Category Archives: Rand Studies

Revisiting Kolko’s “Triumph of Conservatism”

In light of our recent discussions of the history of “capitalism”, check out Chris Wright​’s succinct 2018 summary of Gabriel Kolko‘s trailblazing work on the Progressive Era. Kolko has been taken to task by many, but even those who disagree with aspects of his work, such as my pals, Rob Bradley​, and recent JARS contributor, Roger Donway, have readily acknowledged that Kolko blew “to smithereens the smug narrative about Progressivist regulation,” “disproving the old stereotypes of Gilded Age businessmen as uncompromising pro-capitalists and Progressive reformers as do-gooders. He showed that industrialists had not been as laissez-faire or reformers as high-minded as Progressivism alleged.”

The Facebook discussion that followed from my cross-posting of this led me to reproduce in whole a note from my Journal of Ayn Rand Studies-published review (vol. 20, no. 2, December 2020, pp. 340-71): “Free Market Revolution: Partial or Complete?” (references therein):

For my own comparison of the parallels between Rand’s critique of the neofascist mixed economy and that offered by Kolko, see Sciabarra [1995] 2013, 311–12. The debate over Kolko’s historiography—particularly in light of the fiftieth anniversary of his profoundly influential Triumph of Conservatism—has spiked in recent years. Bradley and Donway (2013) devote an article to a reassessment of Kolko’s revisionist perspective on the Progressive era, including his study of Railroads and Regulation (Kolko 1965). They argue correctly that industries, such as railroads, were essentially “feudal” from their inception (Bradley and Donway 2013, 564). They take issue with the neo-Marxist premises in Kolko’s conceptual framework and Kolko’s questionable interpretations of some of the data. Still, as critical as they are, they conclude: “Ourreinterpretation of Kolko in light of libertarian thought should not take away from Kolko’s success in amending the simplistic Progressivist interpretation of American history. The present review merely points out that a libertarian, anti-Progressivist interpretation of Progressive legislation should be freed from Kolko’s leftist framework and supported by better evidence” (575). They repeat that point in a later essay (Bradley and Donway 2015): “Unquestionably, Kolko did valuable work in disproving the old stereotypes of Gilded Age businessmen as uncompromising pro-capitalists and Progressive reformers as do-gooders. He showed that industrialists had not been as laissez-faire or reformers as high-minded as Progressivism alleged.” The authors also issued a correction with regard to their criticism that Kolko had doctored a quote by railroad magnate James J. Hill (see Bradley and Donway n.d.). But even in a forthcoming reply to Stromberg’s defense (2019, 43) of Kolko’s admirable avoidance of historical “reductionism” (on display in the work of many pre-revisionist left-wing historians), they credit Kolko for having blown “to smithereens the smug narrative about Progressivist regulation, spread by Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and his ilk, which dominated American historiography during the Forties, Fifties, and early Sixties” (Bradley and Donway forthcoming; see also Bradley 2014). Ironically, Kolko provided a back cover blurb for Bradley 2009, praising it as “[f]ascinating, comprehensive . . . far surpassing my own history of political capitalism in the 1960s.”

Bradley and Donway’s criticisms notwithstanding, Kolko is certainly not the only revisionist historian who has written on the corporatist nature of the Progressive political agenda. For example, see essays by William Appleman Williams, Martin J. Sklar, Murray Rothbard, Ronald Radosh, David Eakins, James Gilbert, and Leonard Liggio in Radosh and Rothbard 1972. Also see Weinstein and Eakins 1970; Green and Nader 1973; Liggio and Martin 1976; Sklar 1988; Horwitz 1992; Lindsey and Teles 2017; Rothbard 2017; Holcombe 2018; Newman 2019a.

Newman (2019b) places special emphasis on the principle that “personnel is policy,” that is, those who are appointed to regulatory agencies will often dictate the trajectory of the policies in question. He argues convincingly that, like all legislative processes, the establishment of regulatory agencies, such as the Federal Trade Commission, emerged out of the push-and-pull of conflicting interests, some inimical to business, others fully in favor of using political means for business consolidation. Newman shows “that regulatory capture is a dynamic process that does not follow a deterministic path because control of an agency depends on the commissioners appointed who are continually changing over time” (1038).

“Rent-seeking”—as outlined by public choice theorists such as Gordon Tullock, James Buchanan, and George Joseph Stigler—is made all the more complicated with the “division of power among regulatory agencies that have overlapping jurisdictions, [requiring] special interests . . . to make sure that they have control of multiple commissions in order to accomplish their objectives” (1040).

