A Man between Two Worlds: Assessing Martin Sklar’s Philosophy of Liberalism


A Man between Two Worlds: Assessing Martin Sklar’s Philosophy of Liberalism

Mar 26th, 2019 27 min read

Executive Vice President
Kim R. Holmes is the Executive Vice President at The Heritage Foundation.


This article originally appeared in the spring 2019 edition of Telos, a peer-reviewed academic journal.

In The Closing of the Liberal Mind: How Groupthink and Intolerance Define the Left (2016), I explore the impact of the Progressive Era, the New Left, and the postmodern era on classic liberalism.REF Norton Wheeler, seeing similarities between points in that book and the thoughts of historian Martin J. Sklar, suggested I contribute an essay to this Telos symposium exploring Sklar’s thoughts. I happily agreed. I chose subjects in Sklar’s writings and in The Closing of the Liberal Mind that overlap. I am grateful for the opportunity to explore the writings of this remarkable man, whose thinking in my opinion has been underappreciated.

Progressivism and Corporate Liberalism

One of Martin Sklar’s central theses is his contention that the American system during the Progressive Era became a “mix” of capitalism and socialism. Sklar believed that this system “inaugurated an incessant interaction, both antagonistic and complementary, between capitalism and socialism that shaped American society in the twentieth century.”REF It also contributed to government evolving into what Sklar called the “liberal corporate state.”REF It was not the state as a corporate organization unto itself, as is found in socialism. Rather, it was a state friendly to corporate business interests, one that accepted and even promoted the market economy.

Sklar is correct that the state system that evolved in the Progressive Era was a historical hybrid. It left behind the old agrarian limited government liberalism of the Founders and embraced instead a new activist state that consciously advanced the interests of industrialists and their workers. Whether this trend can rightly be called “socialist,” I am not sure. State activism in the American economy had been around since the Whigs introduced the “American System” in the first half of the nineteenth century. That move was inspired not by socialism but by the demands of integrating a continental economy. Even before the Whigs, Alexander Hamilton had envisioned an activist government in the economy.

Sklar’s observation is also correct that many progressives of the time, such as John Dewey, Herbert Croly, and especially practitioners Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, were not socialists—i.e., they were still liberals. Radicals and even socialists emerged later in the progressive movement, but by and large earlier progressives were not Marxists or doctrinaire socialists. Sklar is essentially correct as well to say that the progressives’ notion of equality was more liberal than socialist. Progressives were trying to create social equality within the capitalist system. Although the new activist state was encroaching on civil society, it still had not overtaken or supplanted it, as would be increasingly the case in socialist and even social democratic states.

In The Closing of the Liberal Mind, I argue that these progressives were well within the overall American liberal tradition.REF Yes, they rejected the agrarian liberalism of the Founders. Yes, Hegel and European socialists influenced them. But they were not socialists; and they were definitely not the same as the liberals of today who call themselves “progressives.” Today’s liberals are heirs of the 1960s New Left movement and its subsequent spin-off, the postmodern left that is highly sectarian (to use Sklar’s word) and wholly dedicated to the illiberal corporatist state originally conceived by socialists.REF The “groupthink” and tribal warfare mentalities found in radical feminism or the Black Lives Matter and LGBT rights campaigns are alien to the thinking of Wilson, Roosevelt, Croly, or even John Dewey.REF These men conceived of equality as an individual, not a group, right. They also fully accepted the pursuit of equality as a matter for mainly civil society to undertake. Perhaps the state could give this pursuit a push, but progressives of this period never conceived of the state as an all-encompassing corporatist governing power with the right to control all aspects of our lives.

I am, however, less forgiving of the progressives than is Sklar. It may not be fair to blame them for all the sins of the modern administrative state. But it is also true that we would never be at this point today with- out progressives having set the stage. They laid the groundwork for the New Deal, the Great Society of the 1960s, and even America’s advanced welfare state today. It turns out that the progressives’ attacks on natural law and their embrace of Hegelian historicism—which Sklar himself embracedREF—did irreparable damage not only to America’s constitutional system but to the independence of civil society. Once you accept liberty as a principle that can “evolve” or is negotiable as a political contract with the state, you put it in grave danger. The state no longer exists to protect liberties but to deliver services and protections, the definitions of which can change over time and in response to political pressure. Progressives planted this seed at the turn of the twentieth century, and it took a full century to reach its culmination in our advanced welfare state.

