakened by its retardation and obstruction of its own societies’ internal development.

The end of the Cold War was “a signal achievement of modern political leaderships and institutions.” Sklar concludes with a blast at those left-wing intellectuals who blame the world’s problems “on their own leaders, who are trying to sustain [the peace], instead of the actual enemies and destroyers of that peace.” Such liberals, in his view, prefer the “demonizing of Bush, Rumsfeld, Cheney, Ashcroft, Gonzalez, Romney, Lieberman, [and] Palin”—and, worse, indulge “Arab/Persian Fascism and Islamic Imperialism, a repeat of appeasement in the 1930s of Nazi Germany and ‘anti-imperialism’ attacks against ‘warmongering’ Churchill and FDR.”

Sklar finished writing his book before the rise of Donald Trump and the new self-proclaimed populist-nationalism, but his book makes clear he would be wary of it. He highlights his support for the postwar international system based on “U.S.-British-German ties,” along with a balance of power opposed to Russia or other European nations which favored a new, controlled Eurasian system. He would be a strong opponent as well of Vladimir Putin, since Sklar wrote in favor of the eastward expansion of NATO as well as the “integration of Russia into greater Europe.”  

There is much to be learned from Sklar’s erudite discussion. I warn readers, however, that the book is best comprehended and appreciated by those already familiar with the course of American and world history, and especially with the study of American foreign policy in its broad contours. This is a book for those familiar with the topics discussed. Those who venture to read the book will find an original thinker from whom a great deal can be learned and who can even change how one looks at the world.