It should also be noted that Arthur Ekirch, whose work Rand praised, was equally impressed by the theses of revisionist historians on the left. Ekirch remarks that way back in 1944, Friedrich Hayek’s book The Road to Serfdom had warned that the rise of state capitalism, “[t]he progressive abandonment of freedom in economic affairs[,] . . . was leading to a similar destruction of political and personal freedom” (Ekirch [1955] 1967, 310). He highlights the complementary contributions of both Robert Wiebe (1962) and Gabriel Kolko (1963; 1965) toward our understanding of the emergence of a form of “state socialism” or “state capitalism” in which business has been among the chief designers and beneficiaries of the regulatory apparatus from its inception (Ekirch 1974, 143–44).

Gordon Adams (1981) provides another provocative perspective on regulation. Though Adams focuses on “the politics of defense contracting,” his insights are equally applicable to the give-and-take that takes place across all regulatory agencies. The “Iron Triangle,” as Adams famously characterized it, constitutes the relationship between congressional committees, regulatory bureaucracies, and the industries being regulated—that is, the dynamic and systemic interrelationships between congressional committees that create bureaucratic regulatory agencies, which are designed to serve their “constituencies.” But the constituencies of each regulatory agency are not “the people.” Indeed, Adams argues that the constituencies in question are the actual industries being regulated. And so, the entire regulatory state has emerged in a way such that industries push for regulations, which enable them to block entry into markets, using money to buy various forms of “pork barrel” legislation, while lobbying and courting members of Congress and gaining key personnel appointments to the very regulatory agencies that were ostensibly created to “protect” the public from corporate “excess.” See also Higgs 2006. Regulation also helps to socialize risk for a whole panoply of industries—from health care insurance companies to the most blatant of industrial polluters. See Sciabarra 2020 and LaCalle 2019, respectively.

— from my review of the Yaron Brook-Don Watkins book, Free Market Revolution, published in JARS’s December 2021 issue (pp. 362-63, n. 12)

Thinking Outside the Box (II): The World You Desired Can Be Won

After my last post, “Thinking Outside the Box: You Have Nothing to Lose But Your Chains,” I received quite a few public and private comments from people—left and right—wondering if I’d lost my mind (or my soul) because I do not use the word “capitalism” to describe my politics.

It’s nothing new, folks. I stopped using that word back in February 2005, and stated why in my short piece, “‘Capitalism’: The Known Reality” on the Liberty and Power Group Blog—and subsequently re-published on the site of the Center for a Stateless Society (C4SS). I should note, for the record, that one person on another Facebook thread said that if I’ve linked to C4SS, I’m “probably broken” already. Well, if this be treason—linking to a site that has so many wonderful contributors and associates, and that also carries some of my work—I warmly embrace my “Humpty Dumpty” spiritual essence!

Back in 2005, when I wrote that piece, I was, in fact, reaching out to the “left or to any other category of intellectuals” because, I argued, “[r]eal communication depends upon a full clarification of terms; if we end up using the same term to mean different things, I fear we’ll be talking over each other’s heads for a long time to come.”

But that piece did not simply signify a shift in rhetorical strategy. I maintained then, as I do now, that historically constituted “capitalism” has never been the “unknown ideal” of Ayn Rand’s narrative. We can stand here and debate this for eons, but it’s not going to change the reality of how the system that came to be known as “capitalism” emerged—as I stated in my last post—very much the product of state forces that worked at the behest of large medieval landowners, using such tools as the enclosure acts to nullify peasant land tenure rights and, through the legacy of colonialism, wholly dispossess many indigenous populations. If the state has always been involved with the social system known as “capitalism”, then the Randian goal of radically separating the state from the economy such that it is no longer a political economy is indeed an “unknown ideal.” It has never existed. Whether it can exist is another question.

Which leads me to my next point.

Just because I abandoned my use of the word “capitalism” sixteen years ago does not mean that I forfeited my libertarian convictions; I still believe that genuinely free markets—or as William Gillis has called them, “freed markets“—can be a catalyst for radical social change.

Some folks have said publicly and privately that I’m a “useful idiot” for Marxists and communists because I dropped my use of the term “capitalism” as a descriptor of my politics. Well, being called a “useful idiot” for my positions is nothing new! I was called a “useful idiot” for Saddam Hussein when I opposed the Iraq war and the view held by some orthodox Objectivists that the only way to “win” the war on terrorism was to annihilate the “savages” of the Islamic Middle East in a nuclear genocide.