Liberalism and the Sectarian Left

One of Sklar’s more prescient theses is his distinction between the “broad left” and the “sectarian left.”REF By the former, he meant a broad range of liberals who were “pro-liberal democracy and anti–state-command, anti-totalitarian.”REF In America, this “broad left” would include traditional progressives, New Dealers, Great Society advocates, and any moderate modern liberal prior to the 1960s. Sectarian leftists, on the other hand, would include Marxists, neo-Marxists, cultural Marxists, and any New Leftists and postmodern leftists who are utopian, doctrinaire, or both. Characteristics of the sectarian left’s approach include pitting groups against each other in zero-sum competition; equality as a group right rather than an individual right; a highly centralized state; law ushered into the service of an ideology; highly doctrinaire and closed systems of thought; and, in extreme cases, authoritarian and even totalitarian modes of government.

Sklar’s insight helps distinguish between the old and new left in America. It may very well be that Sklar believed that the broad–sectarian divide existed in the old or pre-postmodern left, but he also believed that the postmodern left today is largely sectarian. I would agree. Today the postmodern left is very different from, and indeed has largely broken off ideologically from, classic liberalism as well as mainstream liberalism as it was understood before the 1960s.REF After the rise of the New Left in the 1960s, liberalism increasingly became radicalized as it imported notions, assumptions, and ideologies from neo-Marxist sources, such as the Frankfurt School, Antonio Gramsci, Frantz Fanon, and Herbert Marcuse. Over the new cultural Marxism of this era were laid the relativist and deconstructionist philosophies of Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and other postmodernist philosophers as well as ideas from the idiosyncratic “libertarian” socialist Noam Chomsky.

Although radical at their inceptions, the ideas of these thinkers are today mainstream liberalism. They are the heart and soul of radical multiculturalism and identity politics. They redefine what it means to be a progressive liberal, which as Sklar rightly acknowledges is a transformation that has made them susceptible to utopian, authoritarian, and even totalitarian modes of thought.

Sklar was ahead of his time in another way. Speaking of Barack Obama, Sklar wrote, “It is not that Obama is a ‘socialist’. . . he is a party-state-command sectarian opposed to . . . modern associational society, opposed, in short, to liberal democracy.”REF President Obama was all too happy to turn the power of the Internal Revenue Service and other executive agencies against political enemies in civil society. He had little patience with the constitutional protections of the rule of law that are necessary to sustain liberal democracy. His view of the courts was thoroughly political. He had a sectarian “us versus them” view of political friends and enemies.

Obama innovated the new sectarian progressive ideology in another way. Sklar believed “sectarians” of today are community organizers who try to create a state based on what he called “corporative” social relations.REF This is an important insight. Community organizers like Obama try to segment people of different classes, genders, and sexual orientation into set political/power groupings. These groups can be targeted and mobilized not only for political purposes but to restructure the state and the law. Blind justice takes a back seat to the biased outcomes of “social” justice. For example, Obama and his supporters moved away from a doctrine of equal protection of individuals under the law, which had been the traditional liberal view of justice; they adopted instead a vigorous view that “social” justice is achieved by providing special legal protections to favored groups. To perform this function, the state must be all-powerful and centralized, and courts must be highly politicized and, provided they are progressive, have the last word in all policy matters. The overall result is an increasingly illiberal state, hostile to the freedom of civil society, democracy and the rule of law, and individual rights.

