Posted 4 years ago on Sept. 4, 2014, 3:05 p.m. EST by flip
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an excerpt from a longer article By Eli Cook
kolko1Gabriel Kolko, historian and socialist, died last month in his home in Amsterdam. He was 81.
When Kolko’s The Triumph of Conservatism appeared on the scene in 1963, it was not only a book of history but heresy. This was the era in which American liberalism reigned supreme, and social commentators such as Daniel Bell confidently assured the public that the formula for sustained economic prosperity and political freedom had been uncovered in the form of a capitalist system kept in check by a powerful and centralized regulatory government.
American liberals of the era rarely challenged the basic assumption on which their worldview hinged: that the purpose of the modern state was to inhibit and constrain—not advance or sustain—corporate interests. As is evident from Bell’s contemporaneous declaration that the balance of powers between private enterprise and public policy signaled nothing short of an “end of ideology,” American liberals in the early 1960s were so utterly convinced of the diverging interests of state and capital that they could not even fathom that this assumption was ideological in itself.
To men such as Arthur Schlesinger, an archliberal in both the White House and his own historical writings, it was sheer common sense to note that “liberalism in America has been ordinarily the movement on the part of other sections to restrain the power of the business community.” In the early 1960s, American historians—led by the likes of Oscar Handlin, Louis Hartz, and Richard Hofstadter—echoed Schlesinger’s sentiment. American historians, that is, save for a young Gabriel Kolko.
Any hegemonic historical narrative worth its salt must have a solid origin story. American liberalism’s lay in its self-proclaimed “Progressive Era.” The labels which have stuck to this distinct periodization of American history insure that this particular story—which still dominates textbook timelines, best-selling biographies, National Public Radio podcasts and most college history departments—practically tells itself. In the beginning, there was the “Gilded Age,” an era of rampant capitalistic greed and excess in which the fortunes of the American people were crushed by “robber barons” and the corrupt politicians these men had in their pocket.
But then, everything changed. With the new century came a dramatic turn of events as a cadre of crusading “middle-class reformers”—led by the “trust-busting” likes of Teddy Roosevelt—took control of the federal government, instituted a number of anti-business “reforms” and not only ushered in the Progressive Era but set the political, economic, and ideological foundation for post-war American affluence.
Be it the government-subsidized consumerism of 1950s suburbia, state- sanctioned anti-communism, or the rise of Eisenhower’s “military-industrial complex,” Gabriel Kolko was skeptical of this liberal narrative and set out to undermine it. In his doctoral dissertation on railroad regulation at Harvard, Kolko pulled the rug from under the origin tale of American liberalism by painstakingly uncovering a startling revelation in the archives: the men who had led the push for federal regulation of railroads were not popu list farmers or wage laborers but rather the railroad capitalists themselves.
“The dominant fact of American political life of this century,” Kolko would later summarize, “was that big business led the struggle for federal regulation of the economy.”
In his dissertation, and then more broadly in The Triumph of Conservatism, Kolko presented meticulous research to offer a revisionist version of American history. “I contend that the period from approximately 1900 until the United States’ intervention in the war, labeled the ‘Progressive Era’ by virtually all historians,” he declared, “was really an era of conservatism.” Conservative, Kolko went on to explain, because it was “an effort to preserve the basic social and economic relations essential to a capitalist society.”
Kolko was not one to pull his punches or mince his words. A proud socialist and a man of the New Left, he became a leading voice and pamphleteer within the Student League for Industrial Democracy (SLID), an organization that would later become the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). Yet like many socialists of the era, Kolko rejected the determinist positivism of earlier Marxist theory.
The consolidation of the American economy into a few giant monopolistic corporations, Kolko would repeatedly argue throughout his life, was not, as both Max Weber and Karl Marx had suggested, an inevitable event brought on by inexorable economic forces. Rather, it was a contingent and conscious transformation brought on by the very “progressive” policymakers that American liberals had been celebrating for the opposite reasons.
Impersonal laws of diminishing returns didn’t make corporate capitalism, according to Kolko—people in power did. People like Theodore Roosevelt, who legitimized the corporation by dividing them into “good” and “bad” trusts, or Senator Nelson Aldrich, a close ally of JP Morgan and the architect of the Federal Reserve System that publicly ensured the much-needed stability of private finance.
To appreciate the heretical depths of Kolko’s revisionism, we must linger a bit longer on his dissertation and first book. In these works, Kolko turned liberal historiography on its head. He argued that the Gilded Age was not an era of untrammeled monopoly power and corporate dominance but rather one of cutthroat competition, chaotic instability, rising labor power, radically anti-business legislation at the local and state level, and a balkanized political system that did not fit the standardized needs of corporations aspiring to create a centralized national economy.
Corporate-minded businesspeople, Kolko pointed out, desperately tried to deflect these social and economic forces through the construction of private cartels and mergers, but to no avail. By the turn of the 20th century, corporate businesspeople’s profits and social standing were both dropping fast. These failures led leading corporate interests to conclude that only the federal government had the means and power to centralize, rationalize, standardize, stabilize, and regulate the chaos of Gilded Age capitalism into a predictable and consolidated corporate economy.
Only in the era historians have ironically coined “Progressive,” Kolko concluded, did economic elites finally succeed—under the aegis of government “reform”—to institutionalize corporate social relations through such business-led government initiatives as the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Reserve System