But hey, why stop there? After all, my mentor, Bertell Ollman, was a Marxist (and also a Volker Fellow who studied under F. A. Hayek)—and he gave me more support in the creation of my “Dialectics and Liberty Trilogy” (which consisted of three books: Marx, Hayek, and Utopia, Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical, and Total Freedom: Toward a Dialectical Libertarianism) than most libertarians. I guess I’m a “useful idiot” for Bertell too, and have been “sucking up” to the left to prove my worth throughout my entire life!

Gimme a break!

I have spent the last forty years of my professional life fighting against the view that dialectical method is the exclusive property of the left. Dialectics is a mode of analysis that requires us to look at social problems not as isolated units, but as contextually embedded within a larger system across time. It is a tool of inquiry that must be embraced by those who favor radical libertarian social change if they are to achieve it. One cannot attack structural (that is, political and economic) oppressions without looking at the ways in which personal and cultural social relationships and institutions reflect and perpetuate them.

One doesn’t gain friends and influence people by pissing off the socialist left for using a method typically associated with them, and pissing off the libertarian right because they accept the socialist view that “dialectics” is indeed an exclusively “Marxist” method (except that it should be relegated to the dustbin of history).

Reality check: Even Hegel declared that Aristotle was “the fountainhead” of dialectical inquiry. My reconstruction of libertarian social theory as a dialectical project is, at its core, a call for a neo-Aristotelian methodological revolution to bolster the cause of human freedom. But, obsessively footnoting scholar that I am, I have always given credit where credit is due to all those thinkers and schools of thought—be they on the left or the right—that have led me to this conviction.

One of the most important things I learned from Ayn Rand was the moral imperative to trust the judgment of my own mind. Rand warned against the fallacy of “thinking in a square.” I’ve always challenged myself to “think outside the box” because it is the only way to keep evolving intellectually and personally, to keep learning. I will not be boxed-in by the established categories of others. And I take to heart Rand’s clarion call: “The world you desired can be won, it exists, it is real, it is possible, it’s yours.”

How we get to that world does not entail a mere rhetorical debate over the use of terms. It entails an understanding of what those terms have meant historically—and an honest and civil discussion of what kinds of strategies might be best in achieving that world. We live in a toxic political environment in which some of us can’t help but view our ideological opponents as sub-human. I, myself, have expressed plenty of anger over the course of 33 installments to my series on the Coronavirus to be tempted to succumb to incivility. I do my best to avoid it but none of us is perfect.

So make no mistake about it: I am no less a radical, dialectical libertarian today than I was sixteen years ago, or forty years ago, when I began this intellectual, and profoundly personal, journey.

JARS July 2021 Now on JSTOR & Project Muse!

Subscribers to The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies can now access the new July 2021 issue of the journal on both Project Muse and JSTOR. Hard copies will be in your mailboxes soon enough!

I previously disclosed the contents of the issue here. We remain the only double-blind peer-reviewed biannual university-press published interdisciplinary scholarly periodical devoted to the critical discussion of Ayn Rand and her times.

The Third Decade Begins …

Thinking Outside the Box: You Have Nothing to Lose But Your Chains

This was something I posted on Facebook, in a discussion in which folks were using words like “socialist” and “capitalist” to define their political points of view:

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that a lot of people I respect and admire identify themselves as “socialists” and some even as “capitalists.” I think we have gotten to the point, however, where these terms are almost indefinable without a mountain of modifying adjectives such that we find ourselves twisted into neo-logistic pretzels.

Having been introduced to libertarian thinking through Ayn Rand, who embraced capitalism “the unknown ideal”—that is, something which has never existed in the way she defined it (it was, essentially a Weberian ideal type)—it took years for me to abandon that term for good (in 2005), because capitalism “the known reality“, like virtually every social system before it, and any “post-capitalist” or “socialist” system after it, has been built on blood and massive state oppression.

Oppression must be opposed across political, cultural, and social dimensions—and to me, this is essential to any project aiming for human freedom and individual flourishing within a communal context. I have found all these terms to be like ideological straitjackets, which led me to embrace “dialectical libertarianism” as that to which I adhere. This of course has its own linguistic baggage, but I think that the politics of change needs to transcend right and left, “capitalism” and “socialism” (scare quotes intended), enabling us to embrace the kernels of truth in Menger, Mises, Hayek, Rothbard, Rand, and so forth, on the one hand and Marx, Proudhon, Gramsci, Chomsky, Goldman, Luxemburg, Bookchin, and so forth, on the other hand.