The Transvestiture of Left and Right

One of Sklar’s more insightful ideas is the “transvestiture of left and right.”REF As he wrote in a letter to Norman Podhoretz, “One may view the course of U.S. history as a road with a long leftward bend along which the people switch between left and right lanes.”REF

Sklar had a long list of “rightist views presenting themselves in dress and labels of the left.”REF They were: (1) affirmation of static relativism (cus- tom, mores, culture) against a plastic and evolving human-universalism; (2) affirmation of ethnic, gender, and race identity that was once associated with the Volk or nation; (3) affirmation of subjectivity, archetypes, paradigms, or subconscious motivations as opposed to objective reality; (4) favoring organic community (Gemeinschaft) over an associative civil society (Gesellschaft); (5) favoring special rights for a few or a group as opposed to universal rights for everyone equally; and (6) favoring elite superiority over people considered incapable of discerning their true self-interest.REF

As for ideas now considered rightist, Sklar argued they were historically from the left. These include: (1) affirmation of universalism and internationalism; (2) affirmation of universal human rights and liberties and the universality of the sovereignty of the people; (3) affirmation of objective historical reality and objective science as opposed to ahistorical, arbitrary, or utopian concepts of subjectivity and irrationalism; (4) favoring associationism, pluralism, and civil society against authoritarian, communalist, and organic societies ruled by a strong state; and (5) favoring equal liberty at law, equal opportunity, and universal civil liberties and rights, regardless of race, religion, nationality, or sex.REF

Sklar is correct that left and right have largely changed historical places on ideas. Over the past century American conservatives have become more classically liberal, embracing free speech, free trade, and negative liberties, while postmodern leftists have become tribalistic, authoritarian, and even hierarchical, which historically were characteristic of the right. This means that the left today is a hybrid of historical currents.REF Postmodern leftists not only embrace the tribalism of the old right—through the groupthink of identity politics; they also believe in the organic notion of community that originated in the European right’s reaction to and rejection of the liberalism of the French and American revolutions.

Today’s left is thoroughly steeped in the historical ideas that gave rise to fascism and militant nationalism in the twentieth century. Identity politics, for example, is rooted in the völkisch ideology of such reactionary German philosophers as Johann Gottfried Herder and Johann Gottlieb Fichte.REF These philosophers posited notions of exclusive cultural identity over and against the highly individualized liberalism championed in Britain and certain parts of France.

Sklar is also correct about the postmodern left’s irrationalism. It was derived historically not only from the German “romantic” reaction to the individualized liberalism of the moderate Enlightenment, but also from the twentieth-century processing of that intellectual tradition by French postmodernist philosophers (such as Derrida) who posited an absolute subjectivism in philosophy.REF

Sklar’s theory of transvestiture holds another important insight. He refers to anti-capitalists in the Progressive Era as being nostalgic about the pre-industrial, agrarian order of America. According to Sklar, opponents of capitalism “feared the passing of the old republic of small producers and its attendant set of values.”REF

This is a tremendously important point. It is no accident that one of the earliest social radicals in the Western liberal tradition—Jean-Jacques Rousseau—likewise idealized an “idyllic” society. He imagined the state of nature—i.e., the “natural life” he described in his novel Émile, or on Education—as a place where man was inherently good and people be- came corrupted by tradition. Rousseau never explained adequately how the same people who were originally good became the source of later corruption—a contradiction that would become blaringly obvious during the French Revolution—but that mattered little to his followers. To them, people were “good” and equality was natural, and the purpose of the social contract was to restore natural freedom by removing the corrupting influences of tradition and inequality.

Rousseau was the first radical “leftist” to imagine a society of perfect equality. Since natural harmony was assumed, it was also supposed that the community would be naturally organic, in the sense that cooperation would be achieved willingly—provided equality was recognized. It was a naïve idea that would be exposed in the Terror of the French Revolution and in subsequent social revolutions, and as such was one of the first intellectual roots of twentieth-century totalitarianism.

Sklar’s idea gives us an opportunity to understand the left’s theory of community in a different light. Normally socialists adopt Hegel’s and Marx’s theory of historical progression, where freedom is unfolding in a more-or-less straight line—i.e., inevitably in a progressive direction. This is what is meant by every progressive’s trope about being “on the right side of history.” But as Sklar points out, they are missing something: the sectarian socialist’s notion of community resembles the organic society (Gemeinschaft) of the pre-capitalist era.