Again, though I deeply respect people for whatever labeling they’ve chosen, and the ways in which they’ve defined it, I think we need to begin the process of breaking out of this binary divide. Every time we embrace any term or phrase that has this much baggage, we face the impenetrable problem of communicating with people who simply can’t think outside the intellectual boxes to which they are accustomed, the boxes that make them feel “safe” but that never challenge them to “check their premises” (to use a Randian phrase). There’s got to be a better way of moving this dialogue forward. The “dialectics of liberty”—and our very lives—depend on it.

On Facebook, the discussion advances. I added the following points:

Too many people are talking past each other and the definitions of “capitalism” and “socialism” have never been stable, partially because the “real” history is in stark contrast to the “ideal” definitions being offered, even by these system’s most ardent defenders.

Let’s focus on Ayn Rand herself, for whom definition of terms must accord with reality. She saw capitalism as “a social system based on the recognition of individual rights, including property rights, in which all property is privately owned.” Very nice description—but “ideally conceived.” (I might add that Rand also embraced similarly “ideal” conceptions of “selfishness” and “government” that were just as starkly different from the overwhelming conventional understanding of these terms.)

Capitalism did not have a virgin birth through the homesteading of untouched lands and the sanctity of “individual rights”. The whole schema of private property and the consequent recognition of the “individual rights” to such property only happened after the state—working at the behest of large medieval landowners—used such tools as the enclosure acts to nullify peasant land tenure rights and, through the legacy of colonialism, wholly dispossess many indigenous populations.

“Capitalism” in its origins—like every other “social system” before it—was bathed in blood. Hardly in accord with the Weberian ideal-type “definition” that Rand provided.

The well-known record of “socialism” in the twentieth century is also bathed in blood. The description of “socialism”, given by Karl Marx himself, was that of a post-scarcity society in which the abundance of goods is such that each can take according to their needs, without sacrificing anyone else in the process. Again, “ideally” conceived. No “socialist” country has ever been built upon such “post-scarcity” and the results have been murderous.

I would prefer not to speak in terms of these “isms” as goals because their history has severely tainted any possible rational understanding of what a genuinely free society might look like. Given the historical records of both “capitalism” and “socialism” and the role that the state has played in the founding of both “systems,” I’d prefer to sidestep the whole binary discussion. We might wish to talk in terms of such things as “markets” (which, as Pete Boettke once said, grow “like weeds” throughout all historical periods). Or better still: “freed markets“, that is, markets “freed” from the insidious role of political, institutional, and cultural forces that undermine the achievement of human liberty and individual autonomy. And freed and voluntary markets as such can have many different incarnations, from worker cooperatives to exchange relationships.

I have found that the usage of words like “capitalism” and “socialism” just does not advance the discussion, no matter how clearly one defines them—especially when the “ideal” definitions depart so dramatically from the real, historical record.

The “Homonograph” and DOL Available Thru C4SS Store!

Pardon me for this commercial break!

This being Pride Month, I am happy to announce that my 60+ page-monograph, Ayn Rand, Homosexuality, and Human Liberation (2003) is finally available again for sale—though supplies are limited—through the C4SS Store (link to sale page). I donated virtually my entire personal inventory of the work to the store. The book may be out-of-print, but the copies are pristine and being sold for only $5 each!

Available Again thru the C4SS Counter-Economic Store

The “Homonograph” (as I’ve often called it) is a combination philosophical exegesis, sociological study, and political tract, which examines Rand’s impact on the sexual attitudes of self-identified Objectivists in the movement to which she gave birth and the gay subculture that she would have disowned.

I should also mention that our special discount sale of the anthology, The Dialectics of Liberty: Exploring the Context of Human Freedom (coedited by Roger Bissell, Ed Younkins, and me), is now over, because the book is sold out! It is still available at a higher price (in hardcover, paperback, and Kindle) through Amazon (as well as Google Books and Lexington Books), but why would you pay a minimum of $40 when you can get the book for $18 directly from the C4SS Store (link to sale page)! I’ve autographed all the copies that C4SS is selling. It is also available as part of the C4SS Store’s special collection: “The Intros Bundle” (link to sale page).

I want to thank James Tuttle for making all of this possible. Check it out!

A Photo Trip Down Memory Lane

I’ve been doing a lot of work in my apartment, cleaning up, in anticipation of my sister‘s return from the subacute rehabilitation facility she’s been in for several months now. When she returns home in July, she will not have seen the inside of this house since mid-March. So I’ve been busting my butt clearing things up and readying the space for her continued recovery.

This has led me to go through several file drawers that contain materials which will eventually make their way to the NYU Faculty Archives—after I’m gone. Have no fear, I ain’t going anywhere. Still, some of the stuff made me laugh out loud.

For example, I came upon an envelope of black-and-white stills, which were taken as “promotional” shots for my soon-to-be-released books, Marx, Hayek, and Utopia (1995) and Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical (1995). This particular one was taken in 1994 in the backdrop of New York University buildings. We decided to pass on it because I was told to “Fuhgedaboudit“: It was a bit too “Brooklyn.” You decide … 🙂

Me, Circa 1994

JARS: The Third Decade Begins …

It is with deep appreciation to the readers and supporters of The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies that I announce today the imminent e-publication on JSTOR and Project Muse and in print of our forty-first issue, the beginning of our third decade as the only double-blind peer-reviewed interdisciplinary, scholarly journal devoted to the study of Ayn Rand and her times.

As I previously pointed out, since the beginning of our collaboration with Pennsylvania State University Press in 2013, JARS has become a truly worldwide publication. Our authors come from every corner of the globe, as does our readership. Indeed, while a strong 48% of our article requests still come from the United States, the majority of requests now stretch from North and South America to Europe, Asia, Africa, and Oceania, encompassing nearly 130 countries.

With Volume 21, Number 1, we have now published 392 articles by 181 authors. In this issue alone, we introduce four contributors new to our pages—Mikhail Kizilov, Abhijeet Melkani, Stephen Marvin and Syed Haroon Ahmed Shah—each of whom embodies our mission, which welcomes papers from every discipline and from a variety of interpretive and critical perspectives, fostering scholarly dialogue through a respectful exchange of ideas.

Here is our line-up for the new July 2021 issue:

Introduction – Chris Matthew Sciabarra


Beyond “The Money-Making Personality”: Notes Towards a Theory of Capitalist Orthopraxy – Roger Donway

Hegemonic Change and The Role of the Intellectual in Atlas Shrugged: A Gramscian Study – Syed Haroon Ahmed Shah

Rand on the Atonement: A Critique – Amos Wollen

Selfish versus Selfish – Merlin Jetton

Mental Integrations as Functional Wholes – Abhijeet Melkani

Existence, We – Stephen Boydstun

Book Reviews

Re-reading Rand through a Russian Lens (review of Khudozhestvennoe tvorchestvo Ayn Rand v russkom kontekste [Ayn Rand’s Fiction
in a Russian Context
], by Anastasiya Grigorovskaya) – Mikhail Kizilov

A Multilayered Work (Review of Layers, by Nathaniel Branden) – Mimi Reisel Gladstein

A Journey to Fulfillment (Review of The Tao of Roark: Variations on a Theme from Ayn Rand, by Peter Saint-Andre) – Stephen Marvin


Reply to Roger E. Bissell: A More Scientific Compatibilism – George Lyons

Rejoinder to George Lyons: Ontological, Ethical, and Methodological Compatibilism and the Free Will Controversy in Objectivism – Roger E. Bissell

Readers can check out the article abstracts here and the contributor biographies here. Those interested in submitting articles to be considered for publication in JARS, should use the Editorial Manager platform. And those interested in subscribing to the journal, should consult the various links here.

The third decade begins …

“The Greatest Enemies of Peace are Those who Extol War as Noble and Heroic …”

An earlier version of this revised essay first appeared on the Liberty and Power Group Blog (Memorial Day Weekend 2004). It also appears here. This 2021 Memorial Day Weekend mirrors that 2004 calendar.

As people honor the memories of those who died in wars past and present on this Memorial Day weekend, I wanted to take a moment to tell you about a man who, not unlike others of his generation, served in World War II. His name was Salvatore “Sam” Sclafani, first cousin to my Dad, married to my mother’s sister, and forever etched in the minds of our family as “Uncle Sam.” Born in 1915, Uncle Sam left us in 1994, having succumbed to prostate cancer. But it was this man who was my earliest inspiration in all matters political; he nourished in me a love of history and politics, and was the guy to whom I dedicated Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical.