We can see an inkling of this thinking in Marx’s views of feudalism. Clearly, Marx was no fan of feudalism. He believed that landlords exploited peasants. But he also believed that, compared to capitalism, feudalism had redeeming qualities. For example, it at least allowed peas- ants to maintain direct contact with the means of production—namely, the land. Capitalism, on the other hand, “alienated” labor from the means of production. The implication is that capitalism is far worse.

Marx’s revulsion toward capitalism’s revolutionary disruptiveness to his sense of community is palpable in the Communist Manifesto:

Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned.REF

In addition, note how Marx compared the “idyllic” relations of feudalism with the callousness of the “bourgeoisie”:

The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his “natural superiors,” and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous “cash payment.”REF

Marx clearly objects more to the “naked self-interest” of the bourgeoisie than he does to the “motley feudal ties” of the landlords. Although exploitative, feudalism’s “natural superiors” are at least expected to accept responsibility for their peasants. Both Marx and the feudal “patriarchy” appear to long for an “idyllic” order where a shared sense of community overcomes strife and “naked self-interest.” In Marx’s case, of course, feudalism rejects equality. Marx and his feudal lords may be at odds over exploitation, but they share the belief that social order requires not only strict control but an ideology of community in which, in the name of equality and the “ends” of history, that order is permanently fixed politically and represents the ultimate historical triumph of freedom.

Once the Soviet Union was established, the truth of this comparison became clear. Under communism, the drive to create and maintain social order was imperative. Feudalism’s “natural superiors” became the Politburo. A fierce hierarchy of party leaders emerged, and people jock- eyed for positions within the pecking order of the communist state. It was anything but an order of equality. People close to power got dachas. Privileged family members received the best apartments and plum academy appointments. There was even bartering of goods in return for political favors. It was almost a caricature of the old feudal system with its practices of patronage and exploitation of privilege. As with feudalism, communists justified the whole system by appealing to an overarching, organic vision of community in which there was little or no room for individual freedom or initiative.

Marx’s dreams of an idyllic order appear to have gotten the best of his claim to be liberating people from their “chains.” It is inescapable that Marx was more sympathetic to the static equilibrium of the feudal order than to the rough and tumble world of competitive capitalism, even though it had been the greatest liberator of people in human history. For this reason, Marx’s idea of community is closer to the pre-industrial order of Gemeinschaft (organic community) than to the dynamic, ever-changing order of Gesellschaft (an independent civil society and free market).REF

The last three hundred years witnessed two momentous developments in human freedom. One was the Enlightenment, which gave us the idea of liberty. The other was capitalism. Marx sort of got the first one right but missed the second one completely. The “bourgeois” revolution was a true revolution of freedom, spreading liberty into untold new realms of human life. His misunderstanding of its nature and his attempt to replace it by establishing an authoritarian order of sectarian socialism were errors of historic proportion. Historically—in Hegelian terms—the effect was reactionary, a return in “spirit” to the closed systems of the Ancien Régime.

That liberty and liberalism in general are the bitter enemy of Marxism is well known. And yet this fact gets lost in today’s understanding of American liberalism. Why are progressives forever saying “it’s past time” when one of their ideas is implemented? Why is it that today’s “liberals” have “no enemies to the left”? Why are they so reluctant to denounce anarchists and other violent people on the left? Could it be that today’s liberals are not liberals at all, but leftists? And could it be that they have the same contempt for liberty that all leftists have had since the Communist Manifesto?

I very much doubt, as Sklar suggests, that the liberal-socialist synthesis in social democracy represents a compromise between liberalism and socialism. While it is true that social democracy has made its peace with political democracy, it has changed fundamentally the very notion of liberty. Liberty today is defined not as an individual’s right to property or free speech, but as the right of groups to be recognized and officially embraced by the state in the name of equality. Freedom is recognized not as a natural universal right of the individual, but as a socially contracted right of groups in which individuals find their “dignity” and “identity” (such as gender, race, sexual orientation, etc.). The political strategy is intentionally divisive. Its ideology claims that “diversity” is a new universal principle. The current American slogan might as well be “out of one, many.” It is a complete triumph of the socialist spirit masquerading as the champion of individual rights.