My Uncle Sam was, without doubt, one of the funniest and most benevolent souls to ever grace this planet. And when you got him to talk about politics, it was like a veritable ride aboard the Coney Island Cyclone, that landmark splintery wooden rollercoaster. He was the most opinionated and outspoken critic of politicians, left, right and center, whom I’ve ever had the privilege to know and love.

Back in 1976, I interviewed Uncle Sam for a special project I’d done on the veterans of World War II. His comments are as precious today, as they were back then.

He remembered that “day of infamy” in December 1941. His mother labored by the stove, preparing the traditional Sunday home-cooked Italian meal. In the background, the radio played the sounds of a Swing band … and then, a news flash came that the Japanese had attacked the US military base in Hawaii.

My Uncle had been classified in the army for the draft, but after years of working in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, he decided to enlist in the navy instead. Several days after his enlistment, he was shipped out to the Great Lakes Military Installation in Waukegan, Illinois, outside Chicago. Like a tale out of a storybook, he married his girlfriend, my Aunt Georgia, the day before he left.

From his hair-scalping at the installation to the strenuous marching, walking, running, rifle and rope exercises, boot-training was a test of his endurance. Even learning to sleep in a hammock—or as Uncle Sam reminisced, “trying to get into them, and involuntarily getting out of them”—was a chore. From Illinois, he was sent to Norfolk, Virginia for further training. He eventually became a part of the Seabees (the United States Naval Construction Battalions), a relatively new branch of the navy that was similar to the army corps of engineers. In learning the arts of naval engineering, these Seabees were taught everything “from building bridges and laying down airfields in record time, to advanced techniques of camouflage.”

From Norfolk, Uncle Sam went on to Pleasantville, California, and then on to the Bremerton Navy Yard in Puget Sound, Washington state, where he participated in the salvage work on the USS Nevada, damaged in the Pearl Harbor raid. As they awaited orders on their next assignment, Uncle Sam’s group was split into two: Group 1 was headed south—to Guadalcanal. By the mere accident of being part of Group 2, Uncle Sam ended up in the North Pacific. “We then realized,” he recalled: “This is it. This isn’t playing anymore. We’re not training. From here on, everything is real.”

Morale was remarkably good on the trip. But there was a common expression on everyone’s face, he told me: an expression of suppressed horror, worry, and uncertainty. There was that constant alert for possible enemy aerial or submarine bombardment. While he remained remarkably calm, many of his newfound pals were desperately ill. “My comrades wished they had died. Men were throwing-up against bulkheads and walls and fainting on decks. They lost their appetites from terrible fear and severe seasickness.”

Ten days after rough riding, the ship neared its destination. A heavy fog descended. And when the land mass came into focus, it looked like the cold, barren surface of a distant planet: no trees, no vegetation, immense mountains of stone and volcanic rock. Uncle Sam wasn’t a few minutes on land before an alert signaled an imminent Japanese air attack. An earlier attack that day had destroyed the boats that lay docked around a makeshift pier. Running to take cover, the men passed an enormous hill of greenish-white pine boxes … coffins waiting for new inhabitants. It was the kind of greeting that sobered the most stubborn among them. “A morbid, depressing and unsettling sensation came over me,” Uncle Sam said. “We were finally aware that we had been sent to the notorious Dutch Harbor in the Alaskan Aleutian Islands, the closest US military base to Japan, only 600 miles away.” This was a place where temperatures ranged from 12 below to 60 above. At times, many feet of snow would fall. Certain seasons brought 18-hour days, while others brought 18-hour nights. But always, there was a damp, musty fog; for the two years that Uncle Sam was stationed in the Aleutians, he never saw the sun.

Within the first week of their arrival, the new troops faced air attacks, volcanic eruptions, storms, earthquakes, and “horizontal rain,” due to “winds that could blow a building across the Hudson River.” Those winds, dubbed “Williwaws,” were sudden and severe, up to 200 mph. Ironically, it was the difficult climactic conditions that saved Aleutian Island residents from both constant Japanese aerial bombardment and the typical diseases that infected troops stationed in the South Pacific. “American pilots remarked that there were better odds in flying 50 missions over Berlin,” Uncle Sam would say, “than even one mission over the Aleutian Islands.”