So how should we evaluate Sklar’s clear intention to remain a man of the left and a socialist (of sorts)? It is true that liberty is the true “leftism” in the long historical development of Western liberalism. But today’s left is no longer liberal, as Sklar himself has argued. It is in fact completely hostile to liberty. Sklar tried to slip past this dilemma by saying the aim of today’s anti-liberty “sectarian” left is different from his idealized social- ism, but I would argue that socialism has always been hostile to liberty. Sklar clearly did not want to face this dilemma head-on; but, in the end, if a choice had to be made between liberty and the dictates of community, Sklar always chose liberty. In my book, that makes him a classic liberal.

Is America a Left-Wing Country?

Sklar believed that America is a left-wing country. As mentioned earlier, American capitalism adapted to the redistributive demands of unions and social reformers, but it did so by retaining a respect for liberty. It also spread this system of liberal democracy to the rest of the world in the twentieth century, first by intervening in two world wars and later by safeguarding the new liberal order during the Cold War.REF Both America’s original commitment to liberty in the Founding and its later adaptation to social demands of industrialization put it on the “left” side of history.REF

It is true that the American Revolution invoked the liberal worldview of the Enlightenment against the old values of monarchy and aristocracy. This made it the first “liberal” revolution. It also is true that the corporate liberalism of the Progressive Era did not completely eradicate the original American liberalism, even as it rejected some of its basic premises. A deli- cate balance between the old and new liberalisms more or less remained through the New Deal. But it began to break down in the 1960s with the rise of the New Left and its subsequent takeover of the Democratic Party. Today’s left, as Sklar argued, is sectarian and totally committed to dismantling the system that once safeguarded America’s original liberty.

In Sklar’s left–right schemata, America today is definitely a left-wing country; but it is no longer a liberal one, at least as far as much of the government activities and political culture are concerned. A liberty-hostile socialism is indeed the reigning spirt of today’s postmodern left. But this is not the kind of leftism Sklar admired.

The problem is that we start to stumble over terminology and labels. Sklar clearly wanted to preserve the idea that the liberty revolution represents a leftward march of history. I do not have any quarrel with that. But if you apply his idea of the transvestiture of left and right to the problem, you come up with two inescapable points that contradict this conclusion: first, that America used to be a liberal-left country but is one no more; and second, that today’s left is hostile to liberty and is thus, by a liberal-left definition, a reactionary party. It wants to constrain liberty as originally conceived, not to expand it. In other words, by the standards of a Hegelian progression toward “freedom,” today’s “left” is on the right, not the left. It wants to take liberalism backward, not forward, much as socialism and communism did. It is not for freedom, but against it.

This conclusion only appears odd if you accept the left’s (and Marx’s) definition of history and progress as inexorably marching toward freedom defined as socialism. But if you reject that conclusion and propose instead that history should be naturally progressing toward expanding liberty, the conclusion that the postmodern left is reactionary is not only understand- able but inescapable.

The difficulty seems to be that Sklar wanted socialism and liberalism to be ideological friends rather than the enemies they have become (and, I would argue, always have been). It is an admirable intention, but one ultimately based on a contradiction. The more socialistic America became, the less liberal it was. The more statist and socialist the state–society relationship became, the fewer protections for liberty. This is even true during the late nineteenth-century period of industrialization, when unions and other progressive groups were introducing European ideas and practices of socialism.

There is also a very important component missing from Sklar’s thesis. That is religion. In post-revolutionary America, religion was not state-imposed. Neither was it sectarian in the sense that different denominations tried to dominate each other by grabbing the power of the government. Yes, there were sectarian social tensions, especially between Protestants and Catholics in the second half of the nineteenth century. But freedom of religion was enshrined in the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights, and the prohibition of the establishment of a state religion as a constitutional principle prevented sectarian conflicts from ossifying into a Balkanized political and legal system. As a result, the society and legal systems had to remain open, and different religions were forced to keep their competition civil.