He remembered walking along a dirt road, when a light breeze had suddenly transformed into one of those Williwaws. By the time he had hit the deck, the wind had uprooted steel cables, boulders, and a 13-ton patrol bomber on the beach—smacking it up against a mountain. The Seabees’ efforts to camouflage their work were not very successful because of these winds. “We were forced to build revetments for planes to try to camouflage them with heavy steel-cabled nets. After the first storm, all the nets went flying across the Pacific Ocean and days of work went down the drain.”

But the Seabees transformed the rough Alaskan terrain, by literally leveling mountains. After laying down many miles of airfields with heavy metal stripping, the Seabees paved the way for an Aleutian air-force, since land-based bombers were now able to land.

By this time, Uncle Sam had become a Second Class Petty Officer. His days began at 5 am. His meals consisted of passable substitutes, since there were no eggs or milk. Remarkably, he gained 30 lbs. while living in Dutch Harbor. It was weight he desperately needed, as he worked hard on airfield and submarine installations. (He remembered going into one of those primitive subs: “I was qualified for submarine duty,” he said, “but they were out of their minds: it was like staying in a narrow coffin, cluttered with levers, wheels, and machinery. I would never have survived!”)

When his day of rigorous work was complete, he’d go back to the bunkhouses, which had been built to withstand the wind, the rain, and the war. Fighting his solitude and isolation, he found comfort with his comrades, smoking cigarettes, reminiscing of home, listening to their “Pacific sweetheart” on the radio: Tokyo Rose. Whoever she actually was, Uncle Sam had vivid memories of all the things she told them on the radio. “She’d tell us how our girls were cheating on us back home. She would say that we were very stupid to be fighting … we were going to lose anyway. So we might as well rebel, destroy our superiors, and go home.” It gave them a lot of laughs, he said, but it was hard to avoid sobbing, silently, as you listened to the Swing music she played. From the crackling of the radio speaker, came the Big Band sounds of Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, and Tommy Dorsey; more than anything “Tokyo Rose” had actually said, the use of this great music constituted a form of psychological warfare that infected everyone with homesickness, he said. “It would place us in a very depressing state. Some men cried openly.”

The men of Dutch Harbor served as a diversionary force in the Battle of Midway. They prepared munitions for the bloody US invasions of Amchitka, Adak, and Attu. They played an active part in the isolation of Kiska, even though they failed to prevent the evacuation of 5,100 Japanese troops, who departed in the middle of a fog-heavy July night to return to Paramushiro Harbor.

During his two-year tour of duty, Uncle Sam experienced about six Japanese air bombardments; though the attacks were only seven to eight minutes in duration, they felt like seven to eight hours. A two-hour alert would usually precede an attack, as men would frantically prepare their anti-aircraft positions. “We were told to run off the ships and scatter into the hills, where there were fox holes.” Men clung to their own hopes for survival, some praying and giving substance to the old adage “there are no atheists in foxholes.” You just didn’t know if “that next bullet would have your name on it. Then you’d hear the incoming planes.” Within seconds, bombs would be dropping, destroying installations, oil tanks, gasoline storage facilities, and piers. Raging infernos and thick, black smoke would engulf the camp. “Things flashed quickly through my head,” he painfully recalled. He had fears of invading parachutists, naval bombardment, “the end of the world. In one attack, our ship, the Northwestern, was blown into a million pieces as a bomb was dropped down the smokestack. Shrapnel and other fragments went flying, as the explosion echoed through the hills and canyons.”

Uncle Sam learned a few things about wars, even “good” wars. He thought it was a joke when some said that the Americans would sell you the noose with which to hang them … until he realized that scrap metal from Manhattan Els (elevated trains) had been sold to the Japanese and used by them to create their machinery of war. He even remembered going over to a downed Japanese Zero. “And on the engine was labeled ‘Pratt-Whitney Motors, USA.'”

While he wouldn’t have thought twice about shooting another human being in order to survive—“quite frankly,” he’d say, “it was either them or us”—he never accepted the notion that he should hate his enemy. “We had been taught to hate the enemy for their bombardment of Pearl Harbor, for their cruel and inhumane treatment of our men.” But when prisoners were caught, “you’d look at these men, ‘our enemy,’ and see a reflection of yourself. I felt sorry for them.”

In 1944, Company C was reorganized and sent back to San Francisco. As his ship neared the Golden Gate Bridge, Uncle Sam cried “like a baby. It was the most fabulous sight I had ever seen. To be on American soil again, a feeling you can’t imagine unless you had been in that situation. And there, on the dock was the American Red Cross—with gallons and gallons of ice-cold milk.”

The climactic changes were not friendly to Uncle Sam. He developed a mysterious illness in which his legs swelled, as he lay nearly paralyzed in pain. When it was apparent that he would be in a military hospital for months, he was given an honorable discharge. In May 1944, he finally came home to New York. For months, he had difficulty adjusting. He was immensely uptight and shuddery. He developed a fear of passing overhead planes—a fear that some New Yorkers might remember, in the wake of 9/11, in a way that my Uncle could never have dreamed. The war had split homes and families, had taken away friends and relatives, and had damaged relationships. “You never know if you’re going to come back during a war,” he stated. “But if you have that luck, you can really appreciate what you left behind.”

A bolder and more “patriotic” American you’d be hard pressed to find. But Uncle Sam had had enough with politicians. He had voted for FDR because he was convinced that the President would preserve the peace. “The President had said that American boys would not fight on foreign soil. He forgot to add: ‘They’d be buried in it.'” For thirty years thereafter, Uncle Sam refused to go into a voting booth.

I come from a family of servicemen. Uncle Sam was fortunate enough to come home and to live a wonderful life, becoming a second father to me, as my own father had passed away when I was 12. But other relatives were not as lucky. My Uncle Frank was killed in the Battle of the Bulge. My Uncle Charlie survived, but was unable to talk about his war experiences for the rest of his life, having lived for years in a German POW camp. Fortunately, my Uncle Al and Uncle Georgie lived to talk about their experiences in the European theater. And my Uncle Tony remained in the army for the rest of his life. They are all gone now.

The human cost of war is usually calculated by raw data on battle deaths, casualties, and medical evacuations. But my Uncle Sam always believed that Memorial Day weekend was not a celebration of the majesty of war. He used to cite the old adage that “the greatest enemies of peace are those who extol war as noble and heroic.” This weekend is about remembering those who were the victims of war, especially those whose lives were sacrificed on its battlefields. It is also important to remember, to tribute, those who survived, those who lived to tell us about the horrors of war, and who did the most heroic thing imaginable: Building and sustaining their own lives in the aftermath, drawing strength from their love of family, of friends, and for life itself.

I honor their memory.

This brick was placed in memory of Uncle Sam by my cousin William Jannace as part of the National WWII MuseumRoad to Victory Brick Program.” It is a commemorative with the exact engraving of the brick therein.

Salvatore “Uncle Sam” Sclafani (1915-1994)

Roark Rolled

This one came out of a chat with philosopher and friend Roderick Tracy Long! For those who have been “Rick Rolled”, consider yourself “Roark Rolled.” For like Rick Astley, Howard Roark has Red Hair and Never Gives Up [YouTube link]!


Eric Fleischmann on Social Change and Thinking Dialectically…

I first encountered Eric Fleischmann back in 2018 when I came upon one of Eric’s papers on So intrigued was I by this article—and its reference to my book Total Freedom: Toward a Dialectical Libertarianism (2000, Penn State Press)—that I dropped Eric a note. Since then, we have become the best of friends and watching Eric’s intellectual and personal growth has been a remarkable adventure. I mean, back then, Eric was a junior in high school. Today, Eric is a sophomore at Bates College (in Lewiston, Maine), double-majoring in anthropology and philosophy.

As a left-libertarian anarchist and a contributor to the Center for a Stateless Society, Eric is currently involved in two forthcoming book projects, as a co-organizer of—and contributor to—Defiant Insistence: David Graeber, Anarchist, Anthropologist, Fellow Worker (1961-2020) and TOTAL ABOLITION: Police, Prisons, Borders, Empire

Today, I had the great pleasure of listening to a wonderful interview with Eric given by host Joel Williamson as the second episode of The Enrages. Folks can listen to the interview, which covers topics all over the ideological map—from abolitionism and social change to intellectual history and dialectical method. I especially appreciate Eric’s shout-out to me as friend and “mentor” and also for telling the world exactly how to pronounce my last name (around 31 minutes or so in!).

Check out the interview here. Proud of you, Eric! Keep up the great work!

Oh, and one other thing: I will be featuring one of Eric’s scintillating punk-rock performances on my “Song of the Day” series in the near future. Don’t let that calm and relaxed conversationalist fool you; Eric’s a Total Tiger on the Stage!