This was a unique—and I would argue uniquely brilliant—American innovation in the history of Western liberalism. It essentially made religion and liberalism allies, which was quite different from liberal societies in Europe, especially France, where they were enemies. The system helped ensure that the freedom of civil society as a liberal project could not fully flourish without the support of religion. It also meant that the “left” of liberty and liberalism united with the old “right” of religion, essentially preserving both. If you should ever want a successful Hegelian synthesis toward freedom, this is it. It fits the model far better than the supposed liberty–socialism synthesis.

Religion’s secular contribution to liberalism, as it were, was public morality, or “virtue” as the Founders called it. Washington, Adams, Franklin, and other Founders made it clear that the American Republic would survive only if its people were virtuous. By virtue, they meant not only private morality but honesty, fairness, and respect in public life. Virtue would keep a check on the selfish passion of Americans. It was the social restraint necessary for political freedom to thrive. Civic virtue was the glue that held the country together in the face of the fractiousness that had torn democracies, such as ancient Athens, apart.

I would venture to suggest that Sklar missed the role of religion precisely because he saw himself as a quasi-socialist. He seemed to accept the Marxist notion that a Hegelian development of history somehow pushes in the direction of some form of socialism. But Hegel’s historicism and socialism in general are philosophically at odds with the underlying natural law liberalism of America. The former is ultimately relativistic, while the latter is fixed in natural law, not the unfolding of history. Natural law not only inspired the classic liberalism of the Founding, but it was also compatible with a religious outlook that believed in a universal (unchanging historically in its basics) morality. Early American liberalism and religion could work in tandem successfully precisely because they shared a belief in natural law. Once the Hegelian worldview of socialism entered the progressive mind, the natural law perspective was pushed aside. The new progressive liberalism became hostile not only to religion but to the Founder’s vision of individual rights and the law. It also allowed through the back door the historicism and relativism that is today one of the intellectual centerpieces of the postmodern left.

At the end of the day, it is impossible to be both a left-wing Hegelian and an American liberal. You can be one or the other, but you cannot be both. The liberal must believe in or at least pay homage (as John Rawls tries to do but ultimately failed) to some semblance of a historically fixed universalism as understood by natural law theory. In other words, rights must be understood as immutable and not historically determined and changeable over time. Once you accept that rights or truth are historically relative, you pass onto the playing field of a Hegelian-inspired socialism. Rights are not inherent or “inalienable” but contractual and transactional.

Ultimately, they are contingent. They become all about social relations and power, not about what is good and right for everyone individually in society. Any definition of equality we happen to dream up can be applied in the name of social justice, since justice is no longer about indisputable rights (as exist in the Bill of Rights, for example) but about an ever-changing power struggle between classes and groups jockeying for position in the name of equality.

Liberalism and the Legacies of the Enlightenment

Western liberalism originated in the Enlightenment. But there are two Enlightenments: the moderate Enlightenment of John Locke, Montesquieu, Edward Coke, and Adam Smith; and the radical Enlightenment of Baruch Spinoza, Rousseau, Denis Diderot, Pierre Bayle, and other French philosophes. The moderates tended to be suspicious of centralized state power as endangering the rights of the individual, while the radicals viewed popular sovereignty as absolute and thus capable of infringing on those rights if they conflicted with the “general will” of the people. The moderates were realistic and even a bit suspicious of human nature, while the radicals were utopians and believed the “people” could do no wrong. Broadly speaking, the American Revolution encapsulated most of the ideas of the moderate Enlightenment, while the French Revolution did the same for the radicals.

If he were alive, I doubt that Sklar would accept this historical interpretation. He clearly wanted to keep his feet in both camps. It is almost as if he hoped to bridge the gap between Locke and Rousseau. But I wonder if that is possible. It was Spinoza who gave Rousseau intellectual per- mission to imagine a new world—a Nature more or less equated with God—that was solely and exclusively in the hands of mankind, with no external restraints whatsoever from tradition or religion. It was not a huge leap from the absolute sovereignty of the General Will to the Committee of Public Safety in the French Revolution. There is simply no philosophically bridging a worldview that says rights are endowed by nature and that governments must protect them at all costs—the moderate view—and one that imagines the people can define and even infringe on those natural rights in the name of the people.

This standoff is the great intellectual divide between liberalism and socialism. One reason the divide cannot be overcome is because it contains two different views of human nature. The moderates trusted people enough to give them a free government, but not enough to decide all matters of society. They certainly did not want to give them the power to “level” (the term often used in the Anglo-American world) everything for social equality. In the early days, British and American liberals were perfectly happy to keep social differences and even inequality. For them liberalism and rights were for people of property. At that time, liberalism was not at all “democratic” as we currently understand the meaning of the word. Later, after Andrew Jackson, America’s original liberalism indeed became democratic, insofar as it expanded the franchise to vote. But today’s (social) democracy is no longer about expanding the electoral franchise or protecting individual rights; rather, it is about creating a new social order of power-sharing arrangements administered by the state.

In other words, it is socialist in spirit, not liberal.

Democracy in America, as Alexis de Tocqueville observed, was originally about expanding liberty. As more people were enfranchised, they were brought into the original liberty enterprise. Later, when slavery was abolished, Lincoln and others justified abolition as fulfilling the original promise of the Declaration of Independence. Neither the abolition of slavery nor the expansion of democracy in America was a social democratic enterprise.

Thus, this first adjustment and expansion of American liberalism had nothing whatsoever to do with socialism. It was homegrown. It was a natural expansion of the original American idea—a liberal idea.


Martin Sklar is an underappreciated thinker. We would all do well to study his thought. The fact that he was a leading thinker of the New Left in the 1960s and remained a self-identified leftist gave him a unique historical perspective. It enabled him to cut through many misunderstandings and clichés about the history of American liberalism. It also gave his critique of current leftism originality and credibility. He knew of which he spoke. If ever there were a Nobel Prize for intellectual history, Sklar’s theory of the transvestiture of left and right would be worthy of the award.

It is unclear why Sklar is not better known. Perhaps it is because it is exceedingly difficult to introduce new concepts into American politics, especially when they run against narratives carefully constructed by the left. The postmodern left today is mainstream in American life. It occupies the “commanding heights” of politics and culture. It has commandeered the word “liberal” for a very useful reason: This venerable tradition represents America’s heart and soul. What better way to transform the country than to transform what the word liberal means? If you capture the symbol of freedom in America, you capture the country.

Conservatives should care about the intellectual history of the American left. The problem is not a mere semantics game. Rather, it is a debate about the future of America. Sklar is right: America has always been a liberal country. It will only thrive in the future if the original commitment to liberty is preserved. But this debate cannot be won by letting one side—the postmodern left—pretend to be something it is not. It claims the mantle of American freedom, but it is precisely the opposite. It does not want to expand liberty but to quash it and create in its stead a communal order of illiberalism. Sklar clearly saw this threat, but he still wanted to retain a belief in an idealized socialism. In this respect, he remained even at the end of his life a man intellectually suspended between two worlds.

Social conservatives should remember that their war is not with classic liberalism as conceived in the American Founding. Liberty and traditional values (and religion) in America are allies, not enemies. Rather, it is with the new authoritarian, thoroughly secular, and politically illiberal culture that the postmodern left wants to impose on everyone else. The perception that conservatives are the reactionaries who want to deprive people of freedom could not be further from the truth. Even in debates over gay marriage and other civil liberty issues, most liberal-conservatives propose solutions to social conflicts that are less draconian and authoritarian than those of the social justice warriors who want to fine and, in some cases, even imprison people with whom they disagree.

Here is the problem in a nutshell: The fact that the original liberalism of America is today called “reactionary” tells all you need to know about the challenge true liberals face. Classic liberal-conservatives are not the reactionaries. Leftists are. Words really do matter. They are the symbols by which we understand ourselves and elect our leaders. Americans will always want leaders who promise “change” by ever expanding the man- date of liberty. In some cases, this may lead them to social compromises that may make some social conservatives uneasy. But the party that carries both the promise of liberty and the solidarity of civil society will win in the end. It will be best placed to preserve the original liberty promises of the American Revolution.